Americans are keeping their vehicles longer

Traffic on I-26.

Grace Beahm

DETROIT -- That clunker in America's driveway has reached a record old age, but there are signs that people might be growing confident enough in the economy to get a whiff of that fresh new car scent soon.

The average age of a car or truck in the U.S. hit a record 10.8 years last year as job security and other economic worries kept many people from making big-ticket purchases such as a new car.

That's up from the old record of 10.6 years in 2010, and it continues a trend that dates to 1995, when the average age of a car was 8.4 years, according to a study of state vehicle registration data by the Southfield, Mich.-based Polk automotive research firm.

However, Polk vice president Mark Seng said a rebound in sales last year and expected growth for the next couple years is likely to slow the growth rate in the age of cars as a whole in the U.S. Polk has not predicted if or when the age will start to drop, but Seng doesn't see that happening for at least two or three years, if not longer.

"It's going to take the good economy several years of very high sales again, and people being willing to let go of those older vehicles that they've been holding on to," Seng said.

Last year, auto sales rebounded a bit to 12.8 million vehicles, especially in November and December, when sales were unusually strong. In 2010, U.S. sales totaled 11.6 million after hitting a 30-year low of 10.4 million in 2009.

Polk expects sales around 13.7 million this year, rising by about 1 million per year through 2015, when they reach about 16 million. That's back to around what industry analysts consider normal, and approaching the U.S. sales peak of 17 million in 2005.

But even a 1 million per year sales increase will have little impact on the average age because there are more than 240 million cars and trucks on the roads in the U.S., Seng said.

The aging of the U.S. auto fleet has been a big boon for repair shops and companies that sell replacement auto parts, and Seng expects that to continue. He said people can hang on to their cars longer because automakers are making them far better than they did in 1995, the first year that Polk began tracking the average age.