They don’t make them anymore – not really. Modern economy cars are not shitboxes.
A shitbox is something like an ’80s-era Ford Escort or – even better – a Hyundai Excel or Geo Metro. No one makes a car like that anymore. I mean, a car that can’t outrun a Moped – or does so just barely – literally. If you weren’t around then, you have no idea how bad it was. Zero to 60 times in the 15-30 second range, with top speeds around 85 mph… maybe, if the car was in good tune and you were on a downhill stretch. God help you if you hit something. Or something hit you. Three-speed automatics and four-speed manuals, no overdrive. Doors that closed with less solidity than the bi-fold metal dividers you find in ancient single-wides. A speedometer and a gas gauge, nothing more. They leaked, they rusted out early and they sucked to drive.
Modern economy cars are nothing like that.
The least of them can reach 60 mph in about 10 seconds and will do 110-plus. Most have air conditioning – standard – and are fitted out with a complete set of instruments and almost always 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 and head/curtain bags, too. Anti-lock brakes and stability/traction control are pretty common.
Far from shitty – or even boxy. Some, like the ’11 Ford Fiesta are nice enough in their own right that you’d think about buying one just because you like it, not because you need it or can’t buy anything better.
You have to be at least in your mid-30s today to understand how utterly the landscape has changed. Old enough to have driven, say, a Datsun B210, a Toyota Starlet, Subaru Justy, Yugo, Chevette, early K-car or Plymouth Champ. A real shitbox. Something with 14-inch steel wheels and the cheapest, skinniest tires this side of a Pee Wee Herman’s bicycle. So underpowered that top speed runs and 0-60 times were both more or less the same things. The finest Soviet bloc materials on the inside; carpets if you were lucky.
No air bags, no ABS – and the impact protection of a brightly painted cardboard box. If you hit something, you’d feel it. Hit a tree , and it would be the very last thing you’d feel, too.
But they did have their charms… .
With easy-screech handling came an opportunity to hone your driving skills.
Anyone who spent some seat time 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 also learned to plan a head. You kept a can of ether in the glovebox to hose down the throat of the single barrel carb when the little son-of-bitch wouldn’t start on cold mornings, a rag in the glovebox to wipe down the fogged-up windshield and a roll of duct tape under the seat at all times. You dressed warmly in winter, too – because either the heat didn’t work or the car was so drafty it didn’t matter if it did. In summer, you were shirtless – layers of electrical tape keeping the seat springs from jabbing you in the balls too much.
A friend in high school had an especially wretched little Subaru. Reverse crapped out, but the forward gears still worked. So we had to Fred Flintstone it out of the 7-11 parking lot. But as much as we cursed it, it gave us lots of story fodder.
I can’t think of a single postmodern economy car that’s memorable in the way the old stuff was. They rarely break down and none of them are dangerous or even unpleasant to drive. They have AC, adequate stereos. Decent seats. More and more of them either have or offer GPS and satellite radio, too. Driving cross-country in one would not be an ordeal.
But I doubt we’ll 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 “Shitbox Experience” has come and gone like real Coke with cane sugar, lawn darts and catalytic converter “test pipes.”
They’re missing out on something – but they’ll never know what it was.
Throw it in the Woods?