Premature vs. “Planned” Obsolescence

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You may have heard the term, planned obsolescence. It refers to the policy of General Motors (and others) back in the ’50s and ’60s to egg-on the purchase of new cars by making last year’s cars look “old.”

The italics being important.

If you didn’t care whether your ’58 Chevy looked “old” relative to a ’61 Chevy, you could keep on driving it for many years to come. The car, itself, wasn’t designed to be thrown away – so as to egg-you-on to buy a new car before you wanted a new car.

Today, they are.

Here’s a “case” in point – which I’ll juxtapose with a contrary example from the era of “planned” (rather than premature) obsolescence:

A woman I know just bought a new car because her not very-old-car, a 2008 Ford Mustang, had to be thrown away. More precisely, was no longer worth not throwing away. Her car – the dealer told her, needed a new transmission. The cost of that – parts and labor – would be in the neighborhood of (deep breath now) five thousand dollars.

Which, as it turns out, is roughly about the current retail market value of her car – with a working transmission. No one with any sense puts $5k in repairs into a $5k car that will only be worth $5k after you put that $5k into it.

Most people haven’t got $5k to spend on . . . anything. And putting it on the card – at 29.999 percent interest isn’t a great idea.

So, she threw her Mustang away.

It being easier – though more costly – to finance a new car.

The dealer may – probably will – install a new replacement transmission (modern electronicized automatic transmissions often can’t be rebuilt) and put the repaired car up for sale on its used car lot.

A dealer can afford to do this, because it can get a new tranny for much less than it sells them to people like my friend, who-owned-the-Mustang, are charged for them. And because it doesn’t charge itself labor to perform the installation.

She bought a new car, instead.

Premature obsolescence.

Her old car, itself, was still in great shape. No rust, paint looking good. Nothing amiss with the engine or the rest of it. A perfectly good car – other than a bad transmission – tossed in trash on account of the cost of replacing that bad transmission.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. The transmission in my friend’s car – as in all modern cars – was bad from the day it was new, in terms of being such an intricately complex piece of equipment that when it eventually/inevitably went actually bad, the replacement cost would be so high relative to the value of the car, itself, that replacing it would be not worth doing.

Which is very bad, indeed.

And it’s not just transmissions that are “bad” in this sense. It is also engines and their intricately complex peripherals, such as the multiple turbochargers affixed to many of them. The myriad warren of electronics behind the dash (and in the doors). Lately, the touchscreen interfaces, everywhere. Many of these items are made of cheap materials, cheaply manufactured – but haltingly expensive to replace, when they fail. And the more electronicized cars become, the more failure prone they become.

Rendering them prematurely economically obsolete.

They would work, if “x” were replaced. It’s just not worth replacing “x.”

It’s a weird thing, because if it weren’t for these built-in economic time bombs, most any modern car could provide reliable transportation for decades. This being a kind of side-effect of government emissions standards, which resulted in tightened-up engine tolerances – and the general pressure to up quality control such that the overall car, itself, is a much-better-put-together thing than the cars of the past.

But the same regulatory and other pressures that led to greater refinement – and durability, up to a point – have also led to these catastrophic (economically speaking) failure points. The car works great, for years – until one day, something stops working.

And then the whole thing is rendered instant junk.

The cars of the “planned” obsolescence era were in a general way junkier. They were not put together nearly as well, even high-end cars such as Cadillacs. Models from that era were shamefully slipshod relative to Hyundais from our era – and they failed sooner and more often.

But they weren’t throw-aways. It was usually worth fixing them. And it still is, half a century after the era of “planned” obsolescence.

Consider a Mustang from that era – and the cost of replacing its transmission. Which is about $1,500 or so. Even if you have to pay someone to install it, the cost is well worth paying. Similarly the cost of replacing (or rebuilding) the engine in cars of that era – which costs less even today than the cost quoted by the Ford dealer to replace the transmission in my friend’s Mustang.

Cars made back in the era of “planned” obsolescence were – ironically enough – longer lasting, in the economic sense, than the cars of our era. Even though those cars were not as refined or as well-built.

Not as electronic.

Indeed, not electronic, at all. No computer feeds data to – and receives it from – the sensors attached to the tranny in a Mustang made in the ’60s. There are no sensors. No wires, even – as far as any connected to the transmission. Just the transmission, a simpler (and purely mechanical) thing.

And so a worth-replacing thing.

Unlike the intricately electronic thing that prematurely – economically-  obsolesced my friend’s modern Mustang.

. . .

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41 COMMENTS

  1. “The dealer may – probably will – install a new replacement transmission (modern electronicized automatic transmissions often can’t be rebuilt) and put the repaired car up for sale on its used car lot.”

    No. they won’t. They will wholesale the car to an independent used car dealer, or it will go to auction. (Unless one of the dealer’s mechanics buys it).
    New car dealers don’t keep cars over 10 years old these days. And if they did
    keep & repair the car, they would account for the costs of labor because the mechanic would
    otherwise be doing profitable work.

    In the auto business for 35 years.

  2. I’ve been following Eric’s posts on Facebook but I haven’t commented here in ages!

    I’d submit that planned obsolescence has been a thing all along — at least as an aim — since the New Deal, but that its practical implementation had for long been limited by two factors: the technological difficulty of pulling it off without drawing a “lemon” reputation to a specific model, and (which hangs very closely together with the first) the fact that Enclosing the industry in the hands of un unassailable elite — ultimately an effective organ of the state — was a gradual process which, beginning with the New Deal in strategic terms, only gained practical application with the sealed-beam headlight legislation of 1940, and did not reach full fruition until c.1990.

    As to the first, it is very much the same as the dilemma inherent in the design of military kit: you want stuff to be unbreakable by friendly soldiers, but instantly to crumble to dust the minute it is captured by the enemy. Practically, the former consideration has predominated, meaning that military stuff has for long been a good source of good, durable stuff. In the automotive context, reliability has been a selling point; and until recently the state of the technology has been such that basic, adequate reliability almost necessarily entailed a fair degree of durability. Only with the advent of electronic controls has it been possible to separate reliability from durability, by designing inherently fragile stuff which keeps itself from eating itself by constantly and actively adjusting itself not to eat itself. Only when the automatic adjustment-control system fails does the thing eat itself, and then with alarming rapidity. I am surprised that this feature has not become standardly incorporated into military kit, especially given the possibility of online remote control, though for all I know it has. Or perhaps I have inadvertently just given someone ideas.

    I say that the second factor hangs closely with the first because, as long as the industry is reasonable open to entry by lesser-capitalized start-ups the offering of total self-destructing crap to the public is limited by the possibility of a brazen interloper offering quality stuff at a competitive price (or, from today’s perspective, even at a fair premium). It’s a classic prisoner’s-dilemma situation, as ought to render effective industrial cartelization prohibitively unstable, barring the sort of countervailing conditions the New Deal — and, of course, the industrial policies of the Third Reich and of Fascist Italy, which inspired the shape of the New Deal to an embarrassing extent — provided in abundance. For a decidedly left-wing (important because this is too often a blind spot for the left) exposition of the mechanics of this phenomenon, see “Railroads and Regulation, 1877–1916” by Gabriel Kolko.

    Thus the New Deal created out of a numerically-tiny in-group segment of the motor industry as it existed then an effective _corpus,_ a corps in the service of the state analogous to the armed forces, as actual Fascist corporatism could only propose as a rarefied hypothetical ideal. And of course, this entity set out at once for all intents and purposes to outlaw its present and future competition, from the Cunninghams, Danielses, and McFarlans to the Excaliburs, Fascinations, and Mohses, to you and me. The overall merger-fest of the past half-century didn’t just happen; it isn’t merely the natural order of things; it happened under conditions expressly established at the level of state policy to encourage it to happen (even if in actual historical fact it happened by jumps and starts: DaimlerChrysler? AMC-Renault? Daimler-Benz-Studebaker? The overall trend was still overwhelmingly to fewer and bigger players.)

    Simultanously these conditions allowed this industrial monster to pursue a programme of seeking capital-investment _requirements_ implicit in specific technologies for their own sake, in order to normalize a technological paradigm — what Austrian priest and theorist Ivan Illich called a “radical monopoly” — which necessarily entailed a level of capital investment unattainable except by a few. No longer did it follow the sensible approach of making a thing in the easiest possible way which would deliver the required product performance; it now set about making stuff in the most difficult practical way it could afford, to ensure that nobody else gets to do so. There was a time when the processes involved in automotive manufacturing, maintenance, and repair were pretty much the same processes. If you could fix a car in 1930 you were well on your way to being able to make one: and once you achieve that you have the power to make your car last as long as you keep doing the work. That has not been true for a while now. The history of automotive technology from c. 1933 to c. 1989 can be seen as one of separating those processes, making them as different from one another as was possible.

    I won’t even start on how an industry elite in bed with the state has been remaking the urban landscape to get people who couldn’t give a shit about cars or driving to need to consume automobiles or be stranded, how that has determined the sort of technological trajectories this Enclosed industry chose to cultivate, how it has clogged our motoring environment with vast masses of idiots, creating a pretext for allocating significant budgets to draconian policing of vehicular traffic. Suffice it to say that it all hangs together.

    The result is the disposable car, a consumable without a (legal) durable alternative (barring a significantly older car, given an understanding of its intrinsic maintenance regime.)

    Now, in light of this, could the present clamouring after electrics be anything other than a continuation of the same process?

  3. The thing that makes new cars expensive to fix or keep on the road with “codes” is the got-damned inspections. So many vehicles get tossed before their time because the borg box rats you out for a small evap leak or wonky speed sensor. The prole is forced to fix it to the computers satisfaction or face floggings by their communities swinest. In reality many dash lights can be ignored perpetually. Even a modern mustang with a bum 5k transmission could be retro-converted to a carbed crate engine and transmission if it wasn’t for “the man”. Perhaps we’ll soon see downgraded cars in states that don’t push the inspection grift, like american cars in cuba chugging along with lada engines.

  4. Long time friend is preparing to upgrade his wife’s late father’s 1966 Mustang fastback. The car is in pristine condition “as is.” The plan is to replace the 289 with a “built” 302, bored out to maximum, replace the stock 3 speed with a 5 speed, change out drum brakes for disks, front & rear.

    Yee, ha.

  5. “Which, as it turns out, is roughly about the current retail market value of her car – with a working transmission. No one with any sense puts $5k in repairs into a $5k car that will only be worth $5k after you put that $5k into it.”
    I disagree, and the plebs here already made the point….we are moving to cuba status with cars. I think external combustion should make a return….I know GM had a successful test model in the 1970s, but that would mean too much freedom and normies cant handle draining some cocks after a day of steaming. But I would toot my whistle to absurdity any day

    • anon 1

      Steam vs Electric

      Steam engines have the same advantage as an electric motor, instant torque at 1 rpm, but lots of advantages over an EV. An electric motor is far higher rpm so wears out far sooner.

      Leno’s steam-powered 1925 Doble E-20 has 1000 lb ft of torque at 1 rpm. A tesla plaid has 1000 lb ft of torque but is scrap in 10 years, a steam car is all mechanical can last 100’s of years.

      tesla cost $90,000, residual value after 10 years = zero. 1925 Doble E20 steam powered car cost $90,000 (2021 dollars) residual value after 94 years = probably millions of dollars.

      Howard Hughes’ 1925 Doble E20 went 0 to 75 mph in just 5 seconds, with its engine turning over at less than 1,000 rpm, top speed 133 mph in 1925, with today’s technology the steam powered car might be quicker then anything.

      With today’s technology you could have a heat source with close to zero emissions. There is lots of different fuels that can be used, (no other engine can use so many types of fuels, we have gone backwards), available everywhere, some are free like scrap wood, you could use coal, 50%? of teslas run on coal, indirectly.

      If you want more secure, continuous mobility get a steam powered vehicle, there will always be some sort of fuel available, no other engine has that flexibility, the other advantages are, no spark plugs (ignition system needed), no cooling system, no transmission required, no electronics, 100% mechanical, goes 600,000 miles without an overhaul, the greatest dependability, lasts 100’s of years. 1500 mile range on 17 gallons of water.

      They probably don’t want people to have steam powered vehicles, they last too long and give too much independence as in fuel availability.

      A new EV needs huge voltage to recharge which is only available from a government controlled utility, so they control the power you need, an EV can’t use multiple types of fuel to run, this is all about control, less mobility, if you want less mobility and to be controlled by the government buy an EV.

      https://www.hemmings.com/stories/article/steaming-sensation-1925-doble

      • Indeed, in the coming state induced dark ages a steam engine would prove invaluable. Which is one of various reasons none will be allowed to be built. That and they can’t gain any control over “emissions” because there is no control over the fuel. Throw a $50 campaign contribution at a politician, and you could run one on junk mail.

      • Great idea anon1, wonder what the range would be for a high efficiency steam engine fueled by a couple 50lb propane tanks. Wouldn’t leave much trunk space but I love the idea.

    • totally agree! The old rule of never putting more than 50% or 25% of your car’s value into it in repairs is….obsolete. My 13 year old Hyundai cost me $6000 to buy. If the tranny goes out and it costs $4-5000 to replace, so be it. Better than shelling out for another car that will have similar issues after a couple years.

      All other things considered, if you find a gem of a used car, I say keep it forever. Today a newer car is exponentially more expensive to own. Even if I replaced my Hyundai with a newer model Hyundai, the cost is enormously more than the cost of replacing a transmission. Or an engine.

  6. I was at my local Toyota dealership the other day and couldn’t find (1) new 2023 on the lot. They had a 2022 Tundra but no 2023’s. They had a 2019 Tundra asking $57K for it on the sticker. I’m keeping my 2012 Tundra for the duration.

    My brother has a 1999 Ford Expedition which he had the engine rebuilt for about $10K. Much cheaper for him than a new truck when you can’t even find one during this artificial supply chain BS.

  7. I tend to agree with EM on this point.

    To me personally, and I realize very few people think like this. If I like the car and throwing 5k at it would get me another 80-100,000 miles out of it and replacing the car would be in the neighborhood of 35-40k (with interest) It would be worth it to me. Forgetting all about blue book value etc.
    I did almost exactly what Eric describes in his post replace a transmission in my 09 Acadia and gave it to my daughter as he first car. The car booked for maybe 6k, tranny cost me $3200.00. I do however know the maintenence history of the vehicle and couldn’t have bought her another one with a solid transmission in it for anywhere near $3200.00

    I’ll be getting quotes this week to fix body rust on my work van even if it costs 4-5 thousand repairing it giving me another 3-5 years, a sprinter fully outfitted for my type if work would be 50-60k conservatively and would not be fundamentally better in the larger scope. I’d rather repair it and stack cash for when it actually becomes impractical to repair. I avoid payments with interest like the plague, All vehicles I own I pay cash for which is why none of them are new and most likely never will be.
    A majority of people assume they’ll have a car payment forever constantly trading in and trading up barely within their financial means to make the payments let alone pay for it outright. Hence the “not worth repairing mentality” when in fact it very well may be worth repairing.

    • Hi Sicilian,

      I think it was John (below) who made the point that most people can’t afford to spend $3,200 (much less $5,000) on . . . anything. So they toss the car – and assume new debt, instead.

      • Note taken.

        Most People I know who can’t afford to pay cash for a $5,000.00 dollar car or repairs can’t pay cash for a $40,000.00 car and jump straight to the $40,000.00 shiny new box so everybody will compliment them on their new car for all of 3-4 weeks while they spend the next 5-7 years paying it off with interest. Which is part of the reason they don’t have 5k for car repairs or other emergencies. It’s also a regulatory problem with vehicles being built around uncles edicts, while simultaneously being the product of a nation of magpies who loves them some shiny metal and some good Ole debt. The fact that credit is so readily available is the only reason car companies can make disposable cars and still sell them.
        Yes it’s slightly painful to stack away money and do without while everybody around you is going on vacations and buying whatever the hell they like on credit.
        Until you realize everything you have is paid for and you’re less of a slave than most.

        I’ll take my 10-20 year old cars over a bank note any day.

        • Amen and ditto, Sicilian!

          My ’02 truck’s not worth much but it cost me a third as much as any new equivalent – and it hasn’t cost me anything beyond gas and minor maintenance, since I bought it for a third as much as I would have to spend on a new equivalent. It may not be flashy. But I owe no one a cent on account of it. And that’s bling enough for me!

      • Cheaper to put a $5k gearbox on credit than to finance a $30k car. Especially now when dealers are empty, and what cars they do have are filled with too many mismatched electronics

  8. “New and improved” rarely qualifies for the latter. A fundamental of mechanics, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. A great many of the cars produced in the US from WWII to the early 90’s or so, WERE broken. If you got much more than 100k miles out of one, consider yourself lucky. The advent of Japanese engineering, forced upon Japanese engineers because of the lack of Japanese resources, vastly improved the quality and longevity of the motor vehicle. After which improvement in performance was achieved. For example, my 2006 MX5 out performs Porsches from the early 80’s. And it listed for about 22k when new. And is still going after 15 years, with no major expense. Of course the “electronics” are confined to the ECU, or EMU if you prefer. No internet connection even available, much less required for it to work. Such engineering peaked in the mid to late 2000’s, and the Psychopaths in Charge saw an opportunity to manage car manufacturing to meet their psychotic desires. With “regulations” created by unelected bureaucrats. And here we are, with cars engineered to last 250k miles, except for the parts that were re-engineered to meet those “regulations”. It’s not “premature”, or “planned” obsolescence, it’s state mandated obsolescence. Your product will never be good enough to satisfy the Psychopaths In Charge. After all, they are insane.

      • That’s just the point Publius, we DIDN’T elect them. Congress granted them authority to create “regulations” that have the force of law. Psychopaths are typically quite good at manipulation, having no human virtues to restrain them. Which is why we keep falling for their psychotic ideas.

      • Publius, of course they are insane. But unfortunately many are not stupid.
        They have a different agenda in mind. First and foremost they seek
        ever more power and control. Their ultimate goal is ultimate power.
        “I must control all, or I control nothing” describes their attitude.
        Thus they have infiltrated and subverted most if not all of the fundamental institutions around the western world. This is very much like a fractal. Each part mirrors the parts above and below it. Power system dynamics cause the same types of repetition. Look back through history for examples in the rise and fall of empires for example.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_MNQBWQ5DI&ab_channel=BBCIdeas

  9. Hold up on the “nobody with sense” thing for a second. The way I see it, $5000 to give that car another 100,000 miles? While keeping the gasoline engine, while keeping the relative coolness of the ’08 Mustang. While keeping the not-internet connected or controlled electronics. While keeping the no breathalyzer.

    I know… ouch… 5 large… is gonna hurt. I don’t know how in hell anyone can buy new without a similar bite… at least not in any way that makes sense to me!

    So call me crazy but I *am* prepared to replace transmissions and even engines as a possibility. I don’t want to do that — it will sting like hell — but see my first paragraph. The alternative is by no means “pain free”.

    Sincerely,
    That Crazy Guy

    • Hi EM,

      Yeah, but here’s the dilemma – or rather, the risk: You put $5k in for a new transmission… and then the climate control croaks. Another $1,500… add in a few twitchy body control modules, which you maybe can’t get anymore. I submit it’s smarter to put $5k toward a sound older car that you can keep running almost indefinitely for much less…

      • But Eric, with car payments running near or above $500 a month, not to mention higher taxes and insurance, keeping a few thousand on hand would STILL be far cheaper than a new one, and more easily done, given a bit of patience, and a delay in self gratification.

    • Indeed, compared to the cost of new, the 5k is rather mild. Of course the bank will happily finance the 20k plus price of a new car, but not so much the 5k repair. Which makes it unaffordable to repair unless you are among the uncommon who have such resource available.. So it is actually the bank and the culture of debt that drives you into “new”, and keeps those “new” prices up.

  10. Do people want repairable vehicles? Do they buy repairable vehicles? Do people even look at an engine bay when shopping? I’m talking about people, not all you greasers around here.

    Do people upgrade vehicles? Seems to me many of the European lines use Bosch components. Do they all use the same bolt patterns? Can the ECM communicate with the upgraded part? Or do the manufactures tweak the design just enough, with customized housings and proprietary firmware, to make sure you can’t just change out a Bosch part made for a VW engine on your BMW?

    Last week I discovered Sarah-N-Tuned, who’s videos are much more visually interesting than Eric’s, but she’s got a bit of an advantage too… Anyway, she reviewed the RAM 1500 TRX, which has the Hellcat’s engine. To get a shot of the beast she had to position the camera under all the covers and even then you could barely see it. And this is in a vehicle designed for people who like to look at engines. Repairability of this beast would be extremely difficult for a backyard mechanic without a full shop.

    No one cares that cars are hard to fix. They’re used to the idea that new will be better and probably want an excuse to dump the old one anyway.

    • You’re right, RK –

      But here’s the thing: This only works so long as people can continue to afford the debt necessary to finance this serial sinkhole.

      • A thing unlikely to continue very long, after the economic destruction inflicted upon us by the state. Fixing things likely to become a very profitable skill, and the simpler it is, the less skill it requires, and the cheaper it is to fix. Which excludes cars sold since 2010 at the latest.

    • The complexity is largely effectively mandated.

      When all internal combustion powered vehicles become subject to the gas guzzler tax what then?

  11. What’s remarkable about the 1950s — often characterized as a decade of conformity — is that planned obsolescence was broadly known to a sophisticated public, well aware that they were being played.

    Whereas today, even with the ‘aid’ of Google, Twitter and Facebook, most folks don’t have a clue that they’re being maliciously shaken down.

    In his book The Waste Makers, author Vance Packard described “the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.”

    But it goes back farther than that. In 1932, Bernard London’s pamphlet Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence advocated a legally-imposed obsolescence on personal property, to stimulate purchasing. Obviously London was a fan of ‘ol Franklin Democrat Roosevelt, who made farmers dump their milk in the ditch and bury beef carcasses to drive up prices.

    Japan’s shaken auto inspection regime, by arbitrarily requiring major replacements of things that aren’t broken, makes it economically infeasible to own a car more than four years. The used but perfectly sound vehicles are exported to Asia and Africa, while some of the engines show up here as JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) engines.

    Now the Biden Thing is unveiling a planned obsolescence campaign that puts Frank Roosevelt to shame. By obsoleting the entire class of internal combustion vehicles, the Biden national socialist regime imagines it will spark a great purchasing boom in EVs.

    It’s no longer just taxes that we’ll pay at gunpoint. We’ll buy EVs at gunpoint, too … or f***king walk.

    • Keynes advocated building ships and then sinking them. Pay one guy to dig a hole and another to fill it back in. No understanding at all of productive work. No undertanding of the unseen loss from destruction of a working asset. Pure madness.

      • It’s an extension of the broken window theory. Broken windows give market to the window replacement… so let’s break everybody’s freaking windows!

        That’s the entire BBB bullshit trip in a nutshell. Destroy everything possible, so they can build it back — AS IF the govt. will be building shit back “better”.

        It’s so insane. Every direction you look, people have lost their minds.

    • And not just motor vehicles.
      FJB’s “vax mandate” constitutes forced obsolescence for hu-persons.
      No jab in the past six months? Your software (DNA) is obsolete, bad creature!
      Update now, anti-social idiot! Big Pharma’s profits depend upon it! Government’s power to coerce depends on it! How dare you have an independent thought! Fall in line, comrade, and die when we tell you to…..it’s the “socially responsible” thing to do.

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