Who Are You Calling “Clunker”?

At 100,000 miles, a car is just getting started. Therefore, it makes no sense for the government to pay folks to turn in cars that are not even broken, much less broken in. In fact, a car improves with age. It acquires a depth of personality and character that only time confers. Like a pet, a car becomes a member of the family.

Who can forget his father lovingly tending a 1957 Chevy that was 15 years old? He polishes it regularly and drives it carefully. Go to any of the car shows that are held this time of year and behold the crowds. There are even clubs and fan sites for cars with a mere ten years of life. For example, I’m a big fan of the Toyota Tercel. Had I been smarter, I would have collected them when they were commonplace back in the 90s. It was an absurdly wonderful car–the epitome of basic transportation. The coupe was extraordinarily roomy.

Yet today, the government urges us to replace a distinguished workhorse with something that is merely new, but not necessarily good, better or even particularly innovative. Also, it seems crazy to use taxpayer money in order to stimulate the taxpayer to buy a car from a taxpayer-owned company. I’m not an economist, but I think this makes little sense.

Nor am I convinced that a 10-15 year old car that has been well cared for is especially less fuel-efficient or spews substantially greater carbon than a brand new car. Depending on the driver’s habits, such as aggressive accelerating, a new car can be just as bad for the environment as an old one that is more gently pushed. Also, it is well known that new cars, indeed, have a lengthy break-in period. Perhaps 100,000 miles is a bit of an exaggeration, but 25,000 is not.

For instance, an elderly couple may use a car for shopping, going to church and visiting their grandson at the state college once or twice a year. It will often become a 10-15 year old car that has 50,000 to 75,000 miles–just reaching its prime. Why should a pair of senior citizens be lured, in effect, to waste not only good money but also a perfectly fine automobile on an effort to aggrandize the image of a bankrupt domestic automobile manufacturer or two?

Consider grandma and grandpa’s car: it gets good, “modern” mileage; it’s extremely comfortable for four people; and, being of recent vintage, it releases little more carbon or other pollutants into the atmosphere than a brand new one. On the other hand, the new car will be usually lighter (partly contributing to the better mileage). Also, it will have less insulating material. In addition, most new interior designs have reduced head and legroom to achieve sleeker body styles to cut down wind resistance and boost mileage. Therefore, it might be less comfortable too. With the $4,500 in their hands, the grandparents probably won’t mind.

The siren call of novelty is machined into our collective psyche. Perhaps it is hard wired into our emotions by the change of seasons, along with the many festivals that we celebrated during the long pagan era. The season of spring remains a great surprise, even after thousands of years of evolution and custom.

Our companies–The Cooks Garden and Burpee–feature new plants every spring on the cover and the front section of our catalogues and websites. These exciting new plants, seeds and bulbs comprise over 30% of our annual revenue. It runs like a clock every year–first thing our customers ask is, “What’s new?” I know this to be a fact. So who am I to talk?

I suppose I am driven, so to speak, by the pathetic image of a soundly functioning automobile being destroyed. Of course, the misnomer, “clunker”, is not even meaningful. The government does not want a defective automobile–it just wants an old one. Most of all, they want us to buy new ones, thereby stimulating our economy, according to their odd calculus.

Maybe it’s the gut-wrenching feeling I get when I know that a perfectly fine example of the most sophisticated industrial consumer product in world history is being squashed like a bug. A car that is “A-OK”–thumbs up, ready to roll.

Setting aside both economic and psychological values for the moment, what does this say about the “ecosystem” of the car maintenance and repair business? Anyone think about those guys? Sort of throws a wrench into the works, as I see it. How many skilled jobs are going to be lost as a result of repair shops closing down, since there suddenly will be thousands of “old” cars taken out of their market? What about their dignity after the government says that their work is of no value? They have families too.

Finally, it is a bad lesson to our youth to focus obsessively on the shiny and new. “All that glitters is not chrome”, to paraphrase the old saying. Let’s keep cars around for a while. Either kids learn the virtues of care, patience and commitment or they suffer an adulthood of persistent restlessness and a vague but endless yearning for the next hot thing.

Age is “cool”.

Viva Clunkers!

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 19th, 2009 at 7:15 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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43 Responses to “Who Are You Calling “Clunker”?”

  1. Dee Waddell said:

    I was so happy to read your article about “older” cars. I have a 1988 Nissan Sentra with a good many miles on it. I call it my Timex ’cause it keeps on ticking!

  2. faith said:

    Excellent! Just excellent! This needs way more distribution! Are you thinking of running for president next election? But then, you have too much common sense – you just wouldn’t fit in with Washington!

  3. susan rowe said:

    i’m ‘cool’ too….

    1957 born, me. 🙂

  4. Dail Coppom said:

    Thanks for that article on Clunkers. I agree 100% since I own several old cars myself, 1939 Chevy, 1955 Chevy that I bought during my Jr. year of high school in 1967 and my 1965 Chevy 1/2 ton pickup truck with a new crate engine in it and runs perfect. Why would I want to trade these classics on a piece of modern JUNK?


  5. Jane Branch said:

    Amen!! My sentiments exactly. And I thought this website was just about flowers. My favorite thing to do is work in the garden but my main priority is our well being under this administration. So far things aren’t looking too good. Thank goodness for my flower beds!!

  6. Chris said:

    Love your blog. Re: Clunkers. My nephew is now driving my beloved “clunker,” a 1989 BMW 325i. I hated to get rid of it, it had only 125,000 miles and had had great care, now it’s still in the family. He likes it, even though the AC is wimpy it’s still “cool.”

  7. Clunker said:


  8. Tarah R. said:

    I was the daughter of a mechanic. We had at least 13 cars dating from a 1930s Fords Sedan to a 1970s Challenger convertable. The car shows were our family vacations. It breaks my heart so many people are getting rid of real cars. (Metal, not plastic.)

  9. Nancy said:

    I don’t need any new plants – my old ones are barely broken in.

  10. Earlene said:

    According to the guvment, we have a garage full of clunkers. My husband drives a ’67 Olds Cutlas and a ’62 Chevy pickup. I drive an ’86 Olds Cutlas. We also have a ’42 Ford Jeep (one day older than my antique husband) and our ‘road car’ is a 2002 Buick Le Sabre that gets 30 to 35 mpg on the road. As you said, they are members of the family. When our daughter was 2 years old, she could stand on the transmission tunnel between the front seats and not touch the ceiling liner. Guess we’ll just keep limping along on our ‘clunkers’.

  11. J Simon said:

    cute article, but the C for C was probably a great thing to get people to start letting go of some cash. My car wasn’t old enough or guzzling enough to benefit from the program or I would have jumped at the chance. My sister’s 200,000 + Toyota Camry still runs, barely, but was listed as getting too high mpg, even though I’m sure it spews out a ton more of hydrocarbons than many of the “clunkers” due to its mileage alone. I feel no romanticism towards mechanical objects; I love my Nana’s peonies but don’t yearn for her old Maverick Grabber! For the most part, the people I’ve seen taking advantage of the program are really in need of a new ride and around here, with our economy, they also need the incentive!

  12. ben lewis said:

    fantastic to see such fine logic without having a left or right wing slant. when i worked for the state government i made a comment on what would be logical and one of the guys said to me, that working for the state i shouod know logic is totally unacceptable. keep up with your really welcome and informative insights. ben

  13. barb said:

    I agree.
    We teach the youth that shiner and newer is better than vintage and realiable.
    Our car is 1996.. gets great gas mileage and no 4500 in my hand is going to make me trade it in. Bigger insurance to pay and less comfy.We have low miles on our car and as long as you keep your klunkers tuned up , oil changed and maintained.You are not polluting anymore than any other car.. By the way.. why not cash for Big Rig Klunkers? Or old bus Klunkers?

    How about major companies polluting the air and water ways ?? So once again it is the average Joes fault for all the problems.. mmmmmmm

  14. Carla from MA said:

    Glad to read such a great piece on what our current government is trying to force us to do. I have a 2001 Toyota 4-Runner, great vehicle! It’s all paid for and runs well. Why would I want to start making a payment? Although my car is not yet considered a “Clunker” I’d like to keep it until the wheels fall off.
    And don’t people realize the $4,500 is from their own pocket???..That is the sickening part.
    Thanks for writing a great piece. I wish people were more inclined to do so. This country needs it..

  15. Robin said:

    I love your remarks. Nothing is free. And, such a waste destroying perfectly good “clunkers”—couldn’t they be GIVEN to the poor, or sent to Africa for reuse. There are countless flaws with this administration. Here in Illinois we are all too familiar with Chicago machine politics. It is being delivered now, to the entire nation. Bon Appetit!!

  16. Deb said:

    I drive a 16-year-old “clunker” that is my pride and joy. While the exterior is not great, the insides (interior and under the hood) couldn’t be better. She is a gem — getting 32 highway/26 town mpg. She is just getting broken in with over 220,000 miles and I am planning on getting another 100,000 miles to go! Vive la “clunkers”!!!
    A lot of my shrubs were hand-me downs, having had a very good life and they will last me many more years to come. There beauty only improves with age.
    Like a lot of people too!

  17. Sj said:

    One more perspective: wasn’t it the glut of credit-driven realty purchases that inflated the housing bubble? Then why would I swap my paid-for jalopy for one that requires me to fork-out a couple hundred every month? Bubble, bubble, watch for new kinds of credit trouble!

  18. alice herbert said:

    Yeah, we have a 1992 Ford Explorer, it has been allover the western USA and a good deal of Western Canada, With only occasional hiccups like when we asked a Mule Packer for directions and had to turn around in just a bit more than a car length, Bless the turn radius, when faced with a 5’tree across the dirt road, after grubbing over 2 rock slides. And the discombobulated clutch cable in the remote area behind Mt. St Helens, good thing it was all down hill to the “main” road. It still runs well at 265000 miles.

    The Herberts
    8588 silvia St.
    Gilroy, CA 95020

  19. Candy said:

    Wow! What an extraordinary article you’ve written! Many of the same things I have thought but just hadn’t gotten my ideas on paper. What a complete, utter waste of money ~ in my opinion. It’s just yet another example of the modern “throw away” society. And yes, it is a terrible example to our youth. We’re teaching them to go out and buy a new “something” when this happens or that happens or you just “feel” like buying something new. And the really sad thing is, now our seniors are falling into the trap that they should have a new car too. Why??? I was really pleased to hear my Mom ask me “is there some reason I should get rid of Betsy (her 1996 Toyota Corolla) because I just don’t want to!” This car has been well taken care of and is just now reaching 40,000 miles. Why on earth would a 79 year old woman who drives so little that she fills up her gas tank less than once a month need a new car? But her friends are feeling the push to buy a new car to help stimulate the economy and so she wondered if she should be too. Ridiculous! No wonder we have the millions and millions of tons of trash and “old” things in our dump sites. Wake up folks! This is not the way to stimulate our economy, but then I’m not an economist either. Just a plain, practical American who can’t see throwing away good money. Or throwing away good old cars.

  20. john acuff said:

    As two country types with two cars both over a hundred thou we simply say Amen!

  21. steve said:

    You are absolutly correct…

  22. Lucy Folk Nading said:

    How perfectly you express my own sentiments! What a shameful waste to destroy assets. Sadly, in what a “throw-away society” we do live. Our cars range in years – 1974, 1988,1996,2002, and 2007. We don’t plan on parting with any of them! Some are just like family, like the 1988 Jeep in which all three of our children learned to drive stick-shift. It also carried my husband to work through many a snowy and icy winter night for 13 years. A clunker? Never!!

  23. Evalyn Thompson said:

    Everything you have written is very true. I have a ten year old car with 70,000 miles on it and that is what I intend to use and hope to get 250,000 mile out of it.

  24. nancy hebb said:

    Yeah for you! Thank you for having the intestinal fortitude to speak your mind. We need more people like you and me to stand for what is real and true and not buy into this media driven circus that they call government.

  25. Jonathan said:

    Amen to the clunkers post! No one ever thought of repair shops at all and what about the car donation banks. These good samaritans are losing their ability to raise funds for the needy. Way to go government…(sarcasm)

  26. Jason Hathcock said:

    I agree about hating to see a perfectly sound car get poisoned and then squished. It would have been smarter, albeit more difficult logistically, to donate those well functioning autos to organizations or individuals in severe need of them and unable to go into deeper debt to boost the overall economy. I’ve always driven “older” cars, usually 5-15 year old individuals and cringe at the thought of having to go out and buy another, especially brand new; never done that. It’s a big rip-off and they make them harder to work on yourself every year.

  27. Lloyd Stoner said:

    I am 75 and driving what I presume is my “last” car, a 2000 Alero. I could not afford one of the new cars even with the “bail-out clunker” bonus. If I ever need parts for my GM stepchild I am fated to become a senior screwed one my time by my government.

  28. Donna W said:

    AMEN!! I agree with you. When I think of all the people that could use those so called clunker cars that they are rendering useless. Now the used cars are going to be limited for folks that can’t afford a new $20,000+ car. Who are they really helping? Oh, yeah forgot, the clunkers are being squashed and sent to China as scrap metal. Duh!! Our goverment at work.

  29. Glen said:

    This logic follows that older adults might be considered clunkers in this day and age, where the old is thrown out and only the “new” is valued. When we all know that there is a great need for respect for our elders and their wisdom. Viva the wiser, older Adults!

  30. Vanyali said:

    What a great essay! I actually forwarded this to a friend who I think will enjoy it too. I agree that it’s un-American to throw out perfectly good things. I wonder if gardeners know this lesson especially well, as they have seen how a sickly, neglected plant can thrive with some more attention and time? Thank you.

  31. molly said:

    Drivin’ a 1998 Subaru Outback – lovely vehicle! What we have to look out for is not the “clunkers”, but the vehicles which are fully computerized which are putting our favorite diagnosticians out of business because they cannot afford the equipment! I’m at 187,000 miles and going strong, and my friend the car is a member of my family – yup! The irony is that the mph for the “open road” (seen any lately?) was originally 25 mph, so that disqualifies my machine for the “clunker” program anyway. Those guys in DC sure don’t have a clue what is good and safe on the road – most NEW cars are NOT!

  32. Mary said:

    Regarding squashing clunkers: I think that people who can afford to get in debt for a high-priced new car probably kept their “old” car in great shape because they had available money to change the oil, fix up cracked windows, buy new tires, change the mufflers, fix the brakes, etc., as needed.

    These old “clunkers” are probably in pretty good shape, and the “trickle-down” process of poorer people once buying the “clunkers” are going to find that decently priced older cars in good shape are hard to find. So: what is going to happen to solve the transportation needs of the persons who are not doing so well, economically? Obama messed up on this one, for sure! It is possible that not a great number of older cars meet their maker, so not to fuss to much . . . but the above consideration shows how Obama didn’t quite think things through from beginning to end. The poor once again become disenfranchised!

  33. vic said:

    if the disposing of a clunker makes sense then why nor every mechanical device the is over X yrs old, the washer & dryer, the refrigerator & the dish washer & by all means that inefficient stove…the lawn mower & I just know my wheelbarrel is 10 yrs old….why not have everyone break a window or two to save the glass industry.
    Somehow it would have made more sense to me if the govt had provided a tax deduction to companies that upgrade or expanded by buying american made products (if any can be found) & hired back layed off workers. let get the economy back on its feet by all supporting NAFTA…ANOTHER GOVT PROGRAM AT WORK…NOW IF WE HAD TERM LIMITS WE COULD GET RID OF THESE PEOPLE BEFORE THEY CAUSE TOO MUCH HARM!!

    will this get me on the govt hit list??

  34. Pat said:

    I am a 68 year old recently widowed lady. I have a 1997 Buick LaSabre, which I have taken in every 3000 miles for a tune up. I figure if I keep the car long enough both of us should clunk together and the problem will be solved.
    A Michigan Widow

  35. Bobbi Smith said:

    Great protest. Very insightful. Not only does it hurt repair shops but used car dealers. They are really suffering loss of sales.

  36. jennifer/ jemmadesigns landscape said:

    Yes, yes, here here, and think of the energy(knowing that we haven’t figured out how to uses energy without pollution resulting)it takes to junk those cars-‘recycle’ the materials. It’s all a lie. An elaborat sales job, like the old ali hakim-the peddler in OKLAHOMA! jennifer

  37. linda said:

    I finally had to retire my Mercedes 280SE after 28 years, a very sad day. I now own a 1991 Mercedes 350SDL, and for many years to come.

  38. Gail said:

    I call it Cash for Rich Peoples’ Clunkers. I drive a 74 Cutlass (too old) and an 84 Audi (too high gas mileage), also a 2008 road bicycle for daily commuting. No rebates on any of these.

  39. Mary Stegemiller said:

    Well done. Hope you sent this to Washington.

  40. Bill said:

    My 1993 Volvo 240 station wagon has 202,000 miles and is just hitting its prime…certainly not a clunker but since it has gotten 24 miles per gallon since day one it doesn’t even qualify by the governments calculus. We seem to be rewarding folks who have driven inefficient automobiles for years by giving them an incentive to buy only slightly less efficient new models. Why not give me a $4500 incentive to get my trusty Volvo a paint job and some upholstery work stimulating small independent businesses instead of the already bailed out auto industry that is only going to get a “good month” for all the trouble.

  41. L Saltford said:

    Well, I must admit, I seem to have another point of view. There are pluses and minuses to most things, but I don’t for instance think of a 1997 car as a clunker. In fact a car in good working condition of any year would not qualify as a clunker in my mind. The year does not determine the quality of the car.( And that goes for people as well.) And I do agree that some people are more able and apt to take wonderful care of their cars for very long times, more than others. That is not true of all people or all cars. A car that is costing more than it is worth to maintain and guzzles gas, in many states will not pass inspection in those states and will not be drivable no matter how much the owner might prefer otherwise. If my car was in such a condition I would probably have been in line for the program. I believe that is what the program was for along with the additional benefit of bringing a number auto-related concerns back to life.
    I also believe in maintaining things I own and do so to the best of my ability routinely, but sometimes that just isn’t enough.

  42. I think that the “cash for clunkers” program was conceived of to pacify the government representatives who stand for the ever-failing rust belt….there weren’t any handouts for the auto industry. I know..I live (and garden on a small plot 35 x 114) there. We haven’t seen any difference. There are no new jobs and no less foreclosed or more affordable homes. I guess it worked for someone..but not the line worker.

  43. Nira C said:

    I agree with L Saltford. It was a welcome program for me as my 1999 truck was costing me more than I could afford. Repairs and gas prices over $4.00 (thankfully lower now) were making it difficult for me to run my hobby farm. Though I usually buy used (as I did with the truck), I could not pass up this opportunity to obtain a new, more fuel-efficient truck. It will be maintained lovingly and will no doubt last a lot longer than the 1999 vehicle did. Not everyone needs a truck, but I do and I feel good about driving a vehicle that gets 12 more miles per gallon.

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