Are Cars Getting More Reliable?

It’s been a longstanding myth that vehicles are more dependable and reliable every model year. Used car buyers want the newest car they can afford, as public perception says it will be the most reliable. Today, we are going to crunch some numbers and see if it is actually true, what is actually happening out on the road, and what those numbers mean for you.

Since the USA is the single largest car-owning population on Earth, for simplicity (laziness), we will stick with all figures and examples coming from the States. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), for 2012, the most recent year data is available, there were 254,639,386 registered vehicles in the US. If that sounds like a lot, it is. The number of registered vehicles actually exceeds the number of licensed drivers, which number around 212 million, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Keep that in mind as we take a step back in time.

Back in the day

If you were around in the 1950s or ‘60s, you probably remember how every year it seemed every automaker had completely remodeled their entire lineup. The Tri-5 Chevy (1955, ’56, 57) featured changes every single year, and 1958 was an entirely different model. Consumers were accustomed to rapid model changes. They thought it was about having the best and freshest designs, with the most powerful engines, but really, they didn’t seem to notice that they almost needed a new car nearly every other year. Put 50,000 miles on a car and it was ready for the junk yard.

We didn’t have internet forums back then for consumers to complain about their unreliable rides, but you can see it in the old warranties. Way back in the day, let’s say 100 years ago, new cars had no warranties, or had stupidly short time spans, something like 30 days. This was due to shoddy workmanship, mainly the fault of ignorance on the part of the manufacturer about manufacturing, or simply a lack of technological ability to make precision parts. Buy the car from Sears, assemble it yourself, and you are on your own.

Other than factory assembly taking over the kit model, nothing changed much for the first few decades. Warranty Week (yes, that’s a real newsletter), has a 2007 article stating that car buyers in the ‘60s complained to Congress, which started an investigation. Back then Congress actually worked, so the result was the Magnuson Moss Act of 1975, which lists rules and regs covering auto warranties. Specifically, automakers have to list what is covered, what is not covered, what is the period of coverage, how to obtain coverage, and how the warranty is affected by various state laws. Basically, it’s the reason we have tons of fine print on everything.

Why does all this talk of warranties matter?

Well, an interesting thing started happening in 1969. For the first time, the average age of a vehicle on the road started getting older, according to the BTS. This is a trend that has continued since, and it makes sense, as the ‘70s are where you started seeing car manufacturers competing by comparing warranties to their competition. A longer warranty was perceived as being a car of higher quality and reliability. If you remember the 1980s, Toyota would run montage commercials featuring real owners, absolutely ecstatic that their 1980-something Toyota managed to reach 100,000 miles.

Now, it’s not just the warranties. The technological knowhow has increased as well, which means more reliable vehicles. For example, a current year Ford Mustang needs 5w-20 oil. This is pretty thin compared to previous versions. A 1985 Mustang wants 10w-30. An even older 1964 Mustang would probably be fine on 40w Rotella. This is due to tighter build tolerances on the newer vehicles. Better fit of parts, and tighter tolerances mean the parts are less likely to wear, and thus will last longer. This is true of every component of a car, from EFI replacing sloppy carbs, to computer designed tires with longer lasting tread and even down to the accessory drive belts. Everything lasts longer, because it is designed to be more reliable.

The numbers back this up too. The National Automobile Dealers Association conducts surveys on the average age of vehicles in the US. Rising from a low of 5 years old in 1969, the average reached 7 years by the late 1980s, and 9 years by the late 1990s. It stalled there for a decade, when it started creeping up again. By 2011, the most recent year of data, the average age of a vehicle on the road reached 11 years.

What does this mean for you?

For several reasons, it’s a great time to buy a used car. First, despite fears of all those complex parts breaking, what you should be looking at is how all those parts were engineered to last. 100,000 miles is nothing to worry about on any car built in the last 20 years, and it’s just getting broken in if it’s made in the last 10 years.

Second, the reliability means there are tons of great options out there. Want a nice used British sports car in the early 1980s? Too bad. Want one now? Go for it, as they should be fun and reliable for years.

Finally, it’s a great deal for those of us that modify their cars (and some of our readers are into that big time). Better quality means more power, and more adaptability to modifications. An example is how you could throw every modified part in the catalog at an old school 350 Chevy, and it would struggle to make 400 horsepower. Now, heads and cam on an LSx-based V8 mean 550 horsepower at the wheels.

So whether you are looking for everyday drivability, or a reliable weekend track car, a used car built in the last 20 years is a great choice. It may not be flawless, but odds are it will provide many years and thousands of miles of dedicated service.

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