How to make a POS car reliable

I understand the need to have reliable transportation.  After all, if you can’t get to work, you can’t get out of debt.  I drive 25 miles each way to work, that’s 12,500 miles just to get to and from the office, mix in a couple of road trips, my running groups, skiing in the mountains, and general socializing and I find myself WAY above the national average.  Some of you may know that I’m an engineer and a nerd, so I record my mileage and fuel consumption every time I fill up for the past 10+ years.  Last year I did just over 30k miles and it that is about on par for my typical year when I look back through my data.

If you want to make a POS car reliable there’s a few things you have to do.  First, you need to make sure you buy something that is mechanically sound.  It helps if you know cars, but it’s not required.  We all have friends who are more mechanically inclined than we are and there’s always the option of taking it to a local shop for $100 checkover.  I prefer the local hole in the wall auto shops in the more run down areas of town, these guys are used to dealing with people who are strapped for cash and just need the thing to keep rolling.  It might sound like a hard task, but I’ve done it plenty of times and have put a list below of the vehicles I’ve had, how much I paid, how much I put into it, how many miles I did on it and what happened to it in the end.   You can get incredible deals on cars that look like Medusa and will scare away any potential mate if you’re single.

The most important thing to remember is that it’s a disposable car and any money you put into it should be to keep it on the road, but nothing else.  If a window stops rolling down (or worse… up), you’re not going to fix it.  I’ve seen one friend who jammed a rubber door stop between the window and the door seal in order to hold the window up.  I personally have taken a door panel off in a McDonald’s parking lot in winter while it was raining, because I went through the drive through and the window never went back up.  I had a small 3″ C-clamp that I used to hold the window guide on the track in the up position.  I put the door back panel back on and continued on my way because I was about 200 miles from my house at the time.

Every repair you might make needs to be weighed against how much longer you think it might keep running for and how much that repair is going to cost.  For instance, I had a fuel pump go out on a the truck I picked up for $1200 originally.  The truck is solid mechanically though, the engine is strong and the transmission is great… it’s bright orange, dented all to hell, leaks through the door frame when it rains due to those dents, no headliner in the cab, and half of the steering wheel is just the metal bar inside instead of a nice padded grip (I do have a cheap AutoZone cover over it though).  For $200, I replaced the pump though, because I had faith that the rest of the vehicle was going to last.

Another time though, I was driving north, about an hour from my house, the speed limit was 75mph and I was in my 1993 Eagle Talon that I had originally bought for $1000 nearly 3 years before.  I had put about 60k miles on it over those 3 years though and had done minimal maintenance on it.  In fact, I had just filled up the gas tank and added the now mandatory quart of oil about 15 miles before this incident happened.  Cruising up the interstate, I noticed it wasn’t quite responding to the gas pedal anymore.  So I start making my way to the emergency lane on the right since I was in the middle of 3 lanes.  It’s a manual, so I test out the clutch and it shuts off, I let off, and of course that’s like starting it again, so I decide it might be best to hold down the clutch and coast the next 2+ miles to the next exit ramp (you can coast pretty far when you start at 75mph).  I get it off the side of the ramp, put it in park and try to start the engine… I hear the engine turn twice and then hear and feel it lock up.  GAME OVER!  New engine on a 3 year $1k car? nope… I call a friend to come get me, pull out my cell phone, tether it to my laptop and fill out the donation form online for NPR.  They picked the car up from that exit ramp (see the featured picture at the top) and it cost me nothing to dispose of it and I even got the deduction for the donation on my taxes at the end of the year.


The real secret to having reliability in your POS is to have two of them though.  That’s the route I have taken and although I’ve had to use a few tow straps over the years and call a few friends, I was never worried about getting to work the next day or even later that day because I would just drop the car off at the shop or my house, jump in the other POS and head to work.  Plus, when you’re single, you can’t steal your spouses car, so it might be even more important for those who are singles to consider this.

Over the years, these have been my cars (notice the overlaps in the years):

JeepCherokee2005-2013’01 Jeep CherokeeThis was the last vehicle I had a loan on before I realized that’s not a good idea.  I paid it off, but 2 years later the engine and transmission died around the 210k mile mark and I sold it for $1800. When I look back at the math on that Jeep, it cost me nearly $18k for that loan because I was a genius who rolled negative equity into it from the previous truck I had
CB7502007-2010’82 Honda CB750 motorcycle

I bought it for $850, put about 20k miles on it and sold it for $1000 with about 35k miles on it, I had put about $800 worth of maintenance into it (including tires) in those 3 years.

EagleTalon-trimmed2009-2013’93 Eagle Talon

I bought it for $1000, put 60k miles on it and donated it to NPR in the end, it died around the 220k mile mark.  During the 3+ years I had it, I put a new alternator in it, a few sets of tires (cheap ones), a new battery, and in the end.. a quart of oil at each fill up.

DodgeRam2013-present’98 Dodge Ram 1500

I bought for $1200 and have put $800 into it between the fuel pump, new tires, and registration costs.  It currently has 175k miles on it.  It is an old CDOT (Colorado DOT) vehicle… it’s ugly, dented, has no roof liner, drivers side door leaks when it rains, steering wheel is missing half of the padding (so it’s exposed metal), but it runs like a champ… except it gets 14.5mpg.

HondaCivic2014-present’03 Honda Civic Hybrid

I was down to one vehicle (the Dodge Ram) when this deal presented itself for $4k.  I took a bit of a risk, but because of the mileage I do, I calculated that it would take ~18 months for the gas costs to compensate for the 14.5mpg truck to the point where the civic could be driven off a cliff, blown up in a blaze of glory and be worth $0… or it might end up like the Eagle Talon and just get donated, so I would save $4k over 18 months.  I’ve put 31k miles on it in the last 14 months, which has saved ~$3400 so far in gas, have only put $400 worth of maintenance into it so far and I still have a vehicle with about $4k.


2 Comments on "How to make a POS car reliable"

  1. Oh boy, this sends me back in time. I have a nicer car now for several reasons, including that I have to make it to court reliably and on time, and on occasion I need to have clients in my car with me, but I remember the adventures I had in my 1981 Corvette. So many stories about emergency roadside repairs. That was NOT a cheap car to keep running, though. I’m sure you’re doing way better with yours.

    • wow, yeah, I don’t think a corvette is the ‘junker’ car to drive if you are doing it to be frugal. I could easily see those repair bills (even just the parts if you DIY) being pretty substantial. I kind of wish I kept a record of everywhere I have sat on the side of the road. Every so often I drive past an area I am not at often and have good memories 🙂 Congrats on moving up to a more reliable car.

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