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Open Diff: Do you factor in future repair costs when shopping for a classic car?

Published in blog.hemmings.com

3.0-liter flat-six from a 1980 Porsche 911SC. Photo by Terry Shea.

“So how come a guy as German as you doesn’t drive a Porsche?” executive editor Richard Lentinello asked. “Easy,” I replied, “even if I could afford to buy an air-cooled 911, I couldn’t afford its care and feeding.” A man has to know his mechanical and financial limitations, and performing a major repair on something as potentially expensive as a 911 exceeds my own.

To be clear, I grew up turning wrenches, working in the family service station during summers and vacation breaks from junior high on. I’ve wrenched on plenty of my own cars and motorcycles, often under suboptimal conditions. There was the time I changed a water pump on my ’77 Scirocco on the coldest day of the year, in a Boulder, Colorado, apartment parking lot, or the time I re-jetted four carburetors during a windstorm, in another apartment parking lot. Even today, I much prefer to do my own repair on vehicles out of warranty, simply because I know the job will be done right the first time.

But there are jobs I’ll no longer tackle willingly. In my younger days, installing a clutch would have involved a few friends, a pizza or two, and beer. Today, most friends with the skills to help replace a clutch live hundreds of miles away, and have family obligations of their own. None of us are as flexible as we were in our 30s or 40s, and the appeal of free beer and pizza isn’t what it once was. Now, I’m more inclined to seek out a specialist shop for a job as labor-intensive as installing a new clutch, or replacing a convertible top, even if it means that funds have to be budgeted and accrued over time.

Which brings me back to the Porsche 911. Years ago, I had a conversation with another person employed in the publishing industry, whose magazine had just finished a major overhaul of an air-cooled 911’s flat-six engine, doing as much of the labor in-house as possible. Some of the replacement parts were provided by advertisers, and much of the specialist work farmed out to area shops was done at a discounted rate, out of professional courtesy. I couldn’t help asking what the out-of-pocket total was, to which the reply was “about $8,000.”

For me, the answer may as well have been “about $80,000,” since neither amount was in the realm of the possible. Whatever disposable income I have these days is chewed up by the necessities of modern living (cell phone bills, car payments, cable bills, etc.), and owning a home is a never-ending black hole of debt. My wife and I are on house number five now, and it seems as if there’s always a new roof, furnace, septic system or other major repair looming on the horizon. Have I mentioned how expensive it is to heat a home throughout a Vermont winter?

I have friends who see the automotive glass as perpetually half-full, and if a good deal arose on a 911 SC (or similar collector car) they’d buy it, mechanical consequences and potential bankruptcy be damned. I’m too busy adding up costs in my head (“It’ll need new tires, brakes, and struts, and is that oil I’m smelling in the exhaust?), since one of the consequences of being German is having backup plans for your contingency plans.

Where are you on this scale? Do you buy when the opportunity arises, without overthinking the consequences, or do you worry about what might be instead? What’s been your biggest surprise in buying an owning a classic car, both positive and negative?