By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Maybe the biggest single negative about modern cars is this: When they reach a certain tipping point — it seems to be about 12-15 years after they left the factory — fixing them becomes either more trouble than it’s worth, too expensive, or can’t be done (because you can’t find parts for it anymore).
You own a late ’90s Civic with 170,000 miles on it. The car is worth maybe $2,500 or so — but it still runs (and looks) great, so you’d like to keep it. Probably the engine is good for another 50,000 miles — maybe another 100k.
But then one day, the transmission starts to slip.
If this were something along the lines of a ’75 Chevy Nova, a brand-new or rebuilt automatic transmission would cost maybe $600 or so for the parts (at current prices; see here if you don’t believe me).
The Nova has no computer controls, so the transmission itself is cheap — and because of the simple front engine/rear-wheel-drive layout , removing and replacing it is not a difficult job. An hour’s labor, maybe, for someone who has a lift and knows what he’s doing. Almost any reasonably handy person could do it themselves for free in an afternoon, with a floor jack and some basic hand tools.
The Nova’s straight six (or small Chevy V-8) can also be completely rebuilt from the oil to the carburetor for about $2,500 in parts and labor. Heck, you can buy a brand-new GM replacement V-8 for less than that (see here). And again, the install is pretty simple. Even if you had to pay someone, it is a much easier job than removing/reinstalling a FWD car’s engine/transaxle assembly.
Assuming the car’s frame is solid, you can keep a car like that old Nova going for almost forever — and for not much money.
Things have changed a lot since ’75.
Go online and price a new/rebuilt automatic transmission for that late ’90s Civic. No, wait — price a used one. How’s $1,200 and change (see here) grab you? You don’t even want to know how much a new replacement will cost you. Probably more than the car is worth.
And there’s the rub.
Who is going to put two grand into a $2,500 car?
But without a working transmission, the $2,500 Honda is worth next to nothing. It is a parts car. Beer can fodder. You might get a couple hundred bucks for it as scrap. So it’s either throw big money into the car just to get back to where you where before — or dig even deeper for an equivalent used car.
Or buy a new car — and really dig deep.
And then cross your fingers and pray to the Motor Gods that next month the electronically controlled air conditioner head unit doesn’t crap out on you. If it does, you’re looking at $800 — what it used to cost to rebuild the entire AC system, pre-electronic age.
ABS pumps can cost more than redoing the entire brake system on a pre-ABS car.
Electronic control modules (the “ECM,” or computer brain that runs your car’s engine — and which it won’t run without) can cost $1,000 or more.
Modern EFI systems have numerous expensive components, several of which cost — individually — more than the entire fuel system (a carburetor sitting on a cast iron intake manifold) of an older car.
And on many new cars, the intake manifold and other parts are made of plastic. Unlike cast iron or aluminum — which often last decades or even indefinitely — plastic parts are prone to cracking and more easily broken.
Don’t forget $400 a piece catalytic converters and $50 a pop 02 sensors — plus all the other sensors (and miles of wires) that are buried deep in the bowels of all modern cars.
And then there are the air bags.
They are time bombs that can leave you hoofing it (or waiting at the bus stop) just like that. A relatively minor crash, the bags go off — and the car (otherwise fixable and maybe even drivable without fixing the bodywork) is declared a total loss by the insurance company because the cost to replace just the bags exceeds the 50 percent of retail value threshold at which most insurers will declare a car “totaled.”
This is why cars with computer controls, lots of electronics — and air bags — get recycled (and disappear) sooner than cars made before the advent of all those things. It’s pretty common to see a car made during the ’60s or ’70s driving around. How many ’80s era cars do you see these days? Even the ’90s era stuff is getting pretty few and far between. I do not expect to see many turbo-ecoboosted-all-wheel-drive 2013 model cars 20 years from now.
But I bet it’ll still be pretty common to see an old Beetle — or mid-’70s Nova — roll by.