Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Thrift Week Day Five: Car Talk

Cars are a big deal in the United States. Although a study last year noted that driving has been on the decline in recent years, figures from the World Bank show that this country still has 797 cars for every 1,000 Americans; the only country that has us beat is the tiny Republic of San Marino, which actually has more cars than people. Owning all those cars is expensive, too. According to this article at Autos.com, the cost of owning a car averages somewhere between $8,000 and $9,700 per year, including the car payment, gas, insurance, and maintenance. That's 15 to 18 percent of the median household income. With so many American households strapped for cash in the wake of a long recession and a sluggish recovery, it sure would be nice if someone could help us all figure out how to spend less of our money on buying and maintaining our cars.

Well, have no fear: Click and Clack are here. Otherwise known as Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of the popular NPR series "Car Talk" published their first book (also called Car Talk, which makes it easy to remember) in 1991. Its stated goal is to help people save money on their cars in a couple of ways:
We hope to tell you enough about how your car works so that (A) you won't get ripped off by unscrupulous or unknowledgeable repair shops; (B) you won't make bad (or at least uninformed) decisions about how to treat your car; and (C) you won't dump your car prematurely. ("We will junk no car before its time.")
The book starts out with a chapter called "The Big Picture," which explains, in essence, what makes the car go. The chapters that follow focus on specific parts of the car and the things that can go wrong with them, such as the front end, the brakes, and the fuel system. Each of these sections is illustrated with real-life examples picked up from the radio show, which, as Click and Clack note, not only "enable us to draw on our vast wealth of practical experience" but also "make it a hell of a lot easier to write the book." The final chapters of the book are about how to decide when it's time to trade in a car (with a strong emphasis on the benefits of keeping an old one) and how to keep your existing car running longer. Click and Clack argue—and have the figures to back it up—that it is almost always cheaper to buy a used car, or to keep an old one, than to buy a new one. They do note that buying (or keeping) an older car means trading off "comfort, luxury, convenience, and reliability" for more money, but they also point out that the money you save by buying a heap can get you such goodies as a two-week vacation every year...or a year off from work every ten years.

Now, admittedly, this book is now nearly 25 years old, so the Magliozzi brothers' figures are now a bit out of date. Several other parts of the book also reveal its age, such as the comparison between front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive, which you hardly ever see on a new car anymore. The book also doesn't cover such recent developments as hybrid technology. But the basic workings of a car haven't changed much in the past 25 years, nor have the basic economics of buying a new car as opposed to keeping an old one. True, there are plenty of other books on car repair out there, most of which are a lot more up-to-date than this one. Car Talk, however, has three big advantages over most of those others:
  1. The purpose of the book isn't to teach you how to fix your own car; it's to teach you when you need to fix your car. Other books give you a lot of fiddly little details, which can be overwhelming for newbies; Click and Clack give you the big picture in a small package.
  2. While some car-repair books include chapters on how to keep your car running longer (which includes driving it carefully as well as maintaining it scrupulously), this is the only one I've seen that includes information about buying a car as well. In general, there are books about buying a car and there are books about maintaining a car, and neither one goes into much detail about the crucial decision whether you need a new car or not.
  3. Finally, this is the only car book out there that combines useful information with the Magliozzis' humorous writing style. It's goofy, corny, and even obnoxious to some folks, but it makes this book the only car guide you're ever likely to sit down and reread just for fun.
Obviously, this book isn't for everyone. If you've never owned a car and have no intention of ever owning one, then you have no need for it. Conversely, if you're already a car expert and know all about how to fix cars and how to tell when one is no longer fixable, then there's nothing this book can teach you. But for everyone else who owns one of our country's 797 cars per thousand people and would like to have a handle on the basics of how it works and what to do when it doesn't, this book can help. It's no longer in print, but there are plenty of of secondhand copies at Amazon.com (just be careful not to order the audio version or the page-a-day calendar by mistake). If you're still not sure the book is a good investment for you, some of the information in it—plus a lot more that the book doesn't cover—can be found on the Car Talk website. The website doesn't discuss on the tradeoffs between buying a new car and maintaining an old one, though, so I'd consider it worth while to have a copy on the book and look on the website as a supplement to it.
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