Ideally, an article on the theme of economy should contain no words at all – a conceit I did explore briefly, but the results proved disappointing.
Instead we reprise a piece from DTW’s early days which I’m forced to concede, runs to 1941 words. So while on one hand it does meet the brief, it also misses it by several nautical miles. Sorry.
The fact that ‘Durable Car Ownership – a new approach to low cost motoring’ didn’t knock Jackie Collins off the best seller lists in 1982 is probably due as much to its minority subject matter as a sorry lack of carnal shenanigans. It wasn’t a fashionable subject then and given that it’s been out of print for some years, probably wouldn’t be now.
Its author, Charles Ware, had his reasons for writing it – even if, as founder and MD of the Morris Minor Centre in Bath, those of a more cynical mien saw it as an attempt to hype his restoration business. But what Ware espoused was no less than a rethinking of car ownership, based upon the idea that new wasn’t necessarily better and that car ownership could be, less of a quickie behind the bushes but more of a committed long-term relationship – perhaps even something more akin to a form of curatorship.
His argument was straightforward enough. Contemporary cars were over-complicated, expensive, prone to depreciation and guaranteed obsolescence. Buying a new car had become a trap for the unwary, conned into a cycle of use-up, wear out and replace. Far more sensible and cheaper, he argued, to run a ‘durable’ older car, which could be maintained and modified over time to provide a depreciation and future-proof alternative to the modern car. Ware centred this theory on one vehicle – the venerable BMC Morris Minor – beloved of district nurses and midwives from Peel to Penzance.
(Sir) Alec Issigonis’ landmark design was not everyone’s idea of automotive nirvana, for although the ‘poached egg’ is viewed with fond nostalgia, it has also tended to personify an archetype of hapless ineptitude: it was less of a surprise that the character of Frank Spencer in the popular ’70s comedy, ‘Some Mothers do ‘Ave Em‘ drove a Minor, than the notion that he was capable of driving at all.
So it is fair to say the Morris has something of an image problem. However, as an exemplar of the durable ideology, it had several things going for it. Minors enjoyed a lengthy production run, survived in large numbers, and furthermore, were extremely well supported in terms of spare parts and expertise. More importantly still, like many formative unitary construction designs, they were vastly over-engineered, which was good news as far as longevity was concerned.
Ware proposed a cottage industry of refurbishment, re-manufacture and modification, starting with brake, suspension, drivetrain and engine modifications; ultimately culminating in a fire-breathing 1.7 litre Morris Ital engined version, which served up a more contemporary Minor experience. It would be possible, he argued, to plan one’s ownership of a Minor over a period of decades rather than years, the owner budgeting for essential maintenance, and more radical updates as and when required.
So as the vehicle became progressively upgraded, its value would increase, while costs would amortise over time; to the benefit of the owner/curator. Ware envisaged a network of Morris Minor centres across the length and breadth of Britain and even proposed restarting Minor production in Sri Lanka for a time, but despite the soundness of his ideas, the durable revolution failed to be televised.
It was a matter of timing as much as anything. The concept chimed with the austere climate of the 1970s, but the consumer boom of the following decade swept all such thoughts aside. In a climate where heritage and classic design began to gain serious traction – the airwaves being full of Motown classics and Nick Kamen shedding his Levis – old cars were cool and what was originally a cottage industry catering to a few mother-loving oddballs fast became big business.
The Minor became irrelevant in this brash, highly commoditized world, and while old Jags and Ferrari’s became traded artefacts, the humble Morris and its champion were not. Besides, the UK consumer was by now truly, deeply, madly in thrall to the new.
But some thirty years later, through one of the most bitter periods of enforced austerity in recent history, consumers once again face stark vistas. It’s not just the banks and global financial systems under scrutiny- the automobile is too and with manufacturers facing falling demand and a growing environmental backlash, the power of new is being leveraged like never before.
Collectively, we’ve reached a point in our evolution where we have never known more about science and quantum mechanics, yet on an individual level, we appear to ascribe the power of magic to the function of our now ubiquitous electronic devices. We understand nothing of their functionality, their operation being entirely binary. They simply work or they don’t. When they break down, we have no idea why, so we immediately buy another. The very idea of fixing or repairing has become unimaginable.
Once we worshipped the automobile, we now devote the same reverence to our devices and the quasi-religious shamen who attend to them in the temple of Apple. Once we rejoiced in the sight of polished cam-covers and plenum chambers, now the ugly plastic shroud that envelopes the power unit repels and awes in equal measure. Electronics control every function, and obsolescence is if anything, even more precipitous, more rigidly determined.
Terrified of our growing apathy, manufacturers become increasingly reliant upon gadgetry, fluff and appliqué to keep us interested. The car has become not only pointless and wasteful but more damningly, predictable. Genuine innovation has been consigned to the vehicle’s increasingly sophisticated electronic brain. Design is an empty box – all ideas used up and repeated.
Yes, the modern car is efficient, safe, rust-resistant, and laden with convenience features, but the sheer amount of black-box wizardry it contains would have Alan Turing reaching for the smelling salts. This bewildering level of technology is alienating people who care for and about cars, and few options lie open to those who through poverty or sound judgement opt to take the scenic route.
So where do we turn? All ideas have their moment and if the 1980’s were not kind to those of Charles Ware, perhaps it is time to dust the durable car down and see if it can be re-purposed for a latterday austerity.
It would probably be germane at this point to attempt to define the durable car. There is a degree of subjectivity here of course, but for any car to be considered durable, it should be out of production for well over 15 years. It must be possible to find a good number of survivors on the roads in robust condition and those survivors should be proven to be reasonably resistant to bodily degradation through corrosion or poor material quality. Most replacement mechanical parts should be obtainable – but total parts support is preferable.
The vehicle itself should embody qualities that transcend time and fashion – therefore a degree of character is a definite plus. Another factor is the potential for the vehicle to actually appreciate in value – or at the very least, not continue to depreciate. Cars which have enjoyed long production runs tend to be durable, which may serve to explain why few modern cars can truly be described as such.
But can a comparatively modern car really be classed as durable? I would argue it can. A obvious exemplar would be something like the Mercedes W123 series – or indeed its W124 successor – thousands of which still ply our roads and certainly, few latter-day cars have stood the test of time better.
Contemporary Volvo’s and Saabs also qualify owing to their strong engineering values, safety, long life and character. As indeed does the Land Rover Defender – perhaps the ultimate durable car. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine anything made after the mid-90’s making the grade – modern cars are simply no longer made to last.
Not all car enthusiasts are necessarily taken in by the new. There are those who would argue that car design peaked some years back and that it is possible to derive as much, if not more from being the custodian of an interesting older car. While it might be less keen to start on a frosty winter morning and lacking in the some of the more helpful convenience features, but what does an older car genuinely lack?
Take something like the original Renault 5. A seminal small car design – a Morris Minor for its era, it could be argued. Apart from a few gadgets and some safety features that are only of real use in the event of an accident, does a modern Twingo offer much that is palpably better? Added to this is the fact that the R5 was a genuinely innovative car and one that by contemporary standards offers a far more romantic driving experience. It should be possible to update such a car mechanically to equip it with the kind of dependability, roadholding and braking taken for granted in a latterday Clio. However, finding one that hasn’t dissolved into ferrous oxide is another story.
However, some braver souls have opted to take the durable route – fusing their interest in cars with a disdain for the sanitized experience of modern car ownership. They may spend a bit more time on the hard-shoulder than their newer car-owning friends, but on balance their experience is perhaps a richer one. It can also be argued to be a more environmentally sound one, since maintaining a pre-existing car is far less wasteful of resources than manufacturing a new one – no matter how impressive those emissions figures might look on paper.
Surely, is it not better, cheaper over a longer period of time and dare I suggest, more fulfilling to form a long-term stewardship of an older car – treating it, not as a consumer durable to be used up and thrown away, but nurturing it and improving it as you would your home? By budgeting for repairs, renovations and modifications over a period of decades rather than years, it should also be possible for a durable car to outlive its owner and be passed through generations.
In doing so, the owner/curator could possibly indulge automotive longings otherwise impossible to fulfil – why settle for something prosaic when you could realistically – (albeit with a little imagination) – run to a Silver Shadow or a Bristol? (Less indulgent options are available by the way)
The motor industry would have apoplexy of course, but imagine a situation where a growing number of cars were maintained, improved and loved over decades instead of being traded in every couple of years. But, I hear you say, we tire of the same thing year in, year out and the new Captur is on order, so just try and stop us.
Well yes, I can see that this may not be for everyone, but isn’t it about time we realised that we can’t keep blindly producing millions of new cars every year when perfectly serviceable older ones are crushed – often for no good reason. Maybe the durable car is overdue a revival. Because it might just be possible Charles Ware wasn’t so out of step in 1982. Perhaps it was the rest of us.