by Iris Winston

The old car still runs well. Therefore, you decide to keep it on the road for another year or two or three.

All is well until you need a replacement part and find that it is unobtainable.

This is what happened to Ottawa, Ontario resident Gord Holder after a freak accident on a trip to Montreal in the fall. He ran over a piece of piping lying in the middle of the highway. The pipe flipped up and damaged his fuel line and the metal shield protecting the gas tank of his 1990 Toyota Corolla GTS coupe.

He had the vehicle towed back to home base, Tony Graham Lexus Toyota in Ottawa, for repair. The dealership tried to obtain the part by contacting the two major Toyota auto parts’ warehouses in Canada (Richmond, B.C., and Toronto) and the massive central warehouse in Ontario, California.

“It took about a week to find that the part no longer existed,” says Mr. Holder, noting that this particular Toyota model went out of production eight years ago.

The general rule, for Toyota and other vehicle manufacturers, is that parts should be on hand for “eight years of vehicle life,” says Automotive Industries Association of Canada vice-president Beverlie Cook, “but there is no written, mandatory requirement for stock.”

AIA president Raymond Datt, explains that “there is no grand scheme.” Keeping parts available is a matter of balancing cost and service, “dictated by common sense.”

Manufacturers maintain an inventory of parts as long as a model is produced. Once it goes out of production, they estimate the quantity of the various parts needed over the time that the model is likely to be on the road and ensure that the parts are warehoused for that period. For example, although General Motors is phasing out Oldsmobiles, the company has announced that safety parts will be available for 13 years after production ends and emission controls will be manufactured for at least 15.

A part in high demand, usable on a number of models, will obviously be manufactured for longer than a rarely needed part that fits only one model.

Consumers should bear this in mind when purchasing a vehicle, suggests Automobile Protection Agency head Georges Iny. “People get hung up on the cost of gas, but the big hit is depreciation,” he says. “Buyers should be thinking of the long haul and buy a popular car with a strong and healthy after-market. High-tech, high-end vehicles are more risky.”

In general, he says, parts for long-running vehicles are easiest to find and are frequently quite economical.

“With some of the popular older cars, the price goes down because the tooling is already paid for,” he points out, adding that because a number of models share mechanical parts, finding replacements is simplified for these vehicles.

On the negative side, the tooling used to manufacture any part has a limited lifespan, normally in the eight-year range. Therefore, manufacturers must also decide whether to retool or scrap it when it wears out.

“When they decide it is too costly to maintain the tooling because there is not enough demand, (for a particular part) manufacturers usually do one more production run,” explains Mr. Datt. “After that, you go to car wreckers for parts.”

Mr. Holder’s dealership tried this in the hunt for a replacement gas tank shield, he says. The search was unsuccessful, apparently because of the usual procedure at scrapyards. As a safety measure, aimed at fire prevention, the gas tanks of all vehicles are drained as soon as they arrive on site.

“To do this, the shields have to be removed and unless there is a call for one, they are destroyed,” he says.

“This is not a part that is needed very often, so I was not totally surprised when they told me that it didn’t exist any more,” he adds. “But I was surprised that they didn’t have something that would do the job, because this is a safety issue. The shield keeps the gas tank from being pierced.”

In this case, the dealership was able to straighten the old shield enough to cover the gas tank and “protect it barely.”

Toyota Canada’s public relations manager David Stone is not surprised that the dealership solved Mr. Holder’s problem. “Most of our dealers are really good problem solvers,” he says. However, he acknowledges that “as cars get older and the number on the road is very small, parts are harder to find after a certain amount of time. But franchise dealers know where to search.”

“Basically, there are two sources,” says Mr. Datt, “manufacturers, until the tooling is scrapped, and wreckers.”

It is also possible to obtain no-name replacement parts, notes Mr. Iny, explaining that some after-market sales sources keep catalogues comparing the no-name with its named equivalent on hand as required.

Recognizing that the “demand for after-market parts accelerates as a car gets older,” Mr. Datt points out that owners, like manufacturers, weigh the cost of keeping older vehicles on the road and continue repairs as long as they are affordable. He says that as drivers tend to keep their vehicles longer, parts’ availability is likely to grow to meet the demand.

From Mr. Iny’s perspective that growth should be considerable. “If you buy the right car,” he says, “you shouldn’t have a problem getting parts for 20 to 30 years.”

And the makes he particularly recommends for their longevity? Any Volvo or Mercedes-Benz among higher-end autos and Toyota and Honda in the mid-range.

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