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My how cars have changed
Posted at: Jul/03/2013 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Historical Insights, Perspectives,
Cars are one of the hot beds for continuous change. Teams of designers are endlessly destroying brain cells in an attempt to find the right blend of new styling and innovative features to capture your purchasing dollar. The push button electric transmission on the 1957-58 Dodge, DeSoto and Plymouths never quite caught on. The outrageous tail fins of the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado have become iconic, though nothing new has fins. As weird or cool as some of these changes seem, that doesn’t mean they stop trying to find the next great thing.
Sometimes the littlest of feature makes a big difference in sales. In the early days of automobiles, the ride was so rough that the concept of having a drink while driving was not even considered. Despite this, cup holders have been around since the earliest cars clawed through mud puddles. The Audi’s of the 1960’s introduced a cup holder similar to what we are accustomed to. Audi positioned their cup holder in the center console, but the holder was so shallow that drinks were being spilled all the time and the feature was considered a novelty or change holder. In the early 1990’s Toyota introduced a dashboard slide-out cup holder and their sales went through the roof. It didn’t matter that this location inhibited access to the radio and environmental controls, everybody wanted it and Toyota sales leaped ahead with Ford and GM saying “but it’s just a cup holder.”
Recently, in an attempt to reduce driver distraction and get a jump on its competitors, Ford introduced a voice and touch-screen control system for it audio, navigation and environmental controls. Unfortunately drivers found the new system confusing to operate. In response, Ford took a step backwards and returned the radio controls to two basic and very familiar rotating knobs. It used to be that all radios were controlled this way. Giant steps into the past are not very common in the automotive industry.
Maybe it’s my age, but I kind of like some of the older and simpler technologies. Nevertheless, I don’t expect to see the return of rolling wheel odometers, three-on-the-tree gear shifters, or the manual choke knob. There are clearly a number of automotive technologies that seem to be fading into history. Here’s my short list.
Antennas: The power exterior antenna and the basic whip antenna for AM-FM radio reception are long gone. Antenna technology has come a long ways in the last 20 years. Now the antenna is either embedded in the rear window, or is hiding in a shark fin-shaped feature that sits on the roof of the car. These new antennas don’t get bent or broken in the car wash or while passing through low hanging tree branches. One of the few remaining places to see old style antennas is on police cars where there is a need to support transmitted data for police radios, computers and other law enforcement technology.
Hardtop convertibles: These have also been called “hardtops” for short. This is the car configuration where there is no post going from the body to the roof just behind the driver door. In automotive terms this is called the “B-pillar.” This design was first introduced in the 1950’s along with tail fins as part of the annual styling changes that designers rolled out in an effort to top one and other. The hardtop style gave the illusion of a convertible with the top raised. With the adoption of ever increasing safety standards for cars through the next two decades, car roofs needed to be reinforced for collision and rollover safety. To my knowledge, the last true hardtops made in America were the 1978 Chrysler Newport and New Yorker. Now, when manufacturers want to mimic the hardtop style, they paint the B-pillar a flat black to create a visual illusion of its absence instead of actually eliminating it.
Manual transmissions: The traditional clutch-controlled manual transmission is without a doubt, a member of the automotive endangered options list. Maybe I am a little bit of a control freak, but I have always enjoyed that third pedal for the clutch and my right hand on the shifter; it definitely made me feel more connected to the car. For years it was argued that the automatic transmissions got worse gas mileage, and this was true. Older automatic transmissions had a big and heavy torque-converter in the front of the transmission that required 8-10 horsepower (HP) from the engine just to spin enough to support automatic shifting. With time and good engineering the rules have changed. The newer automatics transmissions have become more efficient to operate and shift so smoothly that you barely know its happening. In 2012, manual transmissions represented only 3.8% of new passenger car sales in America. Volume production and sales have also had an impact on costs making the clutch based transmission a custom option with the associated higher price. I have to admit that when I am mired in stop-and-go traffic, I prefer the automatic over the manual transmission. I don’t believe that the clutch will totally disappear, but they may soon be relegated to the specialty market of sports cars and other unique vehicle categories.
Chrome steel bumpers: It was only 25 years ago that every car, truck and utility vehicle on America’s roads had a chrome plated piece of steel mounted on the front. These 50-200 pound beasts were called bumpers, and truly earned the title. While these pieces of steel seldom maintained a pristine look, because of their weight and separation from the vehicle they kept the car safe from the abuse of minor impacts. Trucks appear now to be the last bastion of the steel bumper. The steel bumper is a victim of mileage efficiency and styling. Obviously, replacing 100 pounds of steel with 5 pounds of heat molded plastic will reduce the cars overall weight and save gasoline which has become a growing factor in automotive design. The evolution to integrated plastic bumpers has also allowed automotive engineers to produce new car styles that show a much more cohesive and integrated look. The down side is repairs. A 5-mph parking lot impact is likely to cost over $600 for the replacement of the destroyed plastic bumper, painting and labor. Apparently bumpers no longer save us from being “bumped.”
Crank windows: Old fashion, manual crank windows are getting harder and harder to find. You can still find them on the most stripped down model of each manufacturer’s product line, but like the manual transmission, it is doubtful how much longer that will continue. I have mixed feelings about the impending death of the crank window. The geek in me loves pushing buttons and the ability while driving to easily raise or lower any window in the vehicle; clearly this is a big convenience. From a practical perspective, I tend to hold onto my vehicles until well over 200K miles. The driver’s side window motor will by this time have seen 2-3 expensive replacements. You would think that since the technology has been around since 1948, we would finally have more reliable motors, but most users don’t hold onto a car as long as I do so I guess my opinion doesn’t really matter. I should tell the story of a friend of mine who years ago was parked at the far corner of a mall lot late at night kissing his girl friend in his car. They were interrupted by police officer rapping on the driver window and signaling for him to roll it down. He leaned forward to start his car so he could then open the electric window. The officer mistook this action as threatening and pointed his weapon at him. The misunderstanding was eventually worked out, but he did need to get his upholstery cleaned.
Keys: With the advent of all our technology toys mechanical ignition keys are clearly breathing their last breath. Electronic fobs are the preferred way to open trunks and unlock car doors. Many of the newest cars have put starter buttons on the dashboard replacing the keyed ignition. My newest car still uses an ignition key, but there is a coded RFI (Radio Frequency Identifier) chip embedded in the key. If the RFI chip is not in close proximity to the car, it will not start even if a fitting key is present. This is cool stuff, but I believe we still need a keyed entry on the driver door as a backup; how else are you going to enter the car and pop the hood latch when the battery dies? As an interesting note, I used to own a 1947 Dodge, the key was only to open doors. When you wanted to start the car you pressed the starter button on the left side of the dashboard, interesting how some technologies that seem new really aren’t. I suppose we will soon have a smart-phone app for starting our car and opening the door and trunk.
Front Bench seats: The flat, three-person across front and rear seats were standard equipment in American cars until the arrival of smaller and sportier models in the late 1950s. By installing two smaller bucket seats in front, manufacturers were able to increase driver access to accessories in a center console. This configuration also offered greater lateral safety support and provided secure seat belt anchors. Of course, the front bucket seats are also sportier which is a big marketing plus. Nevertheless, front bench seating held on in larger cars until very recently. The last American car to offer the front bench seat was the 2012 Chevrolet Impala. If you are a sentimentalist, you can probably find some relationship between the fading of the front bench seat and the demise of drive-in movie theatres.
85 mph speedometers: Does this sound silly; you would have to have been there. With the gas shortage of 1974 the federal government quickly passed laws prohibiting speeds above 55 mph as a fuel-saving measure. Back in the day, this was referred to as “Double Nickels.” Five years later during the Carter administration, the NHTSA added the requirement that speedometers include a special emphasis on the number 55 to keep drivers focused on the legal speed and forbid them from registering any speed above 85 mph. fortunately, the speedometer didn’t functionally provide any governing to the engine. I have to admit this it looked pretty silly to see a Chevy Corvette with an 85 mph speedometer when the base model 350 engine would do 127 mph. The NHTSA began rolling back the regulations in 1981 after figuring out that restricting the speedometer did virtually nothing to restrict driver behavior. It is not uncommon today to see new cars with speedometers that go to 160 mph, even though the maximum allowable speed anywhere in the country is less than half that.
Handbrake: These are also known as parking or emergency brakes. With the oldest of cars having manual transmissions and low compression engines, these brakes were very important. When parking on a hill, the handbrake was a critical way to ensure your car stayed where you put it. For manual transmission drivers, you know what it is like to start from a stop in heavy traffic pointed up hill; you have one foot on the gas, the other on the clutch, your left hand on the steering wheel and you right hand working the handbrake. If it sounds complicated, you’re right; it can be a delicate maneuver requiring all your limbs and lots of practice. With the demise of the manual transmission and all kinds of new electronic “hill-hold” braking features on new transmissions, the handbrakes days are numbered.
Hinged vent windows: These are also called “wing windows” and from the 1950’s through the early 1980’s occupied the awkward little triangle area at the forward part of the driver and passenger door windows. These were uniquely functioning windows. For a smoker, they could be aligned where they created a vacuum and rapidly drew cigarette smoke out of the car. For air flow they could be opened still further and bring a lot of fresh air into a car without all the road noise that comes from opening the main side windows. Unfortunately wing windows also proved an easy way for thieves to get into a car with minimal damage or noise. For some makes the wing window was a victim of “cleaner styling” and “simpler lines.” The real killer of the wing window was automotive air-conditioning or AC. As AC transitioned from a special option to being part of the “standard package”, the need for forced outside air through the wing window faded from relevancy. Sorry smokers…
It is hard to say what automotive feature or characteristic is on the chopping block next. Manufactures are continually trying to find the next big thing that will force us to rethink the viability of our current car and bring us back to the showroom for our next purchase. Whatever is coming next, I’m sure that long term car owners like myself will continue to be a minor marketing frustration to them.