Probably the single best thing about modern cars is how long they last and how little trouble they usually give while they last.
Until they break. And then it’s often time to throw them away.
It’s not that they aren’t fixable. Anything can be fixed, if you’re willing to spend whatever it takes to fix it. The trouble is it’s often not worth fixing it the modern car once it’s old. Relative to what it’s worth. And that’s the single worst thing about modern cars (after depreciation).
For the first 10-12 years or so from new, most modern cars will only cost you whatever it costs to replace normal wear items such as tires and brake pads and to get basic maintenance such as oil and filter changes done. This is a happy fact given the cost of the new car itself, which is several thousand dollars higher, on average, than an analogous car from the pre-modern (pre-computer) era, which roughly ended in the early 1980s. Those cars needed more frequent basic maintenance; for example, it was usual to have the oil and filter changed once every 3,000 miles or so (vs. once every 5,000-plus on average now) and their non-computer-controlled fuel and ignition systems needed to be “tuned up” twice a year, once in Fall and then again in Spring.
For example, it is routine for an oil change to cost $50 or even twice that today because many modern cars require high-cost synthetic oil, which lasts longer but also costs.
Same for things like spark plugs, which in some cases cost $10 or more each now vs. $10 for a set back in the day.
But the real cost comes into play when the modern car becomes an old car. When something finally does break, it is often too expensive to fix it – relative to the value of the car. It can be sudden death. The car runs great, seems completely solid. Then one day the electronic climate control stops working. In order to get it working again, a very expensive electronic controller is needed, which is specific to that car and perhaps no longer available because the car’s manufacturer stopped making it. Without that expensive part, the car has no AC or heat.
No defroster, either – as the entire climate control system is controlled electronically.
The car is unusable without working AC/heat/defroster. But the cost of the part – if you find it – plus the labor to install it (because you probably lack the expertise with electronics and the diagnostic tools necessary to perform the work). Let’s say the bill is $1,500 – a sum that isn’t hard to rack up when fixing anything modern.
But the car is only worth $2,500.
It won’t be worth $4,000, either, after you fix it. It’ll be worth the same $2,500 – and in a way, less – because something else expensive that you can’t fix could and probably will go wrong before another year goes by.
You may not even have $1,500 and the only way to pay for the fix is to put it on the card – and pay 26 percent interest. Meanwhile, you could finance a new car. Which is just what many people do, being trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Pre-modern cars had a more favorable Fix-it-to-Value ratio. They broke down more often, certainly. But when they broke down it cost less – both actually and proportionately – to fix them.
For example you could (and still can) rebuild an old VW Beetle’s air-cooled engine for about $1,500. The entire engine – not just the timing chain or the turbo (which it hasn’t got). You now have a new engine, not just a new turbo on an old engine. If you’re handy, you can rebuild the Beetle’s engine yourself. Removal and reinstallation is within the reach of anyone with a floor jack, a piece of 2×4 and some wrenches.
And there’s not much else on the Beetle that will break, it being a simple car without complex electronic systems or even a radiator. With a new (rebuilt) engine, it’s effectively a new Beetle and so it’s worth fixing it.
And the engine, itself, could be gimped along for a longer time before it had to be rebuilt. This attribute made it feasible to keep a car like an old VW on the road for 30 years or even longer without spending more than it was worth to keep it on the road.
It’s true you had to deal with frequent fiddling – with any pre-modern car – and sometimes, inconveniently, as by the side of the road in the middle of a downpour on the way to work. But the difference was you could deal with it – literally as well as financially. Cars without computers were much more roadside-fixable and they cost a lot less to fix.
They had their downsides, of course. But there is also a price to be paid for works-great until-it-doesn’t.
And arguably, the biggest downside of all is that we no longer have the choice. We have to accept the calamitous Fix it to Value ratio of the modern car – because we’re not allowed to buy cars that are worth fixing even when they aren’t worth much anymore.
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