As Someone Who Loves Cars, I’m Struggling To Decide If I Want To Move From Detroit To LA

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I’ve been struggling with this question for years. I just keep going back-and-forth — I love Detroit; it’s the greatest city in the world for car people, and I won’t even hear arguments to the contrary. I can buy running motors for $145, rent a house with a proving ground out back for under $1,000 a month, hang out with car enginerds and designers on a regular basis, tour incredible junkyards and snag dirt-cheap parts every weekend, spend a reasonable amount of money on gas, and just generally do dumb car stuff with great people for cheap. This place really is the Motor City. But I don’t know if I can stay.

You all know me as the rusty Jeep guy from Detroit, but I’m not from here. I have no family here, no childhood roots, and fewer and fewer ties as many of my friends seem to all move away. But I have stayed for nine years — the longest I’ve ever lived in one place. It’s counter to my nature as an “Army Brat,” and indeed, in the early days after my move here from college, I thought for sure I’d be rolling out within a couple of years. But I stuck around because the car culture is unbelievable (and also because I travel out of the country for usually a month or two out of the year, so this keeps things spicy).

 

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Watch the Instagram video above, and you’ll see what I did today. After waking up, I drove to the legendary Pasteiner’s Cars and Coffee meetup, then headed to a junkyard and gawked over awesome machines with a cool reader named Nick (plus I ran into the legendary engine-carrier, Jeremy Benson, who was wrenching on a Ford Ranger), then helped Nick get unstuck from my muddy backyard “Proving Ground,” and then I just drove around in my brother’s 1966 Mustang to a bunch of car parts stores (and obsessed over how cheaply I can get high-zinc Diesel Oil and high-quality Purolator filters). It was a great day in the month that caps the beginning of half a year of absolutely perfect weather followed by genuine frigid hell.

I know how good I have it here. I can experience things that translate to great content that can help this site thrive, and that, of course, is really important. I have space; cars; a low cost of living; friends and neighbors who genuinely share my passion; specialty car shops run by old-timers who will (cheaply) machine my cylinder heads, replace my leaf spring bushings (and make me custom U-Bolts), braze up my leaky radiator, rebuild my starter motors and generators; no vehicle safety or emissions inspections; a big airport that will get me to Hong Kong, Germany, Australia, or wherever the hell I want to do dumb car things next; car shows damn near everyday; access to tremendous automotive knowledge, and on and on.

Prior to my arrival in Detroit, I had mixed feelings. After having seen documentaries about abandoned Detroit neighborhoods, and after living in the city and witnessing the blight in person, I initially wondered: “Is this still the Motor City?” After nine years I know that the answer is, well, not really — it’s actually the Motor Suburb, but it’s still freaking incredible.

Then why leave?

Well, for one, I don’t know if I’m built to live in one place too long. As I’ve said before, I have no roots anywhere, and my childhood showed me the incredible richness I can get out of life by experiencing new places. And not just a few weeks at a time; many months or years — enough time to really embed myself into new cultures. Remaining in one place is something with which a lot of children of service members struggle.

I’m not going to complain about the winter or the salt; those are what they are, and I’m not sure how much they’re factoring in my decision, anyway. My main considerations involve shaking things up and experiencing something new, and also possibly diversifying my social life outside of work. Regarding the latter point: Is suburban Detroit the ideal place for a single 30 year-old dude to thrive socially? It’s possible that LA is no better, honestly. I don’t have the answers.

Why LA? You’re all now wondering.

It’s tricky. I mean, part of me wants to move to Germany to be with my family — buy an Audi A2 and Renault Twingo, and road trip all over the place. Another part of me wants to move to Kansas or Arkansas, buy a big-ass plot of land, and just go absolutely crazy buying cars by the dozens (though the social scene could be a concern). I anticipate one of those happening at some point. But L.A. offers some opportunities right now; for one, it’s becoming more and more Motor City 2.0. Dozens of my engineering friends from Michigan have moved out west to work for budding EV companies. There’s a lot of great electric vehicle stuff going on over there, and I’d like to be able to explore that side of car culture. I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to discovering Detroit’s car scene — the idea of exploring a new one excites me.

Of course, there’s theoretically a decent social scene filled with diverse people — something appealing to me at this point in my life. There’s also The Autopian’s main supporter, Beau Boeckmann and his amazing team — working with them in person could afford our site a number of great opportunities. And really, that’s where my priority needs to be above all else: Trying to do what’s best for this company and its readership; if working with my team out in California helps us, and if it also happens to scratch other itches of mine, then that seems smart. LA is not exactly wrenchtopia, but I’m doing more editing than anything these days. Plus, most of my wrenching seems to be happening on other continents, anyway.

Plus I bet the off-roading is great in California, and the weather will mean year-round wrenching and no rust. Let me repeat that last one: NO RUST. I’ve been in basic training these past nine years; just imagine me wrenching on California cars — I will be a wrenching god!

Obviously, cost of living in insane. Wrenching on junkers on the side of the road in LA sounds, honestly, no worse than fixing crap-cans in 20 below weather here in Michigan, but still not great. Gas is expensive, emissions inspections would definitely preclude my Jeep J10 from going out there (I’d be rolling in the Mustang and my future overlanding rig, my $350 Holy Grail ZJ. Also my FC, though I realize three cars out there will be rough), and I have my concerns about car culture in LA. Is it too exclusive? Is it difficult for the less privileged to get into the car scene? Is it all about wealth flaunting? (For you LA natives, my apologies for the ignorance. That’s just how it looks from the outside). Is a haggard, balding, recovering trenchfoot-er who’s suffered far too many harsh winters wrenching on rusty heaps going to stand out among all the good looking models? Will everyone I interact with either avert their eyes or instantly vomit?

To these, I have no answers.

Honestly, I have no answers to any of this. I do know that I’d want to return to Michigan later in life, because this place feels “free.” There’s very little bullshit here except for an occasional police officer from some fancy suburb pulling me over for passing him in a snowstorm. But otherwise, I can do what you want, and have plenty of space for it.

As for right now? I’m getting antsy, and lots of people in my life keep telling me that hoarding cars in suburban Detroit maybe isn’t the optimal long-term strategy. They’re probably right. Honestly, I could see myself blinking once and then all of a sudden another nine years pass by, I’m still here hanging out with a fleet of cars at age 39, with a stack of ordinance violations on my counter. Honestly, depending on the cars in my fleet, that sounds kind of epic. But also not — again, I’m conflicted.

One thing I’m not conflicted on, after spending the past four hours researching, is how to minimize the cost of maintenance of my fleet. I have found that base-model Purolator oil filters, when purchased in bulk, can be had for less than pretty much any oil filter you can buy, including Walmart Super Tech oil filters (some of which I’m pretty sure are just rebranded Purolators). Check it out — $29.21 for twelve Jeep 4.0/Mustang filters! That’s just $2.43 a pop! As for my Jeep 258 filters, those were a bit more expensive at about $2.80, but still dirt.

These filters, along with diesel engine oil — which is high in zinc (which is good for flat-tappet engines like those in my vehicles), and, when purchased in 15W-40 weight can be had for pennies — basically mean I can change my oil for less than $20. I spent quite a bit of time researching whether I can use my Jeep’s TL14670 filter on my brother’s Mustang. Turns out, I absolutely can. I also read through service manuals and owner’s manuals to see if 15W-40 is an acceptable oil for the Ford 289 and Jeep straight six, and it turns out the answer is yes, in the summer (I don’t drive these vehicles in the winter, anyway). This is all great from a cost-of-maintenance standpoint.

From the Mustang manual (it even says oil as thick as 20W-40 will work):

From an old Jeep manual:

 

Anyway, that was a hell of a digression, but that’s what my day was like today. Car show, junkyard, mud pit, trips to car parts stores and far too much research on oil change cost minimization. This is normal, right?

 

QuizMaker

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182 Responses

  1. I think you can do it, David. Might take you a while to find the right piece of land for your vehicle menagerie, but you can actually find one with a (you know) SHOP. I’m thinking maybe somewhere out near Agua Dulce or Palmdale……

  2. Don’t. Just don’t.

    From a content perspective: there are already too many bloggers & vloggers doing the LA car thing. It’s been done. Keep your unique perspective and your unique collection. If you want out of the rust belt for whatever reason head south, but not west. There’s plenty of car culture in places other than LA. You live in Detroit – you should know that.

  3. David, whatever you do, just stay out of Sedona, AZ. I love my home and property value too much :).

    If I were you, I’d head to CA. As you get older, winter becomes less and less fun.

  4. From a purely business perspective it sounds like being in LA could have positive results. You can still fly anywhere globally probably cheaper from LAX than from Detroit. I bet someone could hook you up with somewhat affordable (for LA) housing. Use the time in LA to plan and save for your your long term goal in the midwest. Des Moines has been up and coming for years and would be a good place for the next chapter of your life in 5-10 years.

  5. As a recent west coast to Detroit transplant, who is also not about to tell anyone how or where to live, I just want to chime in on the cost and hassle of a 2800 mile move. I did so with 3 cars (shipped two, drove one), and a 2600sf house of stuff plus a 20×24 shop and it was an experience I care not to repeat. Ever.

    I will add, the fire season smoke on the west coast is no joke, and it makes venturing outside in August miserable. There is also a lot less water out there, and even less in some of the other locations being tossed around here in the comments. This will become an issue, and the costs associated with remediating that problem (moving again?) will not be cheap.

    Lastly, and selfishly, moving to Detroit and getting front row seats to The David Tracy Show was definitely something that ended up in the “Pro Column” would be missed.

  6. I moved from the midwest to LA and back, starting around 15 years ago. I would recommend it highly, even if it is only for a couple of years. LA is full of transplants, so being from elsewhere really doesn’t matter. Yes, there is a lot of conspicuous consumption and a lot of abject poverty, but there is a lot of the middle as well. Great food is really inexpensive, and some of the best stuff in the world can be found in 60-year-old strip malls next to gas stations. One great thing is a lot of the best taco stands are colocated with car washes, of which there are many.

    Speaking directly to car culture there is no better place on the planet than LA. It truly is a place where everything can have its own scene. Honestly, the weather has a lot to do with it. Cars can last forever and when I moved out there in 2004 I was able to pick up an E30 325 Convertible for $2900. Obviously, those days are long gone everywhere but the point remains. Whatever money you have buys a better car in SoCal than anyplace else. It is also where the best of DIY American car culture originated. T-buckets, hot rods, dragsters, dune-buggies, muscle cars (Jan & Dean, Beach Boys, etc.), James Dean, Mulholland Drive and everything that evokes, Steve McQueen, crazy customs over the top customs, movie & TV cars like the Batmobile (George Barris, Ed Roth, etc.), many automotive design studios (Art Center College of Design’s leading automotive design program), multitude of race and off-road cources/tracks, thousands of miles of great driving roads, The Peterson Automotive Meusum, huge JDM, an endless supply of other specialist communities, and more density of interesting and amazing cars than anyplace in the world while having the best electrical charging infrastructure in the country.

    Sure, some places might have a couple of the things from that list but no place has all of them much less is a leader in most. It is an world of endless automotive possibilities that ranges from run down but loveingly run back alley shops to people who can charge as much as a lawyer to detail your super car. The only limitation is your ability and imagination.

  7. I’m not going to vote. We made a head decision last year to move away from the city where our kids were born, where we have friends, with an amazing climate and roots to my ancestral homeland (I mean I’m 3rd generation in my country but still!) to come back to the city where we met and went to university. Attracted by a mildly lower cost of living, actually being closer to family and yes probably more money (for now). But our hearts are broken and aching. I know that sounds corny or cliched or whatever, but we miss our home, even if it was only home for 6 years. It was home, it was where we made home. We have been pretty nomadic until our son was born. We made a head decision, everything about moving here was the ‘right decision’ but actually it wasn’t. We are looking at moving back – maybe not now, but planning for a couple of years time. Listen to what your heart wants you to do, not your stupid head. I’m annoyed with my stupid head.

  8. David, just follow your heart and do what you think it’s best for you.
    As someone who spends most of his time in the CA-Baja border I can tell you LA is fascinating but it’s more expensive than any other city I’ve visited except for SF.
    Yes, you can forget about wrenching and hoarding half a dozen cars altogether but if you move eastbound closer to I-15 you’ll get cheaper rents and bigger lands to store up to 3-4 cars. Think about Ontario, San Bernardino or Riverside counties.

    There’s another advantage about living in So Cal (and border states in general): you can get way cheaper cars in Mexico. Clean titled cars in Tijuana are way cheaper than the same car in San Diego, just make sure the cats are still there because it’s a common practice to get them gutted and re-sold. I’ve purchased half a dozen cars there and haven’t had problems with any of those although I admit we had to have an aftermarket cat done on my sister’s 08 Beetle we purchased for $1800 last year.

  9. It doesn’t have to be LA, You could try the high desert. Just avoid Barstow and Adelanto as those two towns add an extra 30/45 minutes to what is already a hellish commute to LA of about 1:45 to 2 hours from Victorville. On the plus side, lots of places to off road, just as many to buy parts from. And I have a rust free WJ that needs an off roading buddy. Just needs a little TLC to avoid overheating. PS: If you want to see how far an EV will go offroad, I have pictures of where I got stuck.

  10. Just registered and un-lurked myself to pitch Albuquerque, New Mexico. I can’t promise that our city is the best car town, but you will encounter any number of interesting used and broken down cars. Not just those but you will experience the milagros of the cars held together by sheer prayer. Not just within the greater metro area but in any direction, you will discover a whole variety of roads that will make for interesting test drives and quick scenic getaways.
    What can be better than a city bisected by a river surrounded by a quite flammable cottonwood forest whose Easternmost boundaries are marked by a beautiful mountain (Sandia Peak) and the West Mesa. Not to mention the furthest western outskirts fringed by a remarkable volcanic crater/caldera remnant. You’ll discover a city full of top-notch roads and stretches full of outright
    “car-niverous” potholes. Central is the classic Route 66 whose downtown stretch is full of well-preserved Southwest Deco, Mid Century, and tonnes of restored Rt 66 neon signage that puts my own hometown (Las Vegas, Nv) to shame. Even though you’re in the metro area: North Valley, South Valley, and Corrales feel like rural places-in many spots feeling like you’ve returned to the Spanish Colonial Era, American Territorial Era, or Pre-WWII NM.
    Yes, we’re less than a 50 minute drive to Santa Fe, but why spend all your money there when you can enjoy a far more casual and less expensive night and day around town. We are a Foodie Paradise: not just for the legendary New Mexico cuisine (which there’s nothing like it and would you like everything served Red, Green, or Christmas!) but for a taste of practically any ethnic cuisine you could imagine. You wouldn’t know it because we’re a minority-majority city full of Hispano/Latinos and Native Americans, but you would be surprised at the thriving scene of Viet joints-this being a local secret, but a taste of the many unexpected surprises you will find.
    I know I sound like an absolute booster but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our horrible drug and alcohol addictions tied to poverty that fuel the horrible crime rates. While Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are fictional, the background is tragically real.
    You would fit in well with the strange mix of folks who inhabit Albuquerque.

  11. Come to Richmond! Great social scene, lots of good beer, lots of cool cars, and close access to hiking/camping sites. Also, I believe at some point you mentioned you had family here. There ya go, Richmond is the answer.

  12. Other than the weather 6 months a year, this (Detroit area) is the place to be for a car guy. I say stay here, but travel in the winter. If you could figure out some sort of Snowbird arrangement (Snowbird is not a Pontiac), that would be ideal. If you do move, we do require a new Autopian member to be stationed here.

  13. Lived in Orange County for 2 years before coming back to TN. Here’s a few pros/cons/thoughts:
    Unless you are very rich or extremely poor, the government/community doesn’t give two shits about you, your rights, well-being, health, etc
    Lots of random costs-car registration will run you several hundred per car. Gas in LA city limits was typically $3/gallon higher than in TN. Random services are much more expensive (boarding two dogs went from $35/night to $120/night if I drove 45 min).
    Rental companies are horribly aggressive and will take advantage of you at every turn. Thought there would be consumer protections in CA as it’s so liberal, it’s 10x worse than TN.
    While there’s a large variety of things to do and resources around the area, it’s hard to take advantage of due to traffic. A 10 mile drive can be 45 min during off hours and 2 hours of hell during rush hour.
    The homeless problem (regardless of your opinions on it) is mortifying in LA and San Diego proper. They’re everywhere, including parks and landmark destinations, their shit (figurative and literal) and trash is everywhere, drug needles scattered. Sidewalks are completely taken over by tents and trash. Most of OC was better as the beach cities would arrest them and nobody would drive them back from the jail.
    Expect lots of add ons to the rent price. Random exorbitant fees, paying for parking, etc.
    Your cars will not be safe, esp. if street parks. Car burglary, theft, and cat. converter theft is super common. I lived in a nice gated apartment with night time security, and kept a sensitive alarmed disk lock on my motorcycle, but my saddlebags got ransacked at least once a week. My friends car got broken into there, and I know of several motorcycles stolen. Nobody cares as the people doing are ‘victims’ and shouldn’t be prosecuted. You’re on the hook for it and F*** you if you’re not happy to do it.
    The ocean/beach is too cold to properly enjoy 9 months out of the year if you want to get in without a wetsuit.
    Temps in the summer will regularly hit 110+ if you are even moderately inland. Possible rolling blackouts during this time.
    Between heat and smoke you’ll spend almost as many days stuck inside as you do for winter in a semi normal place.

    That said: we had a really nice trail 3 miles away that ran from the mountains to Newport Beach. Used to ride my bicycle down it all the time and swim in the harbor before going back. No winter blues. Access to OHV land and trails is amazing. My greatest regret is not doing more off-roading in San Bernardino national forest. It’ll take 2+ hours to get out of the city, but you can take off on Friday and make it to some truest amazing places for a normal weekend. I’d buy a house in SBNF in a heartbeat if I thought my wife could handle the mountain winter.

  14. I’d say take the adventure. I have lived in a few states with California and Washington being two of them, and currently I live in Michigan (Detroit/Ann Arbor area), which MI has been my longest tenure, and honestly, once my daughter graduates we’re packing up and moving out west. Not sure LA is right for us (bigger fans of San Diego); but we’re ready for another adventure.

  15. Just to throw an over the top idea out there and expand on the “live in Jason’s RV” option:

    Get a “toter-home” with an enclosed trailer, keep a few of your cars and travel around with them in tow. It could be like the whole #vanlife thing turned up to 11, while keeping a few of your favorite rides and getting to wrench on them in different locations.
    Just imagine DT pulling up in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, unloading the now running Golden Eagle and setting a time up Pikes Peak. Or visiting a junk yard in every state and buying a part, then putting together the “Ultimate Budget Overlanding Grand Cherokee” project with pieces from each and every state.

    Just an idea….

  16. I feel your pain, it would be my dream to have a garage big enough for all the cars I own inside my head (too expensive in reality) and a property big enough to build a race track, but even a couple of hours outside Sydney (Aus) the price is still similar to the city. I think to head somewhere like Reno would be great so you have space and still access to airports. But I am sure there will be some great stories about Tracey vs LA county, probably due to rust and pollution laws. Can’t wait to see where you end up!

  17. LA county local here.

    The car scene here is only exclusive and wealth flaunting if you chose to surround yourself with people like that. It seems like that’s the default around here because that’s what all the rich people do and what makes it into the press, but the reality on the ground is much more varied and interesting. For every rich guy with some 1 of 500 special edition car there are 20 average Joe’s driving something they love no matter how rough around the edges it is. Pick a car culture niche and you’ll find enthusiasts with the same interests as you and a couple a shops dedicated specifically to your needs.

    Having seen how cheaply you like to do things, I think the biggest challenge to you will be the high cost of living, but the tradeoff is year-round wrenching and driving weather, so doing what you do best will be infinitely more pleasant here than in Detroit in that regard.

    I hear you on the whole smog testing thing, but I feel that with only having three vehicles you will have a lot more time to keep them in good running order so you should more than likely be able to pass the tailpipe test without too much trouble. It’ll definitely be significantly easier than what you tried to do in Germany with your van.

  18. Here’s a suggestion…Live out there part time during the Midwest Winter months.
    I’ve been visiting my Dad in Orange County since 1988 from South Dakota and it’s a wonderful place to visit for short periods of time.

  19. Is there an option to park an RV and your 3 cars in a Galpin back lot in LA? Your biggest problem is going to be housing expense, especially if you need to park 3 cars. The Mustang and FC are emissions exempt, and CA doesn’t do safety inspections either. The ZJ is likely old enough that it’s a tailpipe test, and it’s honestly not that hard to pass smog on stock emissions equipment.

    Beyond the ostentatious display of wealth, there is a whole other subculture of keeping shitboxen on the road on a shoestring budget, necessitated by the shitty transit situation, and enabled by the lack of safety inspections. However, being a snow-free climate, body longevity is less prized over mechanical reliability, which explains the prevalence of Japanese makes in CA. There might not be that many XJs here, but you might have fun in LA regardless.

    The problem is figuring out the housing and car storage situation, and I cannot stress that enough. Anywhere in Urban California is a non-starter until you figure out if housing will be affordable for you.

  20. I really like parts of California, but L.A. isn’t one of them. You couldn’t pay me to live in L.A.. As for the rest of California, the drought and constant fires are a big problem, but then I live in the Colorado Front Range, and sadly we probably aren’t far behind.

  21. I will also suggest TN – the “sticks” option! We have BNA (Nashville International Airport, Delta hub, etc). We have Windrock Park (73,000 acres of intense wheeling and rock crawling). We have no state income tax, no smog checks (debate for another time) and though we have sales tax on vehicle sales, the DMV is more than happy to accept that you paid $500 for that old rustbucket. There is land and shop space aplenty along our many interstates and though Nashville is a boomtown, an hour outside the city is still affordable and has the best of both worlds IMO.

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