Appreciating Then – And Now

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by Eric Peters

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There’s Ford vs. Chevy. Import vs. Domestic. And of course, Old vs. New.

Some people, for some reason, have difficulty accepting the bad – along with the good. That no car from any era was (or is) the perfect car. They idealize – and sometimes, mythologize – their chosen favorites. In fact, cars from every era were (and are) good in some ways … and not-so-great in one way or another. Usually, several ways. Let’s run through a quick survey of the some of the high – and low – points, Old vs. New.

The Good (old cars):

More individuality – and personality…

The farther back in time you go, the less government interference there was with car design. The wild fins of the late ’50s, for example, would be impossible (or at least a lot less likely) to ever see the light of production today because of the need to comply with federal crash standards – which have imposed a stricter set of design parameters on today’s cars. Which is why they tend to look so much alike.

Also, the older stuff was just wilder – less controlled, dangerous sometimes, too – even though they weren’t actually quicker (or faster). But they sure felt it. Sounded it, too. Old muscle cars, for example, shake and rumble threateningly. You could hear the air and fuel being sucked into the engine through the open element air cleaner – and the open to the atmosphere carburetor. Modern cars – even the extremely quick and powerful ones – are deceptively docile and quiet in comparison. They’re more civilized – but there was something neat about the animal rawness of the old stuff.

Easier service …

Because they were simpler – and usually, more physically accessible – it was usually easier to work on the older stuff than the new stuff. Especially with regard to the old stuff built before the 1980s – before fuel injection and lots of electronics. They were more “hands on” for the average home mechanic – and it was kind of nice to be able to do most of the necessary routine service yourself. The spark plugs were right there; the air cleaner was under that lid with the single wing nut holding it down. You could remove the entire fuel system – which meant the carburetor – by loosening four nuts and maybe a spring for the throttle cable. Not like today, with engines stuffed tightly into the bay – and frequently, stuffed sideways into the engine bay, making it an ordeal to get at the other half of six (and eight) cylinder engines.

Lower buy-in cost …

Car payments were once stretched out over three years – not five or six, as is common today. While it’s true that there are many very affordable new cars out there, most of these are economy-type cars. In the past, cars that were more middle-echelon (medium and even full-sized, with V-8 engines and rear-wheel drive) were still within reach on the three-year payment plan – and the average Joe. That’s pretty much out the window now. While you can buy a new car for around $15,000 or so the typical car sells for closer to $25,000 or so. And medium-large cars with V-8s are typically well into the $30Ks – if not the $50Ks.

This, in turn, has resulted in longer-duration loans. Otherwise, many people simply could not afford to drive a new car that wasn’t a very basic, compact economy-type of car.

Lots of potential …

The ’60s and ’70s muscle cars were quick in their day – and could be made much quicker, pretty easily. A weekend cam change, for example, could yield spectacular results. And such an upgrade was also within the skill set – and budget – of nearly anyone. A reasonably competent home mechanic could do a cam swap with basic hand tools – at a cost of less than $250.

And as much potential as the powerful cars of the ’60s and early ’70s had – the factory de-tuned cars of the mid-late ’70s had even more potential locked up in them. A cam swap (and some tuning) could turn a stone stock 200 hp V-8 into a 350-plus hp V-8, making its owner King of the Road for little coin.

Read the rest of the article 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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