Plastic and “Planned Obsolescence”

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Remember “planned obsolescence”?

Decades ago – in the ’50s and ’60s – the car companies were accused of deliberately planning to make new cars old almost as soon as they were sold – in order to sell more new cars and keep the production lines humming and the profits coming in.

They did this by making yearly changes (usually cosmetic) to a given model, in order to show how “new” it was relative to the “old” model. A different grille design, or maybe higher fins.

The idea was to stimulate demand for new cars by playing on the psychology of the buying public – which then as now is attracted to the “newest” and “latest” thing.

But the “old” cars were – usually – not obsolete in any meaningful, functional sense. Major technological changes in those days were much more incremental. The basic design of the overhead valve V-8, for instance, didn’t really change much from the mid-1950s all the way through the early 1980s. Something really big – like, for instance, the changeover from 6 Volt to 12 Volt electrical systems – happened maybe once every 15 years.

The point being, you could drive your ’50s, ’60s or ’70s era “old” car almost forever. It might not have been the newest, latest thing – but obsolescence was mostly aesthetic. Or in your head.

Today, we have the real deal. Functional obsolescence has been built into every new car since at least the mid-1980s.

It is no longer just a question of wanting the “latest,” or “newest” model. After a certain point, you pretty much have to buy a new – or at least, newer – model. Because all modern cars are designed to disintegrate – literally – after about 15 years or so.

And I’m not talking about rust, either.

Rust is – usually – economically fixable for many years, often decades. Exterior panel body rot is mostly a cosmetic issue, too. It’s only when structural parts of the car – the frame or suspension/driveline mounting points – rust through that major work (and expense) may seal the car car’s doom and consign it to the crusher.

And that process takes decades (excepting areas where salt bath winters are routine). In arid climates – Arizona or New Mexico – a steel body/frame can (and often does) last 50 years or more. The paint may be faded, but the metal’s still solid.   

What’s less fixable – economically speaking – is the deterioration of modern car parts like plastic intake manifolds, gas tanks and so on. Parts that used to be made of metals or alloy – which meant, they lasted nearly forever and could be rebuilt and re-used multiple times over several decades. Stripped threads could be Heli-coiled; cracks could be welded; warped surfaces fixed by shaving them down a little.

But plastic just crumbles apart after awhile. It can’t be repaired. The part has to be replaced. That alone means money, but here’s where the real planned obsolescence kicks in. The OEMs – Original Equipment Manufacturers, industry-speak for the car companies and their suppliers – make “x” number of parts during the production run (the period when the vehicle is still being sold new) and for a period of years thereafter. But after a certain point, they stop churning out new/replacement parts because it’s not economical to do so. The number of cars that need that part gets smaller and smaller as the years go by.

Fifteen or 20 years after the car was built, the supply of service replacement parts begins to get expensive ; eventually, it just dries up. And no one’s going to step in to make a reproduction plastic intake manifold for a ’95 Chrysler Sebring in 2020 because no one’s going to pay the $500-$1,000 or more it would cost (retail) to make such a part for a car that – by then – is worth maybe $1,500.    

You could (and still can) keep something like a ’55 Chevy – or a 1978 Caprice –  running almost forever. Its basic mechanical components such as the engine block, cylinder head, intake and exhaust manifolds, etc. were mostly made of metals and alloys that could last 100 years or more and be rebuilt/re-used multiple times. The rest of the car was simple – and easily (and economically) fixable, too. This is why you still see cars from the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s in service. Not often, but you do see them. And there are legions of them, kept snug in hobbyists’ garages, that get taken out on nice weekends or sunny afternoons for a pleasure cruise. 

There’s a reason why you don’t see many mid-late 1980-era IROC-Z Camaros around today – even though they were manufactured by the hundreds of thousands.  Or ’90s-era Dodge Neons, for that matter. 

All it takes is for one critical – but plastic or no longer available – part to fail without a replacement being available or priced at point that the car’s owner can afford to buy it – and it’s Crusher Time. 

And the ’80s IROC-Z still had an aluminum intake manifold. At least half the new cars I test drive have plastic intake manifolds – and many other critical parts besides.

Good luck to you, 15 years from now, when they start to crumble apart.

Plastic is wonderful from a manufacturing perspective because it’s cheap to manufacture – and can be easily molded into a variety of shapes and (as in the case of intake manifolds and other parts) may not need to be machined after casting and prior to installation, as is usually the case with metal parts. Just pour it into a mold, stamp it out, install it – and go.

But you won’t go as far – or as long – as you would with a metal/alloy component. The functional obsolescence is built in. And the clock is ticking…

Throw it in the Woods?

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