A rant about the auto industry OR consciousness about our material culture

This post isn’t about the US auto maker bailouts, although that’s another issue I have strong feelings about. This post is about the end effects of America’s culture of short life-cycle, disposable products on the automotive industry.

How long do you think a car lasts under “standard” circumstances? It’s hard to say, and I’ve seen data that is all over the place so I’m not going to speculate, but I can share my personal car lifespan limiting experiences. I first became aware that cars could reach a point of uselessness when researching Chevrolet Chevette’s in the mid nineties. (They are an interesting vehicle, and at the time the interest was in putting small and large block V8s in them) It turned out that around that time, no manufacturer was making replacement starters for the cars. If you owned a Chevette that was in otherwise good shape and the starter went out, the car was suddenly useless. (barring the few weirdos who didn’t mind push starting their manual transmission models, and those of us who could fabricate well enough to modify a different part for the job) [Note: this situation as since changed and someone has put the starter back into production]

Another Lifespan limiting factor (LLF) that I’ve encountered is rust, especially here in Indiana. Rust on a cars body is usually live-able until you get to unibody designs (which most today are) or other modern designs where function imperative chassis hard-points like strut towers are made of stamped sheet and susceptible to rusting away.

The last, and most acceptable LLF I’m going to mention is emissions standards. In most states your car has to pass the test, and if not, you can’t get it plated. It’s not an issue here in Indiana, and for my own sake I’m thankful for that, but on the whole, it really should happen everywhere. US emissions laws are actually pretty lax. One could argue that the cost of the level of technology needed to attain even these liberal standards is prohibitive to many, and they’d be right in my opinion, but I think if legislating bodies and auto manufactures were more concerned with doing the correct, logical thing (that would probably pay off for them in the long run) than the quick profit thing (that will [and is] putting them out of business) really cheap MPFI controllers and the rest of the hardware could be readily available. I guess we’re kind of past that now since you can check instructables.com for people making homebrew gasifiers and all flavors(literally!) of greasel.

All that said, let me tell you about what instigated this post. I bought a “backup” car some time back. (as someone semi-handy, and without the funds to have a dealership “fix” everything, I commonly keep a spare car for when the main one is down for repair) I experienced some strange shifter problems with the car, and took it to the shop, hoping for a quick, relatively cheap fix since the problem was as simple as one worn out piece of plastic no larger than a quarter. To my surprise, that part is simply _not available anywhere_ by itself and the only immediate choice was to buy a “shifter assembly” from the dealer which cost over $500 and included not only the part needed, but a new shifter stick, collet plate, several gaskets, retainer pins, shoulder bolt, and even more ridiculously, the shift linkages. (I know these are vague terms, but we’re talking about an assembly of parts larger than would fit in the cars trunk! all for one tiny piece of plastic) Better yet, this part was only available from the dealership, and in checking junkyards, none were available, probably because it now makes more financial sense to crush a car and sell for scrap than to sell the parts to people who need to maintain their vehicles! (and this is because steel prices are through the roof since China is buying all of our scrap… because they are doing way more manufacturing than we are… because walmart buys everything from china! this is somewhat exaggeration, but it IS an issue to be thought about)

This is for a 1998 model car. That’s 10 years old. Should something that costs $25k new last longer than 10 years? I suppose that’s debatable, but I say yes. Cars _can_ be made to last longer, but that would mean less revenue for the automakers. Witness the Delorean. While it had it’s drawbacks, (namely a sketchy electrical system) it was leagues ahead of the pack in terms of lifespan, for the simple reason that it was made out of stainless steel. That is just one singular design decision that contributed a lot to the useful life of the vehicle. Now I know driving the same car for 20 years isn’t “cool” in a commercialist/capitalist country, but it makes sense.

So the moral/point of the story is that in most of our material culture we “repair” things by replacing assemblies. (and even then, we end up junking the whole thing a few years later) And in the process, we are simply tossing out all the good parts instead of just fixing the problem. this is how the whole of dealership based car repair happens, and it’s not dissimilar to the way we handle electronics, appliances, furniture and anything else we use. The reasons are many – costs of incidentals, time investment, etc.. but I think when you look at the amount of money that could be saved, especially with the US economy the way it is, it starts to look like things need to change.

An example of what I personally think is a more correct way of dealing with this situation are the junk shops of Eritrea, Africa. Here’s a link with some photos of what I’m speaking of. Basically, there is a huge junk yard somewhere in every town that contains all manner of any material item discarded. There are expert handymen that can either repair these things, or turn them into something else entirely and sell them back into the community. That link is really the low end of this, with a lot of tin-work ladles and storage containers, but lots of other things are made.

And I have heard accounts of folks from Africa, working here in the US, who go to garage sales and Goodwill, buying all kinds of “junk” – tvs, appliances and old busted cars, with which they fill up a giant shipping container and send to their relatives in Africa, who then take it to these handymen who make them work again. An example I was given was that a person here in the US could buy a non-running 80’s toyota for $200 off of craigslist, send it overseas, and once the handyman has it running, it would sell for like $5000! You may think that’s unbelievable, but happens, and the reason is that Africa has very very little heavy industry of any kind. With all of the political turmoil and warlording, it makes sense that no legit business would want to get involved with anything over there. That 80’s Toyata is simply the only thing you can get.

Ok ok.. Back on topic. I think we as consumers need to start thinking more about what we throw away. This may mean finding independent mechanics (or informing existing ones) who can fabricate and “fix” your car rather than just order assemblies and bolt them on, or it may mean simply thinking about other functions your old junk can perform. Turning your old mac classic into an aquarium may be novelty, but using old cat litter containers as a mop bucket saves you a few bucks and saves that container from the land fill.

I don’t know if this country will ever get to the point of Eritrea in these regards. I personally kind of hope so, but I think the fact that here we always have a _really_ rich upper class combined with the pan-class penetration of media driven pop culture, it’s likely not going to happen.

So I guess I am kind of making a call to action to be a little more aware of what you have, what you need, and what you can reuse. Recycling is more than a blue box on your curb.

[for the few who are interested in what I did with the car – I told the ford dealership to suck it, and found that I could get the plastic part as part of an aftermarket, china made, “short throw shifter” that I got on ebay for $25. ]

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One thought on “A rant about the auto industry OR consciousness about our material culture

  1. hey man i bet this post is more about the auto bailouts than you intended. i’d submit that because of the way we’re handling our financial decisions now, we’re going to HAVE to make shit last longer. people are going to completely change their opinions about how long they drive their cars, how long they wear their clothes and when it’s actually necessary to throw that television out in favor of the bigger and brighter new thing.

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