Theme: Economy – The Durable Car

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.

Image via morrisminor.org.uk
Image credit: morrisminor.org.uk

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.

Look on my works, ye mighty and despair. Image via iphonehacks
Look on my works, ye mighty and despair. Image credit: iphonehacks

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.

The ultimate durable car? Image via Topspeed
Wot you lookin’ at? Tough innit. Image credit: Topspeed

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.

Mercedes-W124-Coupe
Three generations of durable. In fishnets. Image: uncredited

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.

Renault-5_TL-1971-wallpaper
Durable in design, if not execution. The seminal cinq. Image: favcars

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “Theme: Economy – The Durable Car”

  1. As someone who finds it hard to let a car go, a Durable Car has always appealed to me though not, alas, a Durable Minor. A Durable 2CV, though, would have been a different matter. I seem to remember getting excited at reading talk of the Series One Renault Espace, with its galvanised bodyshell and GRP panels being, in some way, sustainable. Nothing came of this of course.

    Carbodies refurbished old FX4 London taxis for a while as well as making new ones. Until its problems, Bristol Cars offered the 411 Series 6, essentially a 411 restored to the point that it was sold as new with full warranty. Companies like Beacham in New Zealand do the same with various Jaguars but, of course, neither of these last two projects are carried out with an eye on those with real world budgets and/or a desire to look after The Planet.

    Incidentally, wasn’t the ‘ultimate’ Morris Minor Centre power unit a Fiat Twin Cam? Actually, fine though that sounds, surely the wheezing A Series is part of what a Minor is.

  2. I can’t help but feel that Ware’s choice of the Minor was an error. Nowt wrong with them at all of course, but pivoting one’s entire thesis upon such a car was asking for trouble. But of course, this then begs the question of what should he have focused upon? The Mk2 Jag? Too showy and not a viable everyday car. The P4 Rover? Similarly frumpy and redolent of the cream tea brigade.
    A possible suggestion would have been the P4’s successor – the P6. With it’s steel skeleton, bolt-on panels, its admirable soundness of engineering, a choice of engine sizes and a sufficiently comprehensive parts back-up, it should be possible to run a P6 indefinitely. It might also have attracted a larger audience than Issigonis’ Mosquito.
    Personally, I have always been attracted to the uprated Bristol 411 – a car my champagne taste lurches drunkenly towards. Sadly however, I can do no more than breathe unwelcome alcohol fumes on its collar, until escorted discretely from the premises. Such is life’s burden…

  3. Perhaps the most durable car is still in production? I’ve considered your excellent points Eoin and it appears so have Caterham for the 7. Admittedly it is only a sporting car, but it would surely be possible to buy all the pieces, including entire new engine systems (based purely on the need to improve emissions), braking systems (for safety) and electrical systems (for sanity) regardless of vintage? I’d buy one, especially a narrow little one that is in production now- and when I am dead pop rivet a roof on it and bury me in it. Betwixt purchase and my permanent repose I will allow it to get all shabby and unkempt, fit larger aspect tyres and get a little step ladder that I can leave in the passenger seat to help me in and out as I slowly succumb to arthritis and bobble between senility and fragility. I will also go everywhere in third as I loathe an automatic and the clutch will be far to heavy to handle. The traffic will just have to wait dammit and what other car affords its driver the opportunity to wave one’s stick from the driver’s seat?

  4. Rust, rust, rot and corrosion. Did I mention rust?

    Parts availability. Tires, even. I received a small inheritance this year, contemplated getting a sports car, preferably from the late ’60s. I don’t know how things are in the rest of the world but in the US good grades of radial tires to fit those old crocks are very thin on the ground, as in unavailable through the usual channels.

    Expertise. I’m sure that if I had to rebuild an SU or even a Weber I could do it. Slowly, with much cursing over the fiddly bits, and badly. I haven’t asked around for a while, but I’m not aware of a shop in my area whose mechanics would even look at an SU or a Weber.

    If I wanted to run a godawful pre-WW II Ford, maybe. Maybe. I’d rather buy a new Honda every 250,000 miles.

    Unstoppable technical change. In the US it is impossible to be sure that pump fuel is 100% gasoline. 90% gasoline/10% ethanol is the norm. Old fuel systems are said to give problems when fed the stuff. Flexible fuel lines are easy to upgrade, pumps can be replaced but where are the gasohol tolerant rebuild kits for carbs? Unleaded fuel. That’s all there is. There seems to be a small industry in the UK dedicated to putting valve seat inserts in old cylinder heads. Not here. One can buy fuel additives that effectively replace tetraethyl lead but that’s an ugly solution to the problem.

    Old age and the appeal of mod cons. When I was a pup a/c was uncommon. In summer we sweated heavily, drove with the windows down (noise, turbulence) and finished a long day’s drive caked with dust. It is measurably warmer now than it was when I was younger. There may be hope on that front, it seems that a/c units are available for MGBs.

    In other words, keeping a well-maintained old crock forever is a lovely fantasy that would make good sense in a world of poverty and technical stasis. We live in a different world.

    1. Expertise- who will know how to service my XM’s hydraulics in a decade? Where in Jutland is there a trustworthy person to maintain a CX if I had one. The last of the repair-and-investigate mechanics are retiring soon.

  5. Eoin’s thesis makes sense, and I’ve half-heartedly tried to implement such throughout my life, by pouring money into cars when I should have known better. But Fred’s points also ring true. When I was considering getting an Alfa Giulia saloon, I started thinking about headrests, whose absence in a car even 20 years ago wouldn’t have phased me and AC. Both these could be addressed without compromising the car too much of course, but what next? Supplementary power steering?

    Also, governments have been remarkably tolerant towards old cars until now. I suspect this is less to do with sympathy for those who can’t afford newer, than placating a lobby of well-off people who keep them for pleasure. From last year I don’t have to pay road tax for my Citroen, something I neither asked for nor wanted.

    But I don’t think this will last. Older cars are being banned from various city centres and, although there may be exemptions for ‘classics, in the end who decides what is ‘classic’? Also, newer generations don’t really get this interest with cars and, like foxhunting and other pastimes that were once tolerated, driving old cars around will come to be seen as an unacceptable indulgence. The other day in a drive through hand car wash, one of the young guys working there asked me to turn off the Citroen’s engine, “because the exhaust is killing us”. The car’s well maintained, and they work all day in a queue of modern diesels, so my conclusion was that my car was just perceived as a polluter, rather than physically sensed as such.

  6. The Mercedes W-123 will run forever alongside the Volvo 240 and Saab 900. You get any W-123 you like in any grade you can afford, from dented daily driver to show-room level.

  7. Running a 1988 saab 900 and supplying spares on a global (grand as the statement sounds – but in limited supplies) basis I feel justified in making my opinion known. I run my car and have done so for approx 15 years, I have several customers who have owned them for much longer including a photographer who has used his vehicle for business and his own 900 has nearly 300k miles. Incidentally he currently shares the mileage with another car …. but that’s a SAAB 99 c.1984

    Sure both of us have dealt with rust, my own car in the last 2 years at a cost of £1500 inc a full respray and 4 new arches both inner and outer.
    It isn’t mint/concours, it’s just a decent old car in which I took the wife and 2 children to Gaydon and back yesterday.

    It isn’t the only vehicle I could suggest, I also own a 9000 as does my father whose car passed it’s MOT this week with no advisories and included a service bill – total £194.

    I also own a w124 Mercedes estate that I have clocked up approx 50k miles in 7 years running from Luton to John O Groats at least twice a year amongst it’s journeys – a round trip of 1300 miles.
    Cars I would own or have owned that are durable and cheap to run Porsche 911 1980 -1990, BMW 635, VW Golf Mk1 and 2, Volvo 700 and 900 – cars I also supply some spares for.

    I don’t get the issue ref tyres – my tyres on all my cars cost less than £50 per rim for mid range brand tyres such as Uniroyal or Firestone and are readily available.

    Compromises that are genuine include it isn’t a new car or even nearly new and keeping one like a new car is expensive over a long period. If a piece of interior trim breaks it may be difficult or expensive to replace – so the car will feel older as a consequence.

    No gimmicky toys – some that could be useful. Hands free telephone, sat nav, heated front screen for example. Some can be retro fitted like a bluetooth stereo. I get by with sat nav on my Nokia mobile simply listening to instructions (sometimes through the stereo).

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