I understand your hesitation. There’s a lot to consider. After all, a twenty-year-old car is old, and it could turn into a money pit.
So should you buy a twenty year old car? A twenty-year-old car will need repair work, and unless it was well maintained over its lifetime, it could require a lot of repair work. So when it comes to old cars, condition and a large maintenance file full of service records are extremely important.
I love old cars. I bought an Audi A8 when it was two years old. I still have her. It’s now over twenty. She’s always been garaged and well cared for, but maintenance is a constant, and she won’t tolerate neglect.
In this post, you’ll learn what you can expect from a twenty-year-old motor, and if you are planning to use it as a daily driver, what it will expect from you.
By the end of this post, you’ll have a better feel for what it means to own and use a twenty-year-old car.
What Condition Will A Twenty Year Old Car Be In?
Twenty-year-old cars will likely be in pretty good condition, so long as the car spent its life in a salt-free state and was maintained and garaged. You can always tell a garaged car. The paintwork will be original and still fresh-looking.
You’ll need to be careful of salt state cars, that’s, vehicles from the northern states of America and Canada or anywhere they salt the roads to reduce the risk of ice.
The salt gets trapped in the underside of the vehicles and eats the metal and underpinnings. This type of damage is costly to repair. Often you’ll find corrosion has damaged all components and their fasteners.
Even a simple maintenance job turns into a mini restoration job, is not fun, and can be expensive, especially if you’re not doing the maintenance yourself.
Yes, you can use a twenty-year-old car as a daily driver, but you’ll need to pay attention to the following areas. They may need work.
A twenty-year-old car is still a very modern car. The body metal is galvanized, and so as previously said, if garaged should be in pretty good condition. Cars of this era were well under-sealed, and paint quality was excellent. Body-wise I’d expect it to be good.
Check the underside floor, chassis rails, trunk floor, and wheel arches for corrosion. Corrosion here can be expensive, and check for evidence of previous accident damage, over-spray or misaligned gaps.
Mechanicals has come a long way in the last frothy years, but not in the last twenty. That’s not bad news. Engines of the era were good and shouldn’t require any major work.
However, because of its age, it will likely need maintenance items such as a timing belt or timing chain, water pump, coolant flush, and thermostat.
You’ll find gaskets tend to fail, oil and coolant leaks are common. A head gasket wouldn’t be described as a maintenance item but may need replacement. If the head gasket does need replacing, they might as well re-seat the valves, de-carbon the cylinders, and fit new valve stem seals.
A good car will at the very least have a good lube service record. Check service book, windshield, and underhood for sticker evidence.
Steering, Suspension & Brakes
Steering, suspension, and brake components are all very important, they play a direct role in road safety, and because of the age of the car, every component will need special attention.
Most cars of the era were still using hydraulic power-assisted steering, and they were pretty durable. Electric steering was creeping in, but not very common yet. Steering components that may need attention include worn tie rods, fluid flush, and power steering hose leaks.
With the engine running and the steering fully turned (full lock) to either side, listen for any whine or growl, it’s a sign of a weak power steering pump.
The usual wear and tear items here include the shocks and the springs. The springs will likely need attention, especially if they are original kits, that’s twenty years of supporting the car’s weight. They become brittle with age, and spring breaking is common.
Bounce each corner of the car using your body weight. The vehicle shouldn’t bounce more than three times after you remove your body weight. Listen also for squeaks or rattles.
Cars of this era have ABS, stability control, some also had brake assist, so they were pretty sophisticated. Brake components that may need attention include brake fluid flush, brake line corrosion, sticking or binding brake calipers, rotor replacement. This type of work is pretty standard and not expensive.
Any brake fault warning lights on the dashboard can spell bad news. As said, these systems were sophisticated and can cost a lot to put right. A controller can be expensive and may need a main dealer for software installation.
Twenty-year-old car electrical systems are on a par with modern cars. The use of control modules (computers) to manage engines, transmissions, brakes, infotainment systems, HVAC, etc., was already well established and is still in use today.
These systems are very complex but pretty durable. However, any control module failures or communication faults between control modules, known as CAN (Controller Area Network) can be expensive to repair.
Check that all electrical systems work including dash displays gas flap release trunk release etc. and pay attention to any warning lights on the dashboard. A small handheld code reading device can now be purchased for very little but proves very useful for spotting any potential major control module communication failures. Check out the Mechanics tools page for the handheld code reader I recommend.
Pay special attention to evidence of water leaks, these seemingly trivial issues could spell very expensive and complex control module repairs.
The trim as you can expect may show signs of wear and tear but overall should be quite good. Drivers’ seat shoulder wear and sagging head cloths on some models are normal and easily repaired.
Cars with leather seats will obviously wear better than fabric.
When inspecting, check the carpets for dampness. Wet carpets can be a sign of a leaking heater core, rain water leak, or simply a blocked a/c condensation drain.
Is A Twenty Year Old Car A Good Investment?
A twenty-year-old car could be a very wise investment. I think it’s the sweet spot. What do I mean? An old vehicle turns into a classic car at about 25 years old.
That means the value of these cars has stopped falling and is stabilizing or, better, has started to rise. Either way, it’s a great time to buy.
My father always says the day you buy is the day you sell. It took the painful experience of my first car, a troublesome old rusty Alfa, for the penny to finally drop – It’s better to buy a great car at a fair price than a fair car at a great price.
Will A Twenty Year Old Car Be Reliable?
Yes, I drive an old car, and it’s very reliable. I don’t do a lot of mileage, and I take care of the maintenance religiously, which helps.
A classic car that’s in good shape and serviced on time will, without doubt, serve you well. Cars of the ’90s were well designed and built, especially higher-end models.
Many makes and makers at the time were almost over-engineered if there’s such a thing!
How Many Miles Is Too Many?
That’s a great question, and the answer is it depends, helpful, huh! Let me put it this way. I would personally rather own a car with high mileage that was well maintained than a car with lower mileage but had a bad record of oil changes, etc.
Even in the ’90s, the oily bits of cars were built to go the distance. An engine was well capable of traveling 250,000 miles and more without any major wrench work.
So it’s all about condition. Obviously the larger the engine, the more durable it will be. A four-cylinder engine works a lot harder than a six-cylinder over the same number of miles.
To Sum Up
So should you buy a twenty year old car? I would say yes you should buy a twenty-year-old car if you can answer yes to most of the following:
- Can you buy a great car with a great service history?
- Are you prepared to invest extra money if needed on repairs after the initial purchase?
- Are you prepared to have an ongoing emergency fund for unforeseen repairs?
- Will you be disciplined with your routine maintenance?
- Are you prepared to invest your time and effort?
Owning a classic car and using it as a daily driver is its own reward. But it’s also nice to think your car is also appreciating, makes you wonder why isn’t everyone doing this?
Before buying any vehicle, it’s always worth investing a few dollars to check the VIN number against a database. An audit with a company like VinAudit (links to VinAudit) will guard against Mileage fraud, Salvage rebuilds, Title washing, and Vin cloning.
You may also find the following posts helpful:
- Are older cars easier to work on?
- Are older cars easy to steal?
- Worth repairing an old car?
- Worth buying a 10 year old Mercedes?
- Are classic cars expensive to maintain?
- Learn to fix classic cars
When is a car too old to drive? A car’s general condition is far more important than its age. An older car, well maintained is perfectly safe and reliable.
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.