The Reliability of Old Cars

Reliability is a measure of how well a car performs on a wide range of factors, including performance and fuel efficiency.

There are a number of factors that can affect the reliability of old cars. These include both internal and external factors. The components in the car, its service history, the environment in which it has been used, its age, and mileage all have an effect on how reliable an old car is.

External factors such as environmental pollution, road traffic accidents the car has been involved in, and daily wear-and-tear from weather or from traveling long distances all have an effect on how reliable a car will be over time. 

Internal factors such as engine condition, quality of components used in the construction process, maintenance, and any modifications made to the vehicle by its owner can also affect a vehicle’s reliability.

As a result of these external and internal factors, combined with other variables such as age or mileage, or a vehicle that has been exposed to harsher conditions for a longer period of time can reduce the reliability of a car. The make and model of the car also has a bearing on its reliability as certain models have particular common faults or design problems.

This suggests that an older car will be less reliable, but is this true?

What can make old cars unreliable?  

Older cars are often seen as unreliable because they are prone to more breakdowns than newer cars. Despite this, it might still be the best way to save money as one of the main reasons why people buy older cars is because they are generally much cheaper.

There are different factors that can make old cars unreliable, one being that they may not have been well maintained over the years. This is why when someone sells a second-hand car, as I have done several times, the potential buyer will usually ask about the service history of the car and likely want to see documentation showing how the car has been maintained over the years. A buyer will also want to learn about any accidents that the car has been involved in and will check any repairs or damage to the vehicle and that any work on them has been carried out professionally.

The age of the vehicle makes a car less reliable because the parts start to wear down over time and need replacing. For this reason, most careful owners ensure that their car has regular servicing done by a professional using original quality parts. However, with older cars, it gets more necessary to change parts and they can be expensive or difficult to obtain. Often, to save money, some owners of an old car may use recommissioned parts or cheaper alternatives, which may reduce the reliability of the car.

The following is an excerpt from the book titled “Old Cars, New Trick” by Mike Gunderloy.

“If the car is really old, it may have some problems that are difficult to diagnose or repair. For example, if the car has a carburetor, it may be impossible to find parts for that particular model anymore. If the car has an unusual engine configuration, you may need special tools and skills in order to work on it.”

If such a problem as that above occurs to an old car, it is important that a very skilled mechanic does the work but what can often happen is that this work may have been done by the owner himself or by a cheaper and less professional mechanic. Therefore, as work gets done on an older car, its performance can deteriorate or certain features of the car may not even work any longer.

The Case Against Buying Older Vehicles for Safety Reasons

The argument against buying older vehicles for safety reasons is that the newer models are safer due to improved safety features.

If you buy an old vehicle, you will not be getting all the features that are available in modern ones. For example, if it is not equipped with airbags or if it does not have anti-lock brakes, you might have a heightened risk of accidents while driving.

However, the age of a vehicle is one of the most irrelevant factors in determining its safety. The vast majority of accidents are caused by human error, not car fault. However, newer cars are safer because they have more safety features and better build quality. Cars built over two decades ago are more likely to have defective parts, resulting in malfunction.

Car accidents are responsible for 30 percent of all deaths every year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that one out of five people will be involved in a car accident during their lifetime. Car safety is something that deserves consideration when making the decision to buy a vehicle, but it should not be the only consideration.

Some other reasons to steer away from buying an older vehicle are the high fuel consumption and the lack of new technology features that newer cars have.

One important factor to consider about old cars is the conditions in which they have been used and where they have been used. For example, if you had two cars of the same model and age but one had been used in the UK and the other in the drier and sunnier climate of California, then the second would normally be much safer because its bodywork would be less corroded.

Any car that is subjected to many years of damp and cold conditions will suffer more metal-eating rust which can be hidden and affect the car’s structure. Also, if the car has been used in very cold conditions and snow it may suffer from corrosion caused by salt applied to roads. This can quickly damage cars in colder climates.

Let’s take look now at which make and models of old cars are the most and the least reliable.

How Reliable Are Different Models of Old Cars?

Here are some examples of the most reliable old cars (Auto ABC)

  • Mazda 2 (2006/7)
  • Audi Q5 (2008-12)
  • VW Golf Plus (2005-2009)
  • Toyota RAV4 (2003-2006)
  • Mitsubishi ASX (2010-2012)

It is good to see some of the familiar names in car manufacturing here. The above are some of the most popular and reliable of all vehicles 15 years old and above.

Here are the most unreliable old cars according to What Car?:

  • BMX X5 (2007-2013)
  • Land Rover Discovery (2004-2017)
  • Skoda Octavia (2004-2013)
  • Vauxhall Zafira (2005-2015)
  • Mazda 6 (2007-2012)
  • Ford Mondeo (2007-2014)
  • Porsche 911 (2004-2011)
  • Volvo XC90 (2002-2015)

When buying an older car the model, in particular, is important, as you can see above that Mazda has two different models in the reliable and unreliable lists, so this shows how even for the same manufacturer different models can be better or worse in terms of reliability.

Should You Be Worried About the Age of Your Vehicle? The Truth about High Mileage Cars

According to Cenex.com, mileage is just an indicator, one of many, that a car may be less reliable. There are many more important factors that have a direct bearing on how reliable an old car might be including how it has been looked after and how regularly it has been used. They rightly point out that a car that has a higher mileage but that has been maintained well and used regularly is likely to be in a much better condition than one that has not been regularly serviced and that has been left idle for long periods.

I would also like to add that the reliability of an old car, despite its mileage, also depends on how it has been driven, something that is dependent on the driver. For example, my father has always had cars with clutch problems. I’m sure that it is because of his erratic driving and now that he is older his driving is worse and yet again recently the clutch needed changing.

Let’s look at the question of mileage a little bit deeper right now and consider the facts. How important is mileage in terms of the reliability of an old car? What do we mean by an old car anyway? One that is ten years old, 20, or more?

Matt Schmitz, writing in 2018, in this article has some interesting statistics that are relevant to the reliability of old cars:

  • AAA claims that 60% of breakdowns reported to them were from cars older than 10 years.
  • The AAA also stated that, of the cars that they had to tow for repairs, 8 out of 10 were cars more than 10 years old.
  • The most common reasons why these cars broke down was: battery or electrical problems, tire problems, and the cooling system of the motor.

From the above statistics, it would be likely that many of these problems could be linked to failure to repair or replace parts such as tires suffering from wear, hoses that might be split or coming loose, and possibly a battery that has been left on the car too long or that has not been checked. This supports the idea that maintenance of an old is more important than mileage or age in regards to its reliability.

Except for a few cases of bad luck, generally, these breakdowns are to do with the age of the car and parts wearing out, but as we have already said, maintenance and replacing parts at regular intervals would certainly improve the reliability of an old car beyond what we would normally expect.

It is also true that over the years cars have on average become more reliable. Here are some interesting facts that back this up:

  • Cars from the 1970s had high rates of failure for both the power train and transmission, with almost one-third of cars having major problems by 100,000 miles.
  • In contrast, cars manufactured between 2000 to 2003, had only 13% of these problems by 100,000 miles.
  • Cars manufactured in 2015-2016 had approximately 3% power train or transmission failures by 100k miles.

There are different levels of failures of parts in a car and I think that focusing on the power train and the transmission is a good idea because these kinds of failures are going to be the most expensive. Although the effects of burnt-out sparkplugs or broken water hoses can have serious effects on the car and stop you from driving it they can be easily and cheaply fixed if found quickly.

We can also see from the above statistics that cars do appear to have become much more reliable over the years and I’m sure that most motorists would agree with this. If you ever bought a car more than 20 years ago I’m positive you will, like me, have seen a huge difference in the reliability and quality of cars produced now compared to those back in the day.

The secret to Optimized Fuel Efficiency for Your Older Car?

A car’s fuel efficiency is one of the main factors that come into play when calculating the total cost of ownership. When an owner talks about reliability they may also be referring to how the car runs, is it sluggish, does it lack the acceleration and power it used to have? Diminishing fuel efficiency is not only costly, but can be an indicator of impending failure and, therefore, is a sign of decreasing reliability.

There are many reasons why you might want to optimize fuel efficiency, but if you happen to have an older car, the need may be greater. The good news is that there are a few tricks that can help, and if you know what they are, getting more miles out of each gallon is easier than ever. A more efficient car is likely to run smoother and cleaner and is likely to be more reliable and will last longer.

A change in the fuel efficiency of a car may be an indicator that maintenance or replacement of certain parts is necessary. All kinds of engine parts wear down over time and pistons, spark plugs, gaskets, and oil leaks are just some of the things that can get worse with time. Again, maintenance is the key and if a car is maintained well over the years many models of car can work surprisingly reliably.

So there you have it, although we love older cars and may have sentimental attachments to them, they are less reliable than newer cars. It is not all bad news though as thoughtful maintenance and repair and careful driving can maximize your old car’s reliability.

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