The Case for Owning a Bad Car

I just sold my 1994 Chevy 1500 farm truck, leaving me with two cars manufactured after 2010. The old Chevy had dents, no air conditioning and a broken radio. My other cars are working perfectly. It’s weird to no longer own a bad car, because it’s always been part of my life.

What I describe as a “bad car” isn’t your grandfather’s slightly used Cadillac or a high mileage Honda Civic that still has a tape deck in the factory stereo. I am talking about a rattling mess of internal combustion with odd rattles, mysterious malfunctions and a few loose pieces of trim.

Or, as the British call them, cars.

I know many Americans own (or have owned) some truly awful automobiles. As traumatic as that can be, I think it’s essential for every driver to own at least one truly bad car. It’s a chance to develop essential life skills.

Americans of a certain age experienced this type of motoring as teenage drivers, blessed with parents who knew their children well enough to keep them away from any automobile featuring consistent acceleration, sport handling or a private party book value exceeding the value of their emergency fund. Now parents are guilted into buying newer cars with annoyingly high reliability, thanks to constant advertising during televised sporting events and historically low interest rates on new car loans.

Keep in mind I’m not advocating owning an actively dangerous car … I’m a big fan of cars that stop when I ask them to and keep all of their combustion internal. The “bad” quality can be inherited through purchase or earned through high mileage. However, owning a perfect car is entirely overrated. Here are several life lessons to be gleaned from automotive entropy.

Working Within Limitations

Working with limitations often breeds innovation. No electricity to light your home … use old soda bottles. Flammable hydrogen causes blimp explosion … use helium instead. Government prohibits the legal sale of alcohol … invent NASCAR.

So think of all the creativity gained from driving that sub-optimal auto. You’ll think of so many ways to stay cool with relying on air conditioning (because it’s broken). Your reflexes will improve dramatically (without proper power steering to help you drive).

Emergency Preparedness

If you drive the worst, you have to expect the worst. Look in the trunk for the tell-tale signs … one quart of oil, transmission fluid, jumper cables, funnels, duct tape, fire extinguisher, paper towels … all evidence of someone who has owned a bad car. If you don’t know one of these people, become one of these people. It’s more practical than preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse, and a whole lot cheaper.

Diagnostic Capabilities

I don’t fix cars. It’s just not my thing. However, I can diagnose a number of motoring maladies based on past experience … bad alternator, broken motor mount, misfiring spark plug, broken transmission mount, low transmission fluid, failing power steering pump … all conditions I can describe accurately to a mechanic based on symptoms. It’s nice to know the difference between “I need to top off the transmission fluid” and “holy crap, this thing might catch on fire” when dealing with your car.

Developing Social Skills

Do you have problems talking to strangers? Would you like to meet new people? Try owning a bad car. You’ll meet all sorts of interesting people … tow truck drivers, rural mechanics, truck stop waitresses, strangers with fire extinguishers. And don’t worry about trying to break the ice when they show up, because that smoking heap of automobile will give you plenty to talk about.

Once you make new friends in the breakdown lane, you can transfer those new social skills to your daily life. Take a friend to the movies, but let them drive so they won’t have to ride in your car. Try carpooling to work, which saves the planet from your leaking oil pan. If these people drive reliable cars, ask them if they like their mechanic … you may need his number later.

Knowing When To Cut Your Losses

This is hard for many people. Americans feel pressured to develop emotional connections to their cars. Personally, I blame The Beach Boys. Despite every romantic turn of phrase Jeremy Clarkson applies to a motoring review, cars are subject to the laws of entropy. They will age, they will break down and they will eventually become too unwieldy or expensive to repair.

Some cars are classic works of engineering, meant to be restored and admired for future generations. But let’s face it, your brown 1988 Ford Escort doesn’t fall into that category. Fill it full of Slick-50, park it in front of the neighborhood gas station and sell it to the next 16 year old that needs to learn great life lessons from their first bad car.