The top-selling car in 1980 was the Oldsmobile Cutlass. Gas mileage on this vehicle averaged 20 miles per gallon (17 city/23 highway). By 2021 the Honda CR-V claimed the title. The CR-V reported mileage at 31 miles per gallon (28 city/34 highway). This represents an increase of 55 percent over this 41-year period. Mileage has been increasing at a compound rate of around one percent a year.
Back in 1980 gasoline was selling for $1.19 per gallon and blue-collar hourly compensation (wages and benefits) was $9.12 per hour. This indicates a time price rate of around 7.83 minutes per gallon. Today, gasoline is selling for around $4.18 per gallon and blue-collar hourly compensation is up to $33.39 per hour, indicating a rate of around 7.51 minutes per gallon. While the nominal price of a gallon of gasoline has increased by 251 percent, the time price has actually dropped by 4 percent.
But how much does it cost to travel one mile? That depends on the time price of gasoline and the car’s mileage. In 1980 at 20 miles per gallon, the time price per mile on the Cutlass would be around 23.5 seconds. By 2022, with the CR-V getting 31 miles per gallon, the time price per mile would be around 14.5 seconds. The time price per mile has decreased by 38 percent.
You can look at mileage from the perspective of how many miles you get per minute of time. The 1980 Cutlass gave you 2.55 miles per minute of your time, while the 2022 CR-V gives you 4.13 miles. Gas mileage abundance from your time perspective has increase by 62 percent.
There are other differences to consider. NADAguides reports the price of a new Cutlass in 1980 at $6,735. At $9.12 per hour, it would take a blue-collar worker 738 hours to own this new car. Today the CR-V is retailing for around $28,334. At $33.39 per hour, it would take the worker 849 hours to buy one. So, while the time price of the top-selling car has increased by 15 percent, the mileage, safety, reliability, and comfort have all increased by much more.
Yes nominal gas prices are at historic highs, but it’s not the money that counts, it’s your time. Time prices are the true prices.
*Tip of the hat to Colm MacCarthy @ColmMacCarthy from Ireland for asking about mileage and time prices.
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Gale Pooley is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and a board member at Human Progress.