31plymouth

How long did people keep their cars in the 30's 40's 50's?

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I'm going on 13 years with my daily driver. 149K miles still runs fine,  No rust.  Mostly original with no major mechanical problems.

How long did people of the 30's 40's 50's 60's keep their cars ?  Why did they trade up?

Mechanical failure?  Style?  convience features?  Safety?

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My parents bought new a 1960 Plymouth Fury III station wagon at the end of the year as it was a "left over" from the years sales. , they kept the car until 1969 and it had reached 1000,000 miles but suffered from rust in the lower rear quarter panels and we were told that it probably had one valve that needed regrinding or repair . So although the paint was excellent as was the interior we sold it and bought a new ( end of year left over again ) 1969 Dodge Charger with the 318 engine in it . That lasted about 10 years as well and the Dodge , although running well, saw rust in the lower rear quarter panels and the front seat seams start to split open. Again the paint and chrome was excellent.

Oddly enough , the 1960 Plymouth station wagon was bought at a Chrysler/Plymouth dealer at the SW corner of Jericho Tpke and Rt 110 in Huntington , NY. at the Pase Company. The showroom and building dated from the 1920s. the glass above the showroom windows was lettered DeSoto and also Franklin. Later about a decade plus in the late 1970s, early 1980s I became friends with the dealership's owner, Wes Pase, his Father had a Franklin dealership in that same building and also one in Brooklyn and in NY City . I went on to restore and own a 1931 Franklin that I owned and drove for decades.

Why do I recall all of this like it happened yesterday ? I was 10 years old when we bought the 1960 Plymouth.

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For a long time seven years was average. There is not single answer why. In the rust belt we know why. In the SW it was the toll that the sun took on paint and interiors. In the humid SE it was the combination of both sun and humidity. Garaging mitigated much of the damage by the elements, but not all. Even more important was peoples' lust for something new. Many people then and now just got tired of what they were driving and wanted a change. A car to most people is more then just a tool to get them safely from point A to B. When someone says he/she needs a new car it usually has a for different meaning then its lack of reliability, they mean that emotionally they need a new car.

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Posted (edited)

A few places say that in 1930, the average lifespan of a car was 6.75 years.  Granted, that doesn't say how long the first owner kept the car: Instead, it's how long the car stayed on the road.   As has been noted on the forum before, the value of used cars plummeted quickly in those days; a 5-year-old used car could be worth 5 cents on the original dollar.   So people must not have wanted used cars, although that doesn't itself say why.  I've always assumed it was mostly that the cars just weren't designed to last: They would rust, fall apart, and otherwise reach the end of their expected lives in a few years.  And there was a certain amount of planned obsolescence, at least in boom times, although I don't know how much that actually impacted consumer choices.

Edited by 1935Packard (see edit history)

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In the Northeast region, with harsh winters and heavy road salt use, retaining a car for four years after a purchase new was common.  By the time the odometer showed 90K-100K miles at six-eight years they were backlot cheap used cars or in the junkyards.  Rust-prone cars ended up there even sooner.  A large family here in our small town drove Mopar station wagons from 1957-'59, always savaged with rust by 1963-'64.

 

The only cars older than ten years or more were owned by owner folks who kept them garaged and drove sparingly.  A few were snowbird who spent winters down south away from winter's rigors.  A retired grocery store owner appeared every summer through the 1960's in his light yellow and white 1956 Cadillac Sedan de Ville with air conditioning!  Two spinster sisters kept a '53 Chrysler Windsor sedan they made multiple trips to Florida in into the 1970's.  The local Ford dealer took a very nice 1939 LaSalle sedan in trade in about 1963-'64.  I begged my dad to buy it to no avail.

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In Florida in the 60s, a car with over 50k miles was done and in the $200- $300 range. The biggest issue was upper body rust from sea salt. Little was over 5 miles from the coast so sea spray was a real issue.

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In 1927 my Grandparents bought a new Pontiac, good car but real poor/slow on the hills.  In 1930 they traded it in on a new Custom Sedan.  Much better car.  In 1959 with 99,000 miles on it I started driving my Grandfathers Pontiac.  I have used it as my daily driver ever since until my retirement in 2016 when it had 500,000 miles on the odometer.

The wholesale grocery company my Grandfather worked for had a mixed fleet of trucks, three to bring freight from the railway to the warehouse and some to deliver to the stores.  In 1934 he got a new Diamond T and drove it bringing six or so tons of case goods from the railway every day.  In 1963 when he retired at age 83 they also retired his truck with 39,000 miles on it.  It still ran execllently but they they said it didn't look progressive so they traded it in on a new Chevrolet.

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My Father kept his cars until he blew the engines due to never doing any maintenance of any kind.  Three years, five years, once seven.  The end was always the same, go find another used car and start the cycle over. 

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58 minutes ago, 1935Packard said:

A few places say that in 1930, the average lifespan of a car was 6.75 years.  Granted, that doesn't say how long the first owner kept the car: Instead, it's how long the car stayed on the road.   As has been noted on the forum before, the value of used cars plummeted quickly in those days; a 5-year-old used car could be worth 5 cents on the original dollar.   So people must not have wanted used cars, although that doesn't itself say why.  I've always assumed it was mostly that the cars just weren't designed to last: They would rust, fall apart, and otherwise reach the end of their expected lives in a few years.  And there was a certain amount of planned obsolescence, at least in boom times, although I don't know how much that actually impacted consumer choices.

 

From the beginning of auto manufacturing on into the mid-1930s there were significant power, speed, reliability, durability, economy and comfort improvements pretty much every year. It would make sense that a five or ten year old car was considered obsolete even if not worn out. Possibly even a two or three year old car.

 

1 hour ago, Buffalowed Bill said:

For a long time seven years was average. There is not single answer why. . .

 

That is pretty much as I recall too. I think some of it was a hold over from the early era of automobiles when improvements happened pretty rapidly. And I think some of it was due to the substantial styling changes made each year. Nowadays I have trouble looking at a well maintained car and figuring out if it is new, late model or five or even ten years old. So if you maintain your car cosmetically as well as mechanically, you are not embarrassed about driving an "old car" when driving a five or even ten year old car. That wasn't the case between any five or ten year period from the end of WW2 through at least 1970 and probably even 1980 or 1990.

 

Looks like the average age of a car on the road has definitely been going up.

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In the 30s and 40s it was common for new car buyers to trade in their car every 2 years, on average. Some traded every year if they drove a lot. Others kept their cars forever. But, in those days, they figured you would start to have trouble once a car got 20,000 or 30,000 miles on it. It would need new tires, brakes relined,  rebuilt generator, carburetor, or even an engine overhaul (ring and valve job) about that time so why not trade it in and enjoy trouble free motoring.

 

After the war cars became a lot more durable especially when the new generation of OHV six and V8 cars came out in the fifties. Even so, many people traded every 2 or 3 years.

 

From the 30s to the 70s there was a strong demand for used cars. Many people never owned a new car in their lives. Not like today when anyone can get a new car with 0 down and 0% interest. Easy credit began in the mid fifties but even then you needed 25% or 30% down payment (or trade in) and the car note had to be paid off in 2 years with 12% interest or higher, which made the payments much higher than today. In other words you needed a good job, good credit, and a down payment or trade in to buy a new car.

 

It is really only since the mid 1980s that you can buy a new car and drive it for 10, 15 or 20 years with minimal upkeep. Old timers like me remember when every car needed regular repairs and maintenance and there was a garage on every corner. 9/10 of those are gone because the demand is no longer there.

 

Another factor is the astonishing lack of style and progress in car design. It used to be every year there were new models distinctly different from last year's and every car factory spent millions to make last year's models look shabby and out of date. You really thought you were getting something better when you traded in your 2 or 3 year old car and in most cases you were. They didn't keep stamping out the same old 4 door sedan for 15 years. Cars had style and performance. Even 50 years later they still have appeal, you can't imagine what impact they had when brand new. They were something more than an appliance. These days you look on a car as if it was a toaster or washing machine, as long as it starts and run why bother changing ? In the old days things were different.


So those are some of the reasons people used to trade in their cars so often. 2 or 3 years was pretty standard although of course there were exceptions.

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If it were possible to buy a brand new 1965 Mustang, could you look at the Mustang then look at a new Honda Civic, and not want the Mustang? Your soul must be dead if you could. Even though the Honda is a much better car.

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Posted (edited)

Road tester and auto commentator Tom McCahill had some interesting things to say on the subject in 1956. He suggested that a Jaguar or Rolls Royce sedan might be a better bargain than an American luxury car even though it cost more because you could keep it longer. He pointed out that in many jobs or professions it was important to stay up to the  minute clothes wise, fashion wise and car wise. You might be perfectly happy driving a 5 year old Cadillac, Chrysler or Lincoln but it would stamp you as a has been or a character on the skids. While if you bought a Jaguar or Rolls you would be out prestiging your chums from the word GO and could keep the same car for 5 or 10 years provided you maintain it and keep it polished and waxed.

 

So, if you were a business owner or member of the middle class especially in a fashion conscious business like advertising show business or clothes it was important to drive the latest model luxury car and trade in every year or 2 years. Think Mad Men, can you picture those guys driving a 5 year old Ford Falcon sedan?

 

A good example is the movie Tin Men where all the fly by night aluminum siding salesmen drive Cadillacs because it is so important that they put up a front of being successful business men.

Edited by Rusty_OToole (see edit history)

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, padgett said:

In Florida in the 60s, a car with over 50k miles was done and in the $200- $300 range. The biggest issue was upper body rust from sea salt. Little was over 5 miles from the coast so sea spray was a real issue.

I noticed that many years ago when I spent time there with my Grandmother and some other friends. The bottoms were beautiful. The tops were rotted around the windows and vinyl tops. Anything inland was fine but move 5 or 6 or less miles from the ocean and wham. Dandy Dave! 

Edited by Dandy Dave (see edit history)

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One of the problems with cars in the 50s and older where I was raised in the dry west was not rust, but the lack of good roads. The cars could look great after a few years, but would be completely worn out underneath. Now, however, my cars rarely see a dirt or muddy road.

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 Just like today it depends who you were. My Dads rule was Pontiac's rule. Built to last 100,000 miles. Since we traveled about 10K a year that meant 10 years. My parents were depression kids.

I used to help my Dad wash and wax his car, do oil changes, brakes and tune up's and other things some people consider chores like cutting the lawn etc. None of that stuff was a chore to me because both of us liked a shiny car and a manicured garden ( I still do). Anyroad, one Saturday morning in the fall of 1958 my Dad and I were going surfing ( my mom decided to stay home because she said it was too cold ) and I can remember we stopped at a stop sign in our 1950 Pontiac Chieftain Deluxe 8 with HydraMatic  & deep Berkshire green metallic and my Dad said I think I'm going to buy a new car. Not only did that statement plunge a knife into my heart, but that day stayed with me forever. My Dad went on to say how all the various parts wear out and explained all the various parts like engine, trans, rear ends, bushings, suspension parts and the like. I said that those things could be rebuilt because after all men made them in the first place! Well his mind was already made up but what my Dad didn't realize was that surfing trip pushed me into the automotive field and changed the way I feel about old cars. You see I've kept the good ones, the memorable ones. I still have two cars I bought while was in High School, that's over 50+ years. Almost every antique car ( my definition, MVD's definition, insurance definition, AACA's definition) I own I bought either new or very new and kept. It's a labor of love to bring one back or have a 100,000 Plus mile car look and run as good as when it was new and never been rebuilt or repainted or upholstered.

All thanks to that stop on the way to going surfing. BTW I wish I had that 50 Pontiac today. 

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Lots of good responses here. I'll just add that when I started driving, in 1987, my first car was a 1979 model and it seemed ancient. It was starting to rust all over, it broke down, and it was hardly worth anything,  My current daily driver is 11 years old and it still seems quite fresh: The paint is still in terrific condition, it's totally reliable, and the only modern feature I wish it had is a backup camera. It's impressive how much longer the lifespan is of today's cars.

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My grandparents were frugal to put it nicely. That definitely passed onto my dad and myself. We tend to have cars for a while and a lot of miles. My dad had a 93 Astro van that he put almost 300k on when he sold it in 2010. His Toyota he bought to replace that has around 200k on it now.

Both lesabres I’ve had I’ve put at least 30k on.  This one I actually have money to fix when something goes wrong unlike the first one so it should last me a while. It needs some work mostly because my siblings don’t take care of it like I do when they use it. I don’t want a new car but I’d definitely buy something new to me. Preferably a 96 Park Avenue Ultra, but we’ll see what happens there. Modern cars definitely have reliability going for them. But the looks and interior departments just don’t do it for me. 

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 My father had a 1938 Buick until he traded it in for a 1950 Olds. Then he bought a used 56 Olds in 58.

I bought a 2002 new Mercury for my daily driver and still have it with only 70,000 miles on it.

I figure it will be good at least another 5 years.

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My Mom would buy a new car every 3 years as I was growing up. She needed a dependable car to get to work and drive her 5 kids to church and to visit relatives.

I remember in the mid 60's, she and my uncle drove to Detroit to pickup their new car from the factory. She kept it for 3 years and then bought another station wagon.

 

 

 

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My mother who grew up in New York City ,used to tell of how the new models in the 30's were deliver wrapped up so you could not see them. Show room window also had brown paper on them ,lots of secrecy. My Grandfather a Chev man would always trade every two years. Mother would tell stories of her and her father going down to the dealership after closing and be let in the back shop door to view the new models before the public release. In later years she said the fun had gone out of buying a new car.

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My Parents had as their only transportation, a 1939 Buick Special sedan, from 1941 through 1951.  The next car was a 1951 Plymouth sedan from 1951 to 1958, then a 1958 Buick from 1958 to 1967.  So,7-10 years.  He had a 1930 Buick from 1932 to 1937 and then a 1935 Buick Special from 1937 to 1941.

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15 hours ago, Rusty_OToole said:

Road tester and auto commentator Tom McCahill had some interesting things to say on the subject in 1956. He suggested that a Jaguar or Rolls Royce sedan might be a better bargain than an American luxury car even though it cost more because you could keep it longer. He pointed out that in many jobs or professions it was important to stay up to the  minute clothes wise, fashion wise and car wise. You might be perfectly happy driving a 5 year old Cadillac, Chrysler or Lincoln but it would stamp you as a has been or a character on the skids. While if you bought a Jaguar or Rolls you would be out prestiging your chums from the word GO and could keep the same car for 5 or 10 years provided you maintain it and keep it polished and waxed.

 

So, if you were a business owner or member of the middle class especially in a fashion conscious business like advertising show business or clothes it was important to drive the latest model luxury car and trade in every year or 2 years. Think Mad Men, can you picture those guys driving a 5 year old Ford Falcon sedan?

 

A good example is the movie Tin Men where all the fly by night aluminum siding salesmen drive Cadillacs because it is so important that they put up a front of being successful business men.

A few years ago my Brother-in-Law who is a Corporate VP now was working for Jewel foods and was driving a more garden variety car but ended up buying an Accura even though he did not need it when he got a promotion because at that point he knew his fellow managers would laugh at him. He knew this because one of the other store managers had an older Ford Taurus and was the butt of jokes about it.  Needed to show that level of success Rusty spoke of.

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Posted (edited)

When I was kid in the 60's and 70's, the common thinking was that a car was done when it reached 100,000 no matter what it looked like on the outside.

Living in So Cal body rot wasn't an issue but sun damage was. But the older paint formulas held up much better in sun than the new environmentally friendly finishes do.

Don't forget that metallurgy and oils have greatly improved in the last 60+ years.

For this reason, if you rebuilt a prewar engine today and used modern oils, that engine should last exponentially longer than when originally produced.

Edited by zepher (see edit history)
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Of all the people in my family, my mother was the most car-savvy & had two-door sport coupes. Remember a '58 T'bird then a 61 (I dropped 2nd gear out of the Cruise-o-matic), '64 Grand Prix (dropped the rear end), '69 Cutlass 350, and then a '75 Buick Electra (won a National Fuel Economy Rally in it).

 

My cars were mostly Brits until my first new car, a 67 Camaro (V-8, 4-speed, AC).

 

Back then I was considered strange to be into cars (but then had already been through model trains (Lionel) and model airplanes (with .049 motors) while most felt they were more appliances or accessories. Did feel that until the early '70s, every year the cars got better (except for 1968 when the E-type lost headlight covers) but from 1974 until 1988 it was not politically correct to like cars. Then starting about 1998 the horsepower wars started again and freaks could come out of the closet.

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My family has only ever had a new vehicle twice, the rest of the time it was stuff my dad would buy cheap and keep going as long as he could. During my lifetime we went through so many cars because my dad refused to pay more than $400 for any of them...he always had two because one was always not working. The 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt my brother bought in 2005 is the longest we've ever kept a car. It's starting to have issues a lot more often, but for now he's still fixing it.

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