They don’t make them like they used to! How many times have you heard that before? From household appliances to furniture, everyone seems to think everything is less reliable than it used to be. Is that true for cars too? Do older cars last longer?
Not all old cars last longer than new ones. In the 80s and 90s, manufacturers built their vehicles with more robust parts to avoid potential damage to their reputation because they couldn’t precisely predict a component’s longevity. However, thanks to modern software, they can now design car parts to last only a bit longer than the warranty.
Read on to learn why older cars are more robust in some cases, what makes them different, and whether you should consider buying one.
Table of Contents
- Why Are (Some) Older Cars More Reliable Than New Cars?
- Old Cars vs. Modern Cars
- What’s a Classic Car?
- Should You Buy an Older Car?
- Should You Buy a Classic Car?
- Final Thoughts
Why Are (Some) Older Cars More Reliable Than New Cars?
There’s a common misconception when it comes to the reliability of old cars. The prevalent argument is that car companies used to make sturdier cars, but now they’ve made their product less durable to force customers to buy from them more frequently.
Although that argument has some merits, it’s not the whole story. Let’s get a bit deeper.
The Old Days
Back in the 50s and 60s, cars weren’t expected to work beyond 100,000 miles. They had five-digit odometers that only counted up to that number and then started from zero again.
Therefore, if a car passed that milestone, it was considered near the end of its life. In contrast, today, you can drive your car for over 150,000 miles without significant maintenance.
Cars made in the 80s and 90s are a different story, though.
By that time, technological advances allowed manufacturers to build impressive vehicles that seemed to last forever. Some of those cars are still in pretty decent shape and racking up miles even after decades.
Moreover, safety and carbon emission regulations weren’t as strict, which meant manufacturers could build simpler cars with fewer components. And fewer components usually mean fewer things that could go wrong. Add those relatively lax regulations to their rigorous quality standards, and you get some highly robust vehicles.
Rise of Computers
Modern computer-assisted design (CAD) tools now allow engineers to create components with a specific lifetime. So, they’ll only make car parts that start to fail after the average mileage covered in the warranty period.
In the old days, it was prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to design components that lasted an exact amount of time. Computer tools weren’t nearly as powerful or accessible as they are today. So car manufacturers had to play it safe because they didn’t want to damage their reputations by shipping parts that failed quickly. That’s why they made car parts that were more robust than they needed to be.
Not All Cars Are Equal
Although some older cars are sturdier, they do break down. And more often than some people may care to admit!
The few surviving ones tend to stand out, creating the illusion that all older cars are more reliable than their modern counterparts.
But many of the remaining cars are owned by enthusiasts who take exceptional care of them. They’re often called “classic cars,” and they command a higher price because they’ve received more attention from their owners.
Old Cars vs. Modern Cars
Now, let’s consider a few areas where new and vintage cars are different and see which one comes out on top.
The engine is probably the biggest component that has remained basically the same throughout the years. Although new engines are more complex, they rely on the same four-stroke cycle to move your car forward. The primary differences are power and efficiency.
Old engines aren’t known for their efficiency. In fact, 62 percent of the chemical energy in gasoline is wasted due to heat and friction, and only 15 percent of it goes toward propelling the car forward.
On the other hand, modern engines are about 12 percent more efficient thanks to advances like direct injection technology, which optimizes the fuel and air mixture that goes into the cylinder.
Today’s engines are also more powerful than their predecessors. For example, going zero to sixty in under six seconds used to be a big accomplishment for a car. But pretty much all cars these days can do it in under five seconds.
All cars will eventually need maintenance, but simplicity of servicing is an important issue. Many older cars are easy to troubleshoot because they have fewer parts and electronics. They also use easy-to-replace hardware. So a driver with a DIY attitude can easily fix most issues.
Contrast that with modern vehicles, which come with a centralized control unit that connects to all the components in the car. If something stops working, you need expensive diagnostic equipment and expert knowledge to identify and fix the problem. The average driver simply can’t do that.
Moreover, as we explained before, older car parts tend to be sturdier. They’re often made of highly durable materials like metal as opposed to plastic, which is much more common in new vehicles.
Originally, cars were built in two parts: a steel frame and the body. The body was bolted or welded to the frame.
Cars today come with a unibody construction: the body and the frame are integrated into one part.
Each design has its advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to safety, unibody constructions are the clear winner as they better protect the passengers in case of an accident.
The steel frame on two-part bodies is actually very tough. So, if the vehicle crashes into an object, the frame won’t bend, and the energy from the crash dissipates to the passengers.
However, when you have a unibody car, the entire body crumples up as a result of the crash, and less energy is transferred to the passengers.
I don’t think anyone would prefer physical injury to having their car wrecked!
This one is mostly a matter of preference. Some drivers enjoy the growling sound of the engine when they drive, whereas others prefer a smooth ride.
Thrill-seekers argue that older cars are more exciting to drive because they’re equipped with manual transmission. Modern vehicles only have two pedals on the floor and come with automatic transmission, making them easier to operate. To get a manual transmission, you have to go two or three generations back.
Additionally, modern vehicles rely heavily on electronics for navigation and braking. On the other hand, the hydraulic systems in vintage cars let you feel the vibrations that transmit from the front wheels to the steering wheel, giving you a more natural feeling.
In the past, higher-end cars also sounded different and had a unique character. Modern cars aren’t as loud, and they sometimes use simulated sounds to create a similar experience.
Many hardcore drivers prefer these differences and the feeling of being connected to the road. And that’s why they argue in favor of older cars.
What’s a Classic Car?
A car that’s about 25-30 years old and has historical interest is called a classic car. Historical interest means that the car is collectible or worth restoring or preserving; it isn’t just just old scrap metal. If the car is older than 40, it’ll fall into the old-timer and antique cars category.
There are three types of classic cars: original, restored, and resto-mod.
- Original cars are rare classics that have been preserved and maintained as much as possible without replacements. Just fixes here and there.
- Restored cars are reconditioned classics using parts from the original factory. Their owners try very hard to make them look like they came fresh from the assembly line.
- Resto-mods are classic cars that have been modernized to be more practical without changing the aesthetic and look of the car.
Should You Buy an Older Car?
The answer depends on various factors such as your budget, expectations, and the actual car.
The price depends on how old you’re willing to go and what car you have in mind. Slightly off-trend modern cars even from the early 2000s have good safety and more reasonable pricing. But if you go older, you may have to compromise on a few features, especially safety.
Also, the older the car is, the less reliable it will be, even if it’s well maintained. So, if the car has more than 150,000 miles on the odometer, you should only consider it if it’s newer than the 1990s.
If your reason for buying an older car is the more organic feel, fixer-upper vibe, and sleek chrome style, there isn’t much modern cars can offer since most of them come with computer automated systems, simulated engine sounds, and aerodynamic plastic designs.
Old cars can be a huge pain themselves if something goes wrong. For example, if the outer shell faces rots and needs replacement, you would have to open up everything to access the inner shell.
That’s to mention that the older the car gets, the rarer the parts become. If it’s going to be a bother, let it be someone else’s bother.
Should You Buy a Classic Car?
The three types of classic cars could answer different needs if you’re thinking about buying one.
If you’re thinking of buying a collectible showroom car for its beauty and its value as an “antique,” and also happen to have loads of money on your hand, a classic original is the best option. Its value goes up in time, but it’ll be pricey to maintain.
Original classics aren’t meant for riding, though, since a lot of effort goes into preserving their original appearance.
Now, if you get lost in the nostalgic feel, restored originals are what you’re looking for. They’re a lot cheaper because of the replacements.
You might want to look for a model with easily accessible replacement parts, like a Lincoln, not something like a Ferrari whose parts cost a fortune.
Finally, if you’re more into the classic looks but would prefer some convenience, a resto-mod with all of its modern add-ons is the best option.
With their superior engines, batteries, and AC, these cars make for an easier and more comfortable ride.
Watch this fun video which displays the transformation of twelve classics from abandoned old cars to high-end luxury automobiles.
Older cars aren’t necessarily more robust than modern cars. Vehicles from the 80s and 90s tend to be more robust because car makers used sturdier parts. However, this doesn’t apply to vintage vehicles from before then.
To decide if an old car is worth buying, consider your goals and budget. If you want a timeless ride that won’t break the bank, a 30-year-old car will be the right choice. On the other hand, if you prefer comfort and technology, you should go for a more modern model.
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