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Were older products built better?

Old radio

Most of us have at least one old, trusty appliance that’s faithfully serving us after many years. So here’s your chance to sing its praises and give it a little love back as we search for the nation’s oldest appliance.

Like many sleepy-eyed commuters, I greeted Metro’s story of a 58 year-old fridge that’s still going strong with a wry smile on my journey to work on Monday.

But possibly with less surprise than others, as here at Which? we often hear similar stories from our readers.

Your trusty old appliances

In recent years, we’ve been told of a Hotpoint dishwasher from 1984 whose only breakdown was caused by an escaped hamster chewing through its wiring. It survived (the dishwasher, that is) and the last we heard, was still running.

And only recently, Dave D posted here on Which? Convo about still using his grandparents’ Hoover, originally bought in 1957. Sophie Gilbert echoed the trend, celebrating the sterling service of her relatively juvenile AEG old vac, still working well after 20 years and destined to stay in action until its eventual death.

I’ve worked in product testing at Which? for nearly 10 years and, while I’m always excited to find out about new home products being released, the romantic in me loves to hear about these valiant old workhorses still in regular service.

I don’t think I’m alone. What really shines through when people tell us about their geriatric appliances is the massive affection in which they’re held. This is sometimes coupled with a dose of scepticism about all things new, but the uniting feeling seems to be if it ain’t broke why bother replacing?

Are older products better?

What’s even more amazing is that none of these appliances – unlike the legendary Trigger’s Broom from a classic Only Fools and Horses episode – seem to have needed much repair. Which begs the question – were old products built better?

We’ll be publishing the results of our latest brand reliability survey soon and revealing if your newer washing machines, dishwashers and vacs are likely to break.

But meanwhile, we’d love to know of any prehistoric appliances that are still in use at your home. It looks like Dave D holds the record at the moment with his 53 year-old vac. Can you beat this? And how long do you expect your new appliances – large or small – to last?

Sophie Gilbert says:
29 October 2010

I wouldn’t be surprised if newer products were deliberately built less well so that we continuously have to replace them and therefore spend more money. I wouldn’t be surprised either if parts for machines were deliberately made difficult or impossible to obtain so that we have to buy a new machine instead of repairing an old one. Moreover, we live in a throw-away society at present, where the message reduce, re-use, recycle hasn’t reached everyone.

The argument could be made that less well built machines are cheaper to make, therefore cheaper to buy and therefore affordable to more people, but is a cheap machine a sensible purchase in the long run? Not if you have to replace it often, defeating the initial purpose of economising.

I’m not sure – Though many of my old electronic items didn’t die – they became outmoded – Equally many old devices had discrete standard components and these were easily and cheaply replaced – Now they contain integrated circuits – and are often more expensive to repair rather than replace the entire machine. Most new machines are far cheaper than they were – example electric kettle – my old one cost the equivalent of £100 at least – now I bought one recently (as good) for £5.

I agree that some devices such as washing machines and microwaves are less reliable – though they do more and are generally more efficient.

But all my computers since my BBC A (bought in 1980) still work (I have bought – or built 14 computers) all work .But not with modern OS’s. So every few years I buy a “faster” piece of kit. The same applies to VHS and DVD player/recorders – not one has broken – all work – but are outmoded and replaced.

Fame at last!

My Grandparents’ Model 119 Junior vac on a web site!!!

It’s not just the Hoover Junior though, at least not that particular one.

My Washing Machine is a Hoover A3260 Electron 1100, bought in 1983 (and recently fully reconditioned by a local trader who I’ve recommended on Which? Local). It works extremely well and uses around a quarter of the electricity of some of the latest “Energy saving” models, including at least one that Which? has recommended as a “best buy”. The local service engineers who reconditioned it said it was likely to outlast anything I could buy new today.

My boiler is a Glow Worm 52B super, which was installed in 1979 and which has not once broken down, despite having spent 3 months of it’s life in 1997 sat under a tarpaulin on the yard (disconnected of course) whilst my extension was built. I recently heard a Radio 4 You and Yours programme discussing the boiler scrappage scheme and the experts being interviewed all agreed that any boiler bought now would not, by the manufacturers’ own expectations, last much over 8 years. Despite being a “G” rated boiler, my gas bills are regularly under 75% of my neighbours who have a better insulated house and a SEDBUK “B” rated combi boiler.

My kettle is a Swan Automatic bought by my Great Aunt in 1976; that’s not even had to have a new element yet (touch wood) and although the convenience of a Cordless is not there, it’s so much quieter in use than new ones and it pours beautifully smoothly with no dribbles

It’s not all good news I’m afraid: I have got through 3 dishwashers in 24 years (although I suppose that is quite good going compared to many people). To be fair the first was a slimline Bosch which was not very effective, mainly because it was too small for the cooking pots that I tend to try to wash. The second was a Hoover, bought in 2003 and which was a dead loss from day 1 – mainly IMO because it was made by Candy after they bought Hoover, and it was every bit as awful as Candy is reputed to be. The current one is a Miele hot fill (great as I have solar water heating) and it seems to be absolutely fantastic. I’m hoping that it will join my grandparents’ vac, my Aunt’s kettle and my washer and boiler with a super long life span.

I think Sophie is absolutely bang on with her comment: “Built in obsolescence” is, I am certain, what has been going on for at least 20 years past.

Richard M says:
21 November 2010

Dave I just want to say you don’t know how lucky you are still having your Hoover Electron. I got shot of mine about 9 years ago and have regretted it ever since. I have adapted to most of the new appliances (well am back using the hoover junior and my old sunbeam iron) but the washing machine is the one i struggle with the msot. New machines take for ever to wash and the clothes are not that clean. Never give up the Electron !!

Richard: Thanks for the comment. Don’t worry – I won’t get rid!
I almost did in 2008 when it was declared irreparable, but I held on to it even though I bough a new LG.
The LG was utter rubbish and blew up 3 times in less than 2 years.
When I decided enough was enough and scrapped it (what a waste of £800) I offered it to my local dealer in case they could make use of spares and they saw the Electron 1100 (in fact they thought that was what I wanted taking away when they came for the LG) and after a short chat they reconditioned it for me.
No way will I be getting any new washer now! I suppose one day I might absolutely be forced to, but if I do it’ll have to be a Miele, and my mum, who also had an Electron 1100, has a Miele now but says it really isn’t as good, so it’s not a prospect I look forward to !

Got a Philips microwave from 1984, still in daily use. Mind you it did cost £400.

Microwaves were pretty expensive when first marketed in around
the late 1970s with the (larger) Amana costing some £ 600-700…
Philips was expensive too, my Toshiba costs £ 299 discounted in late
1983 is still functioning well… with digital touch controls that’s absent
in the cheaper models.

Have a Kenwood Chef coming up to 43 years old in daily use and still going strong. One can get spares but do not need many Brushes on motor wore out 15 or so years ago replaced them myself, the commutator had been badly scored but a bit of sand paper and new brushes sorted that. Magnioficent machine. Also have old Electrolux cylinder vacuum cleaner of similar age still going strong. Some old appliances are less energy efficient but repairing the,m is near impossible and spare parts difficult to get. It is very annoying when one has to throw out something for lack of spares or construction is such that taking apart is not possible.

Peter Lawrence says:
31 October 2010

Yes, the older products were built better – and were repairable! Modern ones are designed only to be repaired by expensive experts; taking them apart needs knowledge of precisely how to release the hidden plastic tab without breaking it and of which size of which special tool is needed to undo the screw.

It is not always obvious whether manufacturers deliberately make equipment difficult to dismantle or whether it is not designed to be repaired. Whichever applies, it can be an interesting intellectual challenge opening the case. Fixing the fault is often the easiest part of the job.

Having special tools is be a great help, but a lot can be achieved by improvisation.

I fully agree with Richard (post no.2) and would make one exception which proves the point about repairability etc and that is old radios. I have a pair of Hacker transistor radios from 1965 and 1972 or so and, without getting nerdy, their sound quality and ability to pull in a signal (VHF or otherwise) remains well ahead of most current models. These were built as large portables and are easy to maintain as they pre-date integrated circuits. They will probably still outlive most DAB sets on the market now (AND I strongly suspect that the Government’s nonsensical plan to withdraw non-DAB services by 2015 will not happen)

Good points KPH.
I have a 1954 HMV table top valve wireless (that was Grandma’s too) and it works as well now as it ever did – which is considerably better than even my fairly high-end HiFi system.
It’s only drawback is that it is not stereo, but then as I listed to Radio 4 every waking moment, and most of the output on that station is speech, Stereo isn’t a vital issue.
DAB is utterly awful and I hope to goodness that the plans to ditch VHF do not go ahead as DAB is not worth hearing and unreliable too.

Washing machines are not the most reliable appliances, so perhaps my Philips W 082 is worth a mention. I have replaced the motor and pump, but It has done a lot of work in the past 29 years. I bought it because it was the only one narrow enough to fit in the space available, and I recall that it was the cheapest machine in the shop.

I completely disagree that DAB is rubbish. I live in a valley and can’t get a FM signal. I can get a DAB signal and I prefer the clarity of sound that I get with DAB rather than FM (compared when I lived somewhere else). More importantly, the radio programmes that I want to listen to are on DAB stations. Radio 7/4 extra has transformed my listening experience and I also enjoy 6 music and others that are not available on FM.

It has been said before but can stand repetition, old generation equipment was built a rather different way. Parts were more substantial and generally put together by people, as such they can also be taken apart by people and repaired with a little ingenuity. Modern stuff is often assembled by machine, manufactured thousands of miles away and created as a series of click together large sub assemblies that do not come apart. A one pence spring may be all that is broken, but
a) how do you get at it?
b) and where can you buy the one pence part?
Just do not start me off on those high expense boilers, built to fail, need more spent on spare parts than they cost when new and with a life of ‘up to 8 years’ at a fitted cost that ensures it is cheaper to use an old boiler with all the windows open. Oh, and do have an annual service at some silly cost just to see what new parts we can charge you for.
In the unlikely event of actually achieving the dreamed for improvement of 10% over my present 18 year old boiler it would take about 10 years to recover the cost of a new unfitted boiler. Fitting would more than double the cost increasing the payback period to something like 25 years add in ‘maintenance visits’ at close to the projected annual fuel saving and the whole thing will never payback. My father made the error of buying such a useless device, overall his annual costs for a small house were about twice my costs for a large 5 bedroom detached house.
Do I rate modern ‘essential devices’ NO! For small appliances, e.g. toasters kettles, etc, I now buy the cheapest that I can and expect to throw them away when they go wrong, the odd thing is that such devices have proved more reliable than many higher cost items bought ‘because they were highly rated’.

On the boiler issue, which is a bit of an obsession for me, and other expensive white goods that are proclaimed as “energy saving”, but have now been proven, albeit not be huge, influential bodies but by large groups of deeply angry consumers, can I ask the Which? personnel who run these boards to take up the following point and investigate or at least offer a considered comment on it:

The Boiler Scrappage Scheme has (unintentionally) highlighted that replacing ANY working boiler, of ANY age at all, and ANY rating on the SEDBUK scale (plus a few off the bottom of the scale) with even the highest rated new model is a financial LOSS for the consumer. The scale of loss is not small either. On top of this the replacement is likely to be many times less reliable than the older model.
Modern washing machines are a very similar case, and at least one active poster and Which? member (me!) has written testimony from The Energy Saving Trust that they are well aware, and fully accept, that modern washers WILL use MORE energy than older ones, and that their recommendations are based on the best that you can buy new, with no reference at all to past machines.
Given these two massive energy users within most households are now exposed in this way, that we know from anecdotes that Which? have received form users and on this board, not to mention manufacturers own estimates of the life expectancy of appliances, that older appliances last longer, and given the utter meaningless status of the A to G rating scale (see the other convo on that topic for more detail, when will Which? lobby the government, in a relentless fashion, to make it illegal to sell an appliance without labelling it clearly to show how it compares to equivalent appliances of 10 or more years in age in respect of Energy Use, Reliability and Repairability?

If which? do not intend to lobby for such a regulation, can they tell us WHY they don’t feel that such a regulation is necessary and helpful?

As far as I can see it appears to be legal and above board at present to con the public into thinking that they are helping the environment, and implying that they will make financial savings too, by buying goods which in fact do more harm to the environment, cost more to buy and run, and create unnecessary landfill waste by scrapping perfectly serviceable older items.

If this happened in, for example, the 2nd hand car market, there would be prosecutions left right and centre, so why is it allowed to happen in new goods in some cases (e.g. boiler scrappage scheme) with Government backing?

Sorry – this is a bit of a rant, but I feel very angry about this, not least because I am passionate about trying to help the environment, but on a personal level because I was victim to such misleading advertising over a washing machine and I know at least 5 families who have been victim to it under the Boiler Scrappage Scheme. I could afford, and was lucky enough to know a local second hand shop who could help, to scrap the new “energy saving” washer and buy an ancient reconditioned one that actually does save energy. My neighbours and the other 4 families who have spent between £3 and £4 thousand EACH on boilers, and are now facing fuel bills that are double and more what they were before the new boilers were fitted, are not so lucky and now face financial hardship and discomfort having, effectively, been duped into a bad choice that they cannot reverse because the better boilers are simply not available any more.

It is morally reprehensible that well meaning members of the public should be left in this position and I feel that Which? and the few other campaigning organisations like them are the only chance of getting some sort of redress or corrective action.
I hope Which? will help.

Mike Jordan says:
30 March 2011

You’re right about boilers. My 7 year old Keston C40 condensing boiler has broken down umpteen times, on one occasion flooding the room with rusty water. When I ask the engineers how long condensing boilers are supposed to last, they say that no make is particularly reliable and 10 years is probably all one can expect. My mum’s boiler lasted 40 years. And didn’t cost £4000.

Since no one has mentioned Dualit, I will. In 1987 I bought a Dualit sandwich toaster for the outrageous price of £50 in John Lewis Oxford St, replacing yet another £20 **** toaster that broke, caused fires (not popping up), and failed to take any instruction from the “darkness” control. The Dualit has replaceable spring wound timers and heating elements. You can still buy replacements for the elements, timers and sandwich cages (the metal thing with handles that holds the sandwich in the toaster). We use it at least once a day and have replaced two elements in 23 years. The only reason I will ever need to replace it is if someone reads this, comes over and nicks it.

Hi, I’m in the policy team here at Which? Some really interesting points made there by several of you.

At Which? we’ve been campaigning on the EC A-G energy label for some time. Well, I say A-G, but it will become A+++ to D for some appliances, others will remain A-G, and until the new label is introduced manufacturers and retailers can choose whether to use the new ratings or the old ones anyway. You get the picture. (We did a Which? Conversation post on the energy label reforms back in October.) We thought that the label should stay as A-G but we have also argued that it is important that energy label tests reflect real-life use, and so, for washing machines for example, that tests are based around washing programmes that are the ones that people commonly use.

Dave suggests that appliance labels should not just compare energy consumption of new models, but also compare against older models too, and compare not just energy consumption in use but also reliability and repairability too. We agree that reliability and repairability are key, that’s why at Which? we do a lot of reliability testing. And we appreciate that it’s difficult for people to decide whether environmentally it’s preferable to replace an old appliance or keep the old one, because there are wider factors such as the materials and energy used in making and transporting the new one and recycling the old one.

We think it would be really difficult to put these on an energy label or to build them into standards at the moment, but we are supporting calls for the European eco-design standards for products (the legislation around which the energy labels are based) to take more account of impacts other than energy in use. We’re also stressing the important need for better evidence here on the whole life cycle impacts because this is key.

In the meantime, we’ll certainly keep an eye out for any other cases where people have found that new boilers, or other appliances, cost more to run than their old ones – and where this is not because energy prices have gone up or maybe the boiler has not been installed correctly. And thanks for your posts, they do help inform those of us in the policy and campaign teams too.

This is a welcome response – and thanks to Simon for it.
I can see that implementing the sort of ratings that I mentioned in an earlier post would be complex but I’m glass that Simon seems to indicate that something heading that direction would be on the campaign “list”.
I guess that my own ‘gripes’ would be satisfied if we just got HONEST & COMPLETE information from the ratings, by which I mean that we were told OPENLY that, for example, new washers all use more power than old ones, rather than a tiny number of us who choose to fight tenaciously getting this information from the likes of the EST after protracted arguments and exchanges of correspondence.
Similarly we should have a real drive to force manufacturers to make things that really ARE more energy efficient than older ones, or if older items ARE the best they can be we need a drive to stop the production of new items with “gimmicks” that create the excess energy use.
Anyway, thanks to Simon for his response.

Basically, stuff is in real terms so cheap nowadays that it’s hard to compare new with old. But as someone who actually listens to the radio, I despair of modern radios.

I have several 20/30 yr old radios, all Japanese built, all bought at car boot sales for under a fiver, which give remarkable reception and sound quality in our marginal reception area.

I have over the years bought several modern radio/Radio Cd Players, to give up on them due to their mediocre performance [ & we’re talking Sony, Panasonic, JVC here].

My absolute fave is a 35 year old National [pre-Panasonic] radio cassette. It sound magnificent, has line-in/out for my I pod, runs off mains, 12v, and batteries, and cost £1.50.

Don’t get me started on electric kettles. It is a minor scandal that such flimsy rubbish is the norm irrespective of price. getting a year out of one is a miracle. Hmm….

Mark Williams says:
23 December 2010

I agree with most of the comments here. I don’t believe it /ever/ makes financial or environmental sense to scrap a working product and replacing it with a “greener” one. The savings cannot be sufficient to compensate for the manufacture of a new product and the disposal of the old one. This is why I always try to repair if possible and only replace if repair is not possible.

I was horrified recently to find out that, when my six year old fridge went wrong, that spare parts were no longer available for it. If which could do anything then I believe that you should campaign for a law that spare parts must be made available (at a reasonable cost) for a much longer period of time.

Going back to reliability then modern appliances should be more reliable than the old ones, since
electronics is inherantly more reliable than mechanical controls. However, many modern appliances
are assembled poorly and often designed with unsuitable components.

Dave says:
20 January 2011

I would like to add a note about the boiler scrappage scheme as I had my boiler changed under the scheme.
I had my old 18 yr old boiler replaced in June by British Gas, with all the discounts I got including free homecare 200 which I normally pay for, the total cost was less than £900.
My old boiler used 3 tenths of a unit for a tank of hot water, the new one uses 1 tenth and during the winter I would use 10 units a week for central heating [I leave it on 24 hours a day as its cheaper, two 3 hour timed periods would use 2 units, on 24 hours uses 1.5 units].
My new boiler uses [A Baxi Solo] uses 4 units a week on 24 hours a day, that is a saving of 156 units over the 6 months the boiler is on.
I also had to buy a new fridge freezer a couple of years ago, changed a 10 yr old Candy F/F for a Hotpoint F/F which has saved me over £80 a year [The Candy used over 800 units a year].
Still using a 25 yr old iron which irons better than the new ones.
Also still using an Electrolux ZA62 [late 50s] cylinder cleaner a 1983 Hoover Junior [300 watt] and a 1994 Hoover Turbopower 1 [450 watt] both of these Hoovers clean up the sand my dogs bring home after a walk on the shore better than a power hungry modern one wwhich tend to leave most of the sand behind…neither do these two hoovers need a power station to run them

Although very likely less efficient and technologically inferior older appliances do seem to have a better feel of solidity about them and often appear to have more design appeal.
I like old things, well some old things, but a modern CD or digital music player is going to work better than an old record player every time, and in real terms is probably cheaper.
Modern technology in a period looking case might be the answer but that always looks a bit fake.

Still if an old appliance works well why not use it until it doesn’t?
Replace it when it’s beyond economic repair rather than just because it’s old. That is unless running cost is so high that replacement results in a big overall saving.

Sue says:
21 June 2011

I have a Kenwood Chef which we bought second hand in 1967 and it is still going strong. Although looking a little cumbersome it still does the task needed and I do not intend to replace it until it gives up the ghost.

I also purchased some Carmen electric rollers in 1983 which I am still using. A few of the rollers have disintegrated but there is nothing wrong with its electric motor. I have about 13 rollers out of 20 still being used.

We bought a Hotpoint Freezer when we married in1982. It is still working! We also bought a Kenwood mixer with my husband’s Christmas bonus thagt same year, which produces better cakes than the food producer I bought 3 years ago.

We bought a Hotpoint Freezer and a Kenwood food mixer in 1982 when we were married. they are both still going strong.

david watson says:
20 July 2011

My wife and I have a Kenwood Chef which is 40 years old; repaired once 20 years ago!
We also have an elderly Matsui microwave bought in 1988 at a cost of £90 for a very basic model. It is used every day!
Our other relic is a 40 yr old Swan slow cooker; pretty beaten up but it still works.

Jen T. says:
30 August 2011

I’m still using a Main 291 gas cooker that previously belonged to my grandparents. The oven is excellent as it has two gas jets, one on each side rather than one at the back, so cakes and biscuits bake very well.
I’m still using their fridge as well but reluctantly gave up the Hoover vacuum cleaner a few years ago.

Julia D says:
14 December 2011

My Mum is still using her 50-year-old fridge and 48-year-old electric oven. Her washing machine (Bendix) expired a few years ago aged approx. 45, as did her toaster and kettle. My Dad was an electrician and fixed everything when it went wrong; he died in 1993 and even then bemoaned that fact that modern electrical items weren’t made to be repaired, eg smaller items like hairdryers are glued together instead of being held with screws, making them impossible to open and close again. However, 18 years after his death, items which he had looked after since marrying Mum in 1963 are still going strong, whereas things which I have had less than 5 years are needing replacing. Thanks to Dad’s legacy, I am 42 now and have never bought a television, though I’ve had different ones which he’d repaired since I was a child.

Julia D says:
14 December 2011

PS. Forgot to say – Mum and I also still use her Singer sewing machine which is approx. late 1950s (1957?). There is a model exactly the same in “The Secret Life of the Home” exhibit in the Science Museum in London. I think that makes it about the same age as your record-breaking fridge. We’ve had a new belt and it is still going like a trojan – very solid, much better than new ones.