Dad and I were in the "Battleship," the grey '76 Ford LTD, somewhere on I-76--I don't remember where we were headed. For the last couple of miles, Dad had been paying very close attention to the instrument panel. "Instrument panel" is kind of too strong a term for what the LTD had: a CinemaScope wide-screen speedometer, a gas gauge, and a bunch of dummy lights, none of which were lit up. The engine sounded normal, the car was tracking straight and true, but Dad was very intently focused on something. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing," he replied. "Just hold on."
He started slowing and pulling off into the median, extremely attentive to his speed and rate of deceleration. He came to a precise stop and pointed at the odometer, a very satisfied look on his face.
"00000.0", it read. All zeroes.
At Dad's insistence, we got out and stood in front of the car and shook hands, a modest ceremony to commemorate what was, at that time, something of an accomplishment: getting a 1970s Detroit car to hold together for 100,000 miles.
Modern engineering has advanced to the point where 100,000 miles is no longer all that rare an accomplishment, and manufacturers are openly touting the unkillability of their products:
That wasn't the case back when I was growing up. In those long-ago mythic times, when men were men and ties were narrow, getting a car to go 100,000 miles was a rare feat. It was widely believed, with no small justification, that Detroit deliberately designed and built its cars so that they would fail mechanically not long after you paid off the loan, an alleged design policy known as "planned obsolescence." Whether that was true or not, the baseline assumption seemed to be that you would drive about 12,000 miles a year--new car warranties were 12 months or 12,000 miles, covering only the major mechanical systems--and after four or five years, somewhere around 50,000 miles or so, it was time to either trade the old heap in, find a mechanic whose children's higher education you didn't mind paying for, or take up auto mechanics as an avocation (and probably still lose the car to the tinworms despite all your efforts).
The pre-1960 domestic iron, like Dad's '49 "Oldredford" or the 1950 "Futuramic" Oldsmobile that I believe was its immediate successor, was a slightly different story. The weak ones of that vintage had been culled from the herd long ago, and the survivors were the tough ones. Slow, hard to drive, horrid on gas, out of style--but just about unkillable, with dirt-simple mechanical systems and body panels made of consumer-grade armor plate.
The VW Beetle was probably the first modern car to get a reputation for long-term unkillability. Beetles were prone to rust in snow-and-salt country, but if you could keep the rust at bay, the darned things would last forever. They might break down from time to time, but if they did you could just about fix them with duct tape and kitchen utensils. The ease of maintenance was reflected in the title of John Muir's best-selling book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive; A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. This was at a time when most other imports, particularly the British and Italian offerings, were prone to breakdows and nearly impossible to fix.
As the Disco Decade wore on, Detroit cars seemed to get steadily less durable each year, while first-gen smog controls decimated the horsepower curve and quality contol succumbed to acute national malaise. The undisputed "champion" in that respect was the Chevrolet Vega, a miracle of engineering malpractice with a self-destructing powertrain and biodegradable body panels, assembled by workers whose attitude toward build quality ranged from casual indifference to soul-destroying hostility. That's not to say that the Vega was in a class by itself by any means. Mopar's terrible twins, the Aspen and Volaré, matched the Vega stride for stride in rust and assembly defects; the tinworms found AMC's Hornet and its derivatives (Gremlin/Spirit/Concord) just as tasty; the running gag was that "Ford" was an acronym for "Fix Or Repair Daily," "Found On Road, Dead," or, if you were the mechanic instead of the owner, "Funding Our Retirement Daily."
While this was all going on, Japanese cars were becoming more and more common. The early Toyotas, Datsuns, and Hondas were rust-prone, but aside from that they were reliable, mechanically durable, and properly assembled--everything the Detroit offerings often weren't. (For a mid-80s Honda, 100,000 miles was the end of the break-in period!) Over time, consumers came to expect all cars to hold together longer and run more reliably.
Not long after that, GM offered a five-year engine warranty on 1975 Vegas with the improved "Dura-Bilt" engine--the redesign which more or less corrected all that was wrong with the original Vega four-cylinder. The attempt to salvage the lemon-scented Vega's reputation came too little, too late, and the Vega went out of production after the 1977 model year.
Two other manufacturers were more successful with using warranties as confidence-builders. Chrysler, its reputation still suffering from the Aspen and Volaré, offered a 5 year, 50,000 mile warranty on its K-cars and their derivatives, and Chairman Lee Iacocca made a point of mentioning it in the commercials:
Early Hyundais earned a reputation for cheapskate build quality and extreme fragility. To Hyundai's credit, they addressed the engineering and production deficiencies, and after cleaning up their act, offered a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty on the powertrain--which they still do.
My GTI, like most new cars these days, came with a 5-year 50,000-mile warranty. It rolled through the warranty mileage in two and a half years without incident, but at about 53,000 or so the second-stage fuel pump failed on me. As I understand it, there are two fuel pumps, one that runs all the time, and another one that cuts in at 2,500 RPM or so. When it failed, it "failed gracefully," as the engineers like to put it. The car was still drivable, but the torque curve ceased to exist above 2,500 and there was no pickup. I think that says something for those nerdy German engineers that they designed it so that a broken fuel pump did not lead to raw gasoline spraying all over the engine bay, fires, explosions, and/or other apocalyptic events.
Even though the GTI was out of warranty, my friendly local dealer and VWoA split the cost of the repair with me as a spontaneous gesture of goodwill. The #2 fuel pump went soft on me again at about 97,000, but the repair required was much less expensive the second time around. I haven't looked in the VW forums to see if that's a known weak point with the 2.0 turbo or not.
At the 100,000 mile scheduled service (which I had done at 99,500 or so), they replaced a broken sensor wire and an ignition coil that had gone wobbly--and that's it, apart from "consumables" like tires and brake pads and some fender damage that wasn't my fault. Given VW's latter-day reputation for high repair costs and intermittent quality issues, I'm not inclined to complain. The car still has that fantabulous torque curve and can easily rip off a sub-6 second 0-60 dash (ask me how I know), and the handling and brakes are as good as the day I drove it off the dealer's lot with 000007 showing on the odometer.
I'm already looking forward to the 200,000 mile celebration. This time, I'll have my camera ready.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner