Aging Gracefully or How Long Will My Car Last?

I will, for the benefit of those with less than a master’s degree in mechanics, try to make this simple by breaking it down into categories by era… two very basic ones. All cars from the brass age (turn-of-the-century to about late-teens) until about the late 1960’s are of a simple enough nature that any part, no matter how complex by the standards of those bygone days, can be fashioned today by a competent small company if not by a talented individual. Those cars can — and often do — live forever! They are well supported in many cases by companies in the business of supplying those parts. Why? Because they can make them! The magazines are full of stories of epic mileages recorded by interesting cars (the 3 million mile Volvo, my 600 thousand mile TR4, the 900 thousand mile Lotus Elan, etc.) and things were good for anyone who took care of his car. Then came progress, the seventies;  materials changed, theories changed and the US federal government took an interest. The 70’s were not kind to the long-term wishes of the car enthusiast, and it all went positively horrible from that perspective from then on. That is, from the “forever era” as just outlined until the “Temporary era”(now)….


This part is going to hurt a lot of egos, but as those who know me understand, I would rather tell the painful truth than lead you down the garden path to heartbreak. That 1997, 2002, 2014 you have invested in so heavily will NOT see the age that we normally associate with “collector” cars. They can’t. By design. To illustrate this I have a little test for you: go to Moss Motors’ website and look at the exploded diagrams of one of the popular classics, a Spitfire for instance or an XKE. Now go look at an exploded diagram of parts for a 1996 Anything….oh, wait a minute…there isn’t one and all those parts you can click on and see the cost for that Spitfire, no problem; those parts for the 96, forget it. “NLA” – (No Longer Available) is a term you need to get used to, and “NLA” is the term you will find for all the things that make a nice restoration …well… nice.

You can buy a wiring harness for a Spitfire but not the 96. You can buy a dash for a Spitfire but not (do I need to go on? you were supposed to go do this on your own). What about the engine management ECU? Oh wait, the Spitfire doesn’t have one… and the one for 96 is what? “NLA”! Ok, let’s assume you pound the keyboard endlessly and find all kinds of parts that don’t actually exist anymore (the major manufacturers make sure that’s the case — in an “of course we wouldn’t do that to you, our loving customer” kinda way…but they do!) So there you are with your pile of rare parts, now what? The Spitfire can be stripped and reassembled by a fairly decent mechanic and sometimes at home, but the harness in the 96…really? Come on! At a glance, maybe only 25 to 30 hours to change the harness and the labor has now approached the money that the whole car is worth on Craigslist. The Dealer won’t touch a car older than 10 years, so, on one hand that’s been through the table saw a couple of times you can count the shops that might do the work … and I’ll talk you out of it most of the time!

That’s just the way it is for “temporary era” cars with the only exceptions being the absolute top names such as Aston Martin, Morgan, etc. Lotus makes its cars still in such a way that all things can be disassembled and replaced. It provides parts for the older cars — you can go to a Lotus dealer and buy a new frame for a 60s Elan!

A point of view you may not have considered (mine) is in the case of say … a heater control valve. If I install one on a 1963 MK2 Jaguar then I feel a great sense of satisfaction in that it will go another 25 years, live in a cherished collection, and be passed down at least another generation. But if I install one on a 2001 S Type, well … that car doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance of living that long! And knowing that, the job satisfaction is massively diminished for the greater chance is that that car will be recycled many times before I hit the old folks’ home!

I have a modern car myself and am rather fond of having real wipers and AC sometimes, but I plan to “cycle out” of my modern stuff before it ever needs paint or upholstery! And if you want to keep car ownership cheap (well, as cheap as it can be), I recommend you do the same! Ok…so maybe it all sounds a bit extreme and I am obviously generalizing a bit, but it’s true. The car you love with all those bells and whistles (the ones that still work, anyway) is a ticking financial bomb waiting to leave you walking in the rain followed by an ad you place, pleading to sell it for 5% of what you have in it…. How did this happen? Well, I can assure you it’s not really your fault! While you were doing everything just as your parents taught you and caring for your hard-earned investment…all the rules changed from the top corporate levels on down: gone are the old ways–staying at a job for 25 years to collect a pension…gone! Keeping a car and maintaining it in tip-top condition so it will last 25 years…gone too! Everything is disposable including your car! Just like the computer monitors you tossed on the curb, the car is no longer built in such a way as to make it “permanent.” Things have gotten so bad that the government stepped in a few years back (again) and made federal laws to demand that manufacturers supply repair parts for a few years. Like everything the federal government does, it was a waste of time (good intentions do not a success make). The manufacturers did supply parts for a few years but were not obliged to make them affordable, so it’s almost the same as not being able to get them.

Triumph Spitfire Being Towed

The idea is simple: like your oven or TV or anything else in today’s society, you throw it away ! So, you, for the sake of argument, say, “OK Rob, how do I deal with this?” Well, I will assume because you are still reading this that you are not in the financial category where money is in great abundance… so here’s what I recommend. First of all, don’t participate in the initial depreciation of the vehicle. Using British cars (naturally–but all are similar) as a basis for my example and rounding the numbers, it works like this. As soon as the rear wheels of a new anything pass over the curb of the dealership, you lose 20%, and in ten years the vehicle is worth about 10% of what it cost new. So step one is let the first guy take the big hit: buy your  “new” car when it’s 2 or 3 years old with 20 or 30 thousand miles on it and here’s an obvious note…not from a dealer! The whole idea of being a dealer is to make money selling cars…not lose it! And to promote the sale of new cars, they keep the price of the trades they sell high. Of course, if they are taking your trade from you against a new car, they don’t offer much. I have seen cases where a car that was traded went right on the lot the very next day for double the traded in value. Buy the car from an individual, but get a CARFAX and have a mechanic look at it first.

So there you are, getting excited to buy a car, no more bumming rides every time old unfaithful curls up on the side of the road! You’ve gotten a CARFAX and the mechanic blessed it; you bought for 40% less than the same one “Righteous Al” has on his car lot, and you are merrily running errands with nary a care!…What have you done wrong? Maintenance! All those services in the handbook are there because the manufacturer knows what is going to fall off or wear out because it’s already run a bunch of those cars to pieces before they went to market so it could try to avoid a bunch of forced recalls! (not all manufacturers really try very hard) So  do those maintenance checks.  Some are a waste of time but ask your mechanic. Personally, I find that about half of the suggestions in the service schedules are unnecessary, but quite a few really are important. And you will be digging your car’s grave if you don’t tend to them!

Well, that’s it for now. Enough talk about your rain-car. I have to get back to fixing the “Category 1” stuff!


Robert Morey and TR4

Editor’s Note: We had to add the picture above in with this article. That is Robert behind his 600,000 mile TR4 at the British Car Day show put on by the British Car Club of Charleston. Not only did Robert win an award for his TR4, but a number of his clients won awards as well for cars that he has restored and/or helps to maintain. Congratulations Robert!

Robert Morey
With over 40 years in the business, Robert Morey restores and maintains British cars. His restorations have won many awards and are in collections across the U.S., England, Japan and the Bahamas. Robert is compiling a book on owning British cars as both a business and a hobby. Robert and his wife Michele live in Charleston, South Carolina.


  1. I know whereof you write! in 65 years of car buying I have NEVER bought a new one. Our everyday cars are 12 year old diesel beaters that can easily reach 400,000 with pretty simple maintenance. The rest of the (collectable) cars range from 1933 to 1991 The latter is a Honda Beat with 30,000 made and 8 in the US. I had to find a (used) window motor online on eBay in the UK! I was lucky.

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