Driving the family car 200,000 miles -- and more

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My father-in-law was getting impatient. We'd been looking at new cars for two weeks and couldn't make up our minds.

''It isn't really that important, you know,'' he said. ''After all, you're not going to keep it forever.''

Little did he know. That was 14 years and 201,946 miles ago, and the '68 Ford Mustang we finally selected is still a smooth-running, much-loved member of the family.

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Such durability isn't unusual any more. A decade of inflation has prompted more and more drivers to hang on to their Detroit buggies. All over the US, people report cars that are chugging along for 200,000, or 300,000, or even 1 million miles.

One such story comes from a man in Houston, Texas, who purchased a Dodge back in December 1940. Dodge - then called the Dodge Brothers Corporation -- sent him a telegram at the time asking for comments about his new auto:

''WOULD LIKE YOUR PERSONAL REACTION WHAT APPEALS TO YOU MOST ABOUT YOUR 41 DODGE. NEW FLUID DRIVE, NEW BODY LINES, IMPROVED HYDRAULIC BRAKES OR WHAT? PLEASE WIRE ANSWER COLLECT.''

The owner, however, didn't reply right away. In fact, he waited until Feb. 9, 1972, when he finally wrote to Dodge:

''In reply to your telegram of December 6, 1940, I wish I could convey to you the repeated unsolicited outpouring of admiration and praise bestowed by mechanics as they worked on the car throughout the years. A common remark of theirs has been, 'Best Car Ever Made.'

''I still own Betsy; she is still licensed and running. After more than 300, 000 miles, the original transmission is still in the car; it has never given the slightest sign of trouble . . . We love Betsy. Sorry to keep you waiting.''

Is such mileage really possible? Can anyone do it? Is it really safe to drive a car that far? Are there any tricks to make a car last that long?

Briefly, the answers are yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Our Mustang, however, shows that there are times when even the most loyal owner thinks of turning in his steed.

It is possible -- but . . .

Back when Ford was selling 1968 Mustangs, the cars came with a five-year/50, 000 mile-warranty. Eventually I was very, very grateful for that guarantee.

It was, as I recall, an August morning in 1971 when the Mustang slowly came to a stop of its own accord just outside Sarasota, Fla. Underneath, a large pool of red-colored oil began to spread across the road. The transmission went kaput -- at 48,500 miles. It took two weeks to get all the parts, but Ford finally fixed it free-of-charge. The transmission has worked perfectly since.

It was around 60,000 miles, however, when just about everything else seemed to fall apart. All at once. Like gnats that you have to keep swatting on a summer's evening.

The shock absorbers began to wheeze.

The arm rests, stuffed with foam rubber, fell off.

The upper ball joints began to wobble.

The idler arms wore out.

The radiator became clogged.

The brakes began leaking.

The left rear axle bearing burned out.

The tires wore out (again).

The plastic steering wheel got two cracks in it.

The rear view mirror kept sagging.

The front joints began to squeak.

The windshield molding began to leak.

We almost bought a new car. But patience won out. Each repair was dutifully made. And when they were all finally done, it was as if we had driven over the crest of a hill. It was easier after that to put away thoughts of dealer showrooms.

When two valves burned out and the engine needed a new head at 82,100 miles, we fixed it.

When the brakes needed relining for the first time at 92,205 miles, we fixed them.

When the valves needed replacing again at 122,000 miles, we fixed them again.

And when the valves went for the third time, and the head needed planing, and a lot of other little parts had to be put in at 170,740 miles, we fixed them even though it cost $450.

Even the latest brake job, $350 worth, hasn't completely discouraged us. But can anyone do it?

Anyone who might be thinking about going for 100,000-plus miles should be aware of the drawbacks, however.

First, there's the problem of the Joneses. They are always buying new cars. And some of those cars look as if they would be a lot of fun. Like the time they came home with that new little Alfa-Romeo convertible from Italy.

Then there was the time we went to Florida in the summer. It must have been 100 degrees in the sun, and 120 degrees in our car. It was tempting after that to get a new car with air conditioning. Instead, we've taken an easier route. We just stay out of Florida from May to October.

There's also a space problem. Families have a way of growing. Children. Dogs. Car-pooling to school. And a Mustang is pretty small. So a station wagon has been, and remains, a strong possibility. Meanwhile, our trips include a cartop carrier.

Finally, it also helps to know something about engines and transmissions and ball joints and that sort of thing.

Eventually, just about everything goes wrong. A reasonable acquaintance with the underside of the hood helps during the many chats you'll have with your favorite mechanic. How safe is it?

A safety official with Chrysler Corporation says:

''With thorough inspection, service, and replacement of any deteriorated components, there is no reason why a high-mileage car could not be driven. I'd feel safe in such a car.''

Chrysler particularly mentions close inspection of:

* Brakes, including flexible brake hoses and master brake cylinder.

* Steering system.

* Suspension system.

An official from the American Motors Corporation offers some additional detail:

''Specifically, steering gears should be checked for lash; steering linkage ball joints should be checked for looseness; suspension system ball joints should be checked for looseness or wear; suspension rubber bushings should be checked for cracks or wear; wheel bearings should be checked for distress; all brake hydraulic lines and connections should be checked for signs of leaks or corrosion; brake master cylinder and wheel cylinder rubber parts should be checked for condition, and brake lines and brake drums should be inspected for surface conditions.''

An official from General Motors adds: Don't forget the tires. Are there any tricks?

Long life begins the day a car is purchased.

The first thing done to our Mustang was to have it thoroughly rust-proofed. That investment has been worth every penny. Particularly important is rustproofing the underside of the car - fenders, body, etc. Newer methods also treat parts that are out-of-sight, such as the inside of doors. Are there any tricks

Over the years, the Mustang paint-job has been waxed twice a year, in the spring and fall. As a result, the car has never been re-painted, and still looks reasonably good. The fight against rust, however, is slowly being lost on the rear fenders.

A number of people who have kept their cars over 100,000 miles also seem to have one other common trait: they are fanatics about maintenance.

Most stick religiously to service schedules for things like oil changes, chassis lubrication, cooling system service, and tuneups.

Oil changes are obviously the critical factor for engines. One small example might illustrate this.

When our Mustang (which gets frequent oil changes) was getting new valves two years ago, the master mechanic who removed the head commented:

''This engine is remarkable. The cylinders and other parts look as if they have only 30,000 to 35,000 miles on them. You'd never know they have 70,000.''

He was stunned to learn that there weren't just 70,000, but 170,000 miles on the engine.

My own, three-part ''Secret to Long Engine Life'' is:

1. Pick the best oil you can find and stick with it. I use a brand-name 10W- 40 weight oil.

2. Change the oil frequently. I change it every 3,000 miles -- twice as often as the manufacturer recommends. And I always change the filter at the same time.

3. Drain the crankcase oil from the engine for a long time -- overnight, if possible. This way you get out more of the old oil, which is saturated with dirt and acid.

All of this takes a little extra work and attention. But it's probably one reason I still seldom add oil between changes. And it can help your car hold its value, as I was reminded recently.

When we bought the Mustang, it cost $2,575 to drive it out of the showroom. The other day, our mechanic told us he could easily find us a buyer, if we were interested, who would be willing to pay around $2,500 for it. But we probably won't sell. Our daughter is insisting we save it for her when she goes to college -- in about seven years.

What was fixed -- and what it cost *

Mileage Part Cost** 22,000 Starter Warranty 45,500 Fan, PS belts $10 48,500 Transmission Warranty 49,000 Tires 75 58,800 Shock absorbers 35 63,119 Ball joints 40 63,119 Idler arm 15 63,230 Master brake cylinder 15 64,000 Radiator service 25 64,500 Brakes 5 64,500 Tires 56 64,830 Radio repairs 12 65,000 Arm rests Gift 68,000 Fan belt 2 72,800 Wheel bearing 10 74,300 Muffler, tailpipes 45 75,235 Tires 84 77,000 Battery 27 82,100 Valves, head, carb 182 82,82,187 Tire 29 91,800 Minor repairs 3 92,205 Flasher unit 4 92,300 Brakes 52 94,500 New dashboard wiring 23 99,222 Exhaust pipe 12 108,000 Rubber window molding 8 109,150 Brake lights 15 110,000 Tires 58 118,000 Universal joint 35 122,000 Valves, water pump 165 122,000 Radiator 40 126,870 Windshield wipers 5 128,133 Fan belt 2 131,063 Gasoline line leak 10 131,200 New headlight 3 140,460 Front end work 55 145,450 Brakes 85 151,800 Battery 39 153,600 Turn-signal wiring 53 159,000 New headlight 3 159,450 Universal bearings 30 159,500 New muffler Free*** 159,800 Tires 120 160,000 Front end work 20 161,900 Brakes 20 170,740 Valves, etc. 450 174,000 Brakes 15 176,920 New headlight 3 177,000 New fan belt 2 177,314 Brakes 15 185,230 Brake overhaul 340 185,230 Shock absorbers 35 196,660 Front end work 114 197,000 Body work (rust) 85 201,400 Voltage regulator 10 TOTAL COST: $2,596 * Overall costs do not regular maintenance such as oil changes, new sparkplugs, filters, etc. ** Some prices are approximate. *** ''Lifetime guarantee'' muffler wore out, was replaced free.

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