Car of Theseus: The Paradox of Long Term Auto Parts Maintenance

If you love an automobile enough, it can be almost impossible to let it go. Despite a six-figure sum on the odometer, outdated options, an oil leak or two, slipping clutch, busted air conditioner, and a myriad of other less-than-ideal attributes, a beloved motor vehicle holds a special place in the owner’s heart, and he or she will do what it takes to keep it on the road for thousands of miles to come.

A great example of this is the situation of a neighbor named Alex. For over 12 years he’s held onto his 1988 Audi 90 Quattro, which was already 17 years old when he pulled it into the driveway for the first time back in 2005.

It’s understandable, because few Audi models match the mix of sporty and suburban like the first generation 90 Quattro. Not to mention it’s probably the only box-style early model sedan to ever successfully pull off wearing red. As it so happened, that was the color of Al’s Audi.

A dozen years and probably 140,000 miles later, Al’s Audi is still running. In the time between, however, there’s been no shortage of temporary breakdowns. A halfway decent home mechanic, Al has been seen with his upper half hidden beneath the lifted undercarriage of the 90 Quattro probably 40 times over the years, easy. He signed up for the replacement parts packages and kits sent from an online Audi parts supplier. His efforts demonstrate the trade-off between holding onto an older car or buying a new one; while he avoids car loan and higher insurance premiums, replacing broken down or faulty Audi parts has become Al’s routine.

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This observation began turning my mental gears. It became apparent that slowly but surely the Audi 90 Quattro next door was turning into a completely different vehicle. All the original Audi parts like clutch, cylinder head gaskets, exhaust valve, inner front cv joint boots, distributor rotor, O2 sensor, and timing belt have all been updated or replaced. How much of that Audi is original, and how much are aftermarket replacement parts? And if the 90 Quattro consists of more aftermarket replacement parts than genuine or OEM Audi parts, can it even be considered the same motor vehicle which first pulled into the neighboring driveway 12 years ago?

The thought was conveyed to friends and family, but few appreciated the deep philosophical underpinnings at work when questioning whether something continues to exist if its parts and components are removed and replaced piece by piece. Nearly everyone accepts a car payment as an inevitability, perpetually going to a dealership in a cycle of overpriced fluid changes and eventual trade-ins, never knowing the rewards of owning the same vehicle for over a decade.

It turns out this debate over whether something is the same if parts are replaced is nothing new. In fact it’s been a topic of conversation among learned folks for thousands of years, most commonly referred to as the ship of Theseus paradox. Simply put, if a sailing ship is repaired plank by plank over the years until eventually no original plank exists, is it still the same vessel?

For someone like Al, who treats his Audi 90 Quattro like a member of the family or perhaps even better, could such a question upend decades of affection for an automobile? Would knowing that the original specs of the 88 Audi 90 Quattro have likely been exchanged for Audi aftermarket parts mean it’s time to move onto a newer model?

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When the paradox was brought up, the result was more insightful than the original debate. According to Al, who or what isn’t a perpetual project in motion? Old floors of a house are pried out and replaced, old roads are ripped up and repaved, meanwhile expired cells in our bodies are disposed of and exchanged for whole new ones. And if we’re certain our homes are the same they were a decade ago, and that we are the same person we were back then as well, is there any debate whether or not his car with replaced or updated Audi parts remains an original beauty?

Never underestimate the modest genius of the neighborhood gearhead.