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Hard Times Thoughts – Vehicles

This is a discussion about a prepping situation that falls somewhere between a short-term disruption, such as bad weather or earthquake, and the end of the world as we know it.  One of the more likely scenarios that I prep for is the loss of one or both of the income-generating jobs in the house.  With a few exceptions, it’s a tough job market out there, and it probably isn’t a bad idea to plan on being out of work, or at least out of work that makes the same money you’re making right now, for quite a while.  One of the key items in the average household that’s instrumental in keeping things moving, so to speak, is the vehicle.

Since I’m a pessimist, I base my plans on one or both of us being at a reduced income for two years.  I’m talking about reduced income, not no income, and I’m assuming that things like gasoline will be available, so we won’t be stockpiling two years worth of unleaded.

First and foremost, we need to take a look at the car itself.  It doesn’t need to be brand spanking new, but it does need to be reliable.  It’s better if it’s a car you can do normal maintenance on yourself without special tools and if you can get parts and supplies from places other than the dealership.  That last one can surprise you, even if you don’t own an exotic or rare car.  For the first two years I owned my minivan, I couldn’t get oil or air filters for it from the parts store or on-line.  It required a trip to the dealer, and it cost an arm and a leg.  Having a car that uses common parts and supplies is essential.  I know people who swear by 1911’s or Glocks because any gunsmith can work on them, but drive an uncommon car that requires parts shipped in from Outer Mongolia and is lubricated with extra virgin linseed oil that must be purchased from the monks of Sao Paulo.

Basically, for me, it comes down to doing the calculus of time, trouble, and cost it takes or will take in the next two years to keep my car running consistently and safe.  If I’m working two or three part time jobs to keep food on the table, will I be able to afford spending time every week or so to fix something on the car?  If we are having to follow an extremely strict budget to make sure that everything’s covered, will we want to be budgeting for quarts of oil, brake fluid, or transmission fluid because of a leaking seal?  I’m not advising anyone to go deep into debt to get a new car, but you do have to decide how much not having a reliable car is costing you now and how much it will cost you later.

One thing you need when you’re working on your car is knowledge.  Unless you’re a mechanic by trade or hobby, taking care of your own car, when you can’t afford to pay someone else to do it, will not be a familiar exercise.  I have had really good luck with the auto care manuals from Haynes, although others swear by brands such as Chilton.  What I like about the Haynes line is that they tend to be illustrated (black and white, but at least it’s a picture), are written at a very basic level that doesn’t assume too much about my mechanical abilities, and they are organized in a pretty logical manner.  I supplement those with videos and articles on the Internet, but you have to put on your logic filters with these sometimes.  Car care forums are as useful as gun forums, complete with holy wars over methods, materials, and manufacturers.

Next, we talk about the supplies.  On average, I will change my oil and filters three to four times in two years.  That means, in addition to beans, bullets, and bandages, I have started stocking up on motor oil, oil filters, and air filters.  These aren’t very expensive for most cars, so picking up an extra filter or quart of oil every so often isn’t hard.  The same goes for things like oil and fuel additives.

The same should go for windshield wipers.  I tend to go through two sets a year, one in the winter and one  over the summer.  For some reason, I’m always surprised at how much they degrade in just a few months of use.  Again, these aren’t that expensive for most cars, so picking them up won’t break the bank if you do it over a couple of paychecks, and having a couple extra sets in the house now will save money in a tight budget later.

I try to keep a set of spark plugs, ignition wires, and other general tune-up items like PCV valves for each car.  These don’t need to be replaced too often, but when the car needs a tune-up, it needs the tune-up.  Again, spending a bit of money now when you have it may save your bacon in the future when things are tight. You should also find out what bulbs, lamps, and fuses your cars use, and keep a supply of them on-hand.  You could also purchase brake pads and calipers to save for bad times.

After that, you get down to things that will hang in your garage or stay in your trunk in case of an ‘aw shit’ moment, but aren’t going to be used as part of normal maintenance.  Most modern cars, if they even have a spare tire, have a temporary spare that will work at moderate speed for a few miles, but needs immediate replacement.  If you have the money, springing for the full-sized spare now will turn an “aw crap, we have to come up with $150 to replace the tire right now” experience into an “aw crap, we’ll have to run without a spare for a few weeks while we scrape together $150 for a new tire” experience.  You can also look at things like serpentine and timing belts, oxygen sensors, and possibly even an inexpensive rebuilt alternator or water pump.    Those are those “low risk, high impact” kind of things that I’m on the bubble about stocking in your emergency supplies.   They’re, for the most part, on the expensive side to spend money on now, but in the event that you need one when things are tight, they will be a godsend in saving money and time later.

Some of these things are what you need to do your own maintenance (You do know how to change your own oil and do a tune-up, don’t you?), but some of them are to have on-hand in the event that something requires a mechanic.  Most mechanics have no problem with you bringing your own parts, and it may save money and time on their fees.

Finally, take a look at your tool kit.  A good metric and standard ratchet and wrench set is a good start.  So is an oil filter wrench, something that I seem to lose around here with a bit of regularity.  Having a hanging light might seem like an anachronism in this day of tactical lights and such, but having a bright light source that you can maneuver into the tight confines of an engine compartment or under a dash without blinding yourself can make jobs easier.

What you stock and what you don’t stock will depend on your situation.  What you want to stock and what you want to buy in the event of need is up to you.  Just remember, there’s a fine line between having what you need and a reality show coming to your house to talk about your problem.  Take a look at your vehicles, research what the normal maintenance and expected problems are, and plan accordingly.

Does anyone have any suggestions for hard-time prepping for your vehicles?

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  1. Anonymous

     /  August 9, 2014

    I would recommend the toyota corolla. Newest model 2009- pretty heavily computerized. 2005-2008 less so but with metal timing chain. 2004 and older has the timing belt, so check or replace that as a first step, and make sure it has the 4speed automatic or stick.. All have been extremely reliable with minimal maint (oil & filter), Mileage of 38+. All have gone 200k+ for me and then I gave them to my kids.


    • Some brands and models are just hard to kill, and if you take care of them, they will last for decades. I used to want a Volvo, because a lot of my friends in high school were inheriting the ones their parents got right out of college. The older cars seemed to last forever.


  2. I bought a `58 Willies Jeep (right before we got busy and it’s sitting up in Montana until I can get it) for an emergency SHTF and spare vehicle.
    I bought it because it should still run in the event of a solar flare that had newsies hyperventilating about because it almost “wiped us out” three years ago or a more likely Nork/Iranian EMP.

    But- you made me think about parts. Even if it’s points, plugs and wires- sooner or later they’re going to quit making them in mass quantities and I need to think about stocking up on parts that are needed but unavailable.


    • If I hadn’t bought a late-model F150 this go-round, I was looking at a 1971 F-series. I enjoy working on older cars more, but the relative paucity of parts for the engine and transmission threw me off.


  3. Bryn, Isle of Anglesey, UK

     /  August 9, 2014

    So, my tuppence worth on this (Low income UK perspective)……
    First – I am on a low income, no other income from any other source.
    Second – where we live, a car is essential unless you enjoy wasting a day on public transport for what should be a one hour errand.

    My solution – a 12 year old diesel estate (station wagon) with 225k miles on the clock, carefully chosen from a range of cars with legendary longevity in their diesel range (local taxis use them up to 350k, then sell them as running private vehicles). I’m not specifying a make as it’s not relevant to the point being made, and your local vehicle stock will be most unlikely to carry this particular European vehicle.

    The car cost me GBP£500 to buy – cash sale, no debt – call it two weeks net income.
    In two years of ownership, with me doing most of the spanner twirling, it has cost maybe GBP£100 in parts for repair (wiper motor and a hydraulic valve), plus the usual suspects (consumables for 10k miles/pa routine maintenance, also DIY).
    The only service item I’ve paid someone to replace was the camshaft timing toothed belt – done by a semi-retired mechanic who looked after most of the local taxis using this particular brand of diesel engine.

    The car does not stand out from the crowd, has been almost totally reliable (see above), and has returned 45-50mpg. The last part being of critical importance in the land of the US$9.00 gallon……

    I do have a backup vehicle in the form of a 27 year old bike (70k on the clock, unfailingly reliable, 50+mpg), which is quite nice in our 3 weeks or so of “summer”…..

    Last resort backup – Full recovery to my door included in both insurance policies, for relatively little (GBP£55.00).

    The combo works well for me, not least because I really, really do not care (I phrase this most politely!) what other people think of what I drive or ride, only that I get there and back safely & reliably.

    If you can tolerate the sympathetic looks from your neighbours, and need to avoid increasing your debt load, it may be worth looking at suitable older vehicles in your area.

    Prepping – I have a toolkit built up over 40+ years (I still have some of the sockets from my first kit bought aged 10!), and usually stock about 2 services worth of routine parts each for my car & bike. The balance seems about right to me, as either of them could fail beyond economic repair without warning, leaving me with parts to sell on fleabay.

    As stated, a UK perspective – your mileage WILL vary, if only because of your cheaper petrol, and relative scarcity of diesel cars.


    • One thing I wish American makers could and would do is offer more diesel engines in their cars. My truck would probably do better gas mileage wise with a diesel, and they’re great for smaller cars used for commuting.

      Sounds like you’ve hit the jackpot on lower-cost, reliability, ease of maintenance, and MPG.


  4. Something to think about in terms of the parts you stock is to make sure that all hoses, etc. are rated for ethanol fuel. Some older parts aren’t, and will “gum up” if exposed to a gasoline-and-ethanol mixture. For that reason, my emergency supply of gasoline is always ethanol-free, because I don’t know whether it might have to be used in older vehicles whose engines don’t play well with corn-juice.


    • Good point. If I were driving an older vehicle, I’d definitely be stocking up on hoses and such against the day when they start to fail due to the fuel.


  5. Dan

     /  August 10, 2014

    This is just for amusement, but if you remember the Mad Max movie the RoadWarrior, they were killing people just to get the gas in the tank. I was amazed when they were shooting out the tires of the cars to get the gas. If they thought it was difficult to get gas in a post apocalytic world, where did they think they would get tires? If I was leader of the bad guys I would have hung those who ruined tires!


  6. Gordon

     /  August 10, 2014

    A friend of mine makes much of his living replacing the stock, heavily computerized engines in modern diesel pickups with fully mechanical Cummins engines. He’s got everything worked out to fit the replacement engine in the available space, attached to the right bits of the transmission and whatever else, and waxes rhapsodic each time he can cut out another wire from a harness somewhere. That may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but a properly tuned mechanical diesel engine is relatively immune to solar flares and EMP problems, can run on all sorts of marginal fuels, and doesn’t require the manufacturer’s latest and greatest multi-thousand dollar diagnostic computer to fix. In a heavy duty pickup body with proper 4WD can get most anywhere, and take an awful lot with it while doing so.


  7. Frank the Wanderer

     /  August 11, 2014

    I have a 1984 Ford F-150, converted from Feedback carburetor and TFI-IV ignition to regular (no electronics) carb and Duraspark II ignition. I have spare wiring harness, ignition module, distributor, starter, ignition coil, alternator and wiring in a safe from EMP spot. Also, plenty of oil filters, air filters, oil and general maintenance consumables laid in.
    My second vehicle is a Rokon Trailbreaker, also with plenty of spares.


  8. Did you mention wiper blades? Don’t wait until the storm comes in to replace these because the supply shops will likely run out of them when weather hits.

    Most parts shops will run specials on maintenance parts/supplies from time to time. I recently bought a jug of oil to keep around to top up engines with and it was cheaper to buy it with a filter due to a current sale. This is a great way to accumulate extra supplies.

    Good belts and hoses last longer than the cheaper alternatives. Now that I think about it, this goes for batteries and parts as well.

    To that end, if you have to replace your battery, it really is worth it to spring for a spiral gel cell. I ran Optimas for years as they’d often outlast the car I was running them in. Their QC started suffering somewhere in there and I switched to a younger alternative (Exide, I think). These may cost twice as much as a more conventional quality battery, but often last several times longer, provide many more CCAs, and take longer to drain if you’ve left something powered on with the engine off.

    I’ve honestly thought about putting back some rings, bearings, and gasket sets that match the vehicles. I’ve rebuilt an engine in the driveway on more than one occasion in the past and I’m not too proud to do it again.


    • My advice for people asking what they should buy in any category is to buy the best on the market that they can afford, even if they have to defer the purchase for a while to save. Saving money on something that you depend on, but will fail, costs more in the long run.


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