With the "Big Three" U.S. automakers on the verge of bankruptcy or worse, it’s clear that fewer customers are buying new cars these days.
So you’d think people would be trying to take good care of their old vehicles to keep them running for as long as possible.
But except for filling the gas tank, many drivers aren’t spending a lot of money on their cars.
"There’s not that much maintenance going on," said Dale Adams, operations manager at Slack Auto Parts in downtown Gainesville. "It appears that people are putting it off as long as possible. I guess they’re waiting until they break down on the side of the road."
Johnny Shelton, manager of Complete Auto Parts on Atlanta Highway, said that during a typical recession, people do invest more in their existing cars because they realize they can’t afford a new one.
"In the past, when there was a slow economy, our business got better," he said.
But Shelton said that’s not happening this time. There’s less demand for auto parts, both from individuals and from repair shops.
"The shops we deal with, their business is really down," Shelton said.
As long as the car still is able to start up and run, drivers are trying to ignore any annoying problems it may have.
"Some people, when the brakes start making noise, they just turn up the radio so they can’t hear it," said Shelton.
Curt Sloyer, service manager at Milton Martin Honda, said if a problem doesn’t directly interfere with the operation of the car, people try to live with it.
"They’ll just put up with rattling sounds, a broken radio, a door lock that sticks, a window that won’t roll down," said Sloyer.
"If the customer is short on cash, we prioritize. What can wait until later and what needs to be done now? Brakes and tires have to be a high priority, and worn-out wiper blades need to be replaced, because that’s a safety issue."
Jack Roper, co-owner of the Tire Barn on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, said some customers want to patch a bad tire rather than replace it.
"We don’t recommend that, because it’s really not safe," he said. "A lot of people, if they buy tires, they’re not going for the top-of-the-line brands. They’re buying the economy version just to get them through until things get better."
Adams said experienced drivers usually understand that some things can be postponed and some things can’t.
"Most people are still replacing their timing belt, because they know if it breaks it will damage other parts of the car," he said.
For most vehicles, the manufacturer recommends replacing the timing belt at about 90,000 miles. But the risk of the belt actually breaking at that point still is relatively low, and customers may be willing to gamble on it.
"Some people are waiting a little bit longer than recommended," said Sloyer. "It costs $500 to $700 to do the job, because we usually replace the water pump at the same time."
Yet putting off scheduled maintenance may shorten the life of the vehicle, according to Roper.
"If you’re not changing the fluids on a regular basis, it can eventually corrode the system," he said.
When a family is struggling just to buy groceries, even something as basic as an oil change may seem like a luxury. But most people know they need to do it, and they’ll take the car in for service if and when they can scrounge up a little extra cash.
The alternative — waiting until the car breaks down — risks leaving the family with no transportation.
"Cars are such a vital part of our society, you can’t function without one," said Roper. "The distances around here are too far to walk or ride a bike."
Owners of parts stores and repair shops are expecting an influx of customers within a couple of months.
"After people get their income tax refunds, we usually see our business pick up," said Shelton.
But that increase in customers only will be temporary, unless the overall economy improves.
Adams said some people are nostalgic for the days when they could fix their own cars relatively cheaply in their driveway at home.
"The newer cars are harder to work on," he said. "There’s not much for do-it-yourselfers to do these days."