Logan’s Run … on Four Wheels?

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Maybe the biggest single negative about modern cars is this: When they reach a certain tipping point – about 12-15 years after they left the factory – fixing them is either more trouble than it’s worth, too expensive or just can’t be done (because you can’t find parts for it anymore). 

For example:

You own an early ’90s-era Civic or similar computer-controlled, late-model econo-car. It has 189,000 miles on it and is worth maybe $1,500 or so  – but it still runs great. Probably the engine is good for another 50,000 miles – at least. But one day, on your way to work, the transmission starts to slip. 

If this were something along the lines of oh, a ’75 Chevy Nova, a brand-new or rebuilt TH350 automatic transmission would cost maybe $600 or so – and a good used one maybe $200. It has no computer controls; it’s literally a 30 minute bolt-in job and definitely worth doing. The Nova’s straight six (or small Chevy V-8) can also be completely rebuilt for about $1,000.  Assuming the car’s frame is solid, you can keep a car like this going for almost forever and for not much money, either.  

Things have changed a lot since ’75. To hip yourself to the New Order, go online and price a new/rebuilt Honda automatic transmission. $2,000 (or more, depending on the model). Even junkyard ones cost more than brand-new/rebuilt old-style units do.

Who is going to put two grand into a $1,500 car? 

But without a working transmission, the $1,500 Honda is worth next to nothing. A parts car. You might get a couple hundred bucks for it as scrap. So it’s either throw big money into the car just to get back to where you where before – or dig even deeper for an equivalent used car. Or buy a new car and really dig deep.

And then cross your fingers and hope to Crom (the Motor God) that next month the electronically controlled air conditioner head unit doesn’t crap out on you. If it does, you’re looking at maybe another $800-$1,000 … or no AC.

“Little things” can eat your wallet’s contents faster than a  school of frenzied piranhas.

ABS pumps can cost more than redoing the entire brake system on a pre-ABS car. Electronic control modules (the “ECM,” or computer brain that runs your car’s engine – and which it won’t run without) can $1,000 or more. Modern EFI systems have numerous expensive components, several of which cost – individually – more than the entire fuel system (a carburetor sitting on a cast iron intake manifold) of an older car. And on many new cars, the intake manifold and other parts are made of plastic. Unlike cast iron or aluminum – which can last 100 years or even indefinitely – plastic will crumble or crack long before then. And in 20 years, it might be hard – maybe impossible – to find a replacement. All the other units are also old and falling apart – and no one’s making new ones. 

Don’t forget  $400 a piece catalytic converters and $50 a pop 02 sensors – plus all the other sensors (and miles of wires) that cover the surface of a modern engine like zits on the cheeks of your teenage kid.

And then there are the air bags. These things may be “safe” … or maybe not; air bags are the only “safety” device known to have killed people and injured many more. They are also ticking economic time bombs that can leave you hoofing it (or waiting at the bus stop) at almost any moment.

Take that ’90s-era economy car. It has two air bags, one each for driver and front seat passenger. Add one relatively minor crash sufficient to trigger the bags – or just one of them.

In the pre air bag days, the car would be fixable, mechanically as well as economically. Replace/repair some damaged sheetmetal and re-paint. No problem. Good to go. If you used junkyard fenders and so on, it could be done for a few hundred bucks. You could even do much of it yourself – and with basic hand tools.

But air bags are not fixable – and they are anything but cheap. Once deployed, they must be replaced. And not just the bag, but the entire housing they were in – which means the steering wheel and (if the passenger side bag goes off) the entire dashboard. That equals big bucks. Replacing both bags and the steering wheel/dash can easily run to a couple thousand dollars – before even getting to the actual body damage. 

But wait. There’s more.

Insurance companies will usually “total” a car once the cost to repair it hits 50 percent of its retail value. If you’re driving a $2,000 car…. even a $7,000 car – that tipping point is reached pretty easily, even after a fairly minor accident, if the car has air bags. 

This is why modern cars won’t be around as long as older cars. The evidence is already there to see. 

If you’re old enough to remember the ’70s and ’80s, you probably remember routinely seeing cars 20-plus years old still in service as daily drivers. That is much less common today. It is rare to see a car from the ’80s – when computer controls and EFI first appeared – still on the road. 

Here’s a good example:  ’80s-era Camaros and Firebirds.

GM built hundreds of thousands of them. You used to see them everywhere. IROC-Z Camaros and Trans-AM GTAs. Now you almost never see them – outside of car shows (and a few redneck backyards). But you still see ’70s-era Camaros and Firebirds fairly often, despite them being a decade or more older. Why? The ’70s-era cars are simple machines that can be easily and economically kept running. The ’80s-era cars aren’t – and can’t be. Most of the few still in running condition are low-miles/pampered examples. Restoring one of these things would be massively expensive and maybe impossible. The aftermarket will do the math and quickly figure out that it’s just not economic to make new parts, because the unit cost for, say, a TPI wiring harness would be so high that almost no one could afford to buy it. All those ’80s era F-cars and everything else like ’em?  

Drive ’em, until they break – then throw ’em in the woods!    

What we’ve arrived at – or are heading toward at a gallop – is the Era of the Disposable Car. It is already implicit; the de facto reality. Tomorrow – or not too far from now – it will be explicit. Maybe even the law.

Cars are becoming even more complex – and expensive – at what seems to be a geometric rate of progression. As pressure to make them ever “cleaner” and more “efficient” and “safe” grows, this trend will accelerate. A point will be reached – we are very close already – when anything much more involved than routine service, such as fluid and filter changes, may not be worth doing. Either the parts – or the skill needed to do the job – will be too expensive. Cheaper to just throw it away and get a new one.

Doubt it? Well, some automakers are already doing just that when it comes to major components such as engines and transmissions. If a problem crops up during the warranty period, they have discovered it’s more cost effective to just pluck and toss the old part and replace it with a new one than it would be to have a $70 per hour tech tear it down, find the problem and fix it. This one reason why a transmission job can now cost you several thousand bucks. 

It is only a matter of time until this inexorable economic logic is applied to the whole car.

Which will mean, as time goes by, that all modern cars will be “disappeared” on a rolling basis, every 12-15 years or so. The only old cars that will survive into their third or fourth decade – as operable machines – will be cars built before the early ’80s, before the dawn of the automotive electronic age. 

It’ll be kind of like “carousel” in the ’70s-era sci-fi movie, Logan’s Run. Remember that one? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSnLU9nyFSA
 No one was allowed to live past the age of 30. When that fateful birthday approached, you went to “carousel” – were lasers dispatched you to the not-so-happy-hunting ground.

Tomorrow’s cars may not  even get to reach their late teens before their time’s up.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. If there’s a significant amount of folks keeping old iron going, expect further regulations for ‘safety’ or ’emissions’ for the express purpose of getting them off the road. The ‘system’ wants you to pay higher registration and user fees, and sales tax on vehicle purchase.

    • Hi Doug,

      Yes, agreed. I keep wondering when (as an example) my state will rescind the “permanent” registration (no annual cost) available to owners of antique cars. Buy the plate – just once – and it’s good in perpetuity.

      This saves me a small fortune as I have antique tags on four vehicles which would otherwise require an annual registration fee of about $50 each, to keep the tags current.

  2. Just read this – I’m facing the decision now whether to repair or replace my ol’ “Beach Buggy”. Actually I live in Oz and have 5 beaches within 5 minutes drive time. So the article was timely.

    The big problem is usually as much ego as anything else for most of us, I think.
    I don’t really drive anywhere of consequence at all. I drive to the beach seven days a week as a rule, a total of maybe 15 miles, then a weekly trip to an organic produce shop, a round trip of 30 miles on a 70 mile an hour expressway and a five-minute detour to supermarkets on the way back for those things which I have to buy that aren’t available as organic.

    So, as you can see, I am the ideal independent observer! 🙂

    A very good article. The real key to the exercise is ego versus economy.
    Buying new cars is of course an exercise for the rich. Or the company owner. And anyone with a bit of good tax advice can readily become a company owner.
    If you have to buy a replacement vehicle remember that there is no way that you are going to impress the other peasants unless you are buying (depending on your age) a Rolls-Royce or a Scorpion sports car. So you might as well base it on economics.

    Here is a hint: only buy a vehicle for which you can pay cash. There, that changes the ball game doesn’t it?
    Expect to have to put a fair amount of money into keeping it going and especially on the safety aspects like tyres, brakes and towbar (mainly for defensive purposes).
    Don’t worry at all about how much the vehicle is costing you to maintain and keep on the road it is only ever going to be a fraction of the cost of you getting sucked into buying a new vehicle.

    However:
    you can ignore all of the above if you are clever enough to set up a home-based genuine Incorporated business and go talk to one of the major car rental companies about a two-year package. And everything to do with the vehicle becomes 100% tax-deductible. Of course you have to be earning a decent income first.

    I have a friend who has set up an exotic fish breeding business (his wife likes fish) and bought himself the most expensive four-wheel-drive pickup I’ve ever seen. It’s a delivery vehicle, okay?

  3. We can!

    On the good side, government emissions control requirements have much-improved the reliability and longevity (up to a point) of the average car. On the bad side, they have also made cars much more expensive – and put what amounts to a definite, finite upper limit on a car’s realistic service life. Yes, a new car will probably run without much trouble for 10-15 years. But after 15 years, you are likely going to be facing a repair that will cost more than the vehicle’s worth. By 20 or more, this is almost a certainty. Older cars can be kept running almost forever. So, there are pros and cons… I’m not sure which ends up being best, on the net!

  4. I’m pretty sure we can thank government for this. I suspect without the plethora of regulations, car companies might still be building cars meant to last. But my 1994 Corolla keeps on going!

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