Common Car $ense
By Kathryn & Sybren van der Pol
Classic Cars are Great to Look at, but be Glad We Don’t Drive Them Anymore
This past weekend was our 7th Annual Oldie & Goodie Car Show. We had over 25 cars and the public really enjoyed seeing the wide variety of cars and trucks. The oldest vehicle was a 1932 Model A. And we even had a classic Harley.
I found myself comparing these cars to what most people drive today and discussing with Sybren the general evolution and improvements that car engineers have made over the past 80 years.
Did you know that the lifespan of an average 1930s vehicle was less than 80,000 miles? Even 30,000 miles was considered a high mileage vehicle. In those days, people drove very little. The Great Depression was in full swing during the entire 1930s. This was a time when there was massive unemployment, soup lines, homeless wandering the countryside, and the dust bowl. People did not have much beyond the necessities, and most cars were not designed as the luxury mobile that they are today.
During the first few years of the ‘40s, the United States did not produce cars at all.All car factories were retooled to manufacture war materiel for the fight against the Nazis and Japanese. Even rubber and shoes were rationed! When cars were put back in production in the late 40s, they utilized pretty much the same technology from before the war until the end of the decade. For example, Ford didn’t design a new car until1949!
So, cars really advanced in the 1950s, right? Well, no they didn’t. Their shape certainly changed, but they still used the basic engines and transmissions of the 1940s. The metals and paints did not stand the test of time either, and rust was a major problem. Below is a receipt from our shop in 1954 on a truck. To replace brake pads was $6.80. To replace a rusted funnel for the oil tube was $2.50. Autostates aren’t even used anymore. Try to google it, and you won’t find it. Now, that’s amazing.
This receipt also from 1954 shows a tune up costs $17.79 including a $1.10 tail light lens.
Car engineering and design took a major leap forward in the 1960s. New engines and transmissions were designed; new suspension was invented that created smoother rides; and working air conditioning set a new standard.
Controlling pollution became a theme of the 1970s cars. Unleaded gas replaced leaded fuel and catalytic converters were mandated. So, now cars had better engines, transmissions, rode better, were air conditioned and were less harmful to the environment.
In the beginning of the 1980s, you may remember this was a time of high inflation, the economy in the 80s in Houston was in the tank because the price of oil had collapsed. All the car manufacturers were suffering, and they pretty much built universal crap. Cars still didn’t last much past 100,000 miles. This was when Lee Iacocca saved The Chrysler Corporation by building the K car. That car was nothing but trouble for the poor souls who drove them, but it saved Chrysler.
Even the lubricants were poor by today’s standards. If you were to put the oil developed in the ‘80s into a modern car, it wouldn’t make it to the next oil change. Yet somewhere in the mid to late ‘80s, another big leap forward occurred for engine longevity and that was fuel injection. Instead of carburetors, cars had little injectors that sprayed the fuel into the cylinders. This allowed more efficient burning of the fuel-air mixture and eliminated the rich running mess of a carburetor.
So by the 1990s, manufacturers started to improve the paints and coatings and creating lighter weight vehicles for more fuel efficient vehicles.
Of course, today we are in the age of computers, where cars are more complex than the Apollo that landed on the moon. Cars talk to you; they play your cell phone through the speakers; they provide codes for technicians to help pinpoint part-failure; they have adaptive cruise control and navigation systems; and, pretty soon, you the driver will no longer be needed or wanted to man the wheel. (See my blog from last week about Driverless Trucks). Much of the fancy technology that you see in today’s high end vehicles has been developed to create the future driverless car.
But because cars, engine oils, and other lubricants have improved so much, it is not uncommon for an engine to have 200,000 miles on it. In fact, most people should expect to get to 250,000 miles out of their Fords, Hondas, Chevys, and Toyotas. Trucks are good for 1,000,000 miles. Of course, all this is based on performing preventive maintenance and using good quality oils at a sensible frequency. I drive a Ford Fusion, and I have had no engine or transmission work performed, and still have the original brake pads at 155,000 miles.
Sybren likes to joke that he would love to have a bunch of 1980 models running around. “Do you know how much work we would have? We would be replacing spark plugs every 15,000 miles and brake pads at every 25,000! In those days, you considered lucky if your brake pads made it to 30,000.” I am sure you as the consumer are glad not to be driving a 1980s mobile.
Here is a photo of one of those 1980s invoices from Adolf Hoepfl Garage. Note the price of spark plugs ($30.80 parts and labor), a state inspection ($10.00) and the price of an oil change ($12.50). The total bill in 1989 was $454.59, a hefty bill for those days. You can see the main expense was the price of a mass air flow sensor ($310.00). What’s fascinating is that some mass air flow sensors are less costly today than 30 years ago!
So, while the old cars are great to look at and great reminders of our history, modern cars are much safer, run better, ride better, are more fancy, more durable, less likely to rust, and will outlast their classic counterparts. Now, if only they could look as great as these beauties!
1965 Oldmobile Cutless owned by Tomas Yelverton.
Joe Gonzalez won the Grand Prize in our 2017 Oldie & Goodie Classic Car Show with this 1957 Bel Air.