Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Parts Car? Maybe Not.

Keeping a car forever sounds like a great deal, but towards the end, it gets messy, inconvenient, and expensive, unless you are prepared to rebuild every system on the vehicle.

A reader writes:
Should I buy a duplicate of my current car so I can use the duplicate for spare parts?  
I own a 2005 Chevy Cobalt, and in spite of the car's mediocre reputation, I love it, and want to keep it running as long as possible. I know the basics of car maintenance and repair, and I'm thinking of buying a second Chevy Cobalt, parking it in my driveway under a tarp, and using it as needed to cannibalize parts to keep my original Cobalt running.  I can buy a parts car for $800. 
I think it would be cheaper in the long run to remove components from the parts car as needed than it would be to buy spare parts by themselves from eBay or junkyards. What do you think? 
This is an interesting question.  The car he presently owns is a 2005 Cobalt with 185,000 miles on it.  This is about the end of the design life for a General Motors J-Body.  They are not a bad car - inexpensive to buy and fairly durable.   But they are not a 300,000 mile car - few cars are, in fact.

As I noted in my posting on the Weibull Curve, there reaches a point with any system, be it electrical, mechanical, or whatever, where repair costs escalate to the point where the operating cost exceeds that of a new car - or house, or building, or ship, or bridge, or whatever.

At this stage in the car's life, more esoteric and expensive things will start to break - CV joints, wheel hubs, maybe a clutch (more expensive than you think, these days) or transmission.  Struts can be expensive - and they do wear out with time!   Many of these parts are probably original and at the end of their life, and will start to fail, one by one, in short succession.

The other problem is the value of the car is rapidly approaching zero.  Edmunds puts the trade-in value at anywhere from $50 to $500 depending on condition, and private party and even dealer resale values struggle to break the $2000 barrier, with most falling along the lines of a grand or so.  Thus, even one major repair will exceed the value of the car - and when repair costs exceed resale value, it is time to pack it in - you are throwing good money after bad.

Anything involving removing the engine is probably a deal-breaker.  Speaking of which, does the car have a timing chain or timing belt?  Both can break - belts should be replaced periodically.  When either breaks, well, depending on the engine design (interference or non-interference) it can take out the head and valves at the same time.

Also, it is passing emissions?  Any problems in that department could be a deal-breaker as well.  Getting an older car to pass emissions (unless it is so old as to be exempt) can be an expensive and long-drawn-out process.

Even a set of new tires might exceed the resale value of this car.

You can play with the numbers - adjust model, price, condition.  Unless it is a super-low-mile garage kept SS, it isn't worth much - and even then, no one is really collecting used economy cars.

Note that the Edmund's value seems to indicate that the "parts car" is way overpriced at $800.  That's what someone might pay for a running example in average condition.

With a car like this, the best you can do is to drive it until it dies, but don't start throwing money at it.  What ends up happening to people is that in the declining years of a car, they start doing more and more repairs to it.  They put new tires on it.  Then brakes.  Then struts.  A CV joint.  Oxygen sensors (they were supposed to be replaced at 100K miles, were they?), and then wheel hubs.  And so on and so forth.  Over a period of 18-24 months, the owner realizes he has sunk thousands of dollars into a car worth hundreds.

Then, and only then, do they decide to trade in and move up the food chain.

If you can skip this last painful step and cut off the tail-end of the Weibull curve, you can save yourself a lot of money and grief!

Parts cars seem like one way to avoid this problem.  After all, if you have an entire car worth of parts, won't that mean the repairs are cheaper?   This assumes, of course, you are equipped with the tools and skills to replace CV joints, struts, clutches, and so forth - pain-in-the-ass projects even for the skilled mechanic.

My take is that, unless you need a specific part from the parts car, odds are, it will just be an eyesore that will annoy your neighbors and wife.  For rare or unusual cars, maybe this makes sense.  But a 2005 Cobalt?  Pick-n-pull has what you need.  Most of the parts you'll want on the parts car are also likely to be worn out as well.   So very rarely do used parts make sense anyway.

See my postings on used car parts:

For the most part, used parts are a false economy.

The only time I ever bought a parts car was when I had a Fiat that needed a new transmission.  I bought one for $500 that the P.O. had put a boom-boom stereo into.  I yanked the tranny (and oddly enough the previous owner was a tranny as well - deep voice, large hands) and put the stereo in my motorhome.   I sold enough of the remaining parts on ebay to recoup my $500.   I had to pay $50 to have the chassis towed away.   So it worked out.

But that was a car that had been out of production for two decades and parts were hard to find.   For a 2005 Cobalt, they still sell parts at Autozone or pick-n-pull.

I think a better approach is to save the parts-car money for a down payment on something newer.  They are giving away CARS today because everyone wants a truck or SUV.  A later model secondhand Chevy Cruz - the successor to the Cobalt, can be found all day long for sale with fairly low miles.  One from a private party - maybe the original owner - might be a particularly good deal.  Put gas in it, turn the key, and go.   Or a used Corolla - probably a better value.

Your neighbors and wife will appreciate it more than the "parts car" under a tarp in the driveway!  Your hands will stay cleaner and your wallet will thank you as well!