People who knew me anytime in the years 1988 to 2010 think of this car. My 1983 Mercedes 240 Diesel. I personally put 500,000 miles on it over 22 years commuting to the cubicle as an Electrical Engineer. When I look back at all of the things that led me to early financial independence, this car is top of the list.
I know, I know. You’re thinking, hey, Mr. Money Mustache says having a car is a clown-like habit. But for me, I chose a geoarbitrage option, by living in Stockton, California while working in the Bay Area and later Sacramento. I wanted to select a car that would be just as much of a frugal win as buying a home in the Central Valley has been for us. Both of those choices were key to being able to reach FI early and formally quit at age 51.
I bought the car used of course. I paid $14,000 and I could have bought a brand new Honda Civic. The Mercedes was 5 years old with 67,000 miles on it and I when I sold it in 2010 it just rolled over past 567,000. The picture above is taken on the day I sold it. The new buyer had to pry me away from my lifelong companion!
Here’s what the Craiglist ad looked like. My friend at work wrote it up for me and all of my cubicle mates were cracking up at the description:
“It’s Been to the Moon and Back, and It’ll Go Again!!”
If life is a journey, then this car has been my long-time companion on the road to riches.
First, You are Probably Asking: Same Engine, Same Trany???
My uncle used to tell a story about this ax he had FOREVER. “It’s so reliable, such a great tool. Well …… I did replace the handle a few times, and yeah, actually, I replaced the blade a few times. But, HEY, it’s the same ax!!”
It was sort of like that. I had around 200,000 miles on it when it unexpectedly overheated on a crazy Friday night commute. I couldn’t get off the freeway even though the next exit was only about 100 yards ahead. Those of you commuting in the Bay Area over the Sunol grade know the drill and it has only gotten worse over the years. By the time I could exit, and luckily roll downhill into a service station, it probably did some damage to the engine. But my lovely car still ran smoothly for another 185,000 mile. Which for me, was about seven years later. After a second overheating problem, my trusty hobby mechanic, otherwise known as my husband Matt, told me my engine was shot.
So what to do?
I loved that car! It was really a great on gas mileage, low maintenance, didn’t need smogging, and best of all, it was totally paid for. A diesel like that could easily go several hundred thousand miles more.
I decided to spend $4500 on a factory engine from Germany. I figured that I had already driven it half my Engineering lifetime. Why not go for the entire career?
Of course, along the way I ended up with a failure on the transmission too. What did I do? You guessed it. Just like my uncle’s ax, I replaced it with a rebuild that ran around $2400. Together the engine and trany were around $7000. If I had bought a new car, like a “normal” person, it would have set me back at least 20 grand. Probably more. But nobody has ever accused me of being “normal”.
That Car Taught Me Patience
Patience. It’s a quality that I didn’t have much of until I started driving my diesel. I used to think of the accelerator as a switch because it was sort of like an on or off. I would normally just floor it, whether I wanted to pull away from a stop at 5 mph or 60, it made no difference. The car would just slowly roll, gaining speed little by little. This happened on freeway approaches, passing lanes, you name it.
This one day really sticks in my mind. It was so funny. I was driving over to the park near work to meet my coworkers for softball practice. It was 5pm rush hour and I had to make a left-hand turn onto a side street from a busy 4 lane road and no turning lane. I put my blinker on with plenty of warning and stopped, waiting and waiting for a break in the oncoming traffic wide enough to make it when I “floored it”. What was needed was a lot more space, something the angry driver behind me did not understand.
Each time I saw an opening, I considered it and decided to hold. Each time I got a honk from the lady behind me. I started studying her in my rear-view mirror. She was about to explode. There were a crazy amount of cars coming and no space in sight. She started making hand gestures and I could see she was getting steamed. Finally I found a good opening and jumped into it at my highest (and only) speed.
She tailed behind me, glued to my bumper. And then she followed me the 3 blocks to the softball park and pulled in right behind me. I proceeded to get out and open my back door so I could get my glove — oh and also my bat! She didn’t have enough time to wait for me to make the turn, but somehow she had time to follow me so she could yell and scream. I just looked at her, reached for my bat and explained slowly that not only was I carrying a bat, but I was also accompanied by 10 of my softball friends, most of them men!
People on the team had a good laugh. Everyone I worked with enjoyed teasing me about my car and that was one for the memory books.
Knowing Where to Tap
Learning patience reminds me of another funny story. Not only is my husband Matt a hobby mechanic, but my Dad was a professional. A man that found his true calling early in life, he tinkered with used cars in our garage evenings and weekends. He was a master. So when my Mercedes failed to start at a gas station really close to home, I was glad that he was over visiting and only a mile away. When he arrived, he opened the hood, looked around and then made one calculated “BANG” on something inside the engine. “Try it now”, he said. And it started right up.
This made me both happy and nervous. I asked him if this was just going to happen again when I’m over an hour from home. He said maybe (he loved the “maybe and that’s final” answer). But he said, just drive it and don’t worry. I remember he said it was my solenoid, whatever that was.
About 6 months passed and I was making a quick stop on my way to work and you can guess. Nothing. No start. I was 50 miles away from home, but luckily only 2 miles from work.
I figured, how hard can it be to hit different things in the engine compartment? One of those must be a solenoid. So I took out my tire iron and started pounding on things, and retrying the starter. No luck. Why didn’t I learn to identify the solenoid????
After quite a few parts were beat on, I decided to bail and deal with it later. So I called the front desk to see if someone would come get me. My plan was to call Matt and he would come meet me there after work. He knew what a solenoid looked like.
Instead of the secretary, the marketing guy I worked closely with arrived. He and I went on many business trips together with our small company. I had a reputation as a theoretical Engineer, and even though I worked in electronics, I rarely got hands on with my equipment. He loved to fix stuff, so he volunteered to come over in case he might be able to find what was wrong.
This was great! I asked him if he knew what a solenoid was. He just looked at me suspiciously. What? What was I talking about? I said that I just needed my solenoid banged on. He thought I was being ridiculous, but he took my tire iron, and hit the part with a nice big tap. As soon as I turned the key, it started up. He just looked at me in disbelief. This would go down in history as the ultimate in my hands-off but brilliant debugging victories.
My Dad loved it because we used to share a story about a car assembly line coming to a complete stop. The expert was called in and he took out a hammer and made a big bang on a precise location and the assembly line came back to life. His bill was $1000. The company thought it was a rip-off because he only worked for a few seconds. They asked him to itemize the bill. It read: Tapping on assembly line — 1 dollar. Knowing where to tap — 999 dollars.
You’re Not Still Driving That Thing, Are You?
The car must have been over 20 years old on a day when my boss took me to lunch. He drove us in his brand new Ford F-350, one of the most expensive 8 cylinder diesel trucks you can buy. But hey, he could afford it right? He had just sold the small company where we worked for 3 Million bucks and was living “large” as they say. When we arrived back in our work parking lot, he spotted my Mercedes. I hadn’t been over to the building site in a while since he had converted me from an employee to a contractor (actually he fired me, but that’s a story for another day). Point being, he was paying me a lot of money at that point and was puzzled to see my old car there after all these years.
So he says “You’re not still driving that thing, are you?”. I smiled and said:
“I’ll still be driving this when you buy your next car!
And I was. As it turned out, I still had another 7 or 8 years on that beauty.
A Long and Winding Road
Over the years, I had many ups and downs with that car. Heck, one time it got infested with ants that were eating 20 years of crumbs that had fallen into the cracks from all of the lunches I ate in that car. Kind of embarrassing, but all part of owning an ancient automobile.
Another time I remember was when my friends called it “The Mafia Hit Car”. That was because my first windshield was more susceptible to pitting. It got hit often with the inevitable rocks that I picked up during my 40,000 mile per year commutes at the time. I figured, why get the windshield replaced if it is just going to get another “bullet hole” next month? So I waited until one of them was a big crack, big enough to warrant the replacement deductible. But all the while I would be the driver for our Thursday lunch outings (people always wanted to ride in my car — really!). And they would get a good laugh out of teasing me that we were going to get shot at going down the road.
In the end, it just failed one too many times. I had been on a business trip to Scotland that lasted a few weeks longer than planned, like most of them did. When I finally arrived home on December 23rd, and got up the next morning to go do my Christmas shopping, the car wouldn’t start. This happened a lot in the cold weather and try as I might to get to the bottom of it, the intermittent nature of it made it a real challenge to find. It happened on many cold days, but this day it would not start up even after the typical coaxing I had learned to apply. I finally had enough.
The woman who bought it was thrilled. I have a feeling she was swayed by the excellent “Moon” wording of the Craigslist ad. She offered me full price — 1400 bucks. A friend joined her for the test drive and they patiently sat and listened to my honest list of all the things I knew were wrong with it. And it was a bit of a list. All minor, but idiosyncrasies that you had to be down for. She was all in. A baker by trade, she named it “Cupcake”, because of the color. In all the time I owned it, for some reason I had never given it a name. I think if I were to name it now, it would have to be “Moonwalker”!
That car — I mean “Moonwalker” — took me on a wonderful path to wealth. I had no car payment for most of the years I owned it. I could pay cash for repairs because of the savings. That got me used to paying cash for a lot of things. I became accustomed to living below my means. Not only that, but it carried over to other areas of life. Everyone knew that I made enough money for a nicer, newer vehicle, so by driving that old car, no one expected me to “keep up with the Jones’s” on anything else.
So, what am I driving now? A 10 year old Mercedes E350. I bought it used of course, but it’s not a diesel. Even though, it’ll probably be the last car I’ll ever need.
What say you? Do you have a car story? Something that helped instead of hurt your finances?