Car trouble question: Fix or buy?

July 12, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

THE TRANSMISSION went a few weeks ago, which became evident when the gears started to wind out endlessly and people in wheelchairs were beating me up hills.

At the transmission-repair shop, the guy said a rebuilt transmission would cost $2,200.

As that figure came out of his mouth, the room started to spin, and I lost all feeling from the waist down.

Suddenly I was facing the dilemma every car owner dreads: When do you pull the plug on an old car?

When do you stop pouring money down the rathole and just junk it and buy something else?

This car of mine was eight years old. It had 103,000 miles on it. But it wasn't one of these plucky foreign cars that could still climb Pikes Peak and you could put another 100,000 miles on the engine and feel like you were just breaking it in.

No, this thing was a Ford Taurus.

And - not to put too fine a point on it - it was a piece of junk.

I didn't know if this thing could make it to Pikesville, never mind climb Pikes Peak.

Anyway, after I got that price on the rebuilt transmission, some people said: "You're crazy to put that kind of money into an old car. Give it to one of these nonprofits, write if off on your taxes and get yourself another car."

But others said, no, get it fixed. You need a car, right? Twenty-two hundred is a lot of dough, but it's better than spending 20 grand or whatever on a new car.

Finally, after a night of agonizing, I said what the hell and told the guy at the transmission-repair place: Go ahead, do the work.

Which he did, and I paid him, and it hurt so much I had to lie down for the rest of the afternoon.

Then the pain got worse.

One week after getting the car back, I was on the Jones Falls Expressway when a yellow light suddenly appeared on the dashboard. This, I recognized, was not a good thing.

Sure enough, the light said: Service Engine Soon.

As soon as these words appeared, I had a vision.

In this vision, I was dressed in rags and squatting on a street corner, holding a small, battered tin cup out to passers-by. Around my neck was a sign: "Just had the car fixed again."

But no one was putting any money in my cup. People were hurrying by, averting their eyes. And the ones who did look my way sneered: "You should have gotten rid of that clunker when you had the chance, pal."

Anyway, when the vision receded, I took the Taurus back to my mechanics, the great Kleim brothers, Jamie and Tim, who have been fixing my cars since the beginning of time.

The warning light, they said, had to do with oxygen sensors in the exhaust system.

Apparently there were three sensors and each one costs, I don't know, a million dollars to replace, not counting labor.

But sometimes any little thing can set off the sensors, they said. So they were going to use a scanner to erase a code that would turn the yellow light off, and then I was going to go to church and light a candle and pray that it wasn't the catalytic converter or something major about to blow up.

But here's the thing, the Kleims said. The car does need new rear brakes and rotors. Plus four new tires. Immediately.

"How much?" I asked.

"Eight hundred," they said.

As I have always been one of these people who finds comfort in hitting the brakes and having the car actually stop - and not having it skid off the road after a light rainfall - I told them to go ahead and do the work.

Besides, what else was I going to do? I'd already sunk $2,200 into this beast.

When do you stop throwing money down the rathole?

Besides, what was another $800? If we went without food for a few weeks and sold some of the furniture, things would be fine.

So the next day, I went to pick up the car. And as I pulled out my checkbook, I had another vision.

In this vision, the car was now 22 years old. It looked like hell, all scratched and dented, like something Courtney Love would climb out of after a two-week bender.

It ran like hell, too. But I was still Mr. Decisive, still pouring money into it whenever it stopped running, still wondering if I was doing the right thing keeping it.

After that vision ended, and I was leaving their garage, the Kleims said I should bring the car in for an alignment soon.

And an oil change, too.

That is, if I planned to keep it for any length of time.

These visions, they don't seem like they'll be ending anytime soon.

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