Aging Autos

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

February 2, 2012 5 min read

You've nurtured "Old Blue" through dozens of brake pads and oil changes, regularly rotated her tires and faithfully adhered to her maintenance schedule recommended in the owner's manual.

Your aging car may have some dents and dings and perhaps a spot of rust, but chances are the engine is running as smoothly as it did the first time you got behind the wheel ... 100,000 miles ago!

Sticking to that maintenance routine and having your car inspected for parts commonly prone to long-term wear and tear -- especially the timing belt -- can keep your vehicle running for another 100,000 miles or more, automotive experts say.

"If you want your car to last till 200,000 (miles), you need to do the normal maintenance regularly," says Mike Allen, an ASE-certified automotive technician, race car driver and senior automotive editor at Popular Mechanics magazine. "A single trip to the shop for a major redo can't make up for years of neglect."

At the top of Allen's to-do list? "Eighty (thousand) to 100,000 miles is the recommended interval for replacing the timing belt. Do not postpone this maintenance. A failed timing belt can destroy your engine."

"The timing belt drives all the engine components," explains Mike Wilbern, co-owner of Roberts Automotive, an Illinois automotive center specializing in German-built cars, such as Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen. "If the timing belt breaks, the engine breaks. Unlike most European cars, which use a chain drive, the timing belt in domestic cars is made of rubber that can dry out and crack." Beyond the timing belt, all cars in the 100,000-mile range should have fluids, brakes, belts, hoses and the suspension system inspected, Wilbern says.

The normal life span for accessory drive belts and radiator and heater hoses is five years or 100,000 miles, says Mike Allen. "Most cars today use a long-life coolant that needs to be flushed and replaced after five years, so have your mechanic take a close look at the hoses and belts while the system is already drained." And, he adds, "many car manufacturers don't specify that brake fluid ever be changed. Others do, so it's not a bad idea to flush your dirty, water-contaminated fluid, especially if you have ABS brakes. An ABS controller can cost thousands to replace if it fails as a result of contaminated brake fluid."

"Suspension components such as shock absorbers and any mounting bushes will wear and degrade with age, so any knocking or clicking noises, vague steering response or poor ride quality concerns should be checked by a professional whenever they are noticed," advises Robert Hills, the senior education program manager for the Universal Technical Institute's Automotive Technology Training Center.

Hills believes regular maintenance should include the car's exterior and interior, especially if you live in a climate harsh on vehicle finishes. Road salt for melting ice and snow, for instance, can corrode the underside of wheel arches and sills. Stone chips and deep scratches will eventually corrode steel panels. "Always touch up minor chips and have scratches repaired as soon as possible," he says.

Weekly washing and regular waxing will help to protect the paint and reduce the chance of fading. Other wear points are driver's side door hinges, locks, and door check straps. "They can sometimes be a problem on really high-mileage vehicles because of the frequency of opening and closing," Hills says.

Still, he says, there are significant advantages to keeping a high-mileage car, not the least of which may be freedom from making car payments. "Without a car payment, you'll only have to pay for routine maintenance and running costs." Hills cites a 2007 Consumer Reports study that showed that even with depreciation, maintenance, repairs, finance costs and insurance, drivers could typically save more than $20,000 by keeping a new vehicle for 15 years and 225,000 miles versus getting a new car every five years.

And it seems that these days, more people are holding on to their cars; in 2011, the average age of a car in the United States was a record 10.8 years, according to data compiled by R. Polk & Co., which tracks trends for the automotive industry. In the mid-1990s, the average age of a car was only 8.4 years.

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