You’ve heard the saying – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? True enough. But there are also things you can’t fix once broken. The car will never be quite right again – and may be a lot wrong.
These Irreparables include:
* Water damage –
This has always been a killer; a water-logged interior almost inevitably means a soon-to-be-moldy interior. Carpet and insulation sops up the water, wicking it up into places that are dark and not well-ventilated. If areas like the interiors of door panels, the underside of the roof, the trunk and so on that aren’t supposed to get wet do get wet, they often rust out quickly, too. And with late-model, computer-controlled cars that have lots of electronics, there is the additional problem of corroded connections and moisture penetration of electrical parts that lead to endless “little problems” that end up becoming big expenses and a constant hassle.
Short of gutting the entire interior – an even bigger expense and hassle – it is almost impossible to truly get back to where you were before the car went for a swim.
This is why water-damaged cars are often title-washed, then patchouli’d with New Car Smell (to cover up the mold smell) and sent to a different part of the country and sold to unsuspecting suckers.
How to avoid: Running a CarFax or similar title check may uncover evidence of title-washing but it’s not foolproof. Your eyes – and nose – are at least as valuable as far as sussing out a once-wet car.
Look for signs of discoloration inside the car, especially door panels, carpets and the headliner. Pop the hood and look a the underside as well as the engine. If you see mud, not splattered but uniform, it is a Bad Sign.
Put your hand under the seat and feel for dampness. If you can, get on your back and – with a flashlight – look up under the dash, from the area near the brake and gas pedals.
If the car was under water, you will see evidence of it here in the form of rust on exposed metal parts and discoloration of insulation. Stick your fingers in the AC and heat vents; if they come out sticky, you may have a problem. Drive the car with the windows up; if the interior glass begins to fog almost immediately, it indicates a Moisture Problem.
If the car smells musty, it is a Bad Sign. Assume it’s an ex U-boat and move on to the next candidate.
* Welded panel damage –
The mighty German battleship Bismarck was laid low by a lucky (for the Brits) hit to a vulnerable area – her rudders. Though the rest of the ship remained fully operational, her 15-inch guns just as lethal – with her rudder jammed to port, she was a sitting duck for the British fleet because all she could do was steam in circles.
Cars are similarly vulnerable. The parts that are welded together into a single piece – the unibody – are not easy to fix once damaged. Especially modern unibody cars, which are welded together by robots at the factory, to extremely close tolerances. When one gets rear-ended after it leaves the factory, the doors – or the trunk – sometimes never quite close right, even after they’ve been “fixed.”
Or, they squeak and rattle.
Sometimes, they leak, too.
The most vulnerable parts are the rear quarter panels (the areas above and behind each rear wheel), the door frames (the doors themselves unbolt easily and can be replaced with new doors if need be) and the rear end of the car.
A new problem is aluminum unibody vehicles – like the new Ford F-series trucks, for instance. Many other vehicles (e.g., new BMWs, Teslas, Jaguars) make extensive use of aluminum panels, too. Aluminum is light and strong – but it is also more difficult (and so, expensive) to weld back into shape. Once bent, it may not be fixable – or at least, not economically fixable.
You may want to take this into consideration before you buy an aluminum-bodied vehicle.