A new report from researchers at the University of Michigan tells us something rather sobering: auto fuel economy has barely improved in nearly 100 years.

The fleet’s average, says the Transportation Research Institute, was 14 mpg in 1923, a dismal 11.9 mpg in 1973 (an era of big boats with V-8s), 16.9 mpg in 1991, and only 17.6 mpg in 2013. Ugh, a century of automotive innovation, from the horseless carriage to the sleek modern car, and we can’t do better than that? "Improvements have been small,” the report said. That’s an understatement.

junkyard carsShould we welcome the fact that most old cars end up at the crusher? (Photo: Dylan Hartmann/flickr)

That's all true, but it's incomplete information. The Model T could reach 30 mpg, but that doesn’t make it a “green car.” Without the pollution equipment that started arriving on cars in the mid-1960s, classics and antiques are big polluters. An old VW Bug is a fuel champ, but it puts out more smog- and climate-aggravating chemicals than any Hummer on the road.

The co-author (with Brandon Schoettle) of the University of Michigan report, Michael Sivak, agrees with me on this. “Catalytic converters have greatly reduced carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides,” he said.

And that’s why, starting as early as this summer, the city of Paris is working to ban cars registered before Dec. 31, 1996 from the center of the city.

banning old cars in parisThe Renault Dauphine will have to quit the Paris streets if the old car ban goes through. (Photo: Marc Tavernier/flickr)

The Daily Telegraph reported, back in 2012 when talk of the ban got underway, “If the measures go ahead, classic old cars like 2CVs, Peugeot 205s and Renault 4Ls will be a thing of the past in the capital, along with sputtering but charming old Vespas and other two-wheelers deemed too dirty to drive.” Owners of those cars and motorcycles were up in arms.

Does this sound familiar to Americans? It should. There was an outcry when the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program was announced — from classic car owners. The basic gripe was that the program would take great parts cars out of circulation. They mourned every report that some rare old ride went to the crusher. Before that, the complaints were about demolition derbies.

cash for clunkersIs anyone mourning this old Cash for Clunkers wreck? Not me. (Photo: Frankieleon/flickr)

Here’s an argument against Cash for Clunkers from old car “bible” Hemmings Motor News. “Creating more and more new cars by artificially shortening the lifespan of old cars generates pollution and [a] waste of energy, while keeping an old car on the road simply does not. The longer one can keep an old car on the road, the fewer hits the environment takes during a new car’s production.”

This is a pretty threadbare argument, because the environmental impact of making a car is at best 10 percent of its lifetime emissions, and factories are really cleaning up their act to reduce their argument. Also, clunker cars couldn’t be older than 25; no Packards or Pierce Arrows qualified.

We could argue whether Cash for Clunkers was a success, but the average old jalopy turned in averaged 15.8 mpg, and the car that took its place made 25.4 mpg. There were 690,114 dealer transactions and $2.877 billion in rebates.

abandoned carCash for Clunkers couldn't claim this parts trove; to be eligible, the cars had to be driven in. (Photo: Rsteup/flickr)

One could argue that Cash for Clunkers wasn’t likely to take valuable collector cars off the road, simply because they were worth far more than the government rebate. But wait a minute — didn’t Jalopnik report in 2009 that a bunch of exotics did go to the crusher? The list included a 1992 BMW 850i; a 1997 Aston Martin DB7 Volante (really? Only 7,000 were built), a 2006 Roush Stage 3 F-150; a 1990 LaForza (Italian custom-made SUV); a 1985 Maserati Quattroporte; a 1997 Bentley Continental R; and a 1999 Mercedes C43 AMG.

And this isn't a classic in the collector sense of the word, but be warned: A beautiful 2001 Chevy Blazer dies graphically in this Cash for Clunkers video:

Gets your dander up, right? Time to get mad at Cash for Clunkers all over again? But Jalopnik later admitted that its story was in error, that a lot of the cars were spared, and on the lists only because of faulty paperwork. But, in fact, a Maserati Biturbo did get crushed, and so did a 1980 TVR 280i convertible. And that LaForza is toast.

maserati biturboA Maserati Biturbo (not this one!) was crushed during Cash for Clunkers. (Photo: Free Photos/flickr)

The best argument to be made for not crushing or banning old and exotic cars is that most are rarely on the road. Even late-model Ferraris are garage queens. And collectors buy policies that restrict them to 3,000 miles a year. Not running, a classic car is as clean as a Tesla Model S.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Fuel economy hasn't improved in 100 years
Study shows fuel efficiency hasn't changed much since 1923, but emissions are way down.