Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thoughts on Maintenance Costs - to do or not to do?


Several of my recent articles have highlighted expensive repairs on Bentley and other high end cars.  The response to my articles has been quite mixed.  Some people have accepted my words as advice, and they thank me for telling them what to expect.  Others think the costs are outrageous and they say they would never buy a car that costs so much to maintain.



The fact is, every high end car comes with the potential for significant service bills.  This happens for several reasons, all of which are “part and parcel” of high end cars, and not subject to “elimination by engineering.”

For example, the finest cars have bodies and interiors made of the very best materials.  In a sports car, the best materials are composites that go beyond simple carbon fiber.  Metals are often titanium, or other exotics.  Those parts are light, strong and very costly to replace if they break.  Equivalent parts that cost tens of dollars on a Chevrolet cost thousands on a Bugatti.  Connoisseurs love the beautiful woods and leathers in Bentley, Maybach, or Rolls-Royce.  But those beautiful interiors are fragile – just like a fine sofa at home – and again repairs will cost thousands.

The best cars are often engineered to perform at levels few will ever see, and there is a price for that.  Dozens of companies make tires to fit Toyota Camry and most cost under $100.  Supercars like the Bentley GT Speed have purpose-built tires that are usually available from one or at most two suppliers at costs that may be ten times higher.   Brakes, belts, and many other parts are similarly engineered for lofty levels of speed and performance and carry price tags to match.

Then there are economies of scale.  Ford will make a million pickup trucks in the next few months.  Rolls-Royce may build a few hundred of its finest sedan.  This has two effects.  First, prices come down very quickly on most service parts for common cars, due to economy of scale.  Second, quality goes up for common parts because failure points are identified and engineered out very quickly.  When a car is built in very small numbers it may take years to address initial design deficiencies.

Finally, the best cars are meant to be maintained to a much higher standard, more like the standard of care that’s applied to a private jet where a near-indefinite service life is assumed.  Ordinary cars are maintained with a view to getting a reasonable life out of them, and recycling.  At various times in its history Rolls-Royce have said 75% of all the cars they ever built remain in running order.  Given that some of those cars are now more than fifty years old, the cost to keep them on the road has probably exceeded their original cost when new.

When you add all this together, you end up realizing it’s not cheap to maintain high end and collector cars.  And when you add on the costs to bring back a run-down or neglected example . . . the bills will mount fast.



If you are someone who takes care of your own private jet or large yacht, the costs of caring for a high end motorcar will be no big deal.  If you are stepping up from an Accord to a Ferrari, all I can say is, be ready.

You may ask what you can do to lower maintenance costs, and if such a thing is even possible.  The first thing to remember is that we service people don’t have as much control over this as you hope.  If a car is designed in such a way that it takes 20 hours to do a job, we can’t change that except to get better with practice.   If a manufacturer prices a part at $2,000, we have little control over that either.  In some cases you can buy aftermarket parts, but often the carmaker is the only source of specialty repair pieces.

The way most people reduce repair costs is to skip services.  “I don’t really need to replace brake fluid every year,” or “I will skip those belts till next time.”  If you get to the next service interval without a breakdown you may have won that bet.  Or you may have caused wear or damage that will catch up to you later, even as it’s invisible now.

The key to considering maintenance is what you expect from it.  If you plan to own a car for two or three years and then move on, you can probably defer a lot of work.  Whether you will pay for that in diminished resale value is another matter, though.  Many buyers will expect detailed maintenance records and they will devalue cars where records are incomplete or lacking.

If you plan to keep a car “forever” and perhaps pass it on to your kids, it is almost always less costly to fix things preventatively, before they turn into expensive breakdowns. 

Your best bet for controlling costs is to establish a relationship with a service professional who will get to know you and your car, and help make individualized decisions about its care.  Such a person will be able to advise you which service might be deferred with minimal risk, and which should be done sooner.  Factors they might consider could include how you store and drive the car, climate conditions where you live, and changes in repair parts and supplies if the car is old.

In the final analysis, proper service can be expensive, but service ignored will cost even more.  When service gets deferred the only question is, who gets bit?  Is it you, the unluck buyer of a “bargain price” collectible?  Or is it you, the owner of a Ferrari with $20k of engine damage because the timing belt you didn’t change just shredded its teeth?  Or will you "get lucky" and pass the costs on to the next buyer in line?


We believe in maintenance.  Others have different views.  You'll do best to choose a service provider who shares your beliefs, whatever they are.  


John Elder Robison

(c) 2017 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Bentley, Rolls-Royce, BMW/MINI, Mercedes, and Land Rover restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

No comments: