Car Reliability Is A Myth

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Let me tell you the story of two cars: the original Mazda RX-7 and the Mazda GLC.

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The first-generation Mazda RX-7 is a fragile little thing, just over a thousand kilos of thin steel making as small a two-door as possible back in the late ‘70s. The standout feature of the car is its Wankel rotary engine. Rather than using pistons, the original RX-7 had a pair of dorito-shaped rotors that spin around an eccentric shaft.

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You can see how that looked in this contemporary brochure.

Illustration for article titled Car Reliability Is A Myth

As a relatively early design in the grand history of the Wankel engine, the RX-7 had a bit of a reputation of wearing out some of its internal components (I’m talking about apex seals, here).

Even if the engine had worked exactly as Mazda had intended, the rotary was still an unordinary engine. The brand from Hiroshima was the only one building rotaries, meaning they were rare and that your average mechanic wouldn’t know the first thing about fixing one.

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What I’m trying to get at is that of all the cars to have ever been made, the original RX-7 is perhaps the most likely car to end up broken, forgotten, and junked.

Hold that thought.

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Around the same time that Mazda debuted the RX-7, they released a small hatchback for sale in the US, the GLC or ‘Great Little Car.’ It was just what we called the international 323/Familia, an earlier example of what is now the Mazda3. It has always been Mazda’s big seller, their bread and butter model. If there was ever a Mazda that was common and easy to find parts for or repair, it was this thing.

The basic setup of the GLC’s architecture was actually quite a bit like the RX-7’s. Both were rear-wheel drive. Both had the same four-speed manual transmission, and the same style MacPherson strut suspension at the front and live axle at the rear.

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Actually, here are two diagrams of how those suspension layouts look, courtesy of Mazda.

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If anything, the GLC’s suspension was a bit more straightforward and simple than the RX-7’s.

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Critically, while the RX-7 came with a finnicky rotary, the GLC came with a conventional inline four-cylinder piston engine.

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From a mechanical standpoint, it makes all the sense in the world for all of the RX-7s in America to have been long ago sent to the junkyard, while all of the GLCs should be slowly and steadily chugging away on the road.

This is not the case.

I’m not going to say that first-generation RX-7s are common, but in enthusiast circles they’re relatively easy to find. Show up at any car show or SCCA event an you’ll likely see a couple. By contrast, you reading this article right now have probably not seen a single GLC in a decade, if not two. They pretty much all ended up crushed years ago.

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As I said before, going on these cars’ mechanical layouts, the GLC should be the survivor and the RX-7 should be your new refrigerator.

The thing is, the GLC was and has remained just a cheap commuter car while the RX-7 started life as a sports car and grew into a cult classic automobile. The GLC was bought by ordinary people who got rid of it once it developed a major problem or two.

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The RX-7 was cherished, fixed, engine-swapped, ceaselessly repaired and maintained by dedicated enthusiasts. The reason why you still see first-gen RX-7s on the road is in spite of its design, not because of it. Because a number of willful owners made time-and money-consuming repairs.

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The point I’m trying to make here is that we tend to think of reliability based on a car’s mechanical design and (more importantly) on a brand’s reputation, passed along by word of mouth. What we really need to think of isn’t the car itself, but the owners. Reliability is a myth. Who owns a car and how it is maintained is what keeps cars alive.

Photo Credits: Mazda, via darshan67

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DISCUSSION

orlove
Raphael Orlove

I myself once bought what you could call one of the most reliable cars of all time, a 1993 Lexus ES300. It was built when Toyota (according to the internet, the most reliable car company in existence) was making its fattest cars. By that I mean the car was overbuilt in ways you just can't see. Three heavy, long bolts held in the goddamn fucking coolant overflow bottle. By its reputation, the '93 Lexus should have caused me absolutely not trouble whatsoever, and happily traveled on from 200,000 miles to 300,000 miles.

Nah.

It needed routine maintenance. Of course it did. It wasn't babied by every owner and it wasn't ceaselessly maintained. Freddy and I had to do the water pump and timing belt within a few weeks of driving just to keep it from boiling itself to death.

By contrast, I can say that the 1993 Toyota Camry that my parents bought back when it was new is still on the road without much drama. That car is near-as-makes-no-difference mechanically identical to the Lexus (though my folks had the 4 cylinder, not the V6) and it still chugs along in the hands of my departed grandmother's caretaker. I'm sure it is quietly plying the streets of northern new jersey as I write this.

As I said before, it's about the owners, not the cars.

Let me reiterate this point again. Bugattis from the company's classic pre-WWII period might just be the most unreliable cars ever made. They were so finnicky, on a cold morning you'd have to drain the oil and heat it up on the stove, then put it back in the car before you could ever even hope to start it. Cleaning your spark plugs was often performed in the middle of your drives, so easy was it to foul them.

Just about every classic Bugatti ever built is still on the road. This is because classic Bugatti owners (particularly the Brits) are the most freakishly dedicated car owners in existence. They are not only willing to juggle hot spark plugs on the side of the road, they're happy to do it. All in the name of a fantastically beautiful, skittish, lustworthy car.

So if you think that hey, raphael, there are definitely some cars that are more reliable than others, think about those old, tempermental Bugattis, pampered by dedicated and well-funded owners, still motoring along while your neighbor's old Sentra rots away in a junkyard.

It's about the owners.