Why are all the cars in the UK new?
October 5, 2011 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Why aren't there any (or many) older cars on the road in the UK?

I'm an American who has just returned from 12 days in the UK, mostly in the form of a road trip around the Scottish Highlands. A few days into the trip we noticed that every car on the road appeared to be virtually brand-new. At that point we started specifically looking for older models and we never saw one the entire time. Some of the larger trucks appeared to be older, but passenger vehicles were all sparkly and new.

Why is this? In the US, it seems like half the cars on the road are at least ten years old, and I often see clunkers from the 70's or 80's. Does this have to do with stricter fuel efficiency and/or emissions standards? Or something else?
posted by something something to Travel & Transportation around United Kingdom (26 answers total)
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:16 AM on October 5, 2011

I don't think it was just confirmation bias, TheRedArmy, because like I said we were there for twelve days and I paid pretty close attention to it. On my 6 mile commute to work this morning, in North Carolina, I saw at least a dozen older cars.
posted by something something at 11:20 AM on October 5, 2011

To add to hot soup girl's comment, I would guess that because gas is the equivalent of about $10/gallon there, it just isn't worth it to keep your old gas guzzling car.
posted by Specklet at 11:21 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Price of fuel is definitely a contribution. Currently, it's about $9 a gallon. There's also rising carbon taxes that make it advantageous to purchase newer vehicles.

Further, often households will share one car, rather than purchase two, primarily due to the prevalence of public transportation. Americans own on average 2.2 cars per household, whilst Brits own 1.1 cars per household.

Finally, many of the used vehicles are sent to Africa for their second lives, whilst in American, they remain in the country.
posted by nickrussell at 11:27 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's going to be a combination of things:

Cars built in the 70s and 80s, particularly British-made cars, were pretty unreliable, and are not remotely economical to keep running now, given that the MOT test requires a pretty high level of roadworthiness.

Cars driven in the UK, particularly during the 70s and 80s, were very different from cars driven in the US. Fuel is, and was, much more expensive here, so lighter, smaller cars were the norm even then, and lighter, smaller cars tend not to last as long as cars built like small tanks.

Many parts of the US are relatively dry, compared to the rainy UK. And in the 70s and 80s, most cars were parked out in the street. Any car of that age that wasn't kept in a garage pretty much all the time will be a rust-bucket by now.

The exceptions you'll see most commonly are minis and VW beetles and vans.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:27 AM on October 5, 2011

It's partly the MOT and also rust. Cars last a lot longer in dry climates and many US states let you drive them to the doors fall off.

It's also that more poor people own and drive cars in the US. Older cars in the UK tend to get sold abroad. In the US there is a huge market for beaters because almost every employed adult, no matter how poor, needs a car. UK car owners are, on average, much much better off than US car owners.

And yes, I have lived in both countries for extended periods.
posted by fshgrl at 11:28 AM on October 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Probably similar to Japan where not only are the emissions laws stricter, but there are actual inspections where simple mileage can be a trigger to mandate either a major overhaul or condemn a car to the scrap-heap. The latter is often chosen if the former is prohibitively expensive.
posted by markhu at 11:30 AM on October 5, 2011

MOT, plus there was a car scrappage scheme a couple of years ago offering cash for down payments on new cars if you owned one over 10 years old.
posted by Cuppatea at 11:30 AM on October 5, 2011

I don't think thye're brand new. You regularly see cars up to , say, 10 years old. But you rarely see cars any older than 20 years old or so.

I suspect there are a lot of reasons. Rust protection used to be a lot worse, and it's quite wet here. Plus, emissions tests writes a few off, and economy has got so much better in newer cars that they are a lot cheaper to run, with petrol so expensive. And they're a lot more reliable than they used to be.
posted by ComfySofa at 11:31 AM on October 5, 2011

Vehicle tax is linked to your car's emission levels, so an older car is likely to cost more money. The tax can be pretty steep too. Add in compulsory insurance (older, less safe cars may cost more), the regular MOT, and the price of petrol and it's probably not worth the cost of keeping an older car running.

I've noticed the newer cars over here too (both the UK and Ireland compared to NZ where I'm from), although in Ireland where I live apparently you can't register a car older than 16 years so that probably contributes here.
posted by shelleycat at 11:31 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

The jokey but somewhat true answer is rust: the cars my dad drove in the 1980s gained additional ventilation after a few harsh winters, and I suspect that older cars also age less well in the northern US than NC. Most older cars that are maintained to get them through their MOT have collectible/vintage appeal: roadsters, original Minis, etc.

There was also a cash-for-clunkers (in UKEnglish, "cash for bangers") scheme not that long ago, which probably helped take some of those late-80s Sierras off the road.
posted by holgate at 11:34 AM on October 5, 2011

Perhaps the models don't change as quickly and you're not as familiar. You can probably tell the difference between an early 1990s Civic and a 2008 Civic, but maybe less so with Fiats or Vauxhalls.
posted by k8t at 11:35 AM on October 5, 2011

in the 70s and 80s, most cars were parked out in the street. Any car of that age that wasn't kept in a garage pretty much all the time will be a rust-bucket by now.

Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham mentioned how it was really tricky to get hold of sufficient cars of sufficient vintage to populate the streets for Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. They came across an problem that's only obvious in hindsight: the cars that survive and can be borrowed for filming are generally in much better condition than the ones that would have been driven and parked up at the time.
posted by holgate at 11:40 AM on October 5, 2011

Additionally, it seems that there are a lot more Brits who have car leases paid for (in some fashion or other) by their employers (or they get an allow to put toward a car lease/purchase). The terms of the conditions usually state that cars can only be of a certain (modern) vintage.

So add that to the other factors mentioned above and you're starting to build a pretty good picture of the situation.
posted by sardonyx at 11:40 AM on October 5, 2011

shellycat mentioned how in the UK, vehicle tax is linked to a car's emission levels. Here in Virginia US of A, it's sort of the opposite: personal property tax is linked to the value of the vehicle, so an older junker = lower tax.
posted by easily confused at 11:43 AM on October 5, 2011

Perhaps the models don't change as quickly and you're not as familiar.

I can go with "not as familiar", but the models have definitely changed in obvious ways, and the year indicator on number plates is also a giveaway. You'll see old Volvos and Mercs and Saabs, which are pretty hard to date precisely, and perhaps the odd Golf GTi, but not 1980s Cavaliers in the way that tank-like Oldsmobiles still have a presence on US roads.
posted by holgate at 11:50 AM on October 5, 2011

I've been living in the southern US for several years and no longer have to suffer through the annual car inspections that I had to pass up north. I've definitely noticed way more old cars down here.
posted by mareli at 11:55 AM on October 5, 2011

I'm in London right now for the second weeks-long stint since June. I've noticed the same thing--LOTS of new cars. So many, that when I saw a ca. mid-90s Volvo station wagon the other day, it stuck out like a sore thumb.

When I posed this question to some London folks, the response I got was, "if you can afford to drive in London, you can afford to have a nice, new car."
posted by phunniemee at 12:14 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do they salt the roads in the winter? That's hell on cars. I live in a place with snowy winters and you see way more newer cars here. Not a definitive answer, just another possibility.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:17 PM on October 5, 2011

Yes, UK roads get salted in winter.
posted by pharm at 12:37 PM on October 5, 2011

I think its the petrol price, there are still people who own old cars, they just arent driving them. This is reaching the point where it's affecting out of town supermarkets.

In contrast at the top end of the market, Waitrose which tends to locate itself in city centres is doing fine.

Because petrol is so heavily taxed here, when the oil price goes up it hits the poor disproportionately hard.
posted by Lanark at 12:38 PM on October 5, 2011

At least one person touched on this, but the annual inspection is thorough and the repairs required to pass it can get expensive, even if the car is reasonably functional. If the car's swills gas/petrol and there's a relatively high road tax to pay because of the car's emissions, all those things can motivate people to get a relatively new car.

Also, I understand that there are or were tax advantages to companies providing company cars so a relatively high number of people drive them. I used to live in England and paid some attention to the job ads, was surprised to see how many compensation offers included company cars.
posted by ambient2 at 1:18 PM on October 5, 2011

I work for the UK government in a vehicle-related business (trying not to be too specific!) - I've noticed this myself in the last couple of years or so. There are still lots of older cars about but in general they seem to be what might be considered classics or collectible vehicles.
I think the scrappage scheme that Cuppatea mentioned has had an effect - I don't think I've seen so many vehicles over 10 years old in the last couple of years (the scrappage scheme ended around 18 months ago.

As far as vehicle tax goes, vehicles first registered before early 2001 actually fall into one of only 2 bands, based on their engine capacity (if they're pre-1973 they pay no tax). It's only newer vehicles that pay tax based on their emissions, and this ranges from no duty payable at all to considerably higher than what is payable for older vehicles. I think I notice as many vehicles that pay high rates of road tax as I do those that pay low rates.

Agree that a combination of wet weather, salt on the roads and having to pass a stringent MOT test is hard on an older car.

FWIW my partner's car is 16 years old and mine is over 20!
posted by kumonoi at 3:04 PM on October 5, 2011

Car finance for a new car remains very cheap in the UK, while repairs using mostly imported spares are expensive. Plus both scrap metal and fuel prices are high. All these things mean it's less economical to hang on to an unreliable clunker, than get a loan for a new car.
posted by roofus at 5:01 PM on October 5, 2011

Thanks for all the great answers! It sounds like quite a number of factors go into this.
posted by something something at 6:22 AM on October 6, 2011

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