Obsolete Automobiles

A case for dumb cars.

by Pete Albertson

September 22, 2021

In 2020, I bought a 2001 Volkswagen Sedan, otherwise known as a Mexican bug. I made this decision during the pandemic to give me a little more freedom to roam with less risk. I also bought it because it’s cool as hell and classic car ownership has been a lifelong goal of mine.

2001 Volkswagen Sedan aka Vocho

The late-model bugs largely look like the classic versions but with some cosmetic differences. But we all know cars have changed a lot in the thirty years leading to 2001. My bug? Not so much. The “modern” updates it received were mainly front disc brakes and fuel injection. There’s no power steering, no power windows. It has primitive heating but no A/C. It’s a very basic car.

A friend of mine recently purchased a new Audi RS6. For those unfamiliar, it’s roughly as fast and as costly as a Porsche 911 but in the form of a station wagon. That performance plus the station wagon practicality makes it the exact opposite of my car. After going for a ride in it, this point was also further accentuated by just how advanced the technology is inside. Screens with 360º camera angles, wireless phone charging, built-in back massagers, lane-keeping assist, and on and on.

I wouldn’t blame you for assuming I was overwhelmed with envy riding in a car many times more advanced (and expensive) than my own. But, to my own surprise, I wasn’t. Well, I was a little envious of the horsepower, but not the technology.

2021 Audi RS6

I won’t argue that the available technology in modern cars isn’t impressive or useful. Things like cameras and lane-keeping assist aren’t toys but pretty useful tools to keep passengers safe. And I can’t argue my bug is safe because it isn’t. But I can argue that buying something with the latest technological bells & whistles brings the same rapid and relentless obsolescence just like TVs and smart phones.

I have other friends who buy the latest top-of-the-line iPhone at least every two years. I don’t do that because I don’t like the idea of dropping that kind of money on a phone. So you can imagine I’m too frugal to drop tens (let alone hundreds) of thousands on a new car every couple of years. But if you’re willing to make that kind of investment regularly, then I guess the obsolescene of your car is something you can afford to outrun. I, however, hope to own and drive the same car for many years to come.

With iPhones, you have the option to buy slightly older or less advanced models like the SE. But for consumers who not only want to spend less but have less, there are also options like the Light Phone and Wisephone, intentially feature-reduced phones largely meant to help consumers avoid the constant distraction modern smartphones tend to be. This is precisely something I would love to see done with cars. Tasteful design, a solid drivetrain, and… not much else sounds like all I really need. No cameras, no touch screens, no climate control. Just the basics, but well done. And hopefully at a reduced cost. Whether or not that’s a profitable model for automakers is big question, but I might actually be willing to spend the money on a new car if I didn’t have to worry about the software bugs and planned obsolesence.