Low-Mileage Classic Cars Are a Trap

Don't trust the odometer, or you could overpay for a money pit as deep as a 200,000-mile beater.
7,000-mile 1995 Toyota Supra
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The odometer is the simplest way to gauge the condition of a car. In theory, less use (lower miles) mean a car’s in better shape, and therefore worth paying more for. But contrary to popular belief, a low odometer reading can actually be a red flag, and not because of rollbacks. That’s because especially low mileage can (and probably does) mean the car has suffered from an entirely different kind of neglect, one that might make your shiny new purchase even pricier to get on the road than a well-traveled alternative.

It might surprise those of you who don’t own older cars, but all classic cars, even the reliable ones, need almost constant upkeep. Every single piece of a car, from the chassis down to the smallest screw or rubber plug, can degrade. Decay. Corrode. Seize, strip, bend, crack, or break. As the miles add up, service intervals can coincide, and you can find yourself stacking several minor maintenance items on top of big ones. Long-term failures of items that you never imagined wearing out can also arrive unannounced. Before you know it, a clunk can turn into a front suspension rebuild, and a leak can cascade into a full engine-out job.

Hank O'Hop's 1969 Dodge Charger project
Hank O’Hop’s 1969 Dodge Charger project—the quintessential opposite of a “no-miles preservation” (and better for it). Hank O’Hop

In theory, this can all be avoided by just buying a classic without many miles on it. It hasn’t been through these wear cycles, the thousands of hours of idling in traffic jams, hailstorms, salty roads, potholes, or the other miseries a daily driver endures. Maybe it’s been kept in a garage all this time, perhaps a climate-controlled one. Maybe it’s even been kept in a literal bubble. But make no mistake, these are gilded cages, and cars that have been sitting are deteriorating all the same.

Cars don’t just degrade from the outside in—it can also happen in reverse. Old coolant becomes acidic and can eat away at metal, rubber, and gasket material from inside your engine. Brake fluid absorbs water, which can corrode your master cylinder, brake lines, and even calipers. (That can make your brakes seize and drag.) Rubber used in critical places throughout your car can dry rot and can become brittle. Gasoline goes bad in a matter of months, losing octane and potentially leaving varnish inside your fuel system. At a minimum, that’ll complicate starting the engine again, and at worst it can clog it all up.

The net result of all this is that while a pristine classic can look like it’s ready to transport you back to the simpler time when it was built, it might just be a good-looking problem child. I’ve seen multiple examples recently, one of which is my imported JDM Mitsubishi.

1996 Mitsubishi Chariot Resort Runner GT
1996 Mitsubishi Chariot Resort Runner GT. James Gilboy

It was in as good of shape as you could ask of a 28-year-old family car. It had less than 100,000 miles, one past owner, and had been kept in a carport most of its life. It was well-maintained, had a good body, and almost no modifications. Still, I hadn’t owned it for 36 hours before the consequences of age (and sitting for several months) reared their ugly head.

While halfway through driving it home across the country, I found my brakes had seized and been dragging, scraping the brake pads down to metal. While replacing them, I found the transfer case had a small leak out its rear seal. The archaic Blizzaks it was rolling on were literally crumbling, and later on, I’d pay to replace the timing belt not a second too soon (it was cracking, and the tensioner was weeping). I was able to replace its leaky valve cover gasket myself, but there’s still more that needs fixing. I’d like to get the engine mounts and clutch fluid done before a family road trip this Summer. The failing shocks, old wiring insulation, and failed steering rack bellows will probably have to wait though.

New Mexico garage-kept 1989 Toyota MR2 Supercharged
New Mexico garage-kept 1989 Toyota MR2 Supercharged. Jacob Ontiveros

An even better example that didn’t grace my driveway was the 1989 Toyota MR2 Supercharged that floated past me in an owners’ group on Facebook. It was a New Mexico car that had just 46,000 miles, and had spent most of its life in a garage. It might be one of the most rust-free first-gen MR2s on the planet at this point. But its new owner sagely planned to trailer it home, as it had sat for two years, and they wanted to know what it might need to get on the road. The to-do list that myself and other commenters put together underlines just how much work even a seemingly perfect car can need.

Because you might not know when the consumables were last done, it’s wise to just reset the clock on all of them. That means all fluids, from the engine to transmission and supercharger oils, coolant, brake and clutch fluids, and fuel. All rubber needs examination if not imminent replacement—so, tires, belts, hoses, and suspension bushings. Things like engine mounts and water pump seals might be going bad too. Filters are all worth doing (intake, fuel, oil cabin air)—the paper and foam there can degrade over time, too. Oh, and a battery if it wasn’t on a tender.

1996 Honda Integra Type R
1996 Honda Integra Type R. James Gilboy

Even with all that done, the end may not be in sight. Random failures are pretty much a way of life with old cars. Maybe rodents ate the wiring insulation. You might’ve missed a rusty hardline. Seals can start seeping only after you put on some miles. Or if it’s British or Italian, it’ll just malfunction for no good reason. When you get down to it, the best reason to splash out on a low-mileage car is for the convenience of getting a good body and interior. If convenience isn’t as important, a full rotisserie restoration can sometimes be the economical option, and that’s saying something with what cars can cost at auction these days.

Look at it this way: If I were given the choice of driving one of two nearly identical classic cars across the country tomorrow—one a 100-mile garage queen, the other a 150,000-mile ex-daily—I’d take the latter any day. Keeping a car moving requires a minimum of maintenance; leaving one in a vault, technically, requires none. If a car isn’t being driven regularly, you can’t trust that it’s being properly cared for. Being driven, on the other hand, requires being drivable.

254-mile McLaren F1
254-mile McLaren F1. RM Sotheby’s

Of course, none of this matters if you aren’t buying a car to drive it. To some people, a classic is merely something to look at, or squat on as an investment. That 254-mile McLaren F1 that gets passed around like a blunt is a prime example. Its value is no longer intrinsic to being one of the greatest road cars ever built, but fully extrinsic as a low-mile specimen thereof. Whether it’s in any shape to drive comes second to the appearance of being unsullied. In other words, that 254-mile odometer is bait to lure someone into overpaying for a car they imagine is a turnkey time capsule. If things turn out otherwise for the buyer, then the onus is on them to maintain the image so as not to lose millions of dollars.

In the case of something that valuable, fluids are likely being preemptively monitored and tires are occasionally spun by somebody’s staff. But this car is in another kind of trap—with so much of the vehicle’s value tied up in its odometer reading, you can’t drive it without costing yourself a fortune. That’s more of a factor for people who buy super-clean classic Hondas and Toyotas. This 4,900-mile Honda Prelude got bid to $60,000 looked very clean, but as soon as it’s driven with any regularity, it just becomes an old Honda.

In reality, whether it’s a humble ’80s Toyota or McLaren’s seminal hypercar, you can’t really tell jack about a classic car just by looking at the odometer. Audit the maintenance records yourself, or run the risk of replacing lots of plastic and rubber. At the end of the day, a classic car’s value is only as great as the paper trail it holds down. Our imaginations merely justify the rest.

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: james@thedrive.com