My Car Needs an Engine. Should I Sell it, Fix it or Junk it?

by Joe Plemon on October 25, 2010

My 1999 Caddy

In my Change Your Mindset and Save a Fortune: 200,000 Miles is the New 100,000 Miles post, I bragged about my plans to save fortune by driving  my sweet 1999 Cadillac DeVille at least 200,000 miles. Well, we have trouble in paradise: my Caddy has an engine flaw…a head gasket leak that cannot be repaired; i.e. “I need to replace my engine.”

To my credit, I did factor in the possibility of a major repair in my 200,000 mile post. In fact, I used a $10,000 “worst case scenario”, assuming that both the engine and the transmission needed to be replaced. My premise was that one could still come out fine by spending the repair money and continuing to drive the car.

Now I am going to find out if I put my money where my mouth is.

Read along with me as I think this through. I will be asking for your thoughts at the end of this post.

Factors to consider:

  • I love the car.

I really do. It drives like a dream and makes me feel like a king every time I get behind the wheel.

  • It has 112,000 miles on it.

Yes, that is a lot, but not for an 11 year old car.

  • The replacement engine will cost … gulp … $5,700.

This is the cost of a Jasper rebuilt engine, including installation.   Northstar engines have a design flaw that makes head gasket problems quite common, but the Jasper rebuilt engine will have corrected the flaw. It will have a three year, unlimited mileage warrantee with it.

  • I can drive the car now.

It still runs great. But because it is slowly losing anti-freeze, I can’t trust it on any long trips without chancing it to overheat. It is therefore relegated to short trips.

  • No debt.

Whatever choice we make will not involve borrowing money.

My choices are:

  • Continue to drive it on short trips and spend no money on it.

I imagine the leak would gradually get worse, but I could probably milk it along for months or maybe years.

  • Do a “quick fix”.

There are many sealant type products available which claim to fix a leaking head gasket.  My understanding is that they might work for a while, but can’t be depended on as a long term solution.  Besides, they might not work and could clog the heater core or damage the engine.  At least the Caddy is drivable now.  Experimenting with a miracle cure could render it inoperable.

  • Sell it and become a one car family.

Obviously, it is worth very little – maybe $1,000.  Who would want an 11 year old car that needs an engine?  But there is merit in scaling back to one car.  It would take some sacrifices for both of us, but Janice and I could make it work.  Her car is older than mine, so the money I would be spending to repair the Cadillac could go toward an upgrade of our newer family car.

  • Junk it.

I was not able to pin down a junk value, but I am assuming it would not be much more than $1,000.

  • Fix it.

Follow my logic here: if, while shopping for a car, I found a near mint 1999 Cadillac DeVille De Elegance (premium model) for $5,700 with a rebuilt and warranteed engine, I would be inclined to buy it.  It is difficult to assign a Kelly Blue Book value to a car with a rebuilt engine, but this model with this mileage with original engine books at about $4,900 Private Party or $6,400 Retail.  A newly rebuilt engine would make it more valuable, but how much more?  Would it compare to the same model with 50,000 miles, which is about $6,900 Private Party or $8,300 Retail?   Not sure.  Interestingly, the same car at 200,000 miles books at $3,400…certainly more than I can get for it now.

Simple math is this: if I spend $5,700, drive it for about 90,000 miles and sell it for $3,400, I would be getting 90,000 miles for $2,300…about 3 cents a mile.

On the other hand, if  I could sell it now for $1,000 and add that same $5,700, I would be able to purchase a $6,700 used car.  With no engine warrantee.  And with no assurance that there are not other hidden problems, which brings on another factor: I know this Cadillac.  I have babied it for years and am confident there are no hidden “surprises” waiting to be discovered.

We would still be needing to upgrade Janice’s car, but if the Caddy is fixed and reliable, that upgrade would not need to happen immediately.

And remember: I love the car.

What will we do?

We are not sure yet, but Jan and I agree that we will be on the same page before we decide.  Right now we are leaning toward upgrading Janice’s car, milking the Caddy along at least till spring, and then deciding whether to replace the engine at that time.

OK. Now tell me what you think. What did I overlook?  I confess that it is difficult for me to be totally objective because I have an attachment to this Caddy, so I covet your thoughts. Would I be throwing good money after bad?  What do you think I should do?  What would you do?

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

paavels October 25, 2010 at 8:16 am

Another option. Buy a new car. If you expected $10k on repairs, spend that money on new car.

Used car is used car. There is no guarantee that it will just work after new engine install. There is no guarantee that transmission will break after 20000 miles.

Spending money based on fears that you’ll lose the car otherwise is plain stupid.

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joeplemon October 25, 2010 at 8:41 am

paavels,
If you read the linked post at the beginning of this one, you will have a better understanding of why I plan to drive used cars lots of miles. A new car is not a consideration for two reasons: 1) It would require a loan (remember my “no debt” pledge) and 2) I wouldn’t buy one anyway because of the huge depreciation.

We ARE planning to do something similar to your recommendation, which is buying a newer car for my wife before deciding whether to fix the Caddy. You make a good point in that I am probably way too attached to the Caddy. I appreciate the objectivity. Thanks for your thoughts.

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uchatome October 25, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I had a 1994 chevy engine rebuilt (200k miles driven, purchased in 1995 a year old), spent close to you with the same ideas as you had on the car. Was hoping for 500k miles but only made it to 300k miles. However after less than 36 months the engine went out again and decided against doing it again. It did drive just low power and was concerned with long trips. I donated my car to a charity (nice tax deduction there) and purchased a nice 13 year old Buick Century for less than the first rebuilt engine cost. I have had the Buick a year now and intend to drive it for another 100 or 200k miles.
Bob

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joeplemon October 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Bob,
You and I think alike…we both try to stretch the life of a vehicle. Good job on the 13 year old Buick Century. I hope you get hundreds of thousands of miles out of it.

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retireby40 October 25, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Hi Joe,
Good luck with the caddy. Don’t underestimate the value of your car, you should post it on Craigslist. You never know, someone might be willing to buy it and work on it at home.
My ’98 BMW Z3 (98k) blew the head gasket and had to be towed to the dealer. We love this car, but there is no way we would spend $6,000 to repair it. I put it on Craigslist and someone purchased it for $3,000. Hopefully the buyer can repair it and enjoy it.
Also, we have been spending about $1,000 a year to fix various things on this car over the last few years and that influenced our decision to move on.

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joeplemon October 25, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Retireby40,
Wow. I never dreamed that a car (even a BMW Z3) with a blown head gasket would bring that much money. I would certainly not pay that much for it, but evidently some people do. Great tip and thanks.

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Tim @ Faith and Finance October 25, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Hey Joe

I like to use this thought process when weighing a repair –

If the repair is $5,700, I like to divide $200 into that (what I’d consider what a car is worth per month) to see how long the car had better last for it to have been a good decision.

In this case, if you put $5,700 into the car, that car had better last 28 months. If you get 28 or more months out of it, your investment paid off. If it lasts longer than 28 months, that’s a bonus!

Tim

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Jason @ One Money Design October 25, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Hey Joe, those car problems sure our a pain! What is prompting the decision right now? The fact you got the news makes you want to naturally take action because you’re a problem solver. So, take a deep breath and don’t take immediate action for a non emergency situation. I like your idea of waiting a while on this one and play it safe with short trips. Here’s an idea…could you do a trial of having one car? So, for an entire month you and your wife agree to only use one car to see if you can make it work? Maybe you won’t miss your baby? Or, maybe you’ll decide you do miss your baby and want to take care of her by giving her a new engine for Christmas. Please keep us updated!

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Dave@50plusfinance October 26, 2010 at 12:32 am

I have a 2001 Ford E-350 van with 120,000 miles on it. Its testing me with the decision to get rid of it. It stalls regularly, had it in many times, can’t seem to find the problem. Get rid of it or put up with it, that is the question.

Your problem is a little more difficult to decide. I had the same kind of car, those aluminum engines need a special additive to the coolant to function right. The answer is either one of two things. Spend the money and fix the car. Now you have something to count on and something you love. Or junk it and put the money into a new used car of unknown reputation. Hands down fix the car you love. You can’t get rid of it, you’ll miss it to much.

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joeplemon October 26, 2010 at 6:50 am

@Tim,
Great idea, but the $200/mo is a bit arbitrary isn’t it? Still, it gives some guidelines. In this example, with a 36 month guarantee, the repair could be justified. Right?

@Jason,
Yes, my tendency is to be a bit reactive to a problem. The Caddy over heated for the first time recently, sending my brain into fix mode. But Jan and I have agreed to not do anything right now, and probably get her a newer car (which could become our family car) before deciding whether to fix the Caddy. Your idea of doing a one month trial with one car is a good one…something I hadn’t thought about.

Isn’t getting free advice from e-friends a great thing? Thanks!

@Dave,
Man, you know me! Is it because we are both over 50 and know what it is to love a car? I would love to fix the car I love. But, because it is not an emergency situation right now, I have the luxury of waiting. One factor difficult to work into the monetary equation is the fact that, because I love the car, I would continue to give it loving care for as long as I keep it (if we opt for the repair). That should be worth something.

Thanks for the advice. It helps.

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Getting Out of Debt October 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I hate car problems. Most of my finance problems have been brought about because of unexpected car problems such as hitting a dear and cracking my oil pan on a pothole left by the neighboring town’s road repair crew!!??!!

I paid my minivan off using my Adsense earnings. It currently has 200,010 miles. (I have 7 kids+ live in a rural community =a lot of miles driving.) I am currently saving my Google Adsense earnings to buy a car for my son. I’m tired of driving! Anyway, I can’t get into another car loan. I work from home providing SEO and other services. When I got my last car, I was working a 9-5. Worst of all, the interest rate was horrible. Don’t want to do that again. With the help of hubpages and all my sites, I should be able to cover the expense soon.

Who wants to be a slave to debt, especially over a car? Been there, done that and never want to go there again!

Hope whatever you decide to do works out for you and your family.

😉

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Steven and Debra October 26, 2010 at 1:51 pm

One more option to consider, in your cost comparison analysis, would be to locate a junkyard with a low mileage roll-over or rear-ended vehicle with the type of engine you are looking for.

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joeplemon October 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm

@Getting out of debt,
Great job using your blogging income to pay off your van! And saving for a car for your son. I, like you, abhor debt so much that we would probably walk rather than borrow money for a car. My wife and I don’t even put borrowing money in the equation.

@Steven and Debra,
Yes, that would be a possible solution and I am checking for such a find. One problem is that even if the engine isn’t damaged, it would still have the inherent head gasket problem. Also, it seems that the year of the damaged car would need to be the same or older than mine; newer ones are not interchangeable. Still, I am not ruling it out. Thanks for the tip.

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paavels October 27, 2010 at 2:10 am

Oh, btw, why did noone mention that 5k for engine repair is too high? Try another mechanic.

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joeplemon October 27, 2010 at 7:11 am

paavels,
I definitely will check with another mechanic before moving ahead with the repair. But…the Jasper rebuilt, correcting the original design flaw and giving 3 years – 100,000 mile warranty, costs $4468. The Northstar seems pricey, both for the engine and the installation.

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John October 27, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Since you love the car (an emotional attachment) I would recommend keeping it and nursing it. You’d be surprised how long it might last. I have been nursing a similar leak in my 13 year old Ford Windstar for the past 5 years. I check the coolant level once a week, and more often if it is driven more often. You can mitigate the risk of a breakdown on a long trip by having an emergency plan (since as AAA or towing service) and dedicating some of your emergency fund to emergency repairs. From a financial perspective, you should decide where today to best invest your $5700. Would you buy that same car today with that $5700 or would you prefer to use that money elsewhere.

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joeplemon October 27, 2010 at 2:33 pm

John,
You have been nursing a Windstar for 5 years? I am impressed…and encouraged. Do you still take it on long trips even though you know it is likely to overheat?

I like your “alternative use” of money rationale about whether to spend the $5700 to fix my baby. I like to use the same method of thinking, but it is difficult to be objective when I admittedly have an emotional attachment to my car.

Right now I will keep nursing it along. Who knows how long? Maybe as long as you have done with your Windstar. Thanks for the tips.

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Mark October 27, 2010 at 6:54 pm

You are correct. 112,000 miles is nothing. As your other post stated 200,000 miles is truly the new 100,000.As long as the costs stay low, I would repair the automobile. I would agree that as the cost gets closer to 10k, you may want to put that money in a newer car.

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joeplemon October 28, 2010 at 7:16 am

Mark,
Thanks for reading my other post, as it more fully explains my philosophy of milking the life out of a vehicle. My Caddy is in great condition; everything on it works perfectly (except the engine), so 112,000 miles really is nothing. With a rebuilt engine installed, I would have every reason to expect at least 200,00 miles. Of course, I am still processing the decision and I am thankful that I don’t have to do anything immediately.

Yes. $10k is A LOT, but I purposely used that number in my previous post to make a point about how even in a worst case scenario, one could come out better financially by fixing a used car than buying a new car.

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Pete October 28, 2010 at 4:24 pm

We had a similar problem a few years back when my car with almost 150,000 miles on it decided to develop some engine problems. The cost of the repair was going to be close to $3500, and this at a time when the car might have brought $4000 if it was in mint condition.

We had already been saving car payments up to buy our next car with cash, and we decided to cut our losses and trade the car in for about $1500 towards the purchase of a newer 2-3 year old used car. We paid cash, and never looked back.

For me these decisions come down to whether or not the cost of the repair is large enough to justify given the mileage of the vehicle, and the cost of a newer used vehicle in good running condition. For us, we were just ready to move on to another car – and we had the cash to do it – so we did!

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Everyday Tips October 29, 2010 at 1:15 pm

1. I would get a second opinion, just to be sure.
2. Do some research on the make/model you own for that year and see if it is realistic to expect 200,000 miles out of it.

If you love the car and it can realistically be expected to last to 200k, then I would probably try to rescue it.

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joeplemon October 29, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Everyday,
Even though I have a great long term relationship with my mechanic, I would definitely get a second opinion before forking over $5700. I have to admit though, that I have yet to do research on whether that particular model of Caddy could reasonably expect 200,000 miles. Thanks for giving the great tip…but that is what you do isn’t it? Every day. 🙂

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Car Negotiation Coach October 30, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Joe, It seems like you like the caddy and don’t want anything new, so I’d just drive that sucker to the grave. Just make sure you always have a cell phone handy and know and be prepared for what you want to get next (since you’ll be under the gun when it dies).

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joeplemon November 1, 2010 at 7:43 am

@Pete,
Great approach to a similar problem. We may eventually end up doing the same thing. Fortunately we do not need to make an immediate decision, but all of this input is very helpful. Thanks!

@Car Coach,
As you already figured, I would love to drive the Caddy for many more years. But if it died today, I would not be under the gun to buy another car. My wife and I could get by on one car – hers – if we needed to (and maybe we will).

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Michael Firstman@ Best Mig Welder November 7, 2010 at 3:45 pm

The sentimental attachment to the Caddy can certainly cloud your judgement here. I would keep the car because as you say $6700 will buy you a ‘newer’ car that you do not ‘love’. I say stick it out with your precious auto and who knows maybe down the road you will have the finances to give her the repair and maintenance she deserves and make the car last even longer.

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Khaleef @ KNS Financial November 10, 2010 at 8:37 pm

If you feel as though a similar vehicle with a rebuilt engine (and a 3-year warranty) is worth $5,700 then fix it! You already know how well you’ve taken care of the car and there are no mysteries. That will not be the case with a used model!

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joeplemon November 11, 2010 at 8:08 am

@Michael,
Yes, the sentimental attachment can cloud my judgment. Right now we are biding our time (it still drives great…just no long trips). But I would love to eventually fix her. btw…I like how you call the Caddy “her”

@Khaleef,
A man after my own heart. Maybe when all is decided (next spring?) I will write a follow up post.

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A. HEICHBERGER December 22, 2010 at 4:13 pm

I buy cadilacs with blown head gaskets and repair them myself. I pay approximately $600.00 for the car. They always are in beautiful condition (as new). I fix the head gaskets for approximately $500.00. It is simple. I end up with a great car.

Don’t be stupid FIX IT!

A. Heichberger

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joeplemon January 10, 2011 at 9:47 am

@ A. Heichberger,
I’ll bite. How do you fix a head gasket for $500?

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PRIXSY January 11, 2011 at 10:25 am

Hey Joe… I’m in a worse situation than u. I have a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP with 121k and my transmission blew back in Oct 5 2010. I have absolutely NO MONEY to fix my car!!! its my 3rd Grand Prix, had my first for 3 yrs and I was emotionally attached to her. When I got rid of her I cried for months, I didn’t love my car, I WAS IN LOVE WITH HER!!! She had no problems wat so ever just the shifter was getting stuck so I got tired of it. Then I ended up buying another Grand Prix for $4000 and the dealer sold it to me with a messed up trans and ended up sellin that one for 2000 bucks. I only drove the car for 3 days 🙁 so I lost 2000 bucks on that deal. I was lookin at 3000 for a rebuilt. Then in Feb 2010 got my 3rd Grand Prix for 3000 dollers and the trans blew in Oct. Sad story as to why I keep gettin Grand Prix’s… I wanted to keep the memory of my first tru love alive, my first Grand Prix… now my 3rd one is sitting in a storage waiting to get fixed… people tell me to get rid of it, but I kno I will not get no more than $1000. So I been askin myself for this long, WAT TO DOOOO? I really love Pontiac and I really am attached to my cars. I’m also tired of switching into different cars all the time so this time around I been thinkin about keeping her and fixing her… I been doing my homework about wat repairs would cost or replace the trans or gettin one out the junk yard, but for the yr of mine they only did 1 type of trans and its hard to get a used one. So just like u, my mind is clouded over this car. I say fix ur girl, cuz I kno how some people get attached to their cars…I’m one of them 🙂 fix her and keep her as I too will do the same. I don’t give up hope, when all I hear from many people to junk it or sell it… I’m blinded by the Pontiac Grand Prix for LIFE!!! I just can’t help it… all I need is at least 2000 to rebuilt, I just have to come up with a way to get that amount 🙁 and its been 3 months and I can’t even save $$$… but u have it, so fix her and at the end u will be happy… I’m hoping for the same… all I want is for her to awaken from her slumber and hit the road again LOL… by the way just so u can see what I mean on how u and I are attached to our babies, there is a video on youtube called “GRAND PRIX EVOLUTION” u shuld watch it. Its kinda cool and funny but this guy really loved his car… u will kno what I mean when I say this video resembles both u and I… sorry so long I just love to write about the Grand Prix… Good luck 🙂

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PRIXSY January 11, 2011 at 10:34 am

OOPS!!! Sorry… the video is called “1998 grand prix gtp pace car evolution” watch this and tell me this guy didn’t love his car LOL… this video is my motivation to fix my girl (Mizz GTP)…

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PRIXSY January 11, 2011 at 10:48 am

I watch this video everyday to remind me of how much I love my car and to motivate me more to fix my girl… just like this guy in the video, he had a beauty then bad happend and he got her fixed… just like I want to do, not give up on something I love so much… just like u Joe, u love her, so get her fixed 🙂

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Darryl Miller March 26, 2011 at 11:43 pm

I am having the same problem with my 1999 Cadillac Deville De’ Elegance: that of engine coolant hot where it overheat. I have 175,000 miles on my car. What I also notice a knocking in my Coolant reservior. I have ordered a new coolant reservior to replace it. Coolant reservior in most Cadillacs with a NorthStar engine is not good. It causes the engine to overheat, but at the same time I having to put coolant in my reservior quite often. I ask the question, “Why am I losing so much coolant in my car? What is the best sealant that will stop the coolant leak?” It has been told to me that I have a coolant leak. That they will have to do a pressure check to see exactly where the leak is coming from. That they will recommend coolant leak sealant. Is there a difference between a coolant leak sealant and that of Steel Seal that seals the wore out head gaskets? I appreciate if you can respond by asking my question and what will you recommend. Thanks, Darryl

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joeplemon March 29, 2011 at 10:28 am

Darryl,
I am far from being a mechanic, but according to those I have spoken with, it sounds like you have the same problem I have: leaking head gasket. Actually, although I didn’t take any long trips, my Caddy never overheated all winter long. However, the first warm day this year, I drove it further than I should have and sure enough, it over heated again. The mechanics I have spoken to all tell me that there is no easy fix, and that replacing the engine is probably my best bet. I explained that option in this post, but have still not decided what I am going to do.

If you find a good, affordable solution for your D’Elegance, please let me know! Wishing you well!

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Mark Hofmann April 14, 2011 at 6:11 am

Joe,
If you really love the car, I say get her fixed. I’m in a similar situation right now my my 2002 Monte Carlo with 146k on it. I love my car and would honestly rather have it than get a new one – not even mentioning not wanting to pay over $20k for a new car.

I also have an anti-freeze leak (second time). 70k I had the lower intake manifold gasket replace, and apparently had a defect on the heads of the motor. Two of the ports have “rotted” a bit (aluminum heads, too) thus making the gasket not able to sit properly on the head. New heads are expensive, so it makes more sence to swap the motor and get a warranty. In my case, it is no more than $4800 installed 3 year/100k mile warranty Jasper engine. They are even going to custom paint it for me!

It is stressful – and many people and family members think I’m crazy for just not wanting to get a new car, but that is just how I feel about it. I would rather have my current car and as a bonus, no car payment.

– Mark

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joeplemon April 14, 2011 at 8:41 am

Mark,

A kindred spirit! To update you on my Caddy, I haven’t done anything to it yet. Like I said in the post, it runs well, but is relegated to short trips. It never overheated all winter long, even on trips of 50 miles or so, but I pushed the envelope this spring when I drove it a bit too far in warm weather…it overheated again.

In the meantime, we have used our car money to update my wife’s car and give her old one away to a young couple who can use it. And I am still milking my Caddy along. Will I eventually replace the engine? Probably not, but am still considering it.

I hope all works out for you and your Monte Carlo. I think loving the car you drive makes it last longer, so hopefully, yours will last you for many, many years.

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Bernard May 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Hi Joe. Thanks for sharing your experience.

I too have the exact same problem.

I have a 99 Sedan Deville that runs absolutely great with only 89K!

It is leaking coolant, but no one can find the leak. It only “steams” out when temp is over 212 degrees. So every day, I have to fill it reservoir before I drive it. I inherited it from my Father, so I truly enjoy it, AND I hate car payments.
I drive it 20 miles here, 20 miles there, but not too far as I don’t want it to overheat just like you.
My oil is fine, and there is no moisture or smoke from tailpipe. Buy, my heat is hot on the drivers side, and cold on the passengers side, but no water on the passenger side, so maybe it is the heater core.

I am going to take it to the Caddy dealer and have it diagnosed for $125 on Monday.

I too want to make the right decision. I don’t want to spend in excess of $3500, and not get my fill.

What do you think?

Thanks again for your post. I needed it!

Bernard

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joeplemon May 7, 2011 at 11:12 am

Bernard,
Your ’99 Caddy sounds exactly like mine. Runs great, but is prone to overheat on trips longer than 25 miles. I, like you, have relegated my Caddy to local driving. Mine is beginning to run rough when it is started, but smooths out in about one minute. I think it is burning the leaked coolant before it can burn fuel.

I still haven’t done anything to mine, but I have 90% decided not to put another engine in it…I really struggle with spending $6,000 on a 12 year old car, even if it is my beloved Caddy.

Let me know what you learn from your Caddy dealer diagnosis. My mechanic, because of the Northstar engine, and because it is leaking coolant internally (couldn’t find any leaks with a pressure test) has concluded that the problem is a bad head gasket.

Sure is frustrating to have a wonderful luxury car that has such limitations!

Joe

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