How long does a car last? Three people have asked me that in the past six months. What they really wanted to know was: "How much longer will my car last?" My response always begins with: "It depends." It comes down to the kind of car, and how and where you drive it. The Midwest isn't called the rust belt for nothing. If you live in the south or southwest and never drive in ice and snow, chances are your car's body will last longer. Except with double-sided, zinc-galvanized steel, electro-phosphoric primers and high-tech undercoating, almost any car less than 10 years old tends to look pretty good.
The marque used to make a huge difference. Mercedes-Benz and Volvo had reputations for extraordinarily high mileage. Keeping a car for a half a million miles is still a pretty big milestone. At one time, the only real chance of going that kind of distance meant driving a car from Europe.
What parts have to last for mega-distances? Obviously the engine has to be reliable. It needs to be simple to work on (less chance of an incompetent mechanic screwing it up) and relatively under-stressed. No engines from Mercedes-Benz, Volvo or even the venerable air-cooled Beetle were cutting-edge. Horsepower was never a major concern; rather simple, strong and reliable.
Regarding the rest of the driveline-the transmission and drive axle-keeping it simple isn't stupid. A live rear axle and a conventional four-speed manual transmission is a recipe for durability. In general, a modest engine and transmission will almost always be adequate for long life. A Beetle trans, for example, was fairly fragile. But given the anemic power from its flat-four engine, it was more than up to the job.
Perhaps the most annoying and disruptive aspect of a European car has been its electrics. Jokes about the Lucas stuff found on British cars notwithstanding, the venerable Bosch company has no reason to cheer when it comes to its own history.
Failures were rare with the major systems; the car would almost always start and run. It was little things like headlights and turn signals that could never quite be counted on. It wouldn't leave you stranded in a parking lot, but it sure was annoying to drive home in a rainstorm minus wipers, with one window down. There was a time in the mid-1970s through the mid-'80s, (and then, ironically, again in the mid-'90s) when owners of high-end European sedans were never really sure if everything was going to work when a switch was flipped.
One thing those cars had going for them were solid interiors. Mercedes-Benz had its excellent MB-Tex fabric-better than leather for serious drivers and it wore like iron. Volkswagens and Volvos were less hardwearing, as each company had issues with plush velour upholstery. It looked fine for the first year or two, then started to degrade. But seats in those machines could be counted on to remain strong and supportiv e, something a Japanese car of the same period couldn't match.
Cars renowned for longevity also had fairly staid styling. With the same basic shape retained year after year, customers knew what they were buying and wouldn't necessarily need to trade every two or three years. This concept was anathema to the 'planned obsolescence' strategy beloved by U.S. carmakers, but for a time, it seemed to work for European makes.
The requirement that cars today must maintain their emissions integrity beyond 100,000 miles has meant that even the lowliest commuter hack is now as reliable as the vaunted European marques ever were during their golden age. Improvements in electronics and carefully optimized parts from suppliers have resulted in economy cars with 10-year warranties. Interiors are now made from recycled pop bottles (maybe the toughest material on the planet) and designers strive to make the inside last as long as the zinc-galvanized outside.
So buy something built in the last six or seven years, maintain it with something other than complete indifference, try not to hit anything big and take care of things like tires, shock absorbers, and maybe the clutch when they need replacing, and you should be able to go a quarter of a million miles. Just make sure you get something you like. You'll be spending a lot of time with it.