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Mr. Green Car: Tips to keep your car running for a million miles

November 18, 2009

By Allen Penticoff

Free-lance Writer

It was not that long ago that driving a car until it had 100,000 miles was considered remarkable. By that mileage, it would be worn out completely and was in need of being sent to the salvage yard—or donated to some poor teen-ager in the family. With today’s modern technologies, engines, suspensions, transmissions and all the other assorted bits and pieces can go on for decades of reliable, trouble-free service.

Key to longevity of your vehicle is cleanliness. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat again: wash your car often. Underneath and under the hood—particularly if exposed to road salt. Another key to keeping a vehicle a long time is just deciding that you want to. Take as the extreme example: 17-year-old Frank Hartmaier of Schwenksville, Pa., who bought a Ford Model A Roadster brand-new in 1929 for $560. Unlike most of us and our first cars, Hartmaier kept it for 80 years and drove it for more than 400,000 miles, setting the record for having the longest continually-owned motor vehicle. Hartmaier was still driving his Model A on long road trips to events well into his 80s. Hartmaier has passed on at age 97 in 2009, but his Roadster still lives—in the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pa. The full story about this man and his car is on their Web site, www.aacamuseum.org/events/newsstory.aspx?id=187.

To be sure, Mr. Hartmaier took good care of his car. But he didn’t drive it much compared to some other folks. Like Irv Gordon, a retired New York school teacher who has the Guinness record for most miles driven in one car (non-commercial)—more than 2.6 million miles as of 2007! Gordon has been driving his cherry red 1966 Volvo P1800 on lots of trips (80,000 to 100,000 miles per year). He’s been planning to hit 3 million miles—if his own body will hold out.

Sweden’s Saab offers a free car if you manage to drive your Saab more than 1 million miles—as Peter Gilbert, a Wisconsin insurance salesman, did in his 1989 Edwardian Gray Saab 900 SPG. Gilbert’s Saab, still with original engine and turbocharger, has been retired to a museum. A Web search on either man will turn up their stories.

Having a Nordic car is not essential to driving a vehicle a million miles. Nearly any vehicle has the potential, but Mercedes and Volvo have special grill badges and stickers for high-mileage cars. Indeed, my own 1992 Honda Civic VX has more than 187,000 miles, and when I run into others with the same car (none of whom is willing to sell theirs, either), they say “Oh, yours is just broken in. Mine has 300,000 miles.”

Indeed, with routine maintenance, modern cars and light trucks should last 200,000 miles without breaking a sweat. Secret to this longevity, in addition to cleanliness, is frequent attention to lubricants. Not only should you change your engine oil, but also attention needs to be paid to the transmission and differential. Many people never change the transmission fluid/oil. This is a big mistake. Transmission repairs are expensive, and much of the problems they have arise from lack of clean lubricants—or lack of fluid at all. When was the last time you checked your transmission fluid level? Do you know where to check that—or how? It does not take much of a leak over years of hidden service for the transmission or differential to lose all its fluid.

This is an instance where taking your car to a mechanic or lube shop for engine oil changes pays off. They most certainly will check your fluids. They want to know if you need any service—so they can earn some more money. At least they are checking it—you probably don’t.

Neither transmission fluid/oil nor differential oil disappears through consumption. It departs via a leak. Find out where it is leaking. Sometimes a leak is not serious and simply topping off the fluid/oil is all that is needed. However, leaks are bad on the environment, as the oils are washed into our watersheds whenever it rains. I would not change the fluid any more often than is recommended in the owner’s manual. And no less, either. If a leak must be fixed, then you’ll probably end up with all new fluid/oil. Make a record of when this happened and reset your next change to occur from that mileage/date. Transmissions and differentials are a good place to use synthetic oils, where appropriate. The changes are so infrequent that the extra cost is insignificant for the miles more service the components will provide.

Same goes for radiator fluids. Regular replacement of the fluid is recommended. Corrosive chemicals build up that attack seals and other components. For something that only needs to be done every few years, it is worth it if you are planning to keep your vehicle a long time.

To drive a million miles, decide to do it, treat your vehicle like a baby, fix what is broken early, and keep clean lubricants in it. Your reward is saving money, and lowering your carbon footprint for not needing a new vehicle.

From the November 18-24, 2009 issue

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