Racking Up Miles On Our Cars
By James Donahue
I caught a recent news report about cars that easily travel
over 100,000 miles and often go twice that distance before they end up in an automobile junk yard.
The story said better engineering, higher performance engines,
new synthetic oils and other factors are among the reasons for the longer life of the vehicles on contemporary roads.
I must admit that contemporary vehicles are going the extra
distance. I am personally driving an American made car that has traveled well over 120,000 miles and is still going strong.
The car I owned before that showed nearly 300,000 on the odometer.
I am old enough to remember an earlier time when it was
considered a milestone when a car reached the 100,000 mile mark. I once stopped along the road and broke a bottle of beer
over the hood when an Oldsmobile I drove hit that straight zero mark across the dial.
My first car, a 1950 Chevrolet, never made that distance,
even though a friend and I tore the engine apart and installed new rings and gave it a complete overhaul at 50,000 miles.
The cars I owned for several years after that didn’t get that far either.
Cars in those days were designed like everything else in
America . . . there were designed to wear out and be thrown away so we would go back to the store and buy new ones after two
or three years. In fact, it was common for people to buy replacement cars every three years and trade their old vehicles in,
even if the old car was still running well.
My parents, who lived through the Great Depression, were
never ones to waste anything. My father bought very few new cars in his years, and when he did, he drove them until they were
completely worn out. I recall once riding with him to an automobile dealership in a car that almost didn’t make it.
When he turned the engine off we were 18 miles from home. That was as far as that car was ever going to go. He had to buy
another car that day so we could get home.
I think the Japanese automakers had a lot to do with the
design changes in contemporary American automobiles. After those nifty little Toyotas, Nissans, and Mazdas began arriving
on the scene, and owners started boasting about getting 200,000 to 300,000 miles on them, there was a sudden surge of interest
in foreign cars.
I bought a used Datsun that already had 150,000 miles on
the odometer, and I found it to be an excellent car. I drove it for a couple years, then gave it to our son who took it to
California. He said he drove it another year and sold it to someone he worked with. He said that the last he knew, the Datsun
was still going strong and he was sure it registered over 300,000 miles.
American carmakers had to improve their product to compete
with cars like that. It was inevitable. Also, after the environmental movement in the 1960s forced American automobile companies
to install complex anti-smog devices on cars, the price tag for started on an uphill climb that hasn’t stopped.
I earned that first Chevrolet in one summer by harvesting
an acre of strawberries on my parent’s farm and peddling them around town. My profit was about $600, which was the price
of that two-year-old car. You could buy a brand new car in those days for $1,000.
Now with cars priced higher than what folks once paid for
a fully working farm with 160-acres of good land, anybody buying one expects it to go the distance. Most of us hang onto our
cars as long as we can keep them running now, coaxing every last mile out of them. Buying another vehicle, even a used one,
is no light matter.
We might get goaded into making such a purchase by a smooth-talking
salesman somewhere along the line, but it is easy to forget that once you finance a car through a bank, you are required to
buy a full round of insurance. And that sometimes can cost as much as the payments on the car. If you drive an old car, you
can afford to take a chance with the minimum amount of insurance required by law. Those payments are high enough and as far
as I can tell, under no-fault insurance laws, they offer little or no protection whatsoever to either the driver or victim
in the event of an accident. But that is another story.
In some states, new car owners pay a very high price for
the annual license plate. Arizona, where we lived for a while, was such a state. People with new cars and those big SUVs forked
over hundreds of dollars every year just to keep plates on their vehicles. I was told that the big four-wheel-drive trucks
cost drivers something like $1,000 a year. We drove a 10-year-old Buick and I paid much less for my plate. In Arizona, you
see a lot of very old and smoking cars on the road.
There are a lot of social, political and financial reasons
why cars are traveling so many more miles now than they used to. I don’t enjoy driving like I used to. With so many
other vehicles clogging the highways, and all of our cars polluting the air, I would rather take a bus. Or a train. But we
don’t have good bus service, and we have torn up most of America’s train track. So driving is required if you
want to go anywhere.
Thus I have a car in my driveway, albeit is an old vehicle,
completely paid for, and it is not a major drain on our monthly purse strings. Like my father, I will drive that old clunker
until the wheels fall off, and only then will I consider replacing it.