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Open Diff: Are we really scrapping this many old cars?

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Photo by Thomas Geersing.

You can’t save them all, of course. Cars, though made of durable materials like steel and glass, are ultimately impermanent things and all of them — even the ones we cherish — will one day return to dust.

But how quickly?

While digging through the materials we collected for our recent story on the U.K. government’s consultation on keeping E5 ethanol-blended fuel in circulation as it transitions to E10, we came across some numbers we thought were worth revisiting. Specifically, the projected survival rates for E10-incompatible cars that the Department for Transport calculated and tabled up:

Plunk those into a line chart and you’ll see those three categories all follow the same curve, presumably based on the DfT’s assumed attrition rate for the general population of automobiles. (Somebody who took more math than I did in college could probably easily reverse-engineer the formula for that curve based on the numbers above.) And presumably, the DfT based that assumed attrition rate on the data it’s been collecting on car registries in the country for the last century.

But should the math on used cars really be used to predict survivability/attrition rates on collector cars?

Sure, anything could happen over the next 15 years, especially as Europe pushes electrification for the cars on its roads, introduces no-go zones or outright bans for older cars, and fiddles with ethanol levels in gasoline. And it’s not clear whether these numbers account for cars taken off the road and put into museums, or cars shipped out of (or into) the U.K., or whether those are statistically significant amounts of vehicles to warrant consideration.

But the very nature of collectors is to preserve their older cars, especially after they’re no longer just used cars (generally considered 25 years or so in the United States, 30 years in the European Union, 40 years in the United Kingdom), not to run them into the ground and send them off to the scrapyard. So that attrition-rate curve should start to flatten out after a while, right? Or maybe, if the total number of restorations outpaces actual scrappage rates for old cars, the attrition-rate curve could even start to turn upwards, right?

Or are we actually losing that many old cars on a regular basis due to crashes, rust, obsolete tech, depressed values — all the things that take used cars off the road — and the U.K. is thus doomed to contain no more than 40,000 cars 50 years and older by 2030?