You Can’t Make Your Car ‘Perfect,’ and You Won’t Keep It Forever
Doug DeMuro explains why the idea of keeping and maintaining a car forever doesn’t really make sense—financially or emotionally.
The worst decision I’ve ever made with a car. That’s a tough one, folks, and it’s not because I’ve got this whole car thing down to the point where everything I do is fantastically brilliant. On the contrary: I’ve made so many bad decisions with cars that there are times when I wonder if I’ve picked the wrong thing to be interested in, and if I should instead devote my life, my passion, and my YouTube channel to decorative drink coasters.
Editor's Note: Doug wrote this last year to answer the prompt "what's the worst decision you've made with a car" for a series. Since he's selling his 1994 Audi RS2 Avant this week, illustrating exactly the point made in this story, we're re-running it for those who missed it—and for those of us who still need to read these words of wisdom.
There was, for example, the time that a 17-year-old Doug was cited for going 76 mph in a 35 zone, which resulted in a 100-hour community service sentence that I served by scanning returned books at the library. Beep, boop, beep, boop, all day long at the library for weeks on end, simply because I had to find out what speed my 1996 Volvo 850 Turbo could reach in a tunnel. (Eighty-one, it turned out.)
Or how about the time that I wanted a Mercedes-Benz G500, but I was also 23, meaning I HAD TO HAVE IT RIGHT NOW—so I bought the closest one on Autotrader without any due diligence or inspection. It was perfectly shiny on top, but underneath it was so rusty that it looked like an artifact Robert Ballard brought back from the Titanic. I sold that to CarMax after about six weeks of ownership, and I lost $10,000.
I have a lot of these stories, and I’ve spent the last few days mulling over exactly which one to tell here, but I think I’ve finally zeroed in on it: The time I tried to make my 2007 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG Wagon perfect.
Before I explain why this was such a mistake, allow me to provide a little history here. When I graduated from college in 2010, I simultaneously accepted jobs working for Porsche Cars North America by day and writing articles for Autotrader on evenings and weekends. Putting the two jobs together earned me over $100,000 per year, which was more money than I could then fathom, as a 21-year-old whose primary source of wealth, up until that point, was a plastic card issued by my university that was refilled periodically by my parents so I could eat Froot Loops in the dining hall.
Another important point here: Back then I lived in Georgia, which had the incredible advantage of having no sales tax on private car sales. If you were an individual, and you bought a car from an individual, you paid no sales tax. And, dear reader, there is nothing on the planet more dangerous than a 21-year-old with newfound money who doesn’t have to pay taxes on his purchases.
As you can imagine, I cycled through cars at an unbelievable pace during this period: I had a 1993 Mercedes-Benz 500E for three months, a 2004 Cadillac CTS-V for five months, a 2006 Lotus Elise for six months. There were six weeks with the G500 and only a little longer with a 1998 BMW M3 sedan. It really was a fever dream of car purchases, fueled by low living expenses, this favorable tax law, and the reality of being 21. I had approximately the same level of mental fortitude as my dog, Noodle, whose only certainty in life is that he wants to come inside, roughly 24 seconds after you just put him out. Indeed, no matter what car I had just bought, I REALLY HAD TO HAVE a completely different car. RIGHT NOW!!!!!
At some point, I decided that I REALLY HAD TO HAVE a Mercedes-Benz AMG wagon. This was back in 2012, so there was only one generation of AMG wagon that I could reasonably afford–the W211 model, which was offered as the E55 AMG Wagon in 2005 and 2006, and the E63 AMG Wagon from 2007 to 2009. Mercedes-Benz had sold approximately 300 total across both models, and finding one was virtually impossible–but I did. I bought a 2007 AMG Wagon from a guy in Indiana who got so drunk the night before I arrived that he forgot to pick me up at the airport. Then, during my test drive, he preceded to lock himself out of his own house. These were red flags that should’ve told me “this isn’t the guy you want to buy an expensive, high-performance European used car from”–or, perhaps, “this person is about as trustworthy as a meerkat.” Sure, in retrospect, I SHOULD have figured that out. But you don’t understand: I REALLY HAD TO HAVE this car.
When I got home to Atlanta, I discovered that there were some flaws with my wagon–and this is where my bad decision really took form: I told myself that this time, with THIS car, I would own it forever. So I had to make it perfect. And I set out doing exactly that.
The tires on the car were fine. Good tread, decent brand, fine. But simply “fine” would not stand for my New Wagon That I Will Own Forever, so I replaced the tires with an expensive new set of Michelin Pilot Sports.
The brakes on the car were aging, but fine. AMG brakes from this era are incredibly expensive – even the regular steel ones. And I seem to remember the fronts alone cost as much as a cheap Craigslist beater–or at least what those once cost, before the chip shortage put the cost of a used Corolla at approximately the same level as getting an elevator installed in your home. Anyway, the brakes weren’t quite ready to go, but I had to make it perfect, this Wagon That I Will Own Forever – so I had them replaced.
There were a lot of things like this. Minor cosmetic imperfections were replaced and perfected. Anything with wear was eliminated, replaced, perfected. The very worst example was when I would accelerate in my Wagon That I Will Own Forever, I heard a small whine. Nothing major, almost completely imperceptible–the kind of thing where I would notice it, and my wife wouldn’t hear a peep, and it would eventually create a rift in our relationship so large that it would lead to a Seinfeld-style breakup. (“She didn’t hear the noise, Jerry! Do you believe it?”)
But I noticed it, so I had the differential replaced. The entire differential. This was like four grand, but remember, folks: this isn’t just any car. This is a SPECIAL car. This is the Wagon That I Will Own Forever. When I got the car back after the differential replacement, the whine was still there – but SLIGHTLY quieter. At the time, a huge victory.
Two things happened next. One, as I kept replacing stuff, as I kept pouring money into the Wagon That I Will Own Forever, it … kept breaking. This was not Mercedes-Benz’s finest era of quality. And at the same time I was dumping money into my “just a few more months and it’ll be perfect” E63 AMG Wagon, the check engine light would go on. Some sensor would fail. A window motor would stop working. So as I was trying to make this 70,000-mile used car “perfect,” it was simultaneously trying to do the exact opposite, like a petulant child who wants to go to bed, but now that he knows YOU also want him to go to bed, he’s going to find out what happens when you un-roll the toilet paper down the stairs.
And that’s the first lesson I learned here, folks: your aging used car will never be perfect, so stop trying to make it so. I probably dumped $12,000 into my AMG Wagon over the course of a year, and it was NEVER perfect. And even if you do somehow attain that dream of perfection, you’ll get to a point where you won’t actually want to use the car, because it’s then too perfect. I have friends like this. Days on end spent washing, waxing, polishing, replacing, refinishing, reupholstering … and when it comes time to head out to the canyons, they’re afraid to actually drive the car. “No, you go ahead, have fun!” they say. “I’ll join the next drive.” But they never do, because their car is too perfect – and the only true satisfaction they get is pulling into the garage after cars and coffee, knowing the car has made it through an outing unscathed. And then they do a full paint correction.
The second lesson I learned here, though, is a more obvious one to me now that I’ve grown up a bit: there’s probably no such thing as a car you will keep forever. Now, this is the internet, and so I know some guy out there has a 1936 Hupmobile he bought from Jimmy Smith’s Hupmobile Emporium in Salinas, Kansas, in the summer of 1935, and he’s kept it all these years, and he’s going to figure out how to use a computer, and set up an e-mail address, and sign up for social media, just to send me a tweet telling me I’m wrong.
Yes, there are exceptions. But generally speaking, for the vast majority of enthusiasts and normal people alike, that Car You Will Own Forever? You will not own it forever.
I’ve lost track of how many car enthusiasts have come up to me at events, how many people I’ve met on the street, how many friends I’ve talked to, who tell me they have some special car they are NEVER GOING TO SELL, a car they will keep until they die, a car they will pass along to their children, and then I’ll talk to them a year later, and guess what? That was actually two cars ago, and oh, they never said they’d keep it FOREVER, I must’ve misremembered. That car? Forever? Nahhhh. The Toyota dealer gave them a great trade offer on a TRD Pro, so they traded it in. But oh, by the way, the TRD Pro? Now THAT, I’m keeping forever.
Well, folks, I’m here to tell you: it ain’t happening. There’s no such thing as “forever” when you’re a car enthusiast who’s been given the fantastic gift of depreciation–God’s consolation prize for the cost of maintenance and repairs. Your dream car that may be unattainable now will be in your price range in four years–and there’s another dream car coming down the pike after that. Two of the four fun cars I have sitting in my garage right now, I bought from guys who told me they thought they’d never sell.
So, here’s the worst decision I’ve ever made with a car: dumping money into a car and trying to make it perfect because I believed I would own it forever. In the case of my E63 AMG Wagon, “forever” turned out to be less than a year, and my total loss was around $16,000, most of which came from replacing and fixing things that didn’t really need replacement or fixing, all in the pursuit of perfection.
These days, of course, I regret all that. Now I actively try to keep a few flaws in my cars, just so I know they’ll never be completely perfect. And it seems like a good idea, right? This is a solid plan! Don’t focus on perfect. You won’t keep the car forever. Just enjoy it as it sits, use it, drive it, have fun with it!
I bet you’re sitting there nodding. I bet you’re sitting there in agreement, with a smile on your face, your opinion completely changed on this issue. I bet you’re thrilled at this newfound perspective.
I bet you will close this page and go right back to searching for that missing cupholder insert for the rear middle seat, which was only offered on Special Edition models during the first half of the 2003 model year.
I don’t blame you, though. You’re going to own this car forever.