By on February 27, 2017

For 41 years Jane Hoyt has been driving her baby blue 1975 VW Beetle. Is it love? Madness? A ’70’s thing? When I asked her about the appeal of her longtime automotive companion, it was none of the above. “It’s a story of inertia. Really, it’s a metaphor for my life. I always stay too long at the fair.” That last word struck me as kinda funny. If a car ownership is a metaphorical “fair,” can you get a lifetime of kicks from a four-wheeled Ferris Wheel?

Yes, the Ferris Wheel. It’s a nice, simple machine. Like the Model A, VW Beetle and 1960’s Chevy Pickup. While reliability-crazed motorists tend to focus on things not going wrong, it’s important to remember that simplicity means ease of repair, and that’s the real key to longevity

Simply put, if a mechanic working on a vehicle can quickly figure out what fig-a-ma-jig needs to be replaced, the car in question can usually be repaired in matter of hours, rather than days or weeks. It’s going to be easier for an aspiring lifer to tolerate the problems that come along. Because once you pass a certain point in a car’s lifespan, come along they will.

Thankfully (for you if not the manufacturer), that point of plenty of returns is stretching-out further and further. Six Sigma, lean production and a variety of manufacturing standards and practices that you’ve likely only heard in passing have enabled all carmakers to move towards incredible heights of build quality and mechanical robustness.

At the same time, there have been steady improvements on the repair front. For example, mechanics– be they shade-tree or franchised– now use an OBDII scanner and Alldata (the name says it all) to diagnose and repair vehicles. Identifying electrical problems has never been easier.

Well, at least post’95 or so. From the mid-90’s back to time memoriam, each manufacturer had their own unique way of doing things. To wit: most pre-’96 Volvos had little plastic inserts that looked like a magic wand which went into little holes of a diagnosis system. Toyota’s diagnostic system was completely different from GM’s, and Honda had their own system.

In fact, cars often had several unique “languages”. A mid-1980’s Jeep Cherokee may have been given a computer system from AMC, an engine from one of three automakers and a transmission from one of six completely different companies. Throw in a multitude of carburetors and a diagnosing system from a long-ago defunct AMC, and it’s no wonder motorists longed for cars that never, ever broke.

It was an automotive Tower of Babel, that forced mechanics to specialize. Which kept both labor and parts prices high. So how come there are still “lifers” out there that stretch back to these pre-historic times?

As I perused the web in search of lifer stories, I found that most of the cars were those made by companies that churned out the same powertrain for as long as possible. Mercedes and Volvo are the two mantle holders of many elderly lifers. Daimler offered very long model runs for the S, SL and E-Classes; the Swedes finished a 20-year run for the Volvo 200 series whose powertrain migrated to the 740 and 940 models for several more years.

The thinking back then: if a car model made money and customers kept coming back for new ones, keep making the same thing. Only do it a little better every time. Improving the design, making the parts more durable and maintaining the language of diagnosis and repair kept more of these vehicles on the road past the average life expectancy of their rivals.

And then we have to consider the owner. Lifers tend to have what I call a ‘blue jean’ mentality when it comes to cars. That is, if the basic shape and design of the vehicle fits their needs, they just keep wearing it regardless of the current fashion. They realize that holes can always be sewn or patched, tastes change with time, and that in the end what really matters in most daily driving is that you’re comfortable.

But they also don’t “let things go”– as most owners do. If they sense a problem with the vehicle, they make sure it gets taken care of by someone who can be a good steward for that vehicle. That makes a huge difference in their overall happiness with that car. In the end, ‘knowledge’ and automotive excellence enable them to do what they want to do rather than what society, friends or the modern media encourages them to do.

So, if you’re looking for a lifetime automotive companion, you’re a lot better off now than at any time in the past. But the rules still apply: simple is best, mainstream is cheapest and regular maintenance is critical. With a bit of luck, you’ll avoid the roller coaster of high monthly payments, rapid depreciation, repair and hassle.

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