Distance on an Old Car

A lot of times Tom and Ray always ask someone with an old car how far they are planning on traveling with said car. I know sometimes that’s because it can break down after so many miles; but what is it exactly that causes those parts to fail, and why are they less likely to fail over short distances? Is it heat building up over so many miles Or are they just simply making sure you’re not going somewhere far from home? What could it be? Just a fun question I would like the answer to. Any and all comments are appreciated.


Usually it’s someone calling in asking if it’s safe to take an old car on a long trip, because they’re worried about breaking down far from home. An old car is probably just as likely to break down on a short trip as on a long trip, but breaking down on a long trip is much more inconvenient.

All things fail with age. Short drives put less stress on worn parts. If something is going to fail it would stink if it fails far from home. If the car has been well maintained, belts, hoses, fluids… You are more likely to be able to make the long journey.

I think you missed their point. Usually this discussion involves taking a trip with an older car. Their point is that there is no more likelihood of failure on a long trip than there is on multiple short trips that add up to the longer trip.

The risk of failure always adds an element of excitement to the trip. I am always amused by these calls as I have a long history of taking long trips in cars that are way older and have a lot more miles on them, and I never give it a second thought, and so far, so good.

My riskiest trip was in a 61 Fiat Cabriolet. That was the forerunner to the Spyder. It had a history of blowing head gaskets about every 600 miles and on a couple occasions, doing even more damage. Anyway I went home on leave with the intent of driving the car back to my next duty station and I found the engine in pieces and all the required new parts at the parts house waiting for me to pick them up and pay for them, courtesy of my brother.

I put the engine back together and proceeded to take a 2000 mile cross country trip. It was a very exciting and memorable trip to say the least, I should have kept a diary. Blew the engine about an hour after arriving at my duty station. Got it running again, took a few local drives with it and the flywheel came off. That was the last time I drove it.

Had I known what a Belville washer was at the time, I may not have had as much trouble with it.

Its like an old bathroom. The toilet gets clogged. Pipes start leaking. Shower breaks. Lines get clogged. Walls get cracked. There is always repair. But if you buy a new house, the bathroom last two years before it needs repair. Or you can break your old bathroom and overhaul it and build new and restore it. This is exactly like an old car. You never know when a part is about to break. As with new, it will last two years before needing any repair.

Tonight’s episode of Fast N Loud, in which the Aussies drove an ancient Pontiac Bonneville cross country and broke down multiple times, is a good example of the fun to be had, and the way to make friends with several mechanics and tow truck drivers…good thing Richard told them the warranty would expire as soon as they drove it off the lot…

Just for fun I made a short list of car failures during a trip at least 100 miles from home and also close to home.

Failures far from home:

  1. Rear wheel bearing on a rear driver developed a loud noise. I had to get it repaired at a Chevrolet dealer in a small town along the way, I stayed overnight in a motel.
  2. Water pump developed an obvious leak. I made it to my destination; I had my tools with me, got a pump from the local Chevrolet dealer and installed the new pump.
  3. Relay type voltage regulator failed in Boston while on vacation. I had a spare as it had happened before; one of the contacts developed a “whisker”. I changed the regulator on a side street.
  4. Thermostatic controlled radiator cooling fan control module on a motorhome failed; would not shut off the fan at freeway speeds; made a lot of noise and made me fear for the load on the fanbelt which also ran the alternator and water pump. I took the module off and the fan with it and finished the trip. Got a new module at a car parts store for $60 and all was well.

Failures close to home:

  1. Tiny, fingertip size sintered bronze ball fuel filter on the carburetor plugged up while on the freeway. I suspected fuel starvation and took a look at the filter; blew off enough of the dirt to get going again. Had my tools along.
  2. One roller in a front wheel bearing of a rear driver suddenly crushed; made a loud ka-Whump every time the wheel turned. It also happened on the freeway but I was able to make it home where I could replace it.
  3. Rear wheel bearing in a rear driver developed a pit in the outer race after hauling a heavy load of green firewood in a small station wagon. It made a strange sound that was difficult to identify regarding its cause and location.

From these experiences, if I were to take my old car around the world, I would bring along a few parts including a fuel filter, a spare water pump, a spare alternator and before the trip I would not have previously driven around bumpy and other corners too fast or have overloaded the car so as to stress wheel bearings.

It is good to use a car that is a popular model with plenty of dealers available to help you feel good about your trip in an old car. That precludes all import brands whose dealer networks are thin if you do not or depending on the failure, can not make the repair.

@WhaWho Good point! Car problems can happen anywhere, but if you own a popular and reliable model(not too old) you can expect it to be fixed without too much delay.

Making a cross country trip in an old Audi is asking for trouble.

We’ve done many holiday trips and always with popular makes.

Typical problems:

  1. Radiator sprung a leak on our 1966 Malibu while camping in Maine. Got stop leak at the nearest station and then made it home.

  2. Spark plug wire burned out on 1966 Buick in the West. Got it replaced at Walmart just up the road.

  3. Blew water pump on 1984 Impala V8. Were on camping trip and just stayed one day longer while local shop replaced pump.

  4. Broke fan belt on 1971 Mercury Comet just after going over Mackinaw Bridge in Michigan. Highway trooper called nearest shop for me and the guy came and replaced belt.

Since you can’t make a car completely reliable, at least drive one that you can get fixed easily.

In 1960 I rented a Beetle in Holland and toured through 14 European countries over a 4 1/2 month period. Repairs included a broken speedometer cable (fixed in Germany in 1 hour) and a broken seat anchor which was fixed in Spain by a mechanic on his lunch hour for the price of a pack of Lucky Strikes.

If I had rented a Renault Dauphine or similar fragile machine it would have been a truoblesome trip.

There are no guarantees with any vehicle that it won’t break down on a short trip or a long trip. I bought a new '82 Firebird back in late 1981. The transmission blew apart (normal driving) on a trip home with my family after about 50 miles on the road. A few years later my family and I drove from the east coast to the west coast (Georgia to California) in a '57 Chevy Bel-Air right after I installed a rebuilt V8 in it. We made the trip back to Georgia with no problems other than a new radiator cap.