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"They Sure Don't Make Them Like They Used To"

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"They Sure Don't Make Them Like They Used To"

Bill Crittenden
2 May 2017

How many times have we all heard "they sure don't make 'em like they used to?" Especially when in the presence of a surviving car from a past era of automobiling? That's called Survivorship Bias. What is that?

Survivorship Bias

Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. It is a form of selection bias.

A commonly held opinion in many populations is that machinery, equipment, and goods manufactured in previous generations often is better built and lasts longer than similar contemporary items. (This perception is reflected in the common expression "They don't make 'em [them] like they used to") Again, because of the selective pressures of time and use, it is inevitable that only those items which were built to last will have survived into the present day. Therefore, most of the old machinery still seen functioning well in the present day must necessarily have been built to a standard of quality necessary to survive. All of the machinery, equipment, and goods that have failed over the intervening years are no longer visible to the general population as they have been junked, scrapped, recycled, or otherwise disposed of.

Though survivorship bias may explain a significant portion of the common perception that older manufacturing processes were more rigorous, there are other processes that may explain that perception, such as planned obsolescence and overengineering. It is difficult to directly compare and determine whether manufacturing has become overall better or worse. Manufactured goods are constantly changing, the same items are rarely built for more than a single generation, and even the raw materials change from one era to the next. Capabilities and processes in materials science, technology, manufacturing, and testing have all advanced immensely since the 20th century, undoubtedly raising the potential for similar increases in durability, but pressures on production costs and time have also increased, resulting in manufacturing shortcuts that often result in less durable products. Overall, the contemporary consumer probably has access to and experiences a much wider range of product durability than past generations. Again, bias arises from the fact that historical goods of poor quality are no longer visible, and only the best produced items of the past survive to today.


Survivorship bias is a form of favoring anecdotal evidence, in this case focusing on those examples of cars that survived the years either through careful maintenance or long-term storage and ignores the billions of cars that broke down and rusted away until they were sent to the scrapper to be turned into paper clips.

Debunking the Bias: Reliability by the Numbers

While Wikipedia is a bit ambivalent in its Survivorship Bias page's subsection on Manufacturing and Goods Production, I'll dare say that vehicles these days are made better than their counterparts from decades ago. Vehicle longevity increases from the 1960's to today is showed in a few simple stats from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics: the average age of a car on the American road was just 5.1 years in 1969, rose slightly to 5.5 in 1977, jumped to 7.2 by 1983, and has steadily climbed up to the 11.4 years seen in 2014.

But what are statistics worth when comparing to a big, heavy, solid-feeling 60's Chevrolet to today's average Hyundai with plastic chrome? Not much to some folks. Old cars just feel like they're built better. They're heavier, they're simpler, they're made of metal instead of plastic. You could reach all of the major parts under the hood! I can't tell you how many times I've heard that cited.

Sure, but they were also engineered without the advantages of the last four decades of R&D correcting weaknesses found over the years, built of parts machined with to a standard that was state-of-the-art at the time but would generously be called "sloppy" in today's auto industry, and functioned with such mechanical devices as points and distributors and carburetors that are no match in reliability for modern digital systems.

Modern steel is lighter, stronger, and more corrosion resistant than what was used in generations past. Plastic components and modern paints & sealants for the remaining metal keep bodies from rusting out as quickly as they used to. Lighter materials may feel less substantial but they also mean less stress on weight-bearing components.

But, but...

Sure, modern luxury cars packed with technical tricks have more to go wrong with them, and Consumer Reports ratings reflect that. But losing a quirky toy's function is hardly reason to shred a car into recyclable materials and start over. Those longevity numbers I mentioned before reflect what people consider to be road-worthy. To bring up an anecdote of my own, my 2003 Pontiac is missing heat shields, its skid plate, carpet, the radio volume is wonky, and the CD player doesn't work anymore. But it still gets me to work just fine. It's 14 years and 200,000 miles were unheard-of numbers for an average family wagon in the 60's, but today it's not rare anymore.

But don't those longevity numbers really just show that older vehicles are better as they're still around bumping then numbers upward? Take a look around you the next time you're on the highway. Chances are unless you're in the vicinity of a car show on a Sunday morning, most cars are going to be a mix of Camrys, Accords, crossovers, and work vans. The American market accounted for about 17.5 million sales in 2016 and 17.4 million in 2015 alone (Autodata via L.A. Times). The number of vehicles in the American fleet usually rises by a significant amount each year, averaging a 3.69 million yearly increase from 1960 to 2006 (FHWA), all the way up to to 257.9 million light duty vehicles on the road at the end of 2014 (IHS Automotive via Automotive News). There just aren't enough classic cars registered to significantly affect the overall fleet's average when compared to the quarter of a billion cars, trucks, and vans that are participating in the standard family car and work vehicle lifecycles.

Might the increase in longevity be a reflection of higher car prices and changes in working class economics making it more worthwhile to repair instead of replace? First of all, that assumes that there haven't been poor people looking for cheap transportation since the first Model T's hit the corner used car lots, and secondly I doubt that the harsher economics of today's working class could make 60's cars last like 2000's cars when we're seeing vehicles like my Pontiac commonly reach mileages that were unheard of in the days of 5-digit odometers. 60's and 70's cars were just plain "used up" at 100,000 miles while 200,000 mile cars aren't uncommon anymore (a quick check shows 219 cars with over 200,000 miles for sale within 25 miles of my location on AutoTrader).

Feelings vs. Facts

This isn't even accounting for modern safety and modern performance, two aspects of cars that even retrophiles now have to grudgingly accept as inevitably improving as technology advances. But as soon as they have to admit that, they usually try to tack on that asterisk that means "but they just don't make cars like they used to."

But it's just not true. Technology has advanced in every aspect of the automobile: materials, engineering, manufacturing. The trouble in understanding this is that the idea that the modern half-plastic car being made better than the old heavy steel one is that it's as counterintuitive as the idea that a giant heavy battle tank of a car isn't as safe as the little compact car that's designed to fold upon impact. It sure doesn't feel safer, you just have to understand how it is safer.

New cars don't feel like they're made as well as cars of the past. They're lightweight to the point of feeling flimsy. There are a billion more little plastic things that can break on them, miles more wiring under the hood to cause problems, and sometimes they incorporate untested and untried technologies.

But the proof is ultimately in the statistics I mentioned before: a 5.1 year old average vehicle age in 1969, climbing through the years up to 11.4 in 2014. Cars made recently tend to last a lot longer than cars made in the glory years of the American auto industry. Survivors on the road today are the rare exceptions, not the rule.

No, they sure don't "make them like they used to." And that's a damn good thing for anyone with over 100,000 miles on their family car, hoping to make it another 100,000 before starting the payment cycle all over again.

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