Used to be the only cars that would appreciate in value were the hot machines of yesteryear. The Corvette split-window. The Mercedes-Benz 500-SL coupe. The first Mustangs and Camaros. Anything with a Chrysler 440 hemi under the bonnet.

But now, we're seeing rising prices on certain older models that are definitely not collectible. And along with higher book values, we're seeing price inflation on parts for these cars, such as engine rebuilding kits, carburetor kits and trim pieces.These are automobiles such as the very successful 1982-85 Oldsmobile Delta 88 rear-wheel drive series with the 307-cubic-inch V-8, and similarly aged Ford LTDs.

Two years ago, a 1984 Olds 88 with all the trimmings and in good shape (runs well, no body rust, etc.) fetched $2,600 to $3,000 or more.

Today, that same car is worth at least $2,800.

That's a big switch from just five years ago, when good condition 10-year-old cars could be had for less than $1,000.

This is the Prairie pickup truck phenomenon in family sedans.

In the upper Midwest, where pickups are the backbone of the farm trade, any truck that runs - regardless of body shape or smell - will get $1,500 to $2,000, double or more if it's four-wheel drive.

This is reliable transportation with a difference. It costs one-fifth or less what a similarly equipped 1995 model would cost, minus modern high-tech amenities such as anti-lock brakes and air bags.

The inexorable inflation in new-car prices has put the average family sedan or minivan close to $20,000, and four-wheel drives well over that level, or $350 to $500 a month in loan or lease payments. That's a big squeeze for many middle-income families.

If you're mulling new car cost vs. old car maintenance, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

First, when figuring per-mile cost of driving a new car over the life of the loan, don't forget depreciation.

Depreciation can significantly alter your actual per-mile cost. Check similar 1- to 5-year-old models in the used car guide to figure out what the depreciation on your car might be over the time you expect to own the vehicle. Divide that number by the number of months you'll own the car and add it to your other monthly costs, which include car payments, insurance, fuel and maintenance such as oil and filter changes.

In this regard, a 10-year-old car in safe driving condition is a marvel because just about all the depreciation has been squeezed out of it. You can drive one for a couple of years and still get what you paid for it (assuming you keep it running right).

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The balancing factors on aging cars - especially in harsh climates - are repair and parts replacement costs and the cost of down time. Even well-kept older models suffer osteoporosis of rubber parts such as suspension bushings. Older cars don't go too well if you've never saved a dime. You need a $1,000 or so in a savings account to cover old-car emergencies with a minimum amount of grief and inconvenience (remember, you'll spend all of that and more in just six months of depreciation on many new cars).

If you like gold-plated security, stick with new. Most new cars come with consumer-friendly warranties and troubleshooting plans that include loaners while your car is checked out. But you pay the price.

If you've got a patient temperament and of a mind to save $10,000 or more in driving costs over three years, try one of the growing catalog of top-shape older "pre-owned" cars.

TIP: Clean-air legislation in many areas has already doomed many older machines to the scrap heap. So don't accept any "older" car that has had its pollution control devices, such as air pumps, disconnected or tampered with. If you're looking at a particular vehicle, ask for a certification in writing that the pollution control gear is in full working order.

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