The Evolution of the Car Warranty

From zero to 150,000 miles in 120 years.

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While every new passenger vehicle for sale in the United States comes with a warranty from its manufacturer these days, such has not always been the case. Current automotive warranties are the result of more than a century of continuously evolving technological and marketing-related factors.

Car Warranties Have Been Around for More Than 100 Years

When Henry Ford and his Ford Motor Company began selling the revolutionary Model T in 1908, the company didn't offer a legally binding warranty. Instead, you got Henry's personal promise a year later: "Twenty-five thousand successful cars bearing the Ford imprint are in use today and are just so many testimonials of Ford success. This is your guarantee when you buy a Ford car."

The Maxwell Motor Company, ancestor of the Chrysler Corporation, gave buyers of its Maxwell cars a 90-day warranty against defects, but that didn't cover tires, rims, magnetos, coils, batteries, or lamps. And customers had to bring the offending components to one of the Maxwell factories at the car owner's expense.

By the middle 1920s, however, Ford was providing a 90-day warranty for parts and a 30-day warranty for labor on its U.S.-market cars. Over the next few decades, this became something of an industry standard.

Better Components Meant Better Warranties

By the second half of the 1950s, advances in automotive technology — particularly in metallurgy, oil and gasoline quality, fuel-delivery and ignition systems, and electrical components — meant that new vehicles took longer to suffer breakdowns and did so less frequently.

In the early 1960s, manufacturers were stretching warranties well past 90 days, though such warranties often applied only to powertrains.

Then the Ford Motor Company gave buyers of new 1961 Lincoln Continentals a reassuring one-year or 12,000-mile warranty against defects for the entire car — with exceptions, of course. For the following year, the new Continental had a two-year or 24,000-mile warranty, with ordinary Fords and Mercurys following suit soon after. Warranties became a selling point. They were the equivalent of a feature to rival bigger engines, another transmission gear, or swankier upholstery.

The Warranty Wars Begin

Advancements in materials quality and design of powertrains over the decades of car development meant that major mechanical failures started to be more of an exception than the norm.

For example, the lessons learned about piston-engine development during World War II and the evolution of production techniques gave powertrain hardware a huge leap forward.

By the mid-1960s, Chrysler was building new cars and trucks with five-year or 50,000-mile warranties covering everything from the water pump to the differential.

The competition had to keep up, and soon the American Motors Corporation was matching that powertrain warranty — and tossing in a two-year or 24,000-mile warranty on the entire automobile.

Bigger and Better Warranties Have Come Recently

Once imported vehicles started to account for an ever-increasing chunk of the U.S. new-car market, the fight to lure customers into showrooms with ever-stronger warranties heated up.

In the middle 1970s, Chrysler offered The Clincher, a warranty that covered the whole vehicle (except for tires) for one year and unlimited miles. What could beat that? How about a year of full-car coverage plus a loaner car and expense reimbursement for 1980 AMCs?

International Harvester even introduced an impressive five-year, 100,000-mile warranty in its final year of Scout production. There were also cases, such as that of the notoriously trouble-prone Cadillac V8-6-4 engine, in which manufacturers retroactively extended warranties to counter bad publicity.

Today, auto manufacturers with strong reputations for build quality might get away with warranties as short as three years or 36,000 miles for their vehicles, while carmakers catch buyers' eyes with much mightier warranties.

Things have become interesting with warranties for electric vehicles because the comparatively simpler drivetrains could improve their lifespan compared with their internal-combustion counterparts. The vehicles' long-term battery life, however, remains something of an unknown. Tesla promises eight years and up to 150,000 miles with at least 70% of battery capacity. Rivian's warranty is similar.

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Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a Colorado-based writer who appreciates Broughams d'Elegance, kei cars, Warsaw Pact hoopties, and the Simca Esplanada.