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Surprisingly, It’s Never Cost Less to Drive Your Car

Or were they? The trouble is, that ’46 Plymouth, with its underpowered straight-six engine and 3200 pound curb weight, only got 15 miles per gallon, and my summer job driving a farm truck only paid $1 an hour. Do the math, and you’ll see that means I had to work exactly 100 minutes — the better part of two hours — to buy enough gas to drive 100 miles.

Surprisingly, if you figure it you look at the real cost of gasoline — the number of minutes you have to work to drive your car 100 miles — it’s never been cheaper to drive your car.

Let’s take a closer look at the good old days. A hundred years ago, your great-grandpa probably drove a Model T Ford. If he was an average factory worker, he would have earned 47 cents an hour. His Model T would have gotten something like17 miles a gallon and a gallon of gas would have cost 25 cents —about the same as a pound of steak at the butcher’s. Do the numbers, and you will see that your great-grandpa had to work 187 minutes — more than 3 hours — to drive 100 miles.

By 1930, cars were faster and safer. You didn’t have to hand crank them to start the engine, so a lot more women were driving. Your grandma may have driven a Model A. If she was lucky enough to have a good factory job, she would have earned about 75 cents an hour. Gas was cheaper by then, about 20 cents a gallon, but the Model A only got 14 miles a gallon. That comes to just under 2 hours of work to drive 100 miles.

By 1950, wages had risen a lot. The average worker — not a kid with a summer job — was earning about $1.50 an hour. The average price of gasoline was 30 cents, so an hour’s work would buy you five gallons — a big improvement from the prewar days. But cars, bigger, heavier, and faster now, still only got about 15 miles per gallon You still had to work well over an hour to drive 100 miles.

Now fast forward to today. An efficient new car like a Ford Focus — not even a hybrid — gets 40 miles per gallon. The average wage of production and nonsupervisory employees is $23 an hour. Gasoline, as of January 2019, is averaging $2.20 a gallon. All that means it takes you less than 15 minutes to earn enough to buy the gas you need to drive 100 miles.

Here is the whole picture, including a few estimates for earlier years and complete data from 1964 on:

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So, when were the good old days? If you like cheap driving, the good old days are now. Print out this chart and keep it in your pocket. It might win an argument the next time you hear someone griping about the high price of gasoline.

Photo credits: Model T: BlueBreezeWiki. Model A: Richard Smith. ’50 Ford: Don O’Brien. 2019 Focus: Vauxford.

Written by

Economist, Senior Fellow at Niskanen Center, Yale Ph.D. Interests include environment, health care policy, social safety net, economic freedom.

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