What's better, a '57 Chevy or a 2011 Ford?
Do you miss real cars? You know, ones with tail fins, and acres of chrome, and big V-8s pumping out so much horsepower you can smoke the tires in any gear?
I do. I spend my days driving an econobox to work at 60 mph to save gas. But I often spend my evenings watching those Mecum auto auction shows, where fabulous cars from the 1950s and '60s are sold for insane prices. You know: $120,000 for a 1966 Corvette, just like the used one my dad could've bought for me (but of course didn't!) in 1969 for $3,500.
And then, and then -- well, like a lot of things, perhaps those cars weren't quite as good as we remember.
For example, my 6-year-old econobox has gone almost 78,000 miles, and here's what it has needed in repairs: a set of tires; a set of spark plugs; a battery; front brakes; and regular oil and filter changes.
It's never failed to start; never sputtered or stalled because of bad timing or a faulty condenser or bad points (ask your dads, kids!); never had a broken fan belt, or a leaky radiator or a bad hose; the A/C is as ice cold today as the day it was new; all the original bulbs are still burning brightly; heck, the clock even works!
Plus, it gets a solid 30 to 34 mpg, and has since the day I bought it. And, by the way, it cost less than $14,000 new.
And then there's my other car, a 6-year-old van. I was shocked to see the other night that the low-beam headlight was out. I scurried to the owner's manual: Open hood; unclip connector to bulb; twist bulb one-quarter turn and remove; put in new bulb ($12 at the local auto parts store); twist one-quarter turn; reconnect connector; close hood. Total time (including teaching teenage son): about 20 minutes.
No screwdriver or wrenches; no re-aiming the headlight; no cursing over lost screws or ill-fitting chrome rings.
So, as much as I love those old cars, today's cars are just plain better in the ways that matter to most people.
But don't take my word for it. Check out the June issue of Popular Mechanics. Tucked in there between such articles as "Build a go-kart" and "PM test: Finish Nailers" (top choice: the Bostitch N62FNB, only $180!) is Mike Allen's "23 Ways Your Car Is Better Than Your Dad's."
Allen makes several compelling points. (Plus there's a cool during/after photo of a crash test pitting a 2009 Chevy Malibu against a 1959 Chevy Bel-Air. Look it over and you'll wonder how anyone survived those golden years of driving.)
Among the advances Allen cites are:
"Thanks to car bodies and frames that are designed to absorb impact energy, and to seat belts and airbags, these days you’re far more likely to survive an accident."
"Today’s cars emit less than 1% of the smog-producing chemicals that cars put out four decades ago, and very little carbon monoxide."
"Henry Ford painted Model T's with black lacquer and a paintbrush. Except for spray guns, the process didn’t improve much until paint-booth emissions requirements made carmakers adopt durable clear-coat enamel in the '80s."
Notice something in common? Yes -– shhh, don't tell the "tea party" types -- government regulations have done much to improve our cars. Sure, automakers have done their part, but I recall the days of auto-industry lobbyists saying "It can't be done" and "It'll ruin the auto industry" in regard to emissions standards. And I remember the people who said "I'll never wear a seat belt" or "airbags aren't needed."
Heck, today's cars are even "greener." As Allen says:
"Most of a modern car -– including the plastic -– is designed to be recycled. And thanks to a robust process, the modern automobile is the single most recycled object on planet Earth."
So now I'm looking at my econobox and my van with new respect.
But I still want that '66 Corvette.
-- Paul Whitefield
Photo: A line worker checks a 2012 Ford Focus on the assembly line at the Michigan Assembly Plant. Credit: Paul Sancya / Associated Press