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This might not be the cause you know

So, when did cars get markedly more reliable? It wasn’t 40 years ago because Brit cars from that time were famously terrible. So, 30 years ago? 20?

The cars on Britain’s roads are getting older and older as net zero plans leave drivers in a tizz about what new vehicles to buy.

About 5.3 million cars are 15 years old or older, according to figures from car marketplace Auto Trader, up from just 1.7m in 2001. The number is on track to rise to 9.3m by 2032.

Cars are ageing in part because of a squeeze on production, which started during the pandemic and is only now beginning to end. Manufacturing issues led to higher prices and prompted motorists to hold onto their vehicles for longer than they otherwise would.

However, many are still reluctant to trade in even as more models come onto the market.

Think on it. If cars – if – do become more reliable into their old age then people will run older cars for longer. So, a possible explanation for this is that there was some switch thrown which made cars more reliable at some past point.

This all seems to coincide with the death of British Layland – so there’s that benefit to it then, eh?

22 thoughts on “This might not be the cause you know”

  1. You’re misspelling leads me to a more accurate name for the manufacturer. British Layaboutland…

  2. It was the mass advent of Japanese manufacturers – they realised early on that most people don’t, deep down, care about the engine note, the handling and so on. What people want is a car that’s reasonably comfortable, has sensible equipment included in the price and which starts every time without pissing oil over the drive. All quality improved once they took huge market share from the European and US makers

  3. My dad’s old car is still sitting in the carport. And it was built in the last century.

    But I’m naturally stingy.

  4. I bought a MGF in the late 1990s and it was a fucking disaster zone. Bits kept on falling off of it. “Handbuilt by Roberts.”

    East Asian cars and robots seem to have solved the “Friday is every day” car syndrome.

  5. In a word…. Toyota… and their TPS (Toyota Production System).

    A mate worked for a tier #1 component supplier in the 90s just as Toyota were ramping up production at the Derby plant and in France. His company also supplied Land Rover (not sure what they were called then) and Ford, and he said the QMS requirements the Toyota people imposed were several orders of magnitude more stringent than anything they’d seen before.

  6. I had a FIAT Tipo in the early 90s. I had to endure many “Fix It Again, Tony” jokes, but it was legitimately a great car that was well built, didn’t rust, never let me down. And the VW Golfs at the same time were about the same. Both felt like a different level of product to the Astras and Ford Escorts at about the same time.

    My take on this is that it’s mostly about robots and better presses/casting. So every part that go into an engine or the car is made by a machine, so it’s well made. The variance of a weld, paint, or how accurately a windscreen is placed is miniscule. Humans can’t come close to it.

    The other factor is that cars stopped getting new features around the mid-90s. 80s cars didn’t have ABS, central locking, electric windows, electric mirrors, airbags, automatic chokes, fog lights, aircon. People would upgrade because of the new tech. I had a Toyota in the mid-90s that had all of that. What’s been added since? The thing that holds a car on a hill, some of that automatic braking stuff. Nice, but I’m not going to spend £30K to get it. I’d rather spend £10K on an 8 year old Lexus with 50k on the clock and run it into the ground.

  7. Maybe the recent general squeeze on household incomes is having an effect?

    Rather than some far distant unattainable dreamed up target

    Just a thought

  8. If I don’t want electric and a new petrol or diesel may fall foul of net zero when they price the fuel out of my reach, it makes more sense to keep the petrol cars I have. If one of the two gets too expensive to fix, I’ll ditch it and use the other.

  9. Ducky McDuckface

    Yeah, somewhere in the mid-90s, just before the introduction of common rail diesels.

    Mainly automation in manufacturing, and VW ran the squeaky ear-ring ad a bit earlier, but there seems to have been a change in the paint systems as well, around the same time, which pretty much sorted out rust.

    MG Rover was dead in the water about 7 to 10 years later.

  10. I think it was the point when computerised manufacturing became a thing. Instead of some bloke with a fag hanging out of his mouth operating a capstan lathe producing grummits of varying quality, you got a computerised machine churning out identical parts for days on end. A reduction in unit cost and a massive step up in reliability, and availability, as the robot didn’t go on strike either.

    A friend of mine worked in a factory in the 70s that made engines for Minis. One of his colleagues would measure the components until he found one that was exactly on the design spec, which he would then pinch. This went on until he had an entire engine, which he assembled at home, and fitted to his own Mini. It produced 25% more power than the production engines, because everything actually fitted together properly on it.

  11. The triumph of the Japanese car makers was entirely predictable from the triumph of their motorbikes in the late 60s. Dear God, motorbikes that didn’t spray oil over your legs: how very dare they?

  12. Videos from Sudan (and indeed any country with a civil war) regularly show how well-built and reliable a Toyota Hilux is.

  13. The poor quality of 1960s cars was a temporary phenomenon; earlier cars were built to last: I remember that the first of my school classmates whom I knew to have a car (long before I did) regaling me with the story of how someone had driven into his car, which was given to him by his father when the latter bought a new car. Chris was driving a car older than himself and just had to bend his back bumper straight, the offender’s car was a mess.
    It may be disputed whether the poor quality of 1960s cars was due to the workers or the management; IMHO both were to blame: the difference in quality between MGs built in Abingdon and Morris built in Oxford was so significant as to be obvious, and the view was that Morris were better than Austin built in Longbridge; Rovers were decent cars until Wilson pushed BMC to build a Triumph factor in Liverpool and BMC merged Rover wth Triumph.

  14. In 2010 my 15-year old Rover struggled to do 25mph. In 2015 my 15-year-old Corsa breezed throgh 45mph. My current 15-year-old Colt easily does 50mpg on long distances. So, yes, 1995/2000-ish was the major switchover.

  15. I remember when I was a kid my dad had a Vauxhall Viva. (“Champagne Gold” it was; I remember him remarking that if he ever saw champagne that colour he’d throw it out.) It was a running joke amongst my friends, much to my embarrassment, and hardly ever out of the dealer’s workshop. (And they were a bunch of cowboys themselves, but that’s another story). Going through his things after he passed away I found a letter he’d written to Vauxhall themselves in Luton, threatening them with legal action over a misaligned door, just six months after he bought the thing. In the end it basically turned into a pile of dust, after what seemed to me as a nipper to have been an eternity.

    It was seven years old. You wouldn’t think twice about buying a 2016 car these days.

  16. “Dear God, motorbikes that didn’t spray oil over your legs: how very dare they?”

    The most striking aspect of the decline of the British motorcycle industry was the unbelievable levels of complacency. The small Japanese bikes caused a huge rise in the number of people taking to two wheels. Edward Turner thought that this was wonderful as these new riders moved onto a British bike when they needed something bigger than a 350 and this lead to a boom for BSA-Triumph too. It was obvious that this rosy situation couldn’t last, once the Japanese started making bigger bikes the British bikes were doomed.

  17. Sam

    When I was at Uni (mud 1980s), a mate had a Viva. It had a brand new engine, but the steering and clutch were completely buggered. It could travel really fast just not in a straight line.

    He could open the doors with a Walls ice lolly stick, but usually used the nailfile on his penknife

  18. I owned a Morris Minor. I once repaired the wipers with Spangle wrappers. Once Spangles were no longer on sale (1984, according to Leftopedia) British cars were doomed.

  19. Maybe not British cars – but it’s not unusual to see reliable 20+ year old cars in the parts of America where we don’t get ice (road salt kills cars crazy fast) for a long time..

    I’ve got a 26 and an 18 year old truck.

    In general, I would say – for us – it was the entry of the Japanese cars into our market. Made the American companies have to slim up and get into shape.

  20. To summarize why modern cars are better, as people have said in earlier posts (and add a few other things too);

    Better quality raw materials. (More consistent, higher quality steels)

    Better fasteners, better glues (as many components are now bonded together)
    Much better anti-corrosion dips and tougher, more weather resistant paint.

    Automation and computerisation;
    Robotic welding & assembly especially, but also better fabrication methods – such as more injection moulded parts for the interior – generally fewer parts reliant on skilled hand workers.

    Quality management systems. All components tested to much higher standards and everything recorded and track and traceable. Everything from electrical switches/wiring looms being tested, to the whole assembled chassis scanned with lasers to assure that everything is true (to within millimeter accuracy).

    Modern car production is scarily good, a whole world away from the hand fettled trash that used to be produced from the likes of British Leyland, where no two cars were exactly the same.

    That’s not to say that sometimes you might not end up with a lemon, but that’s increasingly a rare occurrence.

    I do some work for the bus industry, and many buses (such as Routemasters etc) are very much put together by hand in the same fashion that cars were, pre-automation and pre-computerisation. They are a nightmare to work on because there are rarely any cad models to reference and most of them (even made at the same time/place) vary quite considerably. Quite a lot of stuff ends up being bodged to fit in best British fashion 😉

  21. It’s well worth reading about British Leyland (e.g. at to see just how badly the British motor industry was damaged by government meddling. Instead of inefficient, complacent, failing firms going bust, they were merged with the much more successful Leyland Motors, resulting in disaster and partial nationalisation to avoid the whole thing failing and disappearing.

    When you force the people who are doing the right things with respect to R&D to support those who are doing the wrong thing, the inevitable result is that a foreign firm with no such dead weight to hold it back will outcompete you.

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