Missing Crappy Small Cars?

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Anyone else miss underpowered, stripped-down, fast-rusting, blown-into-the-next-lane-by-passing-semis Shitboxes?

They don’t make them anymore – not really.

There are economy cars, of course. But these are of a different species, much evolved from their Aries-K ancestors.

The least of them can reach 60 mph in about 10 seconds and is capable of triple digit top speed runs. Most have air conditioning, standard – plus a full set of instruments and a not-half-bad stereo rig – usually with at least a single-slot CD player and four speakers. Every single one of them comes with at least driver and front-seat passenger air bags. Many have side impact bags, too. Anti-lock brakes and stability/traction control are pretty common.    

They also have good panel fitment, nice paint jobs and (often) better-than-nice interiors. Go take a look at something like the 2011 Ford Fiesta or the new Mazda2 and see for yourself. There is nothing meager – or embarrassing – about these machines. They’ll probably go for 200,000 miles, too. 

In fact, any modern economy car is a better car – and a better equipped car – than even the luxury cars of the 1970s were. Some of them have four-cylinder engines with variable valve/cam timing (and a few, turbos) that put out more power, more reliably and smoothly, than some of the V-8s of the mid-late ’70s (and virtually all of the sixes). It’s Pravda. But you have to be at least in your mid-30s to understand. Old enough to have driven something thoroughly cheap and all-around shitty like a a Toyota Starlet, Yugo, Chevy Chevette or Plymouth Champ. Something with no AC and 55 hp and 14-inch steel wheels and the cheapest, skinniest tires this side of a Moped. So underpowered that top speed runs and 0-60 times were both more or less the same things. No gauges – except for an 85 mph speedo and few idiot lights. The finest Soviet bloc plastics. An AM/FM tuner with a pair of $10 speakers you bought yourself at Circuit City on either side. Paint that went chalky or began to peel off before the car was three years old. Metal that was both thin and unprotected against rust. If it lasted five winters before the floor pans had viewing portals, you were among the fortunate few. 

If you hit something, you’d feel it. Anything substantive and solid – like a tree – and it would be the very last thing you’d feel, too.

But they did have their charms… .

With perilous handling came an opportunity to hone your  driving skills. Anyone who has perfected the technique of parking brake U-turning a Starlet has one up on a driver who hasn’t had the experience. Without ABS – and with barely marginal stopping power – one learned all about following distances and planning ahead. 

You learned to keep a can of ether in the glovebox to hose down the throat of the single barrel carb when the rotten son-of-bitch wouldn’t start on cold mornings – and a rag in the glovebox to wipe down the fogged-up windshield, which fogged up not just because the defroster didn’t work but also because the carpets were soaked (either from rain leaking in through the windows or from coolant seeping into the cabin from a leaky heater core). 

You dressed warmly in winter because you had to tourniquet off the heater hoses a few months back, when the core began soaking the carpet with Prestone.   

In summer, you tried to keep moving so the bastard wouldn’t overheat on you again. 

A friend in high school had an especially miserable little Subaru – a Justy, I think it was. No reverse. You had to Fred Flintstone it out of the 7-11 parking lot. Open the door – and push. One afternoon I was driving my ’73 Super Beetle when I went over a dip in the road and suddenly found myself sittings several inches closer to the road. The rust-weakened floorpan had given way. I made a detour to a hardware store, bought a piece of iron bar. When I got home, I used a jack to push the floorpan back into position, then secured it with the iron bar and some heavy bolts. It lasted for another year. The carburetor in the VW had this pressed-in plug that would sometimes just pop out – which would create a horrendous vacuum leak and stall the car out. Luckily, a dime was about the same size as the plug – and that along with a dollop of RTV got you back on the road. This other guy I knew had a Plymouth Champ. If you floored the gas pedal just as you turned the ignition key to Off, it would diesel for as long as you wanted…    

I can’t think of a single modern economy car that’s memorable in the way the old shitboxes were. They  almost never break down. They have AC, pretty good stereos. Many of the newer ones have or offer GPS and satellite radio, too. The weakest of them can reach 60 mph in a third of the time it took something like an old VW Beetle to do the same trick. 

But we probably won’t have anything much to say about them 20 years from now – and that tells me we’re the poorer for it, somehow. Especially today’s kids. The Crappy Car Experience has come and gone like real Coke (you know, the stuff with cane sugar – not the high fructose corn syrup con that is “classic” Coke) and catalytic converter test pipes.

They’re missing out on something – but they’ll never know what it was.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. I am sorry. I see that the corvette does do well on gas.

    Type: Supercharged Gas V8
    Size: 6.2L/378.3
    Horsepower: 638 @ 6500 RPM
    Torque: 604 @ 3800 RPM
    Fuel Data

    EPA Fuel Economy Est – City (MPG): 14
    EPA Fuel Economy Est – Hwy (MPG): 20

    • Dude, are you seriously making an argument over the fuel consumption of pretty much a super car?

      You are completely out of your mind!

      20mpg on a car that makes almost 650hp is nothing less than astonishing!

      My bad, I mis-read your post!

      • I do kind of wonder how the high hp v8s do compared to the sticker on gas mileage though. The people that drive such cars would rarely take 15 seconds to get up to 65 mph I would guess. Do they take into account how such drivers usually drive those cars and not what they are capable of?

    • You’re referencing the Z06 – not the standard Corvette. The Z06 is a supercharged exotic in the same class as a 911 turbo or Ferrari.

      Even so, 20 MPG is pretty fucking impressive given 3-4 times the power of a typical economy car four-cylinder.

  2. Being able to fix it (yourself) when it broke – and gimp it along almost indefinitely, for very little money – was one of the great things about pre-computer cars, generally. I’ve owned several old Beetles and one man could pull the engine with a floor jack and some hand tools – and rebuild it for a couple hundred bucks.

    On the other hand, the modern stuff (usually) needs work less often. But there comes a point (about 15 years from new) when the cost of keeping a modern car going (if it’s even possible) becomes uneconomic. It’s one thing to spend $150 on a new generator for an old Beetle. But who is going to spend $1,000 for a new EFI system or ECU for a 15-year-old Corolla worth maybe $1,500? Time to throw it in the Woods!

  3. nice article, those were the days, of course if you live near a major city like me (detroit) you still see a good number of those old crappy rust buckets smoking down the road.

    i think that the reason they are better made is partly due to competition (yay capitialism) and technology. also these ‘economy’ cars probably cost more then what you can get today. summa that stuff is also due to gov’t mandates -air bags, better safety const. (yay socialism).

    however at least in those days you could TRY and fix a problem, now if my car won’t start i won’t even open the hood, what can i do? i don’t recognize any of those things they got in there-jump a battery maybe-but that’s it, so keep your towing service card handy, and no jury rigs either

    • The good thing with one of these new little cars is that they generally need no work at all during the 75,000 miles some of the old cars lasted before they were scrapped. After about 50,000 miles my little car has not been touched yet other than oil and tires. It also gets 2 to 3 times better gas mileage than those new 8 cylinder cars that people like here.

      • Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The most fuel-efficient current compact car is the 2011 Ford Fiesta, which gets 41 MPG on the highway. The typical current economy compact gets around 33-35 MPGs highway.

        Many current V-8 powered cars get upper 20s (a few,like the Corvette, close to 30) on the highway.

        So, there’s a difference, yes – but it’s not as extreme as “2-3 times.”

        The mileage of V-8 powered cars has improved dramatically since the ’70s (when a V-8 car delivered MPGs in the teens), chiefly due to the efficiency gains achieved by overdrive transmissions with lock-up converters, lower rolling resistance, etc.

        • You need to do your research. I was looking at the 550 hp car you was taling about in one of the articles. 18 mpg highway and 13 mpg city. I get more than twice that. In the summer I have already averaged close to 40 mpg over all. It has a 35 mpg highway rating which is true if you speed all the time. In the winter it is slightly less.
          Don’t let the facts get in the way.

          • Pea brain:

            The 2011 Corvette is rated by the EPA at 26 highway. The Corvette is among the most powerful V-8 equipped cars on the market. And it still approaches 30 on the highway (owners will tell you that if you drive it gently, you can get better than 30 on the highway.)

            Other cars with V-8s achieve similar mileage on the highway.

            Of course, there are trucks and SUVs that still only get teens/low 20s, but it is moronic to compare such vehicles with cars of any type.

            But you do, of course. Draw the obvious conclusion.

          • I have a Chevy 350cid V-8 in my antique car with a bit over 300hp and a monster 750cfm Holly four barrel carburetor on it. I can get 22 miles, or more, per gallon all day as long as I don’t stab the gas pedal and open the secondaries. If I get on it though I can cut the mileage in half! I’ll agree, V-8s have the ability to suck some gas, but if driven conservatively they can do halfway decent. Of course never as decent a 4 banger driven conservatively.


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