The carbon footprint resulting from the manufacture of a new vehicle, especially a battery-powered electric car, is very significant. Even if there are real gains in terms of carbon emissions when using modern vehicles, you still have to drive many kilometres to overcome the initial impact of their manufacture. Keeping and using old, well-maintained machinery is therefore often a much better choice for limiting emissions. Obviously, this is not the approach advocated by car manufacturers and governments. It's even less the approach taken by local authorities and town councils, who are intent on chasing old vehicles and their modest owners off their streets and roads... in the name of ecology.
The ecological emergency requires us to rethink our mobility, the only sector in which emissions have never stopped growing. For several years now, the public authorities have been issuing an increasing number of directives urging people to abandon their combustion-powered cars in favour of electric vehicles. The government's recent announcements that it intends to make electric cars widely available through massive subsidies means that many households will be able to buy them for around a hundred euros a month.
A number of low-emission mobility zones (ZFE-m), which restrict access to vehicles that exceed a certain threshold of polluting gas emissions, have been introduced in a number of cities: Paris, Lyon and Grenoble, for example. With the « climate and resilience » law adopted in 2021, all urban areas with more than 150,000 inhabitants will be affected by 2024.
In these areas, only cars that meet the latest ecological standards (electric or hybrid) will be allowed on the roads. We are therefore witnessing a large-scale purification of the car fleet, reflecting a vision that is, to say the least, enchanted by the electric mobility that is being presented as a saviour. This vision places the problem of air pollution on the users of cars that, because they are too old, no longer meet today's requirements in terms of polluting emissions, i.e. those with internal combustion engines built before 2010.
Our doctoral these in sociology carried out between 2017 and 2022, which aims to understand the ownership and use of cars over 20 years old in the modern era, reveals that the imperatives of sustainability are no strangers to such mobility. In the forty or so interviews conducted, the analysis of the specialist press, and the more informal moments of tinkering and discussion in garages or at gatherings of car enthusiasts that formed the groundwork for this thesis, it is even possible to glimpse, in some users, whether urban or rural, strong commitments to a certain ecology.
Making use of what already exists
The vast majority of users of old cars express a rhetoric of re-use that is opposed to mass production and consumption. It's about promoting an ecology that prioritises the use of functional (or repairable) tools over the use of new ones. In their discourse, this ecology of reuse appears to be more realistic because it is more accessible financially, and would correspond to a sober lifestyle whose expertise already exists in the working classes who develop it on a daily basis.
Inexpensive to buy and maintain, the old-fashioned second-hand car is also environmentally friendly because the ecological cost of producing it has already been absorbed. "It's not easy to explain to our dear ecologists that keeping and running an 'old' car instead of building a new one saves hectolitres of water, kilos of steel, rubber and plastic, and so on. That's the whole problem with looking only at the gases that come out of the exhaust, rather than analysing the whole life cycle, from manufacture through use to recycling" (Richard, Youngtimers magazine no. 79).
Taking care to redefine what is sustainable
Like any technical object, a car needs to be maintained to last, and an old car requires constant attention, particularly to the condition of its safety components.
Today, many car dealerships are no longer equipped to work on vehicles without electronic diagnostic systems, and mechanics are no longer trained to work on commercially outdated mechanical systems.
As a result, maintenance is largely the car owners’ responsibility, who develop an attachment to the car they look after, as well as a detailed knowledge that allows them to believe that their car will be with them for a long time to come. "I look after my car! To keep it looking good and to keep driving it. I'd like to wear that one out. Wait a minute, I've driven a Golf like this for 300,000 kilometres! My car can go on for another 30 years" (Larry, 64, drives a 1993 Volkswagen Golf 3).
Refusing an ecological transition suspected of "greenwashing
Refusing to switch to a newer car also reflects scepticism about manufacturers’ ecological intentions. Today's cars, especially electric cars, are suspected of being much more polluting than they appear, particularly because their production requires the extraction of precious metals such as lithium or cobalt.
Its electronic and digital equipment is also the subject of suspicion when it comes to planning for obsolescence. Here too, the logic of early replacement is criticised, and with it the strategy of making each model rapidly obsolete by replacing it with another or offering a restyled version. "Because of their reliability, they end up on the scrap heap quicker than an old car. They're not designed to last, no... the aim is to consume! We used to make robust cars! The Saab 900 is a robust car. Why is that? Because that's not the way we used to think about consumption" (Yannis, 40, company director, drives a 1985 Saab 900).
Breaking with the frenzy to drive "less but better”
Compared with more recent cars, cars over 15 years old are less comfortable and less safe, requiring greater attention from the driver, who has to be more observant and anticipatory.
They are also more demanding to drive, requiring more of all five senses. For example, they don't have cruise control, emergency brake assist or even power steering, which makes manoeuvring particularly difficult. Because they are at the opposite end of the efficiency spectrum, these cars are the ideal tool for keeping the feeling of acceleration feeling that characterises our age at bay, by immersing oneself in 'gentle' forms of mobility that conjure up an imaginary sense of travel, imbued with slowness and contemplation. "My parents are into this. They save time, they have the little box to go through the toll booth and then everything is deducted from their account. I find that frightening! It's frightening! You think it's easy, but in the end, it goes even faster" (Lucas, 22, philosophy student turned traditional carpenter, drives a 1982 Renault 4).
Keeping motoring at bay!
Even more than goods and an economic system, an entire system of mobility is being kept at arm's length. For many users, maintaining the car central role in town an country planning and in everyday mobility would be a lack of ambition in the face of today's ecological challenges.
Many old car users are calling for an ambitious overhaul of the mobility system that would give the best place to alternative forms of mobility, and in particular take the bicycle seriously as an efficient means of transport. They all say they would do without a car on a daily basis if they could. "I'm not nostalgic. I think that in our previous societý, the one looking for conquest, we were wrong. It forgot́ the finiteness of things, just as today we forget that there are perspectives! Perspective is cycling, for example. With the bicycle, we go to places where the car no longer goes, we free ourselves from traffic jams, that's it̀” (Fabrice, aged 47, drives several Citroëns from the 1970s to 2000).
The component of a sober lifestyle
For some people, driving an old car is therefore a way of living their mobility in a more sober way, favouring quality (of the journey, of the object...) over a form of abundance. "I think we've gone too far on certain things, that we're going too far in relation to the planet too, pollution and all that. I don't want to get into that, well I want more. One of my dreams would be to be energy self-sufficient. So, there's something ecological in my approach... Yes, ecological!” (Bruno, 56, drives a 1986 Renault 4).
This ethic of sobriety is often at the root of a more frugal lifestyle, and presupposes a reflexive attitude to our actions and their consequences. While converting everyone to the "old car" may not represent a project for ecological transition, the relationship of such users to their mobility nevertheless invites us to stop taking the road lightly. On the contrary, it urges us to question the banality of our recourse to the car, and to think about a more enlightened form of motoring.