Did Car Owners Really Trade-In Every Three Years In The Old Days?

There’s no doubt that cars have gotten a lot more durable in recent decades. And there’s also no doubt that a good many folks did trade in for a new one every three years. But was that “every three years” mantra a common reality, or a self-serving marketing ploy like Jiffy Lube’s 3,000 mile oil change intervals, or drinking eight glasses of water a day? When I think back to say 1962, and the cars our neighbors and friends around us in Iowa City were driving, it makes me wonder…

Sure, there were newer cars around, but not so much the rule. I was a bit surprised that when we arrived in Iowa City in 1960, that the head of the EEG laboratory at the University Medical Center drove a 1955 Chrysler, and his wife a 1949 Plymouth wagon.

And when I think of where we lived in 1962-1963 or so there was the neighbor, who was also a doctor, middle-aged and no kids, who drove a 1956 DeSoto.  And the older couple around the corner drove an immaculate  1957 Ford. And the folks next to to them, also a University family, drove a 1955 Olds. And there was a 1950 or 1951 Dodge around the other corner. And a ’53 Chevy on the other side of the block.

My teacher in 1963 drove a ’54 Cadillac.  One of my two best friends, another doctor’s family, drove a ’57 Chevy wagon. The other, a successful food wholesaler, drove a ’56 Ford wagon, which still looked almost new. And another friend’s dad, also a professional, drove a small-window VW (’57 or older). And I often caught a ride to school in a ’55 Chevy sedan. And so on…I felt rather surrounded by a world of older cars. No wonder I’m so obsessed with them. Where were all the new ones?

Oh, right; across the street there was a brace of almost new 1960 Pontiacs. They rather stuck out, now that I think of it; two brand new cars. In a good way, from a kid’s point of view, but I was aware of them being a bit different.

All anecdotal evidence; and this was a medium-sized university town, and folks didn’t exactly live in their cars like today. But here’s the thing: I don’t remember much or any rust on these old cars. Iowa City didn’t use salt back then; people either walked to work or school on snowy mornings, or they plowed though it. The snow plows came around eventually, but I have no memory of salt being spread. And I don’t remember anyone feeling like someone was a pathetic hick for driving an older car. Maybe things were different elsewhere. What do you remember?