The success of the advertising industry in persuading people to buy what they don’t need has been crucial to the accumulation of household ‘stuff’ over the past century. How many toasted sandwich makers were unveiled in the 80s, providing a string of snacks for all the family for about a week until the inevitable banishment to the cupboard under the sink, whereupon the seven-day wonder was condemned to be a greasy legacy of the same decade that gave us the Sinclair C5 and the CD mini-disc? Every home has a similar story to tell, and one suspects the number of items that fall into the toasted sandwich maker landfill site has increased the more that newfangled gadgets have their imminent obsolescence built into them.

At the moment, my washing machine is on its last legs; the delay in writing and publishing this post was due to my emergency intervention as water began gushing all over the kitchen floor. It’s been leaking for months now, but this was my domestic equivalent of the Red Sea returning to drown Moses’ pursuers. The machine is now officially off-limits, as I can’t risk using it again for fear of flooding the downstairs flat. The problem for me, as I live on the top floor of a house, is getting the old machine out and getting a new one in (and installed). At the moment, that bloody washing machine to me is the car that Basil Fawlty attacked with a branch.

Mind you, the washing machine has served me well. I bought it around 2003/4, so to have got a good 13-14 years out of it is pretty good going these days. No longer are such household appliances ‘built to last’, as the old expression went. Our television set was rented throughout my childhood, and not until adolescence did our home acquire a telly of its own – and with a remote control as well! That set was purchased around 1981 and I had it passed down to me when I left home; it didn’t finally conk-out until about 2001. How many TV sets manufactured today could boast such longevity? Very few, I would imagine. Since ‘old faithful’ gave up the ghost, I reckon I’ve probably been through maybe four or five different tellies, though compared to some I think I’ve been quite frugal.

The once-luxury items that constituted a dream home, things such as a washing machine, a fridge/freezer, a TV set, a gas cooker, a stereo ‘music unit’ – predating later must-haves like a microwave, a VCR, a CD player and a DVD player – were highly expensive and often bought via a system of Hire Purchase, paid off over a period of months or even years. With this in mind, the need for them to be durable was essential; an article at least had to be in working order during the period it was being paid for. Other items such as a vacuum cleaner or an iron were more within the household budget, but these too were made of strong stuff. My mother used the same Hoover and the same iron she’d had during my childhood well into the 80s for the simple reason that they were still doing the job they’d been designed for in the 60s.

Outside of the home, cars too were once designed with a long life in mind. Putting aside the company vehicle that came with a career, the family car was also a pricey machine in which both money and optimism were invested, its proud owner confident it would put in several loyal years of service, almost viewing it as an employee. Their confidence was well-founded. It seemed that half of the cars on the road in the 1970s had been built in previous decades, something that’s difficult to envisage now. Yes, those old motors faced a severe test when the initial absence of a speed limit on the new motorways led to overheated engines for vehicles not designed for Grand Prix conditions; but most were patched-up and sent back on the road with a clean bill of health; and some spanned the entire driving lifetime of their owners.

Again, not a scenario today’s motorist could really relate to. If cars today were so superior to their predecessors, mechanics would be a dying breed and the production line for new models would move at a snails’ pace; but there’s more to it than shoddy, corner-cutting manufacturing.

There have always been those for whom any possession has been a simple, straightforward status symbol for either keeping up with or getting one over the Jones’s; but these were once in the minority; most had to make do with what they could afford and required those items to last as long as possible. Back in the days of valves and the cathode ray tube, a TV set was prone to going wrong, but these design faults facilitated the career of what is now a virtually defunct profession, the TV repair man. If a TV set goes wrong today, the owner replaces it; sets are so cheap now in comparison to forty years ago that there’s no real need for a faulty one to be fixed. The concept that they were once so expensive that the majority of viewers rented them from specialist shops is inconceivable to a generation accustomed to HD TV ‘walls’ in their living rooms.

Upgrading has become both an unnecessary fad and an unavoidable necessity. Some upgrade because it’s ‘the done thing’ and they have to be seen to have the latest model; others upgrade because the mobile or laptop or DVD player they only bought a couple of years before has already ceased to function. Upgrading is thrust upon us by the manufacturers; it’s not a customer choice. The widespread practice of buying goods via credit cards has altered the relationship between consumer and manufacturer so that even if the consumer doesn’t have the ready cash to upgrade, they can still do so at the same time as the person who does have the ready cash. This relatively recent development has probably enabled manufacturers to get away with churning out items at a faster pace and with a shorter lifespan than ever before; they know they can, so they do.

Oh, well. A silly lightweight post on another day of another bombing and so on and so on. It doesn’t hurt to have a day off from it. And on the subject of old tellies…

© The Editor

9 thoughts on “CARRY ON UPGRADING

  1. “It seemed that half of the cars on the road in the 1970s had been built in previous decades, something that’s difficult to envisage now. Yes, those old motors faced a severe test when the initial absence of a speed limit on the new motorways led to overheated engines for vehicles not designed for Grand Prix conditions; but most were patched-up and sent back on the road with a clean bill of health; and some spanned the entire driving lifetime of their owners.”

    Way I’d see it, the trend toward replacing cars after 5/6 years or so (or less often) is not only comparatively recent but also principally a European phenomenon….specifically a Northern European/German/Anglo one. In Australia, New Zealand, even the US, you still see plenty of old cars on the road being used as daily drivers. Maybe not so much in the likes of downtown Sydney or Manhattan but in the boondocks for sure.

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    1. I know one of the attractions of Cuba for many years was the abundance of 50s motors still in daily use. I don’t know if the defrosting of relations with the US will change that in time, but there is something strangely soothing when you see a car from your childhood drive past – maybe because so many cars manufactured today are quite bland and indistinguishable that the distinctive design of an old Cortina or Escort is a reminder this wasn’t always so?


      1. The last 20 years of car production does seem like a triumph of blandness, for the most part. I can’t think of two many designs that stick out. I do think the 1980s and 1990s produced some classic timeless designs – the Porsche 928, the Mercedes SL (The R129 model specifically) and so on.

        By contrast the likes of the early incarnations of the Lotus Espirit (as featured in a Bond movie) and the Delorean (as featured in Back to the Future) to me look hideously dated now, precisely because they tried too hard to look ‘space-agey’ when they were first produced.

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  2. I had a bicycle lock that lasted me twenty years (1990 to 2010) – and I’d still have it if it wasn’t for the fact that the key fell out of my pocket one day and I stupidly hadn’t bothered to get a replacement cut. I bought a replacement lock similar quality in Dublin will literally steal anything that isn’t down, as the old saying goings.

    My (flat-screen) tv was purchased in 2004 when flat-screens were still relatively new to the scene, and is still going fine. By contrast, my previous tv, which was of the ‘old-fashioned’ type, conked out after just six years (1998 to 2004). Way I’d see it…some consumer products are built to last and others…..just aren’t. I think it’s always been like that, though the amount of electronics on modern day cars doesn’t seem to me a terribly good idea, as it just means more things to potentially go wrong.


    1. DVD players seem especially short-lived; lost track of the number I’ve been through in the last ten years, whereas their VCR predecessors seemed longer-lasting. The old Beta model our household acquired in 1983 lasted around eight years, whereas I think three is the limit I’ve managed with its DVD successor.


  3. Only this morning I was shifting some earth with a 50+ year-old spade, wearing my 47-year-old jacket, having passed by the 44-year-old car in my garage and thinking how we have become a disposable society !
    Much of the trend is down to the low purchase cost compared to any repair labour – it’s really not worth paying anyone to fix a washing-machine when it costs £100 to get them started, plus any parts, when you can buy a decent, brand new machine, with a multi-year guarantee, for less than £200. A motor alone will cost you £80 if you can diagnose and fit it yourself.

    Five years ago I bought a small petrol mower from Tesco for around £100 inc. delivery, I finally serviced it myself last winter after leaving it untouched all that time – it starts every time, mows perfectly and looks after around an acre of variable grass. If anything ever goes wrong that I can’t fix, I’ll throw it away and buy another, because that’s the economics of it. Why spend £500 just to cut the same grass the same way and then feel obliged to spend more repairing and servicing it, just because you ‘invested’ more in it ?
    It may seem irresponsible in material terms but, when repair labour cost overwhelms it, then cheap purchase and disposal is the only logical option.

    Just be careful with your back as you carry your new £150 washer up all those stairs.

    And many those 1950s cars in Cuba carry a shameful secret – under the bonnet lurks a chugging engine and gearbox from a Lada, implanted decades ago when the big old yank-tank V8 motor fired its last.

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  4. “Higher Purchase_” Great pun as interest was built into the weekly/monthly payment, but I think you meant “hire”…

    Anyways, the thing that pisses me off these days is the software/hardware scam. You buy a computer, it works very well, but the software gets upgraded and after a certain point, you can’t upgrade to newer versions because it has been engineered to the specifications of newer hardware…. so you have to find workarounds. Apple are especially evil in this regard. My old spinwheel iPod had 160 gig of room and still works well (touching wood), but my new and “improved” iPod touch will only go to 64 gig and will now not sync with my Mac because that is too old to upgrade to the new version of iTunes. I went to the nearest Apple store to tell them they were the minions of evil bastards and they actually agreed but suggested I took out an annual subscription to iCloud to upload my music there where it would be accessible to any device anywhere.

    I asked them where was the sense to me of paying to access stuff I already own? Thank heavens I still have a CD walkman if necessary and still prefer to buy my music and literature in physical form in CDs and books.

    But sll this applies to phones and tvs too. 2/3G will be phased out and the spectra re-allocated as 4G and soon 5G become the norm. And of course you will need these upgraded devices to access everything from Universal Credit to doctors’ appointments to social housing repairs. The governments of the world are in this hand-in-hand with the corporations of Silicon Valley (and the hardware manufacturers of South Korea and China).

    I hate all these evil shits.

    Have a nice day and I hope you get your washing machine repaired soon, otherwise it’s the scrubbing board and mangle for you.

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    1. My grandma had a bloody mangle gathering dust in her shed for years. How I wish I had it now! As for the ‘girl we couldn’t get much higher’ aspect, thanks for pointing that out. These things often sneak through unnoticed and I’m dependent on them being pointed out! Subsequently changed.


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