Odometers, Finances, and the Area of Maximum Badness
“Look at this!” My wife exclaimed as she scampered across the living room with her laptop held out in front of her. “What is wrong with people?”
She had discovered a listing for a MkV Volkswagen R32 like hers, but with much higher mileage and a much higher price than what she usually sees on her various R32 cult–I mean community–pages. I knew that car prices were inflated, but this one seemed nonsensical. Value is supposed to go down with miles; not up.
It confused me until I remembered a few similar situations. The first was the McLaren F1 phenomenon: because the cars are so rare, mileage has become irrelevant and bubble wrap is no longer necessary to protect one’s investment. Owners are free to drive their F1s as much as they please because the supply is so low that even higher-mileage examples will bring a profit.
The second was Matt Farah’s famous Lexus LS 400. People would certainly pay more than market value for that car simply because it is The Million-Mile Lexus and comes with bragging rights.
Finally, I remembered a hint of pride every time my dad traded in one of his work trucks. He’d roll into the local Ford dealership every three or four years in a virtually-new F-350 that had driven more than 300,000 miles. It would be natural to feel some sense of accomplishment. After all, the other customers in the showroom chickened out after 100,000 miles or less, and there he was with three times as many.
Could that phenomenon be making its way to other cars? I reflected on some relationship advice I got more than a decade ago.
One night, while enjoying a series of refreshing beverages with my father-in-law and his Air Force buddies, I got a key piece of wisdom that I believe applies to car ownership just as well as marital bliss.
An old A-10 pilot grabbed a napkin and started drawing. First came the X- and Y-axes. Next was a recognizable bell curve. The gist of his presentation went as follows.
Imagine you’re leaving the office after work, and decide to grab a drink with your friends before heading home. You call your minister of finance to deliver this news and all is well. One drink turns into two. Two turns into four. As time passes, your spouse’s mood deteriorates and tension rises. Annoyance turns into resentment, then eventually blind rage sets in somewhere around 2 a.m. That’s the exact moment most people come home–right into a buzzsaw of marital disharmony. His advice was to avoid that horrible conflagration altogether by simply staying out longer. Given enough time, the unhappy spouse would fall asleep, wake up rested, and be relieved to see you safe and sound on the other side of the bell curve. His advice? If you’re not home by dinner, just make a night of it and come back in the morning.
What if that bell curve could be applied to car ownership? Obviously, a car loses value the second it drives off the lot. It continues to shed buying power as the miles tick by, and eventually reaches a point where they no longer matter. After all, is a car with 200,000 miles really any different from one with 210,000 miles? Of course not.
That’s about the time most of us sign off. Even though automotive manufacturing has improved drastically through the years and 100,000 miles is no longer the death sentence it once was, the buying public still seems leery of any odometer approaching six digits. By the time a vehicle encroaches on 200,000 miles, most drivers (who do not own a Land Cruiser or diesel pickup) are resigned to trading it in for pennies, selling it for scrap, or handing it off to an unlucky relative with a learner’s permit who doesn’t know any better.
My highly scientific hypothesis is that there may be a magic transformation somewhere beyond that point. Maybe, if we hold onto our cars long enough, they’ll turn the corner and be not only cool–but valuable once more. Like Gandalf the Grey returning as Gandalf the White to save the day, perhaps our rusty, old clunkers can rise from the oil stains on the driveway to deliver us from financial hardship to the virtual cheers of an adoring comments section on Bring a Trailer.
I’m willing to bet that most of us have had to choose between trading in a car that wasn’t worth the tires it was sitting on and keeping it for giggles. Sometimes cash is king, sometimes space is limited, sometimes cars have to go. But if you have some flexibility, you just might find yourself hitting a high score and being on the winning end of an absurd online auction. If you do, I will applaud you. If it goes poorly, remember that I’m just a rust-bucket admirer on the internet. I don’t know why you'd listen to anything I have to say.
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. Scott works as a freelance marketer for Dingo Productions in Madison, Wisconsin. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.