There were 38.7 million cars registered in the UK at the end of 2019, with an average age of 8.3 years, which is creeping steadily upwards with the recent dive in new car sales. Petrol cars are, on average, 9.1 years old, while diesel is considerably younger at 7.3 years old. By contrast, the average car in the USA is nearly 12 years old, and it covers nearly 14,000 miles a year, or twice the UK average of around 7,000 miles! Simple arithmetic suggests that the average UK diesel car is a 2013 model, with 50 to 60,000 miles on the clock, whilst across the water it’s a 2008 to 2009 car with a recorded mileage of around 150,000! It’s something of an eye-opener, and the result of millions of “trucks” running around rural USA, like the Ford F-Series pick-up. The F-Series has been a consistent best-seller there for decades, and its engines range from a 3.3 litre petrol V6 to a 3.0 litre diesel V6 that utilises a Dagenham-built ‘Powerstroke’ engine. Could that be a clue to the longevity of US cars, compared with the typical hard-working European car, with its 1.5- to 1.6-litre engine, and three or four cylinders? We suspect so.
Those few statistics set the scene for consideration of factors influencing car life in the UK. Since galvanised body parts and vastly better corrosion protection arrived back in the 1980s and ’90s, body rust is now a rare reason for the death of any car. Components like anti-lock brakes and emissions systems generate MOT test failures, and along with increasingly complex electronics, neglected engines and transmissions, are what send the average UK car to the scrap yard. Approaching 400,000 serious accident cars are “written off” by insurers every year here, although less than ten per cent of those are under five years old. Plus the sale of 50,000 or so reconditioned engines every year throws in another life-extending factor, and amazingly, Vauxhall, Ford and BMW reconditioned engine sales vastly outnumber those for MINI, Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz brands by a factor of five to one, although it’s hard to arrive at any clear reasons why this might be so.
But it’s often neglect, poor maintenance, and the high labour costs of necessary repairs that bring about scrappage of two million cars a year in the UK. Cars over ten years old are now worth so little that the repair cost of items like air conditioning compressors, anti-lock braking systems, suspension, emissions systems, and complex electrics are a killer blow, and it’s getting steadily worse with all the new technology. Relatively rarely do unrepairable engines or transmissions alone bring about end-of-life, which is a tribute to how better oils and regular maintenance mean that engines very often outlive the rest of the car. Many of those low-revving US petrol and diesel V6 engines that we previously mentioned can see out twenty years and 300,000 miles without serious problems, although admittedly at something of an ecological price. Whilst their carbon count of manufacture is spread over a high mileage, their fuel consumption (particularly big V6 and V8s) and age means that many have sky-high emissions. That’s a good reason to scrap many older cars, and maybe even in Europe we should be looking to scrap the majority of cars reaching their tenth birthday, now that such a high proportion of them are recyclable?
Let us move briefly onto considering the prospective life of an electric car. It’s essentially all down to the battery life, and the crunch will come with the potentially depressed market values of eight- or ten-year-old electric vehicles (EVs) with batteries that no longer have a useable capacity. Unless manufacturers and/or aftermarket battery suppliers can offer replacement batteries at more viable prices, we can see many early EVs ending up in the scrapyards before their tenth birthday. If governments are offering incentives to get buyers into new EVs, they should perhaps in time be looking at support to keep those EVs on the road, with grants towards replacement batteries, when the rest of the car’s mechanicals, body and trim may have another ten years or more left in them.