Letter Re: Another Perspective on Vehicles for Prepared Families

We’ve read your blog pretty faithfully for some time now and found it extremely good in all regards.

While I’m actually writing regarding vehicles, I’d like to share for just a moment how preparedness saved our behinds recently. This year we have had a string of minor events that collectively should have put us in the poor house. Broken bones, loss of a tenant and friend to a heart issue, surgery, car accident that totaled the vehicle – right in the middle of the other mentioned things – and a few other items too. Had we not maintained a small garden and some “stocks on hand” in our “urban” small town home, we could have lost our home and sanity to boot. Yes, it can happen to you, it happened to me, and it’s going to happen to others too. Christian Charity helped us, and we honor that by being charitable at every opportunity! Praise to The Most High God!

I don’t recall seeing any thoughts on types and methodology towards automobiles themselves lately. Here’s a (hopefully few) brief thoughts on the autos we rely on every day, and how to optimize our driving experiences, no matter the conditions that surround us.

First, I highly recommend getting out of car (or truck) payments as quickly as possible. Fixing up your auto of choice for bugging out will do no good if your finances get hosed, and the repo man shows up. Also, not having a car payment, we can afford a few more dollars for gas and maintenance, and still save money. Not requiring full coverage insurance because of a car payment helps even more.

Second, know your vehicle! Even if you’re totally inept at mechanical stuff, a basic set of tools and a good manual will do wonders. Keep good records of breakdowns, installed parts, maintenance, and usage (has your teenage son been hot rodding around town?). Knowing your car’s quirks, needs, and limitations are very important. Keep the maintenance up, and if you have the ability, do your own work. That stripped bolt that your mechanic didn’t tell you about may come back to haunt you. Research your type of car/truck on the Internet and join a forum for advice, “tips and tricks”, and “life expectancies” of all the sub-assemblies (engine/tranny, suspension, electricals, etc..). Our flavor of Ford Explorers have a bad rap for transmission problems, but few people actually ever have their tranny serviced. Maintenance is key to longevity. A well maintained used auto will usually serve you well. The previously mentioned Internet research and forums are great for those little tips/tricks to maximize your vehicle, what works and what doesn’t, and how to overcome many problems cost effectively. Several common Explorer problems are cheap fixes, instead of expensive parts – when you find out the “trick”. Predictive maintenance is a handy thing too. Realizing that the alternator is original on a 1998 whatever-car merits checking it over good, or replacing it and shelving the old one as “backup spare part”, for example.

Third, selecting a new purchase. I’m generally writing in the regard of those who already own something they want to keep, but we should consider those who are looking to buy something better and/or more reliable. Mr. Rawles has recommended a few very durable autos, older diesel Mercedes wagons for one I think. Good choices, but I wonder about parts availability. My old 1978 F150 4×4 is a great truck, but sadly parts are becoming harder to get. I actually prefer the most common SUV for the area that you live in, in my case Ford Explorers. (I’ll admit a little bias, I was raised in a Ford family) Parts are plentiful, and generally not expensive. Again – Maintenance is key to longevity.

When looking at a new purchase, please consider availability of parts in your area, ease of maintenance and repair, and expected life cycle. How the vehicle in question was treated before you own it is a crap shoot, but a shoddy interior and greasy under the hood or underside are tip offs to a bad experience. So is unevenly worn tires, drips under car/truck on the pavement, or hanging wires under the dash. Many youngsters have damaged wires in the dash trying to hook up a fancy stereo, for example. A glove box full of receipts for parts is a plus to me. It shows that those parts don’t need replacing soon, and I know what’s been done lately. Is the current owner friendly and willing to let you have a mechanic look it over? Often that willingness on the sellers behalf is enough to keep me happy. Exercise some caution with modified vehicles, some folks do great installing a lift kit in a 4×4 truck, some don’t (for example). Engine mods can be tricky too. (Can you tell I’m a country boy?)

Fourth, commonality and spare parts. Although parts availability (from a store) was mentioned a bit, consider junk yards a second line of components. Further, if you find a cheap and complete car/truck of your year (or “generation”) with a bad motor or other issue(s), buy that puppy and park it out back – just for parts. Apartment dwellers wouldn’t fair well in this regard. About commonality, my gal and I drive the same model of SUV. She has a ’93 4×4 Explorer, mine is a ’92 (also 4×4). The parts donors are a ’92 (wrecked) and a ’95. The ’95 isn’t really all the same, but several parts have swapped well for us. ’91-’94 Explorers are common and swap parts extremely well. ’95 – ’01 Explorers look the same, but there’s enough changes over the years to make it a difficult call (motors, trannys, and other things). [JWR Adds: I do not recommend Ford Explorers made before 1995, because of their higher center of gravity, which means they have a much higher roll-over risk. Lift kits are definite no-no for 1994 and earlier Explorers! Also, if possible, try to find a “Flex Fuel” variant, so you can burn E85 ethanol as well as gasoline.] Of course, whatever your flavor of transportation, these principles apply. How many years was the auto in question produced in that configuration (or “generation”)? I’m mentioning the Ford Explorers not because I think they’re the “best”, they’re extremely common here. I worked an hour north of my home for awhile, and I hardly ever saw one there. Odd, but true. There were lots of Chevy Blazers and GMC Jimmys there though.

Yep – parts, I keep mentioning that. They wear out, they get broken and damaged. A stray bullet or even a rock off the road in a bad place (between a belt and pulley for example) can be a side of the road event. If you can’t fix it and find the parts, it’s a great big paperweight. I dare say I have more raw weight in parts than I do tools in my garage. Most breakdowns can be dealt with, after closing time at the parts house. When it’s vital to be able to go – I’m going!
Do you have a case of oil on hand? Filters? Anti-freeze? Transmission fluid? Brake fluid?
Do you have these things at your retreat area?
Do you have a few dents and scratches on your ride? I leave them alone on mine. It adds to the “OPSEC“.

Obviously, gas (or diesel) might get in short supply in troubled times, but in the meantime we can optimize what we’ve got and save some cash.