Q: What's the difference between a high mileage car and a low mileage one?
A: About five minutes' work with a power drill.
Yep, 'clocking', that old favourite pastime of shady backstreet dealers, is alive and well. Ever wondered why so few cars for sale have more than 90K on the clock? Go to an auction, look at all those motors being snapped up with 160, 180 thousand miles on them, then ask yourself where they all disappear to after that. Buy a 'low mileage' car, especially one with no service history, and there's a good chance you'll just be paying a premium for the services of Black & Decker Man. Even a fully stamped up history is no guarantee these days - not with the widespread availability of cheap colour scanners and printers. Digital mileometer? No problem, just ring up one of the many companies now offering 'mileage correction' services, and for just a few pounds you can lose 50,000 miles at the click of a mouse.
This car is worn out and worthless. Apparently.
So there's two ways you can approach this. Either make sure the 'low mileage' car you are buying really is low mileage, or else buy something with enough miles on it that you can be pretty sure it hasn't been 'clocked'. Most people still have this idea that a car's natural life is 100,000 miles, so if you're looking at a car with a six-figure mileage, there's less chance that it has been got at. Taking a car down from 170,000 miles to 120,000 doesn't make it a lot more appealing to Joe Average - but give it a more savage 'haircut', chop it down to 80K and watch the punters fall over themselves to take it off your hands. We'll come back to mega-mileage cars later, but for now we'll assume that you've seen a nice little car with 60K on the clock, and you want to know if it's genuine.
The traditional way to avoid a clocked car
Firstly, if there's a service history, take a close look at it. It's unlikely that anyone will go to the trouble of forging a pile of documents for a banger, but I've heard stories where someone has 'clocked' a car, then left the full service history in the glovebox showing the true mileage at the last service. If there's no service history, but the car looks clean and well-maintained, that's your first warning bell. Next, inspect the instrument panel very closely, and especially the screws securing it to the dash. Look at the face of the speedo, and the little screws that secure the face to the mechanism. You are looking for burred screwheads, chipped paint, missing screws - any sign that the speedo has been removed from the car or taken apart since it left the factory. Check that all the numerals on the mileometer line up perfectly - some clockers dismantle the mileometer and reassemble it reading a lower mileage, but it's difficult to get the numbered rings to align perfectly with each other.
Pedal rubbers - is the wear consistent with the recorded mileage? Badly worn - be suspicious. Brand new - be even more suspicious. Look at all the switchgear, especially column stalks, and see if the markings have worn away with use. On a low mileage car they should still be crisp and unworn. Is the steering wheel rim or gearknob worn and shiny? Is the gearchange a bit sloppy, does the car feel 'baggy' to drive, does it wander across the road? Does the driver's seat sag when you sit in it, is the seat cover worn through on the edges? A genuine low mileage car should shout its virtues to you. If it doesn't look or feel as good as you'd expect from the mileage, chances are it's been clocked or badly neglected. Walk away.
The cheap way to avoid a clocked car
Do you really want a low-mileage car anyway? What has it been doing all those years, to have racked up so few miles? Maybe it's been stored for a long time and there is damp in all the electrics. Perhaps it's only been used for short journeys - a couple of miles to work and back every day with the choke out most of the way. Could it have been owned by a little old lady who has never done more than 35 mph in it, so that the engine is choked solid with carbon deposits? Or it could have been in a major shunt, and sat around in a salvage yard for a couple of years before being patched up and put back on the road. So even if it hasn't been clocked, there's plenty of reasons not to pay the extra money that a low mileage car will fetch.
You see, you don't really want a low mileage car, not at banger level. What you want is a high mileage car that's been used for long distance work and well maintained. You'll get a newer car for your money (or the same car for much less money), and if it's spent most of its time sitting at a steady 80 on smooth motorways, the mechanicals will be in much better shape than a low mileage shopping runabout. Obviously some cars last longer than others, but modern engine oil gives vastly more protection than the stuff that was around fifteen years ago, and 200,000 miles from an engine is no longer exceptional, PROVIDED THE OIL IS CHANGED REGULARLY.
That last bit is important. If you're going to buy a mega-mileage car, you really need proof that servicing has been carried out as per the manufacturer's recommendations. You can kill any car, even a W123 Mercedes, if you neglect basic servicing. If there's no service history, you should get a good idea of whether the car has been well maintained by unscrewing the oil filler cap and looking at the components inside. Bright shiny metal is good - black gummy deposits are bad. Click here for more detailed information on how to spot a neglected car that has been tarted up for sale.
OK, so you've found your mega-mileage banger, it's got service history and everything looks cool. Just one more question - what's it been doing? If it's been racking up the miles on motorways, that's great, exactly what you want. But what if it's been used as a taxi? Loads of short town journeys will crucify the transmission, brakes and steering. You can ask the vendor, but if he's owner number six on the logbook, you won't learn anything useful even if he's honest with you. So look for evidence of a life in the cab trade - holes in the dashboard where the radio was mounted, 'No Smoking' stickers on the dash or doors, worn rear door locks, sagging or threadbare rear seats, rectangular patches of darker paint on the doors where the taxi company signs used to be. Black and yellow paint scheme is a dead giveaway... I once got stitched up with an Audi 80 that had spent most of its 130,000 miles as a taxi - I should have spotted the warning signs, I didn't, and I paid the price.
But my first Audi Coupe 20V was still crisp and fresh to drive when I sold it at 150K, my old AX feels as good as the day it rolled out of the factory despite 103K of foot-to-the-floor motoring, and my dad's BMW 528 managed almost 400K on its original engine and gearbox before being written off in an accident. Mega mileage cars are cheap because uninformed car buyers don't know what's good for them. So go out and buy a good one, before it gets clocked and the price goes up 50%...