Friday, 6 March 2009

Lenten thoughts on motoring and recession

Does the average family (two parents and two children) actually need more than two small five-door hatchbacks, each with a one litre engine?

Governments seem keen to subsidise the purchase of new cars (to prop up their flagging motor industries) using green arguments that the old cars being replaced are to be scrapped in environmentally friendly ways. OK, a brand new Nissan Micra produces less noxious emissions than my 16 year old one. But let's say that instead of keeping my car from new for such a long time, I'd have changed it every three years for a newer Micra. I'd have been on my fifth one by now. The creation of an extra four motor vehicles has vastly more impact on the environment.

In any case, 16 years ago, I made a conscious decision to get away from my previous habit of changing cars every few years. I traded in my nearly new 2-litre hot hatch for a smaller car with an engine half the size.

The Micra was fine for our needs - two small children and their accoutrements. To anyone who says "I have two kids, therefore I need a giant SUV," I say - twaddle. If you want to invest in their future, buy them education or a flat.

Five years ago, we bought a second car (another one-litre five-door hatchback) to give more flexibility on school and work journeys. And that's that. We have no more ambitions to switch to newer motors. Both our cars are frugal, reliable and good at what they do - getting around town. The Micra, which has not ventured outside of Warsaw in those five years, does over 38 miles to the gallon (around 7l/100km), much of which is driving in traffic jams; in the past year I've covered about 4,000 miles (6,000km) in it; not that much. The Yaris is used for long road trips, where it's also fine (though it could do with a sixth gear).

Our motoring needs, met.

Much of the World's current economic woes stem from western consumers' desire to buy ever bigger and flashier cars, paid for by bank loans backed by rising house prices. This has gone. Instant gratification promised by the car manufacturers and their loan companies has proved illusory.

We must be happy with what we have, make less of an impact on the environment by consuming less and looking after what we own. Modern cars are built to last; we've reached saturation point across most of the west.

I bought my first car, a Morris Minor van, from a guy called Charlie Ware, who wrote a book about the economics of car ownership. He pointed out that by keeping a car for decades rather than years, you'd save vast amounts of capital. He rebutted the argument about keeping a car going beyond the economical cost of its repair. And he was right. I've spent around 1,500 zlotys on my Micra over the past year, tops. That's less that two months repayments on a new Micra.

Of course, there will be a time when the Micra finally conks out; when it does, it shall be replaced by a small reliable car that will also be bought to last for many, many years.

Had my philosophy been the norm in the western world over the past two decades, we'd have not seen the same growth from the early '90s to 2007/8, but neither would we have seen such a dreadful downturn and misery caused by job losses, home repossessions, and falling asset prices.

This time last year:
A light dusting of snow


Bartek Usniacki said...

Your approach to the cars is admirable, unfortunately quite rare. Poland still remains a scrap yard of Western Europe. Please note if you had lived in the west and replaced your 3-year-old micra with a new one, you'd have to find a buyer for it. Western nations don't want their used cars, Poles can't afford to buy new ones. An average Poles gets qiuckly bored of his 10-year-old Astra imported two years ago and he buys 6-year-old Vectra - newer car of upper class and thus he think he climbs a social ladder.
Now I'm urging my father not to change a car (we have renault megane vintage 2003, mileage 34.000 km only, very well-maintained, with only one scratch at the front bumper, runs like a clockwork, I can't understand why should we dispose of such car? My fahter says new megane, which he wants to buy is better desgined, more fuel-efficient and more dynamic (the new engine 1,4 litres, 130 mechanic horses is put under the bonnet). Nobody would pay for our car just as much as it's really worth...

Michael Dembinski said...

Bartek - an excellent example. Your father would lose tens of thousands of zlotys on the deal. The utility of owning a six year-old, low-mileage, reliable car is much higher than its trade in value. In my books, social prestige comes from living in a nicer house in a nicer area; with falling house prices, the price-to-change is lower, so skip on two car trades and move into somewhere posher.

Bartek Usniacki said...

I know the value of our current car, I just want to use it after I graduate SGH and I'll afford to upkeep it, so I'll be trying to persuade parents to postpone changing the car until I complete my studies. I adore driving it and don't think a brand new car is elegible for a freshman-driver. My family fortunately knows its value, we don't need to move somewhere else, our standard of living is satisfying, we've never spent more we could afford to, but try to look at it from my fahter's point of view - all our neighbours in our small estate of four terraced house own two cars, newer and better than ours. There's a temptation to replace a car - of the others do this, why can't I? I would resist it - for me brand new cars, handsets with millions of useless functions, brand name clothes won't prove my superiority.
Besides, are still driving your micra with the steering wheel on the right?

Anonymous said...

Of course, the best solution is to not buy a car in the first place, and use public transport.

As a non-car owner, it pisses me off to have the bus stuck in a traffic jam amongst hundreds of private autos with just one or two people in them. Ban the damned cars from the centre and get the bus moving, I say.

As for the "we have children, thus can't use the bus" crowd--guess what? Kids actually can ride a bus, and they even get an "ulga"!

dave said...

here, here. if we tried to be a little happier with a little less it could make a big difference.

Michael Dembinski said...

Bartek - One-upmanship is what caused the economic crisis of the western world; unfettered consumerism driven by a desire to show off one's social status in a particularly dumb way.

Yes, my Micra's steering wheel is on the right (no trouble in town).

Anonymous - properly enforced bus-lanes are the answer - separated from the main road by a raised brick kerb. And cyclepaths.

Dave - how right you are. Lent makes one feel joyous at stepping off the mad race to happiness via consumption.

Bartek Usniacki said...

the thesis that one-upmanship triggered the crisis is bit simplified but in fact it touches the heart of the problem. Thank you for citing this phenomenon, I didn't know the scientific defition, I'm thinking about the Polish equivalent. One-upmanship seems to be a kind of mental disease, spriging up from inferiority complex. The only way to eridacate is to cut dead such people, or at least ignore their manifestations of their ostensible superioity. I don't believe it would actually work and does anybody see any other solution?