Cars no longer a disposable item?

A few years back when the economy was taking a dive, I was chatting with my auto mechanic and asking him how business was going. “We’re busier than ever,” he told me, “because people can’t afford to buy new cars, so they’re fixing their old ones instead.” And thus it may be that the car is the first item, of more to come, that falls off of the “disposable” list.

I have to admit that this was somewhat jarring to me, because as  someone who owns and drives cars for a long time (“until they stop!” as a friend once pointed out) the “repair or replace” decision isn’t something I think about much.  In fact I’m also surprised to hear of how popular it is to lease cars for three years, and then give ’em back to the dealer in order to get a brand new one on the next lease.

In just thinking about how much metal, energy, and labor it takes to make a car, it’s clearly not sustainability to get a new car every 3 years! It may have been the case that during the rise and rise of the housing bubble, people had no problem buying new cars every few years with pumped up home equity. But now that the air has been let out of home prices, the cash isn’t around to treat cars like a disposable item.

And it makes me think of the case of Cuba, where for various reasons they have had to keep repairing their cars for decades. I wonder if one of the reasons Cuba has been able to keep using old cars for so long is that those cars have little (or no?) electronics in them. Sure it means that the gas mileage is crummy, but then it’d also mean that they can fix them, one way or another, with standard machine shop tools, in order to keep them running. If you stop and think about it, it’s quite amazing what Cuba has been able to do with its old stock of cars.

The key point here is that if the pendulum can swing on cars, from being a throw-away item to being something that you repair for as long as you can, I think the pendulum will eventually swing to other items as well. Maybe major appliances are next?


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