It used to be the bodies of old cars that usually gave up first, but nowadays it's a little more complicated
Rusting bodywork is largely a thing of the past, but it’s unlikely car makers will address certain other issues, reckons Porter
If you’ve not yet crested 40, I have some bad news. Sometime, not long after you pass this age, the mechanical parts of your body will enter a phase of malfunction. I hate to sound like the old fart I clearly am, but since I entered my fifth decade, my knees clack and ache, my back has developed a twinge, and last week I slept funny and spent the next day having to turn my head in the manner of an uptight robot.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Vast improvements in diet and healthcare mean the average First Worlder can live well beyond 70, yet we’re still based on the same kit as our prehistoric ancestors and they struggled to last much past the big four-oh. So while your mind can be fizzing away at full capacity on your 80th, your ankles are lifed for just half that.
And this makes human beings very similar to the cars of the 1970s and ’80s. When I was a kid, for example, my mother had a Vauxhall Chevette. I remember several things about this, including the day I got my first taste of exciting rear-drive handling as Ma Porter went completely broadside on a misjudged snowy bend, and the part-vinyl back seat that on sunny days could sear youthful limbs like cheap tuna. I also remember that the dear old Chevette had barely seen five winters before it was riddled with great fissures of crusty tin-rot.
This seemed pretty normal 30 years ago. The single thing that could kill a car, long before its engine or electrics went, was the slow disintegration of its body. Japanese cars, with their scant rust-proofing and exacting mechanical engineering, seemed particularly prone, so most Datsuns, Toyotas and Mazdas seemed to end up as a perfectly working engine, smoothly spinning inside a pile of dust. Up until some point in the ’90s, the ageing car was much like an ageing person: sound of heart and mind but bodily creaking and cracked.
Now cars are the opposite. In fact, it’s quite astonishing how good they are at resisting the outward signs of ageing, notwithstanding certain Mercs and Fords that are built from the same stuff as Alfasuds. Look around the average town today and notice how many of the cars are a bit older than you think. In fact, there are plenty of models well over ten years old doing sterling service and hiding their age by dint of crust-free sills and lustrous panelwork. In the last 20 years, great progress has been made in keeping the very structure of a car solid and stable where once it would have scabbed and flaked before half a decade was done. This is such an achievement you might wonder why there aren’t even more older cars on our roads. Well, I think I have the explanation for this one.
Several times in the past few years I’ve been filming television programmes where we’ve needed some immobile cars to bash or crush, and every time I’ve been staggered at the quality of the stuff that’s turned up from the local scrappie. The gleaming, barely-last-generation metal carefully arranged on location frequently seemed too pristine to be one step away from the cubing machine. On one occasion I had to double-check with a colleague that we were in the right place after becoming convinced we were about to smash up actual punters’ cars while the manky cadavers from the boneyard were hidden behind a hedge. They weren’t. Scrapyards are full of shiny things that appear to have years of life left in them. And they probably have, if you’re prepared to spend more than the value of the car on replacing what killed it in the first place. Which is, inevitably, a wonky ECU. And, what with the lure of the brand new and cheap PCPs making it achievable, no one ever does that.
Which is why cars have become more like those tragic cases of elderly people in uncommonly good physical shape who are struck down with dementia. The body is strong but the mind is cruelly failing. Medical science works furiously to address this. Car science, maybe not. Perhaps car makers could simplify electronics or upgrade them to reassuringly failsafe aviation-spec. But then we’d have cars that could last for a long, long time and that wouldn’t be good for new car sales. So it’s not likely to happen. The new generation of long-lasting bodies is really just a sop to keep each car looking nice until the day its brain or heart goes terminal.
So here’s a thing, car companies. If you’re going to keep doing what you’re doing, could you at least get your talented physical durability experts to work on a new and unusual project for a precise over-40 demographic: making me a new set of knees.