The Perception of Old

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If you’re serious about getting ahead financially you probably don’t want to be driving a new car. Most self-made millionaires, the ones that had to work for their money, drive older cars. It’s common knowledge yet most people prefer a short-term thrill of buying a new car over a long-term reward of becoming financially independent. Where I live, the majority of cars on the road look like they just came off a showroom floor. Sure, you see cars from the 90’s and the early 2000’s but it seems that they are a minority nowadays.

I totally get the allure of a new car – I’m guilty of buying one myself! I like Shiny New Things as much as the next guy, but luckily I made a mistake of buying a new car just once and haven’t sinned in this way in over a decade. All of my vehicles since I sold that shiny Jeep Wrangler (cars, motorcycles, scooters) have been bought “used”, or “pre-owned” as they are now advertised.

Owning 2 cars that are worth $9,000 combined (and dropping!) is liberating. Financially, there are obvious advantages: more money in the market as opposed to a depreciating asset, less personal property taxes, much cheaper insurance, much more reasonable cost per mile…

Then there are significant emotional advantages. Through the years of car ownership I discovered that a first scratch hurts a lot more than each subsequent one. The older the car the less I care when the inevitable happens. It’s just the way it is.

If I backed my brand new MINI Cooper into my wife’s brand new Mercedes-Benz C-class I would be sick to my stomach for days. I’d be a nightmare to be around because I’d be so pissed off with myself. But when I did just that while backing out of the garage, my emotional state remained exactly as before the accident.

Why is that? Simple – my car is 7 years old and my wife’s Benz is 13 years old. Each has its own battle scars over the combined 200,000 miles… so who cares about another small scratch or a dent?

My mom drives a 1999 Infiniti G20. The paint is starting to peel in places and there’s a rust spot or three. According to kbb.com the car is worth $1,400 on Craigslist. But the drivetrain is strong and it’s got heated leather seats – what more do you need? Do you think she cares when someone bumps her car during an unfortunate parallel parking maneuver? That is liberating!

Naturally, there are downsides. All three older cars in our family require a bit more maintenance than say a 2016 Volvo that my sister is leasing. My mom really wants a new car, especially every time something breaks. I’ve been able to talk her out of buying a new car for many years now, but it’s getting harder. I still think that “Infiniti” stands for the number of miles one can drive it, but my mom is starting to disagree.

So how do you convince someone to hold on to their beater car? You create an illusion of a new car smell – figuratively speaking.

People like my mom approach cars in a completely different way than people like me. If a car looks old then it must be unreliable. She doesn’t care about a strong drivetrain or how these cars can go 250,000 miles with just regular maintenance.

My mom looks at the hazy yellow headlights on her Infiniti and feels that the car is old and thus not to be trusted on a 6-hour drive to visit her daughter. So she took a train this summer even though she actually enjoys driving long distance.

There is nothing wrong with riding a train instead of driving. I actually prefer that my mom takes a train since she’s getting up there in age – but that’s not the point. The point is that this emotional perception can force people into financially suicidal behavior, like buying a new car every 3 years.

So what do I do to fight the emotional perception of obsolescence? I engage in a low-effort high-impact trickery that may be described by some as polishing the turd. Now, I don’t agree with how that sounds but so be it.

The air conditioning in the Infiniti hasn’t worked in years. It’s hot down here but my mom didn’t seem to mind so we didn’t do anything about it. Then on one particularly hot day she said that it maybe time to buy a new car, since paying a garage for AC repairs in this old car is like flushing money down the drain.

Someone talking about committing a huge financial mistake quickly gets my attention. Probably the last thing my mom needs right now is a new car. I’m her accountant – I know.

I ordered an AC seal and recharge kit. I’ve used the same one previously to fix a small refrigerant leak on my other car and it worked great. After a 10-minute DIY the car was once again blowing ice-cold air. My mom was cool and happy and all conversations about needing a new car stopped…

Until she went for an oil change where they said the car won’t pass state inspection because of those foggy and hazy headlights. Once again I needed to act quickly in dealing with the emotional perception of obsolescence.   

First thing you do when faced with any car-related issue is Google a solution. Someone has fixed it, posted a DIY or created a YouTube video tutorial. Searching for a “DIY fix hazy, dull, cloudy, fogged headlight lenses” returned a couple of free options that I wanted to try.

A free headlight lens restoration kit with household products and my go-to Porter-Cable polisher:

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I used some toothpaste to clean and polish the yellow headlight lenses.  It sort of worked in a sense that the headlights were looking better than before but not nearly as clean and see-through as they could be.

Then I tried using some polishing compound I already had in my garage to see if it would restore the polycarbonate headlight lenses. The polishing compound did remove a bit more oxidation making the headlights a bit clearer and brighter but they still didn’t look right.

Applying a bit of carnauba gel wax improved things somewhat but the headlights were still cloudy enough that I couldn’t see the light bulbs inside.

After about an hour testing out these Internet DIY methods with mediocre results I decided it was time to try one of the commercially available headlight restoration kits that are marketed specifically to address this problem.  I ordered this Perfect Clarity Two Step kit and perhaps I got lucky picking the right one, but I’m very impressed with the results!

Here you can see how cloudy, hazy and faded the headlight lenses look after 17 years on the road:

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About 10 minutes of hand buffing (no need for the Porter-Cable polisher) with a pad provided with a kit and you have a lens that looks like this – the one on the right:

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Wash and dry the headlight and apply the clear coat provided in the kit and you get a lens that looks like this:

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Repeat on the other side and in under 30 minutes your car will look 10 years younger!

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I was so impressed with the restoration kit that I used it to clean and restore hazy lenses of a 2003 Mercedes-Benz C320. Based on how much is left in the bottles I’d say you should be able to restore 4 sets of headlights (8 headlight lenses in total).

Here is a before and after on a 13-year old Benz:

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When my mom saw the car she was extremely pleased with the results of this metamorphosis. Her 17-year old Infiniti looked great and thus no longer felt “broken”. Her car got a face lift that erased a decade worth of driving in a time it takes to watch an episode of Inside Edition.

If you have a car that feels old try giving it some TLC first. It might be all that you need to erase the perception of old and save you from making a really bad financial decision based purely on emotion.