Guest Post: They (Still) Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

(Please extend the usual sullen Riverside Green welcome to returning contributor Michael Briskie — JB)

It was snowing outside the dealership, and the sales staff were busy running around cleaning cars on the lot. “They don’t make them like they used to,” said an aging customer wandering around the showroom. He was admiring an immaculate 1960’s Beetle, occupying prime real estate just inside the front doors, juxtaposed against the new cars on display. I hesitated before asking what he meant by that, recognizing the likelihood of a long conversation stuffed with foggy nostalgia.

“We used to drive an old Beetle through the snow like it was nobody’s business,” he said. “You couldn’t break it if you tried.”

Given his fondness for the good old days, I wondered why he even bothered to come look at new cars on this slippery morning. He could instead buy that very Beetle, perfectly restored, for less than ten grand. He was right though. Air cooled Beetles conquered everything from winter storms to Baja desert racing. Many still do. 50 years later, tens of thousands of these things just keep on going, probably because they’re just so easy to fix.

People buy cars around their perceived notions of reliability all the time. In fact, there is no other reason I can use to explain the volume of Corolla sales. It all got me thinking: Do automakers REALLY care about the lifespan of their cars? And like that Bug, fifty years from now, will we see anything at all on the road from 2018? With that, let’s dig into the ideas of planned obsolescence, lifecycle management, and mainly, whether or not any car companies give a damn about how a car ages.

First of all, automakers aren’t in the business of selling used cars. What could be in it for them to build cars that substantially outlast their first owner or two? Especially in an era where leasing represents over 60% of sales for many brands, why build a car that lasts 10, 20, or even 30 years?

Product planners are thinking about this. Honda and Subaru are just two automakers shortening lifecycles to five quick years, or maybe even four if the product is a dud (hello, last gen Civic!). Over a five year lifecycle, the mid-cycle refresh now happens at the start of year three, conveniently the length of the average lease. Almost all lessees return to find a nicer, newer car at the dealership upon turn-in, and they are relieved to find out that the $500 disposition fee they had forgotten about is waived if they purchase or lease another vehicle from the same brand.

So it’s no surprise that manufacturers like to lease. But the average age of all vehicles on the road in the US is 11 years, so plenty of people are buying used or hanging on for the long haul. For those buy-and-hold folks, quality matters.

Quality, at least at vehicle launch, has very little to do with reliability or durability – unless of course, the companies in question are Alfa Romeo or Tesla. But typically, quality at launch is all about fit and finish, material selection, and some mushy stuff about the way a car feels. Sure, there is a thing called “Initial Quality,” which is a joke worth telling in a different article. The thing is, almost everything works for the first few months of ownership. It’s safe to assume most new cars hold together pretty well for three years minimum, suffering no major failures, otherwise automakers would have a hard time earning that profitable lease-cycle business and they would be paying out expensive warranty claims.

It stands to reason that beyond that warranty period, some sort of reputable survey or award could be helpful for consumers interested in true long term quality; the sort of quality people associate with cars that run, look, and feel great after 100,000 miles or more. But where can we find that?

JD Power, the most common name in vehicle awards (much less well known for their OEM-pay-to-play business scheme), offers their “Dependability Study,” which gives readers the impression of knowing which cars will last the longest. The time frame for this study? Three years of ownership. Three years! It feels okay to state the obvious here: That is not old. What else is out there? Consumer Reports does a decent job of polling their subscribers on vehicles dating back to Model Year 2000, but still has problems with skewed data (over-reporting by people with problems, under-reporting those with none), sampling from subscribers only, and confirmation bias in their predictive ratings. Despite its many faults, CR provides the most accurate information available on reliability, but still leaves room for vast improvement. Without any good long term ownership metrics, all that is left are popularity contests.

At this point, we have to ask what the difference is between Reliability and Durability. Reliability, like performance, can mean different things to different people. Does it mean more cars on the road with over 100k miles than any other brand? That’s an easy claim when you also happen to sell the most cars (ahem, Toyota, ahem). Should it be measured by number of breakdowns? If so, how would you get that data? When automakers look at reliability, they estimate something called Total Cost of Ownership, which is measured in terms of dollars per mile over a period of X miles. 10,000 mile oil changes, 100k spark plug intervals, and timing chains instead of belts all factor into the equation. This calculation would make a great reliability metric for customers, because it includes the costs of repairs AND maintenance over the lifespan of a vehicle; but of course, car companies would be crazy to publish this. That means accurate cost of ownership data remains a mystery.

If we have come up with a plausible definition of reliability, then what the heck is durability? Perhaps durability is how well a car endures, or in other words, its ability to stay with the times. Is the car still relevant despite its age? After ten years, how timeless are its lines? How functional is the infotainment system? We all know that Honda K-Series motors can run without oil at 8000rpm for 5 minutes, and the Lexus LS400 can be a comfortable million mile car (almost). But have the seats discolored or ripped from regular use? Is the body still solid, or is it perforated with rust? Is the powertrain still capable of keeping up with traffic, or bringing joy into the lives of their drivers? These details are what can make a car more than the sum of its parts and maybe even worth loving many years later, even when parked next to its more modern siblings.

Separating these two concepts of Reliability and Durability sheds a harsh light on the longevity issue. There’s no doubt that reliability is increasing; that 11 year average age is going up. But I’m not so sure about durability. Perhaps automakers are inadvertently killing durability by focusing too much on the new and the trendy. It’s hard to imagine today’s plastic bumpers, plastic seats, and plastic dashboards (and plastic oil pans, plastic intake manifolds… I could go on) looking great inside and out a couple of decades from now. It’s much harder to imagine the technology in the center stack being relevant.

Let’s talk about tech specifically for a minute. A navigation screen from five years ago looks downright ancient in a 2018 model. I’ll posit the idea that cars sold now are aging more rapidly than cars of the past. The march of digital progress has infiltrated just about every new car on sale, and the Silicon Valley presence in your dashboard (and do-everything-by-wire systems) is undeniable. Now with over-the-air updates, it seems every model year some fancy gadget makes the previous one a dinosaur. Classic cars with designs full of character and recognizable materials have a timelessness missing from the gaping grills and digitized controls of today’s cars SUVs.

The villain inside me notes that since automakers have profit-sharing arrangements as part of their dealer franchise agreements, they would benefit drastically from independent shops struggling to fix complex items like adaptive suspensions, semi-autonomous sensors, and the slew of items that trigger warning lights and spur a customer to the shop. For OEM’s, its good business if the always-profitable service desk is the only hope a customer has of fixing their car. For proof of this, a consortium of independent mechanics recently filed lawsuits against automakers for withholding vital repair information from the shops on the basis of intellectual property rights. Without the info, private shops have no hope of fixing today’s complex vehicle systems.
I suppose it is hard to imagine automakers engineering a car with systems complex enough to stump shade tree mechanics, but reliable enough to pull through the warranty period unfazed, yet consistently breakable so that they can drive customers to their own service lanes. If that sounds too much like a conspiracy theory, I would like to direct your attention to Apple’s recent apology. We now know Apple has been slowing down customer phones for years, but you have to wonder before that happened, how many trips to the genius bar could someone take before caving in and buying a shiny brand new phone? Oh, did I say buy? I meant lease. We are leasing phones now, and the service plan is required as terms of the lease! That’s a business model OEM’s are looking to get behind. It is only a matter of time.

That means we are faced with a paradox. Cars are gaining complexity, yet becoming more reliable. This is good news, until eventually the dealer is the only one able to fix it. Who will care for the cars of today like people did for the Beetles of yesterday? It will be impossible to keep them on the road without extreme costs, like how the McLaren F1 can only be serviced by a few specialized people who still know how to use 1990’s Dell computers running ancient software.

I don’t expect many classics from today in the future. The old man was right, they don’t make them like they used to. Even though our cars today have impossible luxuries by comparison, their long term staying power will never match those from previous eras. We are quickly approaching a time where it will be just as crazy to buy an older “high-tech” car as it would be to buy a first generation Blackberry today. I sure hope you like leasing.

28 Replies to “Guest Post: They (Still) Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To”

  1. John C.

    Aside from having made the Beetle so long, in what way was it more durable than a modern car. Surely not in terms of engine life, frequency of by the book maintenance, or rustpfoofing. I agree the infotainment on a new car will be out of date, but so is the AM radio in the Beetle, if it had one.

    That being said, I do wonder what the liabilities of 15-25 beaters are to their manufacturer. A while back, I think Jack suggested somewhere that luxury car makers buy back beater luxury sedans to preserve the value of new ones. I can’t believe that any manufacturer wants to see the models from 20 years ago still on the road.

    Reply
    • CJinSD

      Twenty year old cars on the road are what keep residuals high enough for leasing to make money rather than merely being a tool for delaying losses. In 2012 my company leased a new Audi A6 for me. The total payments made plus the offered purchase price at the conclusion of the lease came up many thousands of dollars short of what the purchase price would have been when the car was new. How’s that for cheap financing?

      Reply
    • mopar4wd

      There is a liability in keeping them and removing them. Honestly MB from the 70’s still driving around likely helps the sale of new MB. Now rusting out E class from the early 2000’s you may want to buy those out. Longevity is part of what defines a luxury brand to some extent. For instance Hinckley in the Yachting world would not have near the reputation it does now if their early models weren’t so well regarded and enjoying incredible resale.

      Reply
      • CJinSD

        I used to crew a 42 Sou’wester. We were the envy of every marina we visited, less so when we were under sail and many a production line boat did a horizon job on us. Hinckley’s people are great though.

        Reply
  2. mopar4wd

    I think it depends on a lot of things certain car builders like Toyota and the big 3 trucks seem to value durability in their vehicles. Others not so much. But honestly compared to say appliances and modern electronics modern cars are quite amazing reliability wise.
    Durability is interesting. Say my old 88 ramchanger while rust is an issue everything else is shockingly easy to replace and cheap. You may end up with a axe and handle replacement type deal but things like an old pickup can live as long as you keep out the rust.
    Electronics is the current big question. Hopefully right to repair laws keep getting passed at which point we may get over that hurdle as well.

    Reply
  3. stingray65

    In terms of rustproofing and interior durability, today’s cars are miles ahead of yesteryears. I live in a winter paradise with lots of salted roads and have two cars over 10 years old with no rust and like new interiors, but the cars of my youth (built in the 1950s to 1970s) would have been showing signs of serious rust and likely have seat seam splits and dashboard cracks after 5 years. You hardly ever see a car blowing blue oil smoke anymore either, which was a common occurrence after 50,000 to 70,000 miles in the old days – look in an old Popular Mechanics from the 1950-60s and see how many ads there are for piston rings. I remember needing to replace major exhaust sections every 2-3 years as well, but with modern fuel injection and better metallurgy, exhaust systems have also become lifetime features. On the other hand, I think you are right about some modern “peripherals” that quickly date a car and may be difficult to repair in old age. I wonder how those 8,9, and 10 speed automatics will hold up with 10+ years and 150,000+ miles of use, and how much they will cost to repair/replace. Most EV batteries are still under their 8 year warranties, but I wonder how a Tesla or Bolt owner will react when their $15,000+ battery needs replacement in year 10 or 12? The cost of replacing carbon fiber brake discs and 345-35-22 tires might also send a lot of sporty cars to an early scrapping. The lifetime of infotainment systems might actually improve if the car becomes simply a housing for a screen and speaker system for smart phone based navigation and entertainment, although the opposite might also occur if everyone follows Tesla in putting all controls on a massive screen that is very expensive to replace and “reboot” and thus sends an “oldish” car to an early scrapping. Overall, I would predict that we will see more and more cars making relatively early trips to the scrap yards with rust-free bodies, perfect interiors, and clean burning motors, because some some peripheral element becomes “unfixable” or “uneconomic” to repair.

    The wildcard might be whether future cars are attractive or not. Cars from the 1960s have been revered since the 1980s in large part because the cars that followed in the 1970s and 80s were generally terrible with ugly mandated bumpers, CAFE and emission strangled engines, and poor build quality. Recent cars are the best performing vehicles in history, and many feature beautiful styling, but if future cars get ugly due to safety standards, or slow because of fuel economy/emissions standards, or expensive because of regulations or wild inflation, there might be greater effort to keep today’s cars on the roads as long as possible.

    Reply
    • stingray65

      One more car killer – airbags. Any minor accident that causes airbags to deploy pretty much writes off any car that is out of warranty, but I guess getting a new car is cheaper than an extended hospital stay even with the safety and security of Obamacare.

      Reply
  4. Don Curton

    They had the same arguments when automakers went from mechanical advance spark ignition to electronic ignition. Those new fangled things will never last, get an older car with mechanical ignition and you can keep it running forever (and replace points every 5000 miles).

    We had the same discussion when carburetors were replaced with fuel injection. Dang things are impossible to work on. Give me a good old Holley any day and I’ll keep it running forever (tuning it up every few months and rebuilding every few years).

    Don’t discount the aftermarket. For popular (or just cult following) vehicles, there will always exists individuals who’ll crack the code and re-flash the chip for performance gains. Replacement electronics, upgrades, and all sorts of things become possible for the truly motivated. But it’ll become a personal maintenance labor of love for those wishing to keep vehicles running like new for 20 years. Repair shops are going to focus on the money makers, and for 98% of humanity, that’ll be something in the 5 to 10 year old range. People who can will buy new every 5 years and not worry about it.

    For myself, I’m willing to bet that 20 years from now, I can buy a 2018 Corvette with less than 10k on the odometer. Unfortunately, it will have been hand-rubbed with diapers enough that the paint is thinned down to the primer. I promise myself that I’ll drive it like I stole it.

    Reply
  5. -Nate

    As a Mechanic I know that to – day’s vehicles are head and shoulders above old ones, particularly in safety terms .

    I’ll prolly die on one of my old death traps, wishing I’da bought a Kia or other horrible thing .

    GM in the 1950’s and 1960’s used the crappiest mufflers and shock absorbers they could get ~ they only had to last 3 to 4 years and that’s all they did . utter crap .

    -Nate

    Reply
  6. yamahog

    “Especially in an era where leasing represents over 60% of sales for many brands, why build a car that lasts 10, 20, or even 30 years?”

    Residuals. Who do you think makes more money on a $399/mo lease – Lexus or Alfa?

    Also, the CPO program matters. It’s probably cheaper for Lexus to underwrite an ES350’s CPO warranty than it is for BMW to do the same on a 528i.

    But arguing about incentives is superficial. The proof is in the pudding – a Camry at 100k miles costs more than a Sebring at 100k miles. We can argue about whether the premium is appropriate (and the Toyota tax is real in used vehicles) but it’s directionally correct – the average 100k mile Camry has a higher chance of making it to 200k miles than a Sebring. Think of a used car’s value as a proxy for how much life is left in it. Also, the Toyota tax works both ways, you pay extra for your 100k mile Camry but you probably collect extra value on your 200k mile Camry.

    Let’s take reliability to roughly mean ‘mean time between failures’ and durability to roughly mean ‘safety factor’. An old wrangler that survives drops without breaking is durable, but if the same wrangler eats pulleys, it’s not reliable.

    I do have some concerns about the complexity of vehicles. A lot of LS400s probably met premature deaths because the ECU capacitors wore out (look it up, it happened for years before some DIY’er figured out how to fix the problem). Even then, it’s not as-if the repair is impossible, it just doesn’t make much sense. The ECU costs as much as it did when the car had an inflation-adjusted MSRP of 70k. A $2,500 part doesn’t make sense to install on a $2,000 car. At retail, the ES seems to outsell the LS by 10:1; when I think of 20 year old cars, I seem to see 30:1 ESs to every LS. I don’t think the ES is a more reliable or durable car, I just think the LS is much more expensive to own or it has a higher likelihood of needing a repair that’s more money than the car.

    On some level, it’s not about the complexity of the repair, it’s simply about weighing the cost of another vehicle against the cost of repair. There’s a reason people put transmissions into Suburbans with 400k miles – a transmission is cheaper than another Suburban. you’re right to identify the TCO as something a little more important than strict durability and reliability comparisons.

    On my own car, the door lock actuator is starting to go out – although gracefully and the forum consensus is that I maybe have 500 cycles left before total failure. A brand new actuator is $500. I simply leave my car unlocked by default – it works for me because I only have to lock my car about once a month when I park in a bad neighborhood. I don’t expect to keep the car 500 months (41 years) so I roll the dice. The failure mode is a car that doesn’t fully lock, I can live with that in exchange for the cheapest transportation of my life. Heck, the stereo amplifier is also going out and that’s a $1200 fix at the dealer. I simply listen to my phone and bring a bluetooth speaker on roadtrips. I guess these are knocks against the reliability of my car, but they don’t materially impact the TCO.

    A bigger deal is the premium that used car dealers extract. They seem to add $2000 to the price of a used car and take $2000 in value on a trade-in. To use a used car dealer is to lose at least $2k in value. If it were more frictionless, I’d probably change cars more often but it’s not. I simply can’t commit to a transaction with those fees.

    I think quality and durability matter to O.E.Ms but to different degrees. I’d like to see the cost of repair matter but fat chance of that happening.

    Reply
  7. JMcG

    I have a 63 Triumph motorcycle in the garage that I only ride around the neighborhood for twenty minutes every couple of weeks. I love the bike, but the brakes are ridiculous. No way would I take it out in the world.
    I also still have an 02 F-150 that still starts and runs like a top. It has 204 k on the clock. The rocker panels are destroyed with rust though. Life in the northeast.
    It rusted through a mild steel coolant line that runs down the valley between the heads. I’m not sure why they stopped running the coolant through the intake manifold instead of outside it, but I doubt it was planned obsolescence. That was a 1500.00 repair.
    I bought a new F150 a year ago, they’ve come a long way in 15 years.
    My son turns 16 in a year and I’m wrestling with the vintage of vehicle most likely to keep him safe. Modern safety equipment seems to trump primitive mass.

    Reply
  8. Salubrious

    One of my favorite resources for assessing used car reliability is the Long Term Quality Index created by Steve Lang. It uses data collected at auto auctions and seems to identify the lemons that other sites don’t. I don’t consider a used car without checking it here. http://www.dashboard-light.com/

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      Ugh.

      Lang is one of the worst human beings I’ve ever met. If he told me the sky was blue I’d walk outside and check. I don’t know a single person in this business who would deal with him a second time.

      Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

          It’s odd, really. The two people in this business whom I’ve witnessed doing the shadiest stuff both seem to want to run automotive reliability sites. That is… when they aren’t asking the manufacturers for $100k press loaners.

          Reply
      • Salubrious

        I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve enjoyed his writing, and the quality index has been a valuable resource for me. It tracks well enough with Consumer Reports and other sources that I wouldn’t discount its veracity.

        Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

          He can be really fun to read. I just don’t like his ethics. He is infamous for deleting stories at TTAC so he could sell them a second time elsewhere.

          Reply
  9. Bill Malcolm

    Off topic again, so I thought I’d check over here for guidance. TTAC is now generously supplied with new car previews by a gadabout editor, accepting all offers of press junkets – the latest to Corsica to sample a new Jag E-Pace.

    On the face of it, this seems like a break from past tradition, where a standoffish approach allowed more independent analysis of a vehicle’s merit. Perhaps I’d be happier if said editor could actually write engagingly on the vehicles he’s treated to,, but frankly his style means it’s in one ear and out the other for me – nothing sticks. I can find generally better precis’ at C/D for my taste, including a better turn of phrase.

    Any comment from you as to why such a change at TTAC? I’m ancient enough to realize it all may be my perception, but reading articles here, many of which are outside of my comprehension/experience set, I still find the actual writing far superior and interesting because it’s so unforced.

    Reply
  10. Disinterested-Observer

    On durability vs. reliability, a couple years ago there was an article on, ugh, jalopnik (although I think it may have been by Travis O) about which cars do well at LeMons. Surprisingly or not, “reliable” cars like Civics and Corollas can’t take racing, and “unreliable” cars like BMWs can.

    Reply
  11. Danio

    I had this conversation who is a mechanic in the aftermarket repair industry recently. Conventional knowledge in most independent repair shops is that the OEMs will run them out of existence and eventually they will all be out of business because they can’t keep up with the knowledge or technology.

    Yet the aftermarket repair industry keeps growing.

    I am with the OEM, and we keep an eye on this business because we really would like to have it. However, our dealers just aren’t very good at keeping it.

    Just as electronics invaded automobiles 30-40 years ago and the aftermarket repair industry adapted, so will they now. It’s a trade occupied by a lot of old cranks and drop outs who find dealing with change difficult, but there are also a lot of sharp entrepreneurs who are ready and willing to fill a market with a need.

    Reply

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