Growing Up In America

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It was 1955 when I came of driving age. What a glorious year on the automotive scene. The first V-8 engined Chevrolet appeared in the striking art work of the 1955 Bel Air hard top coupe. Often two-toned, usually pastels, this car, stock from the dealer, had the acceleration to match the souped up flathead V-8 Ford engines that were ensconced in the hot rods of the day.

The small block V-8 found its way into the Corvette, saving the Corvette from extinction.

Ford came out with its new overhead valve V-8, installed in the 1955 Thunderbird, still a show-stopper today. The Thunderbird existed as a two-seater for 3 years. The 1955 and 1956 Ford Fairlane hard top coup looked like it was doing sixty sitting still.

The dramatic styling and energetic engines appeared everywhere in Detroit’s lineup, in the Mercury, the Pontiac, Oldsmobile, the Buick Century. So many two-tones, acceleration times cut in half. Life was good.

Not to be outdone, Chrysler produced the 1955 Chrysler 300 with a 300 horsepower Hemi engine. This car was the high speed king, reaching 130 mph. In 1956 the 300 Hemi delivered 355 horsepower capable of 140 mph. By 1957 the 300 Hemi produced 390 horsepower, outrunning the Ferraris of the day.

Every style of every marque was distinctive. There was no mistaking one model for another. Driving on city streets and country highways was a feast for the eyes. Style and color were everywhere.

Even in those days driving occupied much of a person’s time. To be among striking designs and color combinations that excited the imagination was good for the psyche. We were a different people.

Decades ago a rare piece of fiction in Road & Track resulted in a premonition of the brutal and indistinguishable appearance of today’s SUVs and oversized pickup trucks.

It was the only piece of fiction, aside from a cartoon strip feature, that I recall ever appearing in R&T. The magazine is about road tests, car reports, and race results.

Perhaps the explanation for the fictional story is that a prescient car guy realized the brutal design implications of the looming car safety standards and wrote a story set in the future.

In the story, a man has a lovely sports car from the past that, unlike the mandated safety vehicles, is fun to drive, but he can no longer take it out during normal hours. Under federal safety mandates, vehicles had become massive hulks, brutal in appearance, and capable of smashing the cars of the past without injury to themselves or their drivers. Drivers of the safe machines patrol on the lookout for cars from an earlier, more elegant time. It was a sport to corner them and to crash into them, thus terminating their existence and removing the offense to the ugliness of the safe cars mandated by the government.

To avoid the demise of his car, he only took it out at 3:00 AM in order to avoid encounters with safe cars. But one early morning two of the hulks were waiting for him. The safe cars approached from both ends of the road, leaving him no way out. But the agility of his car and his skills as a driver permit his escape. Henceforth his enjoyment of his car is confined to visits in the garage and memories of past drives.

I don’t remember if the story was illustrated or whether the image of the SUV was created by the writer’s words, but years later when I saw the first SUV, now with names, such as Titan, to go with their brutal appearance, I instantly recalled the R&T story.

The young have no memory of the past. They cannot know how exciting automobiles once were. The excitement created by the explosion of styles, colors, and performance in 1955 is gone from the world. It was a 15-year experience, with the muscle cars of the 1960s keeping the thrill alive.

When the Jaguar E-Type appeared in 1961, no one could believe that such an extraordinarily beautiful and fast car could be had for $5,000. Enzo Ferrari, the master car-maker of all time, declared the E-Type to be the most beautiful car in the world. One sits in permanent exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Who could imagine a SUV being there, or an over-sized pick-up truck? If we had called for our Saturday night dates in such vehicles, our dates would have been mortified and would have refused to come out of the house.

Anyone who has sat in the driver’s seat of an E-Type, the first modern car with all independent suspension and 4-wheel disc brakes, looking over the long and louvered bonnet (hood), and starting the powerful engine with its Jaguar growl finds today’s vehicles utterly depressing.

Another extraordinary design of the era was the Lamborghini Miura. It came 5 years after the E-Type and was an equal show-stopper.

Today if you have a quarter of a million dollars to spend on a car, you can purchase cars that can outperform these icons of the 1960s. But if you drive up in your Audi A-8, your AMG Mercedes, your Porsche turbo, your Ferrari Italia, the audience will flock to the E-Type and to the Miura. Style, when it was not dictated by Washington, was brilliant. There will never again be anything like it.

Today cars from the fifties and sixties, including the 1954 Oldsmobile Super 88 coupe, if in reasonable condition, are more valuable than most new cars. A good Miura goes for $1 million. A Series 1 E-Type, produced in much larger numbers than the Miura, goes for $125,000 if in good condition. I have a friend who in the mid-1960s bought and sold for $9,000 a Ferrari 250 GTO. This Ferrari, an aggressive and beautiful take-off on the elegant E-Type, won the world championship for three years in the early 1960s. There were only about 36 of them produced. One sold recently for $35 million. Try to imagine, short of dollar hyperinflation, any vehicle of our time ever fetching $35 million as a used car.

Seeing a car, rather than a SUV or monster pick-up truck, is becoming a rare event. Recently, I made a count on a stretch of Interstate highway, and 75% of the traffic consisted of SUVs and over-sized pick-up trucks. Americans want to appear brutal like their vehicles, and their police, and their governments.

SUVs were an unintended consequence of federally mandated fleet gas milage standards. Auto makers complied with the mandate by eliminating station wagons. People looking for station wagon replacement settled on delivery vans and panel trucks. These vehicles, classified as light trucks, were exempt from the gas milage standards, and the SUV was born.

The unintended consequence of safety standards is to take beauty out of almost all vehicles. How many attractive vehicles do you see today? I recently made a 370 mile trip and saw one car worthy of notice. It was a $300,000 600HP Bentley coupe, a rare and unusual car. When I came of driving age, beautiful and colorful cars emitting wonderful sounds were everywhere. We were surrounded by them. They were Chevrolets and Fords. They weren’t for the mega-rich. The working class could afford them.

Think about this for a minute. People spend much of their lives in passenger vehicles. They commute to work and back to home. They travel to shop. They travel to vacation destinations. They take children to school and back to home. All of this time that they spend in vehicles they never see anything beautiful or artistic unless some unusual remnant from the past or a rare modern day supercar, whose cost exceeds their lifetime earnings, happens by.

This was not true in my day. We were surrounded by color, style, and attractive designs. Literally everyone could afford it. The epitome of style was the two-door hard top coupe. Such a vehicle would cost, perhaps, $400 more than the base model that lacked the elegant touches.

Today, in our brutalized transportation existence, in which no make or model can be identified from any other and in which a two-tone paint job doesn’t exist, anyone with a collection of 1950s and 1960s two-door hard top coupes is a wealthy person not merely in money but also in spirit.

Today a person with a beautiful car from the past does not yet have to worry about being chased down and destroyed by a modern safe-car hulk, but he has to worry about where he parks it. Beauty and style elevate. Ugliness uglifies. People who drive barbarian cars can themselves become barbarians.

Terrible things happened in the 1950s and 1960s. McCarthyism got loose for a short period. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby were murdered, as was Martin Luther King, perhaps by their own government. The reliance on fear to keep the profitable cold war going and the elimination of those who would change course are antecedents of the present. We still suffer from them.

The difference is that then enough Americans had a frame of mind that had space for the optimism that permitted blacks to be legislated into full citizenship and for the protests that brought to an end the military/security complex’s profitable aggression in Vietnam.

Perhaps elegant cars had a civilizing influence and contributed to that frame of mind. Get Washington out of car design. It might help to restore our humanity from the brutality that surrounds us.

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