CC Deep Thoughts: Seven Stages of the Car Life Cycle – Showroom to Clunker to Scrap Metal

The seven stages of man (people when viewed in a more modern light) as written by Shakespeare for Jaques’ monologue are well known: Infancy, Schoolboy, Teenager, Young man, Middle aged, Old man, Dotage and Death. When a power window recently failed on my Acura TSX and I decided not to fix it I wondered if there were similar stages for vehicles and where in that scale would my Acura now find itself?

Being a 2004 model my car is now knocking at the door of being sixteen years old and while I still think it looks good there is no denying that it is getting older. The TSX has been providing reliable service as my daily driver (COAL coming soon) for the last couple years. On a recent snowy and very windy Saturday morning the whole family piled into the car for an errand in town. Due to the colder temperatures and all five of us stuffed into the car the windows fogged up briefly as we started to drive away. My wife lowered her (passenger side) window to clear the fog and then pulled up on the power window switch to raise the window back up when nothing happened. A few more attempts were made before we determined that it was indeed unresponsive and staying that way. The Acura was swiftly returned home and wedged into the garage so it did not fill with snow.

As a bit of a diversion I seem to have a bit of history with power windows and winter. This time it was not so bad being close to home but my previous experience was less enjoyable. We had a 2000 Chrysler (Canadian market) Neon at the time when I was visiting my wife and our newly born second son in the hospital at the end of January. At the time we lived about forty minutes away in a commuter town, so every day for a month I would go to work and then spend some time at the hospital before heading home. It was an extremely cold February with temperatures ranging from -20C (-4F) to -35C (-31F). The hospital required that one paid an attendant for parking, and as I was leaving, the drive-up I discovered that the driver’s side electric window would no longer go up. I had no luck with the unresponsive switch, so I had to drive for thirty minutes at highway speeds in -25C (-13F) weather with the driver’s window fully down. I positioned myself as far to the passenger side as possible avoid the worst of the airflow but it was undoubtedly one of the colder drives of my life. I retried the switch occasionally on the trip home and it, of course, finally responded two minutes from home. The power window motor was replaced shortly after.

Back to the Acura, I started by attempting to pull apart the door to do some basic troubleshooting. I did not get far before realizing my usual method of using an assortment of screw drivers in lieu of specialty tools was going to end with a series of broken plastics tabs and trim. I guess the Acura TSX is a step up in complexity from my usual driver vehicles. Before proceeding farther I researched the parts costs of a replacement power window motor. Oddly on all the usual sources I could not find it listed. Eventually I did come across some for sale at seemingly elevated prices. A quick search for other DIYers that have shared their replacement stories again yielded very few results. The few that I did find mentioned that when disturbing or replacing any component of the power window system the dealership would have perform a pairing and reset procedure. Ugh. I guess I am not used to dealing with cars in the TSX’s semi-entry level luxury class.

Fix or bodge?

This is where I finally get to the stages of a car’s life cycle. What I had was an older but generally reliable car in decent shape with an annoying but not crippling issue. Based on the parts price I figured it would be close to thousand dollars for a dealership to put it right. Did I want to invest that into the car when its whole net worth was likely only, at most, three times that figure? Especially given that it had three other functioning windows, a sunroof and air conditioning. I decided against repair and was able to shimmy up the window into the closed position. I figured a reasonable solution for the car was informing the family and others to never under any circumstance try to touch that window switch again but with this non-repair stance was I moving my car into more of a clunker status? Would this same method fly for any other car I had? For the wife’s brand new minivan that answer was an obvious no even if a repair was not covered by warranty. For the Tercel I could even settle for a less elegant solution involving duct tape and zip ties. I needed a classification of clunker-ness.

So given all that extremely long preamble let me present my “Seven Stages of the Car Life Cycle”.

  • Stage 1: Brand New. Driven off the dealer’s lot with pride, shiny paint and a new car smell. Not unlike new parents, new car owners might be picky about who gets to handle their car (baby) and obsess over every potential scratch or bit of dirt. There is likely a strict no food or drink policy in the car. Your neighbors are envious of the new arrival.
  • Stage 2: Nice driver. Perhaps it has had its first parking lot scratch which really annoyed you at first but you have finally accepted it. The intervals between car washes and vacuuming have lengthened a bit but it is still kept in fine shape. You allow drinks and some non-crumbling foods (no chips please) to be consumed on road trips. Like a toddler’s parents who are still proud of their offspring but they do not attract as much attention from old ladies in supermarkets. Your neighbors probably have something similar but perhaps slightly less nice which makes you smile internally but no one else really notices your vehicle.
  • Stage 3: Family workhorse. You may or may not have a family of your own but hauling a few children or co-workers does not bother you. It even does not bother you overly if someone eats in your car now. It has moved from the garage to parking on the street. You wash the car on a semi-annual basis. You have confused your ride with your neighbor’s a couple times since they look almost identical.
  • Stage 4: Economical transport. The paint has faded, it has a few minor bumps and bruises but it still looks good for its age. Unless blessed with fantastic genes it has probably gone under the knife at least once to replace a component or two. One or more of the interior convenience features no longer works, and you just tolerate the inconvenience. Your car only receives car washes when it rains. Your neighbors do not even notice it.
  • Stage 5: Clunker. A good number of its peers have moved onto later stages but it is still hanging in there. Perhaps living a little precariously as it is only one repair away from slipping into stage six or seven. This might be a minor or major ailment depending on the risk tolerance and mechanical savviness of its owner. Any repair that does not hamper its ability to start in the morning is deferred to “later”. You try to avoid washing the car since a little road grime goes a long way to covering some of the blemishes. Your neighbor wishes your car’s transmission or head gasket would fail so they could stop looking at it.
  • Stage 6: Parts Car/Yard Art/Craigslist Resident. A fuel pump conking out might lead to an extended stay on the driveway and a repeated statement “I will get to it soon”. Then a classified ad stating “new breaks, ran when parked, I know what I have, open to offers” yields only time wasting tire kickers. Perhaps a few components find their way onto other vehicles or go missing. Spousal pressure or municipal laws mean that the once loved vehicle passes into the next stage.
  • Stage 7: Scrapyard. A sad end but hopefully it can provide a few parts that let others survive a bit longer.

For most of my vehicular history I have had vehicles in the stage three to five range but oddly I find that we, as a family, seemed to have moved up a stage or two lately. If I was to evaluate my own fleet by this scale I would rate them as follows:

  • Stage 1 – 2019 Kia Sedona (wife’s)
  • Stage 2 – 2016 Suzuki TU250X, 2003 Nissan Fairlady Z
  • Stage 4 – 2004 Acura TSX
  • Stage 5 – 1996 Toyota Tercel

Obviously the stages do not line up perfectly to the person stages, but does this automotive life measurement scale seem reasonable? If not what refinements would you suggest? If it does ring true where does your fleet of vehicles sit in the seven stages?