White-Lettered Tires, Rear-Wheel Drive, Affordable Gas

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Recently by Eric Peters: No More Yes Sirring

I guess everyone gets to that point in life where they start to say, “I remember when… . ” Here’s some from me:

Economy cars were rear-wheel-drive

Today, only a handful of cars – most of them high-end cars – are rear wheel drive. But back in the day – the ’60s, ’70s and into the ’80s – most cars were rear-wheel-drive and that included most economy cars. Pintos, Vegas, Chevettes – even imports like the Datsun B210 and of course, the old Beetle – were burnout-capable (assuming there was a little black ice on the pavement). Vegas – and even Chevettes – were popular as sleeper hot rod projects and bracket racers, because of their RWD layout. Stuff a big V-8 into a Vega (or a V-6 into a Chevette) and you had an M80 on wheels – and for cheap, too. That’s the other thing about RWD econo-cars: Their mechanicals were the essence of simplicity, which made them genuinely economical in a way that modern economy cars aren’t. No CV joints to fuss with. You had a solid beam axle that would outlast the car instead. A pair of shocks – $40 for the pair – instead of $200 for a set of struts. True, you usually only got a gas gauge and a speedometer and a dial-control one speaker AM/FM radio – but you also didn’t get a $300 a month payment for the next five years. I miss that. And being able to spin the rear tires, too.

White-lettered tires

I just put a set of factory-correct raised white letter tires on one of my old bikes. But you never see white lettered tires on cars anymore. They’ve gone the way of whitewall tires. It’s all blackwall now – and so, tires all look just the same. Which is a shame. Tires used to be a signature element of a given car’s look. Anyone who remembers Firestone Wide Ovals or the BF Goodrich Radial TA will know what I mean. The style of the lettering – and the name of the tire itself, boldy called out – added something to the car that’s absent today. Goodyear Wingfoots with the cool checkered flag. The Eagle GT. Even the el-cheapos they used to sell at places like Pep Boys were fun. I remember buying a set of Revenger HP tires for my old Camaro back in the late ’80s. They were the perfect accessory for the primered rear quarter panels and glass pack’d exhaust.

Air shocks

This one’ll take you back. Well, it takes me back. The leaf-sprung muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s tended to sag in the tail after ten years or so – which was right around the time my generation (Generation X) got their hands on them as their first/high-school cars in the early ’80s. One of the first things many of us did was to go to local auto parts store and buy a set of Gabriel Hi-Jacker air shocks to give the car the proper nose down, ass up attitude. It looked cool – but transferred too much weight onto the already worn-out, overburdened front end while simultaneously unloading the already too-light rear end. Already marginal handling and braking was thereby rendered downright catastrophic in the event of sudden inputs. You learned to drive carefully – and preferably, in straight lines only. The best part, though, was when the air line to the shocks frayed or came loose and they lost air pressure. Instant low-rider! At least, partially. Now, instead of looking down at the pavement, you looked up at the sky. It made for fun times. If you weren’t there, you’ll never know!

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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