Wednesday, January 18, 2012


January 18, 2012

Beep beep! How many older vehicles does one see on the roads these days? Occasionally you’ll be passed by a throaty muscle car or spot some other nicely restored classic on the interstate, but where are all those bigol’ beautiful buggies from the heady days of yesteryear?
Almost none around. Everybody’s behind the wheel of something new or new-ish, and they’re all smaller and they’re all virtually identical in appearance. Samemobiles. A Mercedes looks like a Nissan looks like a Ford looks like everything else on the road. The character’s all gone. Today’s boring Blah Cars have been stripped of personality and still proclaim to be “different”.
This one has marginally better gas mileage. That one shades the others in shape because the wheel arches are a bit more pronounced. The makers like to plug the sound system, multimedia, inbuilt GPS and other unnecessaries because there’s precious little else to distinguish their actual automotive product from that of their competitors.
We’ve bought into this marketing ploy. Surely we all realize that the reason you can’t your find your own transport in the supermarket parking lot is that it’s lost in a sea of sameness.
Inoffensive doppelganger autos that are, shall we say, politically correct, they’re manufactured to a price, and that means standardization. With gas again nudging four bucks a gallon, fuel economy is the name of today’s game and aerodynamics has become the way to ease vehicles through the air with minimum wind resistance. Smooth curves replace straight surfaces and even door handles are designed for sleekness; about to disappear are the jut-out side mirrors. With a sharp forward edge piercing the air cleanly and an abrupt cut-off at rear to escape the drag, the new cars all emulate today’s airplanes.
Yesterday’s didn’t. Nonetheless those older vehicles, while using heavier engines and more fuel to attain the same performance, were immensely more attractive. The designers cared about beauty
Each car made its own proud statement and many look back on that time with deep affection. Folks gave their motors names; some guys loved them more than their womenfolk. After a two-year courtship fixing up my seductive MG sports convertible they wouldn’t let me marry it.
Ignoring the dawn of motoring where vehicles were basically black boxes on wheels and blasted pedestrians with oogah horns, there came a period in the when style and color went wild, almost psychedelic.The Fifties to Seventies were the halcyon days.
When Elvis drove his famous pink Cadillac, America’s streets were filled with impressively expansive autos that were fixing to take up a lane and a half although they never did. The Germans called them “strassenkreuzer” – street cruisers. The British simply dubbed them Yank Tanks.
But they’re gone. Another golden age on the scrapheap along with the trains and boats and planes that all showed such singular flair in design.
Tailfins ruled the streets back then like land sharks. Along with the distinctive radiator grilles came the haughty mascots atop the bonnet (as we in Walton County call a hood). Here the standouts were British: the leaping jaguar spearheading the car of that name and Rolls-Royce’s flying lady, official title: The Spirit of Ecstasy. Powerful hood ornament classics included Ford’s greyhound, the merry Oldsmobile rocket and the sculpture of Chief Pontiac on “his” automobile.
All enfeebled now. Folks used to snatch off the three-pointed Mercedes emblem that was only held on with a spring. Today it’s been replaced with the same kind of integrated badge you see on other makes.
And where are the chrome bumpers? Wasn’t their purpose to help absorb the impact because they were attached to the chassis, thereby minimizing front or rear body damage and, most importantly, damage to human bodies? But where is the chassis? That’s the question. With current monocoque construction there is none.
The thin shells of today’s chariots can crumple with impacts of minor force. And we still refer to them as fender benders when neither of the vehicles involved even had a fender. Oh, I forgot, on some models they paint one on; it’s gray. A picture of a bumper as though this affords any protection at all. Like warding off evil spirits with a ferocious-looking concrete gargoyle that can’t even prevent birds from pooping on it.
First-rate Monroe auto technician Randy Stovall notes the change. “You used to be able to diagnose and fix those older models with straightforward tools. Now that everything’s computerized we have sophisticated diagnostic software to pinpoint the problem quickly. It’s good on the whole, although I liked the old days when all you needed was a sharp mechanic’s brain.”
America’s ho-hum highways are now filled with bland high-tech blobs that look, from the air, like herds of woodlice. We go faster cheaper but we’ve lost the individuality.
Where, then, are the oldies? Parts of them are in places like Turkey, where you’ll see the rear half of an Edsel being drawn along, amusingly, by a horse or an ox. For a real-life glimpse at the fascinating automotive Fifties, though, it’s Cuba. Castro’s hapless subjects have learned to be inventive: because US imports are banned they still drive those wonderful high-finned Gringomobiles. And they’ve learned to improvise, making many of the spare parts themselves.
Necesidad es la mama de invention – except in this country, where even the needy need a new car like everyone else.

© 2012 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.