Theme: Secondhand – The new car/used car gap

Stephen Fry wrote once that the world is divided into two groups of people. There are those who divide the world into two groups of people and those who don’t. Fry said that he belonged to the latter.

Used cars are available from the Swann Motor Centre in Cowley, Oxford.
Used cars are available from the Swan Motor Centre in Cowley, Oxford.

I believe the world to be divided in lots of ways. One of those divisions is the one separating people who only ever drive a new car and those who only ever drive something pre-loved. Another subdivision is being a journalist or not. Using just two parameters (new/used and journalist/non-journalist) we can create an exciting four way matrix of combinations.

The corner of this matrix I will look at first is the distinction journalist/new-car and journalist/used car. I notice that many of the cars that have had very rosy receptions as new cars have had problematic second lives as used cars. The S-class and its peers are only wonderful when brand new and thereafter are worthless albatrosses, for example. All Audis and BMWs in the US are landfill once the warranty expires. As new cars they are in the drivers’ top tens but as used car they are in the bin.

Have you noticed that for most of a car’s life the owner is not the first owner? Despite this, the automotive press is written as if the car remains perpetually new and just home from the show room. The opinion of the car offered is based not only the car being fresh out of the box but in many cases but also being driven in nice, foreign climes where the only objective is to

Clevelland Car Sales: clevelandcarsales.co.uk
Clevelland Car Sales: clevelandcarsales.co.uk

hoon about in the car and occasionally listen to deadening presentations on jounce characteristics and final drive ratios. This is a world away from the situation where the car is eight years old and is vitally necessary for a work-related drive to Cleveland on a foul wintery day when the service engine soon light is blinking and you are worried the second gear is beginning to slip. Yet it’s the same car.

The car you read about and bought (used) was tested in and around Alicante on a wonderful spring morning; breakfast in the Del Sol Hotel achieved dizzying heights of deliciousness; the afternoon offered a great chance to drive back to a nice little village in the hills where the writer had a super lunch when the Opel Sintra was launched. The car you are driving is on its third owner. You think they changed the timing belt but you are not sure.

An article at the user forum hinted that the weird change in the engine character might have something to do with the valve seals – or was it the gasket on early 1.6 litre non-turbo models? Is that the time? You have 148 miles to cover in two and half hours. The car you are in is now utterly unlike the shining example that made the cover of AutoMonth in June 2006. You are in a secondhand car with all the problems that entails. You are a mortal, a mere mortal.

The best response to this is to ask what else are journalists supposed to do? Wait eight years before testing models? The new car test course is a level playing field; all cars are tested under the same sorts of highly favourable, wine-drenched, luxury hotel conditions and if a car slips up when it’s a lovely day in Lanzarote and there is no pressure on the writer, then it means it will surely be a disaster in month 72 of its life in rain-swept Vienna in March.

Another happy customer. Swan Motor Centre, Cowley, Oxford.
Another happy customer. Swan Motor Centre, Cowley, Oxford.

The practical response is to treat new car reviews as entertainment or tests of Platonic models of the real car. They point out the areas of the car that, as designed, could be better or worse: the boot volume, the heater controls, the gearbox character, the rear leg room. The rest is impossible to know. Not even the manufacturer knows what will break or when. Nobody can say if the secondhand car you buy will succumb to known faults (“Avoid them, mate, the torsion bars always fail”) or if the reputation the car has is wildly pessimistic (“Avoid them mate, nothing but trouble”).

Life in secondhand cars is pretty much all of us know but the compensation is that you learn to live with the fear and put it in perspective. The people who insist on a new car are really no safer than those of us in well-maintained older models. The cost of dealing with an annoying breakdown is vastly less than buying a brand new car; I’d say keeping half a grand in your bank account will always be enough to get you and the car home and quite possibly take a taxi the rest of the way if all comes to all.

Secondhand: it’s not so bad.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

2 thoughts on “Theme: Secondhand – The new car/used car gap”

  1. When a car is new, it’s impossible to predict that it will suffer, say, valve breakages after 50,000 miles due to some sub-standard valve seating material. These little landmines only become apparent with time (and in most, though not all, cases even the manufacturers are unaware), so we can’t blame motoring journalists for that.

    However, in many cases, we can blame them for their complete lack of engineering knowledge and curiosity. They come to their job with an often superficial interest in cars. Some, though certainly not all, might be good analytical drivers, but few have either the interest or knowledge to analyse why.

    Even more important, they often have no mechanical aptitude. Mechanics are different from engineers. Someone (it might have been Len Terry) once admirably admitted that, although he was a good engineer, he was a poor mechanic. An engineer can analyse how a car works. A mechanic can analyse how it will break down. A good journalistic road test would involve putting your, or a more competent surrogate’s, head under the bonnet for 10 minutes and looking for weak spots.

    But, although people with these talents exist on the staff of classic car magazines, they don’t seem to make it to the mainstream journals. And why should they? Those magazines rely on perpetuating the glossy myth of the new car as much as manufacturers do. They have no interest at all at looking at the car 8 years (or even 8 months) down the line.

  2. A very good point well made. As th owner of car that has, for a little while now, made me a little nervous before setting off on longer journeys lest something malfuntions, I can really empathise with the points being made.

    Further, car magazines don’t keep cars long enough on “long term tests”. 6 months and less than 12,000 miles seems to be the norm, and then they express amazement when “nothing went wrong”. These days, I am afraid that I expect nothing to go wrong in such a short period given a completely new car. I was once researching a car from the 80’s and came across a LTT in Car in which the car in question remained with the “staffers” for 18 months and, acually, it looked as if the magazine had actually bought it and hence somewhat abused it as a utility vehicle. Hence, it seemed a real achievement when they claimed “(almost) nothing went wrong”. Surely, when a new model in question is somehow seen as being crucial to a manufacturer’s success (e.g. the new Jaguar XE), it would be doing the motoring public a service to hold such a model on their fleet for a couple of years and really rack up the miles. Now, that would be really interesting.

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