There are cars that stand the test of time, and then there are these. Car culture's last words in endurance.
Sooner or later, a car will become too expensive to maintain and head off to the great scrap heap in the sky. To oversimplify, that will be when the car has lost enough value that fixing or replacing a worn-out engine or transmission costs more than simply replacing it with an equivalent car or a newer one with fewer miles. With modern cars, you can expect them to go around 200,000 miles or more before the engine is too worn to go on - longer than the vast majority of cars from the final decades of the last century. There are variables, though. If you don't maintain a car with regular fluid changes, the engine's life will be shorter. Fresh oil is an engine and transmission's best friend, and fresh coolant is a cooling system's best friend. However, not all cars are built equally, and some just never seem to die unless rust gets them. Once in a while, you'll see a car from another time on the road and wonder how the hell it has lasted so long. Chances are, the next one you see like that will be one of these models.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first. When ignorant people declare that cars are built to only last X amount of years or miles, it's nonsense. No automaker gains from a reputation for short-lived cars, and all automakers gain from having a reputation for their cars lasting forever. Toyota is the king of that reputation in the US and all over the world. That reputation started in earnest when it introduced the wider 1992 model-year Camry as a world car and direct competition to the Ford Taurus in the US. With simple maintenance, the Toyota Camry built a reputation for inexpensive reliability; then as the model started to age, 200,000 to 300,000 miles became common when 150,000 miles was the expected life. We've seen a husband and wife's pair of 300,000+ mile Camry's bought a year apart where the person maintaining both cars shrugged when asked about that and said they only have the oil changed when they remember and have time. The Toyota Camry has never been an exciting car, but its reputation for reliability and endurance is well earned.
Similar to the Camry, Honda's third-generation Accord hit its stride in the endurance game in the 1990s. The third and fourth generations have a reputation for near-bulletproof reliability, and one of the many reasons why is because there are documented models that have gone over a million miles. One of those is a 1990 model owned from new by a single owner in Maine. Joe LoCicero crossed the million-mile mark in 2011 with nothing more than following the factory-recommended maintenance intervals and avoiding rust. Honda marked the achievement by giving LoCicero a brand new Accord. More recently, a North Carolina-owned 2000 model-year Honda Accord passed the million-mile mark in 2019.
The Volvo models most commonly associated with a tank-like ability to survive are the three-digit series models from the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s. Many a Volvo 240 wagon has been handed down by parents to become college cars and survived deferred maintenance mixed with road trips to get to their fourth and fifth owners. The most famous model for racking up the miles, though, is a 1966 P1800. It was owned by Irv Gordon of Patchogue, New York, who got his car into the Guinness Book of World Records. He clocked his three-millionth mile on the car on September 18, 2013. Most famously for high mileage examples, there's a 1979 Volvo 245 GL out there that a Swedish logistics group used as a company car to cruise past 1.6 million miles.
The Beetle never changed, so earlier and later built models apply here, but the original Beetle came to the US in 1950 and stopped being imported in 1979. Early cars are more likely in collector's vaults, but you'll still see the 1960s and 1970s models that haven't rotted away, holding up traffic once in a while. The Volkswagen Beetle is so pervasive because it was so simple and easy to maintain - including the fact the engine is air-cooled, so there's no water-based cooling system to maintain. Add to that a cult fanbase wanting to keep them on the road, and you have a car that only rust can kill. Even now, the engine isn't the most reliable thing in the world, but parts are still easy to find, and they can be fixed in the driveway.
The W123 generation sedan has a reputation for being one of Mercedes's most over-engineered cars from a robustness point of view. Pick up one of the diesel-engined models, and you have something that is remarkably unsafe by today's safety standards and will still likely outlast you. The basic design of a diesel engine, and the fuel itself, means a well-built one that's not regularly stressed by towing can go over 500,000 miles without needing major servicing or repairs. The best high-mileage example we can find is one that was owned by a Greek taxi driver and logged 2.85 million miles.
Books have been written on the robustness of the Ford Crown Victoria. Its more upmarket version will also go the distance. Police cars and taxi models came with upgraded and added parts like oil coolers and stronger suspension, but they aren't necessary for your average driver and the rest of the recipe was still the same: a robust V8 engine, a solid rear axle, a bulletproof transmission, and a body-on-frame design like a truck. The Crown Vic went out of production in 2011, but there's still a ton on the used market and likely still will be in another ten to twenty years. Not only is it bulletproof, but it's one of the most dependable American cars ever built. One was even driven by an American publisher for more than 465,000 miles, inspiring a book called The Car I Couldn't Wear Out.
Yes, the Jeep Cherokee XJ hit the market in 1984, but it didn't get the inline-6 engine until 1987, and that's the one you want. If you buy one now, the inside will be tatty, a window won't wind down, the radio will have that annoying hum that matches the engine revving, but it'll drive. And, despite not being a body-on-frame design (the Cherokee XL has a strong claim to being the first crossover), it'll run just fine and be a decent off-roader. Assuming you got the legendarily durable multi-port fuel injection system V6, of course.
General Motors trucks are famous for durability. GM cars, well, not so much. Geo was a short-lived GM brand with a fantastic story. The Prizm was based on the Toyota Sprinter, which was a sportier version of the Corolla, and was built in California as part of a Toyota-GM joint venture called NUMMI. The almost eight million Geo and Chevrolet badged Prizms were the first Toyota's built in the US and constructed by the factory's United Auto Workers workforce using the "Toyota Way." The story goes that Toyota insisted the factory be run to its specifications, and the workers hated the idea, but work was scarce. The Japanese company sent workers to its assembly lines to learn about Toyota's emphasis on quality and teamwork. The American Hills was also built at the factory, but you'll still spot the occasional Prizm on the road as it rolled off the California production line as well built as a Japanese Corolla.