(A Different) Car Story

If you wonder at the wonder of your parents and grandparents over new cars, wonder no more. Herein are the keys to de-wonderment.

A list of “novelties” that became part of the car culture in their day would include in no particular historical order:

*AM-FM radios: once upon a time everything worth listening to was on AM. Nothing worth listening to, save maybe classical music, was on FM. Then it switched. I don’t know why.

*Side view mirrors: there was a time that a driver either prayed no one was along side or craned his or her neck to see, hoping of course the result wouldn’t be running into the car in front.

*Safety Glass: Believe it or not, there was a time when the ordinary car came with ordinary glass. If something hit it, or there was an accident, it broke into pieces and flew around like little razor blades.

*Padded steering wheel and dashboard: Before padding, hitting the steering wheel or dash board left one hell-of-a bruise or worse.

*Standard automatic transmission: there was a time when all cars had gear shifts and clutches. Then came, for a price, automatic transmission, which early on our parents turned their noses up at. “You don’t really know how to drive unless you can drive ‘standard!'” That was hooey–until of course that day came and my totally drunk driver had to sit next to me and slur directions. He couldn’t get his head into gear; imagine what his directions were like to get a car into gear!

Power Steering and Power Brakes: Stopping a car or turning a car was not too much different than doing the same to a truck. One learned that the easiest and best way to turn the wheel was when the car was moving, just a little, so the friction helped with the process. It was a meshing of art and science. When first introduced, these power assists caused people to throw passengers into windows when the hit the breakes or turn the power stearing so sharply, as did my neighbor one day driving her aircraft sized Chrysler Imperial, that they ended up on someone’s lawn or the sidewalk! Or on occasion someone’s storefront.

*Air-conditioning and then air-conditioning as standard: Pick any day in the summer that your car was parked in the sun and  you opened the door and got in. Sitting in that car with someone blowing on you was what riding in a car during the summer was like.

*Seat belts first across the lap and then across the shoulder: Parents when stepping on the brake would throw their arm out in front of the passenger. Physicists tell us that is worthless because stopping the force with which a body is thrown forward would would be impossible even if one’s arm belonged to a young Sly Stallon. If the arm were long enough to reach across and grab the door handle the body would, well, snap it in half.

*Day-night rear view mirrors: If a car came up behind with its brights on, the one dimensional rear view mirror was a great weapon. Turn it sideways and shine the lights back at the driver behind you and you could blind him so he’d run into someone else, not you. Near as I can tell, the driver’s ed books didn’t tell you that, you had to figure it out for yourself.

*Turn Signals: Making a left turn? Stick out your hand. A right turn? Elbow stright, hand up towards the sky. Raining or freezing cold? Tuff! Life was so simple.

*Reclining seats: The American Motors Co.(out of business), run by former Michigan Governor George Romney (dead), created a popular car called the Nash Rambler (no longer in production) about which an almost famous rock n roll song was made. It not only had reclining seats, but had seat braces so one could sleep in it if one were about five foot nine–or do other things in it if one were a pretty good contortionist, which is why when we bought one, my mother absconded with them.

* Bucket seats: Used to be three healthy or four not so healthy folks could sit up front, without seat belts of course because there were none. But even when there were, the folks still fit if the belts were ignored.

*Radial tires: Oh i know you think tires are round and they are. But were they always? Uh uh.  Pre-radial tire days, round tires had edges, they more like sat on the pavement rather than hugging it. Check it out.

*Snow tires: And then there was winter when the entire neighborhood began to sound like spook house as everyone pulled their tire chains out of storage and fixed them to their tires. It was a noise so distinctive that only the sound of a chain that had broken while driving and began flailing away in the wheel well was more distinctive. Then some genius changed the tread on tires and presto, garage sounds became more muted as tires were swapped for other tires thus replacing the neighborhood chain gangs. Then another genius came along and said, “Hey these things will still get you killed on ice.” So he put “studs” on them, sort of like tires with cleats. They were great noise-makers too. Almost impossible to describe the noise 3 lanes of traffic doing 60 sounded like when all the tires had studs. They also did zillions of dollars of damages to roadways and eventually were banned. Oh well another noise for the Smithsonian’s yet to be invented noise machine of historical sounds.

*Automatic windows: No button to press. “Want some air? Roll down the window. Simple as can be, nor did many children get their fingers caught.

*Variable speed windshield wipers: During the way back period, windshield wipers were controlled (operated, actually) from inside the car. The driver drove with one hand and moved a toggle on the inside of the windshield to swipe away stuff on the outside. Which hand operated the hear thingees is anybody’s guess. Electricity and the rubber industry provided an automatic control. The wipers were on–or not. Then a great American hero/scientist who beat Ford in the courts for stealing his invention, figured out how to better than on and off. My last car had about 16 speeds. Volvo seems to think four are enough. Actually, I sort of liked 16.

*Air bags: This was a term, usually preceded by the word “hot,” used to described people who thought a great deal of their own opinions. The current term needs no explanation, only to say that some of them seem to be more dangerous than being without.

Now compare all these “innovations” to my current car, a Volvo XC 60 T-6. Not yet capable of driving for me, what this car does instead is train me how to drive. Nor does it brook any interference with its wants or care one whit if you say unseemly things to it. On the street if I get too close to a solid mass the car stops, quickly. On the highway if I get too close to the car in front of me, mine slows down. I am wrapped in sensors. I can’t get too close to anything anywhere, front/back/side without something blinking, beeping or bleating at me. Nor can i get too close to the center or edge lines on street or highway lanes. The car produces a scary “electronica” type of noise.

If I happen to be listening to the radio when something begins blinking, beeping or bleating the car makes sure I hear those beeps or bleats, or takes in the blinking, by dramatically lowering the sound on the radio, regardless of what my thoughts on the matter might be. If someone slices across my flight path red lights go off on the dash board with an alarm that would wake the dead. And God forbid I should get into an accident, I’d be difficult to find, though safe, because every possible interior space in the car has air-bags (and not Takata airbags) that drop-down or pop out or otherwise wrap the interior in explosively produced protection.

For the generations that opened windows for circulation and had “no-drafts” to keep the air from turning the driver and front passengers’ eyes from being dried to desert textures, our cars now have air conditioning. But not just conditioning, they have a range of coolness that runs from cool spring breezes to antarctic cold snaps. And if one person wants to shiver and the other sweat–no problemo dude, duel controls to the rescue.

Listen to the radio? Take your choice: AM, FM, Satellite, and weather (in case you couldn’t get enough weather on AM, FM, or Satellite. Look at your AM dial. That was it when your grandparents got a car. Your FM has as many selections as A.M. Satellite? Almost as many channels never to be listened to as cable. And weather. Don’t ever fret about not being able to get an update on downward spiraling temperatures in Fargo, ND if needed. If Fargo-ens(ites?) want to get jealous they can check out winter temps in Miami.

Notice we haven’t even mentioned the motor. Jackie Mason tells the story about the couple whose car stalls. She tells him, “Go look a the motor.” He lifts the hood (no buttons to do that for us then) and mutters, “Boy is it busy in here!” Now, not much looks different, but most everything works differently. If something were wrong with a car, a good mechanic could “hear” the problem, grab a wrench, twist this or that and hand you a bill. Today the technology in the automotive motor is almost as complicated as the stuff crammed into an airplane cockpit.

So be gentle and forgive us the smile of wonderment, the sense of trepidation,  as we slide into a new car. We are remembering having to reach under the seat for a bar, dig our heels into the floor and employ dance moves to get the 4 person bench seat, covered in what felt like reject tent fabric, to move forward or back. One could be drenched in sweat by the time the seat was adjusted properly and then…. we’d have to reach for the handle to roll down the window.




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