This is a subject I like to revisit every few years, since it deals with a common, but very unexpected problem often faced by folks who purchase an older low-mileage Ferrari. The experience can be devastating and might sour someone on the marque forever, so it bears the occasional déjà vu.
Pilots will tell you that an aircraft that sits unused for extended periods always suffers degradation faster than one in frequent service. They refer to planes owned by wealthy dilettantes who rarely fly them as ‘Hangar Queens,’ whose main purpose seems to be their possession rather than their use. This observation applies even more so to little-used automobiles, since when they are placed back in service, there is no FAA to assure road worthiness. We should all keep this fact in mind when shopping for a pre-owned Ferrari, especially one more than a few years old.
Since one of the main criteria used to judge a car’s value is mileage—the lower the better—its easy to assume that a car with less mileage is better than a similar one with more, but as we will see, that ain’t necessarily so! How can ultra low mileage possibly be a problem? Let’s run through a scenario I have observed several folks endure when they buy a ‘queen.’
We’re talking about those cars we see advertised every so often that are eight, ten, or fifteen years old but have less than 5,000 miles on them. You would naturally expect to be getting a virtually brand new car that someone has kept in a time warp and depreciated for you. Well, that’s generally true for much of it, like the suspension, transmission and usually the engine, but you’d be amazed how much can actually be wrong with such a car! Consider a hypothetical buyer who has found the dream car he’s been looking for—a 328GTS in rust-free Arizona with only 4,500 real miles on it. Elated, he flies down to Tucson to drive it home to Denver.
After all the logistics of getting there, the cashier’s check, insurance and paperwork he loads his bag into the trunk and heads home, giddy with excitement. (It is a GREAT feeling!) Before too long it becomes evident that the A/C isn’t putting out much cold air, however, so a stop in Scottsdale confirms that the freon charge is gone. Soon after, though, the technician advises that the compressor shaft seal has dried out from so much disuse, so the fresh freon is leaking out as fast as he’s putting it in. Repairing the compressor is too big a job for while-you-wait, so the decision is made to just remove the roof panel and enjoy the sun instead. But while trying to dislodge the panel from the rubber seals that have been clamped against it for years, the seals tear. Well, they can be replaced when the compressor is fixed; let’s get back on the road.
Only now the car won’t start—dead battery. The technician quickly determines it is internally shorted from a sulfation build up, caused by years of neglect and sitting discharged. The former owner had the car on a charger all yesterday, but the past few hours of use have finally killed it. Nevertheless, a hundred dollars gets a new one installed and the trip finally continues. Until the car starts overheating soon after because the thermostat, having sat closed for so long, is now stuck that way. A tow-truck ride back to the dealer and the even worse news comes out—although they could replace the thermostat in a couple of hours, all the water hoses are decomposing and may well fail somewhere else along the road. (there’s a whole lot of nothing between Flagstaff and Albuquerque!) However, they can take care of all that if you stay overnight and leave the next afternoon. (What if this had been on the weekend?)
Without belaboring the point any more, you can see what I’m driving at—a great many of a car’s ‘soft’ parts suffer unseen degradation while allowed to sit dormant and when suddenly put back into service are very likely to fail. This can include weakened tires, leaky hoses, broken belts—including cam belts and the catastrophic damage they cause—and drippy fuel lines that invite a fire. When arousing a car that has been snoozing for several years, it is important to address all of these issues before venturing very far from home. We have seen cases where a buyer prudently had his new purchase trucked to Denver, but immediately upon its arrival, jumped in for a drive to Estes Park on a hot afternoon only to come back in the cab of a tow truck. Older carburetored cars are especially prone to this because the bouncing around in the transport truck shakes loose years of sediment in the fuel tank that then soon clogs the carbs.
The moral message here is that while a ‘time warp’ car is basically a very desirable, hardly-worn automobile, it shouldn’t be pressed into service until someone freshens up these vital components. Then, a few short drives close to home are a much better idea than a trip to Santa Fe. Cars which have just been reassembled after a major restoration effort will likewise nearly always require some final adjustments, and a local shake-down is much preferable to a roadside ‘carbecue.’
As a corollary to these comments, it is often fair to say that an older car that has been in regular use and receiving on-going maintenance may be a better car functionally than a low-mileage ‘queen.’ Bearing in mind that the follow-up expenses needed by that ‘time warp’ car will come on top of the premium usually paid for exceptionally low miles, making an even larger gap between its price and that of a healthy, but more experienced sibling. We have seen individuals who hesitate each time they feel like driving their low-mile prize because they don’t want to run up the clock, whereas others who bought more average examples often wind up having a lot more fun with their purchase. The issue here is whether you want a car to drive and enjoy dynamically or a queen for your hangar.
Bill Orth --