Older Cars

It’s been a long time since I looked at low-priced used cars, but today I’m helping my son shop for his first car. I’m surprised to see so many for sale that are 20 years old or older. I’m well aware of statistics that show the average age of a car in the U.S. is almost 11 years, which means half the cars on the road are twice that age. But I didn’t expect to see so many for sale.

I travel to different parts of the country, and I pay attention to the cars I see on the road and in the shop.

It wasn’t all that long ago that a 20-year-old car was just about finished. Assuming most shops won’t recommend spending more on repair than the car is worth (a risky assumption but still useful), I’m used to seeing old but healthy cars only in desert climates or the poorest neighborhoods.

That’s not the case anymore. While cruising Craigslist, I’m surprised at how many 1990s-vintage cars we’ve found in just about every neighborhood. Admittedly there’s only so much you can learn about a car from a few lines of text and four photos, but the point is there are lots of really old cars for sale that still have some miles left in them.

I’m convinced it’s because cars built in the 1990s are that much better than cars built only ten years earlier, and the reason is the computer on the engineers’ desk. As an engineering tool, computers make it possible to design, test and revise any given part or system before spending a dime on fabrication and lab testing. Compared to the days of slide rules and blueprints, Computer Aided Design (CAD) cuts development time from years to hours, and the final product is more refined and (usually) more reliable than would otherwise be possible.

Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) has had a similar impact. Engines and transmissions can be built to tighter tolerances; body structures can be welded in places no human can reach. Every fastener is torqued perfectly every time.

Cars change with every new model year, and new tools will always be needed to keep up with them. But cars are living longer, and that means the older tools will be needed longer too.

Only you can know how that will affect the inventory on your truck, but to me it means when my son comes home with a car that’s almost as old as he is, I probably already have the tools he’ll need to keep it alive.