To me, the real beauty of those older cars is the interchangeability of parts. If I needed an alternator for a '77 Chevy, I could chose from a set of what seemed like about six different part numbers and that set of six of those alternators would cover a large majority of all Chevy's made in the prior ten years. This broad use of near-COTS components kept costs down and, to this day, makes it easier to keep those older vehicles on the road. I really hope that the auto industry returns to that trend soon. Otherwise driving a ten year-old car will be a bit like Russian roulette. If any one system goes down, the car will be prohibitively expensive to repair. We need a standard and extensible set of interfaces so that if my ECM dies, I can bike to an auto parts store and buy a standard Chevy ECM, take it home and plug it in and go. Maybe download some firmware from the GM website and be done with it.
I agree with Bill. Pandora's Box was opened years ago allowing all the electronic gadgets and premium upgrades to become standard. Outside of the supply line forces at work, the general public wouldn't allow cars to return to the glory days Duane speaks about. For exampled, I don't like cruise control, as it takes away the "feel" of the drive and feeling of control. In contrast, my father will never buy a car again without that feature. He's grown to accustomed and "addicted" to it. Other features like power windows, locks, brakes, etc. are those the general public will never relinquish.
To me it comes down to the fact that, assuming that IC and circuit board failure is the core issue here - the cost associated with fabricating replacement mechanical parts (springs, gaskets, hunks of aluminum/cast iron) is exponentially lower than that of fabricating "replacement" ICs and full circuit board assemblies.
Personally, I loathe this "throw-away" attitude that pervades marketing-driven manufacturing. And what about the "green" implications? Wouldn't we be far, far better off as a society if products really had a long useful lifetime ... and could even be repaired. A classic example is wristwatches that lasted so long they were frequently family heirlooms. Then along came the Timex (first popular jewel-less watch) ... essentially a throw-away watch. And, of course, this "unrepairable" philosophy forces us to replace entire circuit boards (or even entire products) because it's so hard to find and/or replace a 5-cent resistor!
Product planned obsolescence issues have been with us since the mid 1960's. It wasn't implemented to help consumers or make items of enduring cultural value. It was done to guarantee yearly corporate sales goals. At the same time, it was cheaper for a corporation to make throw-away products than durable ones. This is a separate issue from the one of product reliability. The throw-away consumer culture we now live in helps mask a steady deterioration in the standard of living we have all experienced for the last 30 years or more. Until our economic system is made to serve the long term needs of "People and the Environment" rather than the short term profit needs of corporations, the situation will only get worse. Individually, all of us have the power to vote with our dollars in the products we buy. However, the marketplace encourages us individually, to buy cheap products rather than expensive ones. Collectively, change can only be implemented through well considered public policy initiatives.
It certainly is a challenge to just gain access to many things in order to be able to do diagnostics and repairs. There are certainly a lot of products designed as snap togather, and unfortunately, "destroy to disassemble". I realize that snap assembly certainly does save a whole lot of money, but many products should be left repairable, even moreso now that unreliable lead-free solder is common. I have asked some appliance sales people about product reliability and I usually get a response describin the service contracts that they offer. Then I ask about quality, and I get a list of features. It appears that all of this comes from a technically illiterate public that has enough money to trash things and purchase new ones.
At the end of the day the need to be able to breath the air with an ever increasing No. of vehicles on the road is going to force us to stay with what we have now. What would help would be an industry wide standard for the sensor and actuator interfaces so that a standard after market module could be manufactured. I've built after market modules for cars, but it's a bit of work. Standardised interfaces would give us the best of both worlds.
Etmax, The reality is that cars could maintain the present low emissions levels and still dispence with MOST of the complexity, which includes "body control modules", Climate control modules, and a whole mess of worthless entertainments system modules. Not to mention those features forced upon us in the name of safety, such as ABS and traction and stability control systems. So the reality is that most of the complexity could go away.