Reader Question: How Far Back is (Relatively) Saaaaaaafety Free?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Michael asks: If I want a new car but don’t want all the computer stuff and high repair bills from what they’re building now, what is a good year for a used car which is likely to last several (15?) years but can still be maintained without a ginormous bill? I’m now driving a great 19 year old Toyota Sienna with 260K miles, so it’s getting a little old. No rust here in Arizona, though.

My reply: It’s a question of degree, Mike. Cars have been computer-controlled since the mid-late 1980s. But the extent of that control increased markedly beginning in the mid-2000s, when the car companies began to install technologies and systems that didn’t just run the car’s essential systems but actively pre-empted the driver’s decisions. Examples include aggressively interventionist traction/stability control and – most recently (past five or so years) things like automated  emergency braking and lane keep assist

In addition, drivetrain complexity began to increase at a geometric rate as the car industry developed systems to achieve compliance with government emissions, saaaaaaaaaaaaafety and fuel efficiency mandates. Examples include direct injection, cylinder deactivation, very small/very turbocharged engines, transmissions with multiple overdrive gears, etc.

Most of the really bad stuff (from our point of view) became common about five years ago. If you go back to circa 2010 and before – excepting luxury cars, many of which had the stuff that’s now common in all cars first – you should be okay.

Personally, I regard cars made in the mid-late ’90s as being the apotheosis of car design. Throttle body injection (which most had) gave superb driveabiity/reliability and very low maintenance; most transmissions had one overdrive. These cars – and trucks – got as good or better mileage than their current-year equivalents and were much simpler/easier/cheaper to maintain.

They also had (usually) just two air bags (maybe four; almost never six or more) and very little in the way of driver-pre-empting Nanny tech.

I have my eye on an ’85 Olds Cutlass… it has a 307 V8, four-speed OD automatic and no air bags at all!

. . .

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  1. If I lived in a rust free environment I would probably always end up rebuilding what I have. But I very rarely end up paying someone to do something on my cars besides mounting tires so that’s not as expensive money wise as it would be to other people.

    As to a balance between modernity and not having invasive nonsense I would say 1996 to maybe some time in the 00s. OBD2 compliant systems if you can get a hold of the appropriate reference material is just much easier to deal with than the previous control systems. That era from the late 80s to 1995 makes figuring out what the car is complaining about more tiresome.

    Before then the systems are more primitive and limited in what they do, like the computer controlled Qjet on an 1980s olds 307. It just does mixture and actually makes the carb more simple.

  2. I bought a ’92 Mustang GT 5.0 hatchback new. Been driving it almost 27 years now without a single major repair. Not as pretty as she once was (who is?), but still peppy and a blast to drive.

  3. Some great vehicles listed.Regarding electronics,I compare my last 2 cars,a 2001 Jetta new,and a used LS400.Jetta was a crap pile from early on with electronic problems.Swore i would never own another computer car.
    Then I got the old 1998 Lexus.They spent so much money developing and manufacturing that car,its reliability is stellar.Had to be done right,they were founding a company that was out to beat the luxury cars from Europe.And it slaughtered them in 2 years!!
    A passenger car engine thats aircraft certified.4-500,000 mile tranny if you do frequent 2 qt tranny fluid changes.
    Only real electronic problem is the ECU capacitors.If you can solder its a few dollar repair,or a place in montclair,calif,DriftMotion, will do it around 80 bucks.Also a few very cheap easy to replace sensors,plastic degrades over the years.With so much crap on the car it should be an electronic nightmare but if you want electronics that work,thats the car.

  4. Although I’ve always been partial to AMC products, I have to say that if you can find a 1960s or early 1970s Plymouth Valiant or Dodge Dart with slant-six and torqueflite you’ve pretty much got a “forever” vehicle that has a robust drivetrain and a minimum of things to go wrong. The problem is that most of those cars in the rust belt have melted away unless owners had the foresight to oil spray the underside each season. (That’s how I keep my old barge intact.) Probably have to go to the southwest to find an intact specimen these days.

      • I have an Eagle wagon for winter/snow use. It’s a tough little car. The Eagle has a crazy complex emissions system with feedback carb, crude engine computer, and miles of vacuum hoses but I’ve learned to deal with it over the years. The 258 six in the Eagle is the direct ancestor of the fabled Jeep 4.0. (Started out as the 232 six in the 1964 Rambler Typhoon.)

        Very hard to beat a Valiant or Dart for sheer longevity as long as you can keep the tinworm away.

        • An Eagle wagon?! Oh, you lucky #*&$%#@#$!!

          With all the emissions and vacuum lines, that must be the one that only gets 13MPG… If I had her, I’d strip all of that crap right off of there (non-inspection state!) and just put on a plain-old 2bbl……

          • The Eagle was way ahead of its time, even though the body dates to the 1970 Hornet. It’s practically like a mountain goat in the snow.

            Unfortunately it has to pass periodic inspection by the state Gestapo or I would strip all that crap out. Since the Eagle uses the same basic setup as a Jeep CJ of the same year there are plenty of engine upgrade and performance parts available for owners who don’t have that limitation to deal with.

    • Wow! I think the last time I saw a Valiant/Dart on the road was in the 80’s! They were like the Rambler- ultimate economy, ,long-lasting good ol’ cars (and the Duster with a Slant 6)- If only the rust didn’t kill ’em!

      Those were economy cars that didn’t make you feel POOR! -Unlike the stupid econo-boxes that replaced them and have proliferated since. I’ll take a Valiant that’ll seat 6, with crank windows and a metal dash and a real trunk, any day over a stupid little Hyundai or other modern poverty-mobile with power windows and plastic meth-addict interior and no trunk, that barely seats 4, and relieves you of any lingering traces of heterosexuality just by looking at it…..

      • I loved the under-dash vents in the Valiant/Dart, they were like plastic cubes with a door on the front that you unlatched. They looked kind of crude but funneled in gobs of fresh air into the car and nothing to go wrong – no computer controlled flaps operated by motors. My only complaint on those really is at that time Chrysler’s power steering had zero road feel at all. (All the domestics were overboosted back then but Chrysler’s was the worst. It was like turning a knob on the radio.)

      • Nunzio,The price sure was right on them.And those small V8’s,318 and 340,good engines as well.
        jason,garage down the street from me,owner was an AMC fan.Was always building fine Eagles,4×4 Gremlins,lol.You would have liked him.
        Yep,Mustangs and 289/302’s.Nice cars.Though in my experience early ones meant at most 50K before head gaskets.But hey,it was what it was,changing them wasnt that hard at all.Lots of mustangs in this Ford family.

        • I don’t remember head gaskets ever being a common issue in the past, with V-8’s and inline 6’s…till they came out with aluminum heads, or aluminum engines. Back in the 70’s and even most of the 80’s, no one blew a head gasket except the racing crowd who’d abuse their engines or bump the compression way up…..

          • I know the Rambler 195.6 OHV engine (1956-1965) would develop head gasket problems if the cylinder head bolts were not tightened regularly. This was due to the design which was an adaptation of their flathead six. The factory recommended checking head bolts at 4,000 mile intervals and re-torquing the bolts every 8,000 miles. (I’ve read that these days there are ways to fix this but I have not owned a car with that engine for quite a few years now.) The aluminum version of this engine was a total disaster and not many survived more than a few years.

            I don’t think Studebaker had gasket problems with their circa 1960 OHV conversion, but those were prone to cracked heads due to insufficient metal between the valves.)

            But in general domestic American iron from say the 1950s through 1980s didn’t tend to blow head gaskets unless severely abused.

            • Darn, Jason! I never knew that about the old Rambler injuns! It would sound draconian today- the prospect of adjusting head bolts every 8K miles (Hours of work on most modern cars just to get to ’em)- but I’ll bet on them old simple Ramblers, it was probably a 20 minute job- if that.

              Speaking of the Eagles (The car…not the singing druggies), I learned to drive on an AMC Concord (For those who may not know: Concord=the non-4×4 version of the Eagle)- That was a great car (Would’ve been greater if it had been an Eagle!)- Funny thing, within just a few years of their debut, I never saw one on the street again!

  5. Depending on the manufucturer, I won’t buy anything newer than ’01-’03. Currently have a 99 and an 01, and they’re reliable- but really still too much piddling unnecessary crap in ’em to futz with when something does go wrong (Mainly electronics- attached to everything!).

    Also, the newer ya go, the more parts and pieces of the vehicle are made of plastic, and or are just clipped together with cheesy plastic fasteners instead of metal clips or actual nuts/bolts or screws; which means that the car ‘loosens up’ a lot sooner than cars used to- and things start rattling and squeaking and falling apart; cracking; and or coming off.

    If I lived in AZ, where there is no rust, I would either keep my current vehicles forever, or get older ones…as old as possible- 60’s/70’s……

    The Sienna is a good minivan- and if it’s in decent shape, should easily be able to go another 100K miles. Even if it needs some work- even something major- probably better to put a few grand into something that’ll last you many more years and be reliable to cheap to keep….than to take on another older vehicle which may not even be in as good of shape- or even if it is, may require the very work as your current one.

    Don’t let the mileage scare you- I personally buy nothing but high mileage older vehicles, because if they are driven and maintained (which is usually the case if they’ve acquired the mileage and are still going) they will actually be in better shape than their low-mile counterpart, which has spent a lot of time just sitting, and probably wasn’t maintained, and may’ve even only been used for short hops…all of which are murder on vehicles….and the more so as they age.

    • PS: Basically, with all modern cars (or the last 30 years- but the more so the newer ya go), head gaskets and automatic trannies are ubiquitous problem areas….and are often so expensive to repair that it’s not worth it- and is often a reason people are selling their cars- but those issues can be very hard to spot on a short test drive and inspection. Or the vehicle can be fine when you buy it, and develop a problem in the near future…especially if it was ever overheated. You have no way of knowing, if the problem has not manifested itself yet….

      The new stuff is just INSANE! Engine stop/start technology that requires and uber expensive starter, because the starter gets so much wear…and then on some of ’em, to make matters even worse, the started is buried somewhere where ya have to take the engine half apart to get at it! It can cost over $1500 just to freplace a simple starter!!!!

      WTH? On cars like the Olds that Eric is thinking of getting, you can get a starter for c. $50 and pop it in in 10 minutes….. (Hey Eric, I think we need to distinguish here, for the young’uns, between the real full-size RWD Cutlass you’re talking about- If I remember correctly, that was called the Cutlass Supreme- to differentiate it from the downsized FWD Cutless Cierra POS that came out at the same time…)

        • I had a ’79 Regal in the 80’s…..loved that car! I think those cars were the GM F-bodies? Now all GM makes are F.U. cars….. 😀

          But yeah, the Cutlass, Grand Pricks, Regal…and what was the Chevy version? The Monte or the Malibu?- Probably the best cars of the entire 1980’s (Not a hard feat to achieve, considering the piles of crap that were being proffered then….._

          • Nun, preaching to the choir. My 77 SS El Camino had the same interior as the rarest Monte Carlo.
            A friend had one of the high end Montes and while nice it didn’t have the SS dash or the rotating bucket seats that were mighty comfy as well às practical and accommodating in they swiveled 90 degrees to greatly enhance ingress and egress.

            And before aftermarket parts you couldn’t adapt T/A WS6 suspension and steering parts that made it handle nice and flat, very comfortable and nice to drive, especially in spirited driving and long high speed runs.

            • 8, it’s funny- for some reason, the 80’s Monte’s were the quintessential Guido-mobiles! I know a Dago back in NY who still drives one. Don’t know what it is, but to this day, anywhere ya have lots of Wops, you’ll still see lots of Montes, Firebirds and Camaros.

              Maybe it’s a genetic thing- to compensate for all the crap cars they have in Italy!

              • Hi Nunz!

                A mid-’80s Monte SS with the L69 305 HO/4BBL was a fun car! Not fast by today’s standards, but it felt fast and was a blast to drive because you could fry the tires at will. No saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety stuff at all. Also, it was a mid-sized coupe, with a big back seat and a huge trunk.

                Same basic car as the Cutlass I have my eyes on… 🙂

                • Hi Ya, Eric!

                  Yes, I always thought that those style 80’s GM cars were the last of the good cars that GM made.

                  I was always stymied by how they could call it an SS though, with only a 305- but then I remembered my old Regal with the 238 V6, which was no slug….so I guess they were just truly efficient cars- i.e. decent-sized cars that could be pulled around quite easily…and they even got quite decent gas mileage.

                  Come to think of it, I briefly had a Toronado, too- a heavier car, with only a 307- and that puppy had all the power ya’d need.

                  Hmmmm….all the technology in the intervening 35 years, and yet ya need a car half the size of those beasts, with twice the horsepower, to do the same thing….

                  ….and they’re lucky if they can achieve the same MPGs.

                  • Hi Nunz,

                    THe ’80s SS ran in the high 15s, stock (quarter mile) but the cool thing was… it was a small block Chevy and so very easy (and cheap) to get a lot more power out of it. Headers, nix the cats… a hot cam… and you could get 250-275 hp out of it (stock was 190) and have a car that was quick as almost any ’60s muscle car… with the amenities of a modern car!

                    • And of course, Eric, the great thing about the SBC was that it was oh so easy to rebuild…and the parts to do so were dirt cheap!

  6. From my own experience, a mid 1990’s Lexus ES300 or LS400 – the 400 being the gold standard in terms of durability with drive trains easily going 500,000 miles.

    My 1996 ES gave me barely any trouble aside from an exhaust flex pipe, a couple of exhaust sensors and a electronic transmission component at around 15 years old. That car gave me no problems. Hurricane Sandy partially drowned it and as I still had full coverage, it wasn’t worth keeping it – but was back on the road shortly after the insurance company “totaled it” – we got a call it was blocking someone’s driveway and our number was still in it. Some relays under the passenger seat, the stereo amp and the electrical seat controls took a salt water bath that just managed to get above the rocker panels. I owned it 13 years and had enough ex-girlfriends in that car that I swear I could hear them nagging each time I started the engine – I was nearing replacing it for that reason alone when the hurricane hit.

    My 2010 GS already went through under warranty computer issues, it is on its third mandated recall and has a rusting exhaust system at only 63,000 miles and being garage kept.

    I’d be very hesitant to say anything nice about any mid-1980’s GM car. I inherited my mother’s 1986 Cadillac Coupe – at 50,000 miles that car had already cost $10,000 in repairs, was completely unreliable and the 4100 Engine was known as one of the worst GM ever produced with used car lots replacing the engine whenever they got a Cadillac on their lot with one before they’d offer it for sale.

  7. Look no further than a Bulack Grand National. Not the T top, because like all GMs of that day and age, they leak.

    Change the EPROM and you can have a different car every day of the week. ?

  8. I have an 86 Olds Calais that I recently replaced the head and headgasket [2.5 Iron Lung] essentially for the same reasons. The car’s “value” is irrelevant. No nanny tack ons, no tracking devices, a three speed automatic, TBI, good fuel mileage. Simplicity. Far more valuable to me than some arbitrary blue book number.

    My newest is an 05. And that’s as new as I will ever go. 70,000 miles. It will last another 15 years at least.

    • Bostwick, 05 is probably the cutoff point

      A friend had a nice 08 Tahoe until he hit a deer last year
      Didn’t do any damage to the front but the airbags and side curtains deployed

      6 bags means a lot of trim destroyed. He temporarily replaced it with an 89 beater chevy pickup

      • Yes, Eightsouthman. After 50 years of having an intense interest in cars [since the age of 10], that 05 will be my last new one.

        For me it’s simply dropping out: of debt of all kinds [though the head work on the Olds went on my credit card, it will be paid off quickly], consumerism and as much of the nanny state as I can.

        Cars aren’t fun any more, at least the new ones.

        I’ve had more fun after getting this Olds back from my little brother than I would ever have had with a new one. Yes, even an old POS GM can still provide that.

        The new ones, beyond gadgets, flash and gimmicks, not so much.


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