The skin of my car gives away few of its problems — there are a few bumps and bruises on its flanks, thanks to the carelessness of other drivers (and me, at least with one dent). It’s nothing out of bounds for a 13-year-old car, and there are times that it still lulls me into a casual confidence about the durability of an old BMW 3-series sedan.
By now, I’ve learned that this is a lie. Over the last three years, this little silver car has sucked thousands of dollars out of my checking account, usually in unpredictable and untimely ways. The window motors on both rear sides burned out. The right headlamp failed twice. My radiator just cracked and died after leaking coolant for a month. The transmission jerks whenever it shifts into first gear. This is on top of routine fixes, including of the brake rotors and pads, that already feel expensive because, well, parts and labor for an off-warranty BMW are expensive.
I used to think it would be a good thing to get to know my mechanic on a first-name basis, but I never imagined it would happen this way. Last week, as I picked up my car (now replete with a fresh radiator), I sighed loudly and asked my mechanic what he thought of my car’s future. Mariano looked at me with raised brows and shrugged as he scrolled through my invoices on the computer.
“You’re just going through the paces of having an old BMW. You’ve had it for like, 10 years? That’s pretty good. But we noticed there’s some oil leaking, and it looks like you’re going to have to address that in the next year or so if you keep the car,” he told me.
“It’s just been a great car to drive. To maintain, not so much,” I replied.
“I know. If it were me, I’d get rid of it before you end up spending more. Get a Toyota. I’ll never see you again,” Mariano added.
It’s been confusing to figure out why I’m so bad at getting rid of this old 2006 BMW, and I know it’s not because I’m lazy. Purchased for a dirt-cheap price from a family friend in 2009, it’s been a defining part of my life and experiences since my junior year of college. It’s taken me across California several times over. It’s made it possible for me to report stories with urgency and flexibility. And it’s just been fun — gifted with sensitive steering and a gutsy little six-cylinder engine, the ol’ Bimmer has left me grinning on late-night speed runs across dark freeways and mountain roads. I’ve even named the car: Natalie, because I can’t help being peak hetero by giving an inanimate possession a female name.
As it turns out, getting rid of a car even when you know you should — whether it’s because the cost makes no financial sense or it’s just the wrong fit for your lifestyle — is something a lot of people struggle with. It’s not just your typical Car Dudes that fawn over a vehicle on the brink, either. Many others find themselves surprised at how emotional they can get over this fork in the road, too, despite a shinier, more advanced model awaiting them.
Robby DeGraff didn’t immediately realize the magnitude of the problem when he first noticed rust on his 2005 Saab 9-2x. Midway through a routine oil change, he peered at the car’s subframe and realized it wasn’t just surface rust, but the kind that ate through the metal entirely. He cringed as he felt the edges of a sharp hole, big enough to stick his forearm through.
The car had lived a long and satisfying life, racking up 230,000 miles in trips across Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas and beyond. Yet living in Wisconsin through hard winters had taken its toll, with road salt clinging to his car’s underside and ultimately accelerating the rust despite DeGraff trying to prevent just that with weekly spray-downs (“These cars were just notorious for rusting,” he says).
In the aftermath of finding the rusted frame, DeGraff tried to reason his way toward a decision to keep the car — somehow. “I fought with myself over whether or not I could keep driving it, but that’s an essential part of a car’s structural integrity. So I realized that I’d be dead if I got in any kind of front-impact collision,” he tells me.
He pored through research and consulted experts, exploring “literally every option” to save the car before concluding that even the best-case scenario would leave him with a compromised vehicle. It was the breaking point he needed, but dreaded. “I was so upset to the point of tears and sadness because I credit so much of who I am today to that car. Seriously, where I’m at, personally, with my hobbies, with my job, all of my travels, wouldn’t have happened without that car,” he explains. “It honestly felt like putting down a pet.”
Something I notice from talking to DeGraff and others is that the cars people struggle to let go are most frequently the ones they’ve had through their formative years of life. That might mean a car that you inherited as a teenager, or bought for the very first time, or just fell in love with in an unexpected way. Some build a fondness because a car helped save their life. Other vehicles touch a nerve because they’ve been passed down in some way, as with Chris Tracy’s 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser.
Originally purchased by an uncle in 1994, Tracy first experienced the car during a holiday celebration in Missouri, when a winter storm hit amid plans for the whole family to catch a movie together. “My uncle ferried the entire group of 20 back and forth to the theater. The winter weather proved no competition for the Land Cruiser,” Tracy tells me.
The truck was loaned to Tracy’s cousin, a business partner and a family friend before he received the keys three years ago. With multiple kids to haul and an active lifestyle in the outdoors, Tracy found the Land Cruiser to a perfect fit — so much so that he says he’s bonded with the truck even though it has a laundry list of needs. He’s driven it to an infamous nuclear silo, gotten it stuck in the Arkansas River and traversed the Great Salt Plains of Oklahoma with it.
All the while, Tracy has invested time and sweaty labor into upgrading the car, but the journeying has led to a few costly breakdowns, too. The air conditioner failed, as did the alternator and the spark plug assembly. The speakers inside barely work anymore. More problematic, he says, is that the car lacks the airbags that all modern SUVs come with for basic safety purposes. The only upside, really, is that the car is paid off and generally runs reliably, Tracy says. Plus, letting go is still too hard.
“I used to be the social media manager at an aftermarket pickup truck parts company. I’ve seen the regret from people who have let trucks that had been in the family for one, two or three generations get away from them. The Land Cruiser is a part of our family. I’m not ready to let it go,” he says. “I know that I’m emotionally attached to it.”
It’s tempting to think romantically about the future, too. “My 8-year-old has expressed interest in driving the truck when he’s older, but has yet to actually help me work on it. I give him a hard time about this,” Tracy adds.
It’s funny to think that we can grow such close feelings for what are essentially large, carbon-farting deathmobiles that we’d be better off ditching. But I can’t help but agree with Tom McParland, car writer and owner of Automatch Consulting, when he points out that this utilitarian tool is pretty damn good at taking on our identities and pulling at our heartstrings. “Let’s face it. Some of us have had longer relationships with our cars than with our significant others,” he says. “Knowing when to upgrade to a newer ride is both an emotional and a financial decision.”
His advice is to blunt the stress of saying goodbye to an old beater car by planning early. That includes calculating how much constant fixes are costing you relative to the current value of your car, as well as tasks like sourcing estimates for how much you could get in a sale. “Scrambling at the last minute because your car broke down can mean making hasty choices and not getting a great deal,” he notes.
There are a lot of websites that can ballpark what your old car can fetch, but you really need to talk to user car chains, dealerships or private buyers to get a better sense of the street price; those offers will come in handy as leverage in final negotiations, especially if you sense a dealer is lowballing you. Finally, McParland advises that you give your beloved car one last wash, inside and out, even if you don’t spend money on fixing minor scratches and body dings (it’s a waste because “those are to be expected in a pre-owned model,” he says).
I know I should take McParland’s advice and start shopping my BMW around before it’s too late. It’s shocking how quickly time has flown by; it seems like it was just last week that I picked up the car up from the Port of Long Beach after its 2,500-mile journey from my parents’ house in Hawaii. Every morning, as I walk out to the garage to commute to work, there’s a moment where I see her silver body sitting there and think, just for a second, that it’ll miraculously stop breaking.
Then I turn the ignition and see a variety of warning lights flash up at me, and the wishful illusion comes falling down once more. People told me growing up was hard — I just didn’t realize they were talking about my car.
I’ll give it three more months.