Miss The Shitbox?

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I miss shitboxes.

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.

The only thing they did do well was not eat too much gas – or cost a lot to buy.

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?

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29 COMMENTS

  1. Oops, here I am reading really old posts again, but still relevant. Ever worked on the Chevy Aveo? still being made in 2011, it is a little “shit box” on 12″ rims and tricycle tires. I don’t see many, thank God!

  2. Ahh my bright yellow 1969 toyota corolla wagon in late 1980s – I could outrun it on foot but it never failed (manual choke sir!) & ran on fumes.

  3. I love my k car.. 25 years old and still a tank.. I was fourtanite enough to inhereit my grandpa’s car he died a month after buying. A brand new old car thats only two years younger then me, every mile on it was mine.. Now to my dismay i cracked the radiator. And my husband has to threaten me to get rid of my beloved tank for usrd subaru. I allways said i wanted to drive it into the ground.. Im haveing seperation anxiety over my reliant!!. I want to fix it, and drive my nothing special tank while i have a car free and clear.. At least i know it in and out and its whole history. This subaru, well. I hate it.. I fell like $80 for a radiator is better then $2k for a new búnker of worms i have to pay off.. The reliant k was made to last, wilst this ’97 dubaru

    • Hi Kat,

      If the car is otherwise in good shape, I see no reason to get rid of it over an $80 radiator. Look at it this way: What sort of car could you get for $80?

      You might remind your husband how reliable the K-Car has been so far – and also how little it has cost to keep going.

      Keep us posted!

    • On a 25 year old daily driver car you can expect to replace the radiator at some point. On most cars it is fairly easy to downright simple to replace.

      Also a “known” car is better than an “unknown” car. Especially when it comes to used cars.

      It’s not a big risk to fix cost wise, just a couple tanks of gas and a little time.

  4. Yes, some cars from back in the day WERE shitboxes, but let’s not pretend there are no modern shitboxes. Yes, we have computers, traction control, antilock brakes, stability control and so forth..but an old rule of thumb applies here: The more complex it is, the more things can go wrong!

    I had a 1999 BMW 740i with the 4.4 V8..that thing was a smooth, stable missle. That is, unless it ingested too much dust which triggered a code that threw a CEL that put it into a special mode that changed the mixutre which messed up the MAF..well, you get the idea. And the radiator for that beast of an engine seemed like it was made of tissue paper. Went through 5. So did everyone else with a type E38 Bimmer.

    I once rented a PT Cruiser, I belive it was a 2003 but I am not sure. Got a mile down the road, transmission fell out the bottom of the car. I thought it was fluke until I spoke to some other PT Crusier owners. They say that the PT stands for Pretty Terrible!

    If you want to see the face of regret, speak to someone who owns a Jeep! Espeically the base model Wranglers and Saharas.

    You can’t get a new ford Focus or Fusion over 50k miles without it turning into a shaking, vibrating, fly-apart-at-the-seams maraca.

    My poor mother had a 1998 Saturn. This thing tormented her for 4 years before I bought her a nice, sensible, souless Corolla.

    I learned to drive on a 1984 Reliant K car. It was ugly, poorly equipt, and I wouldn’t have taken one across country but it was generally ok and easy to fix. Still, people laughed.

    Worst car I ever owned was a 1998 VW Jetta. Went through a clutch, front brakes, two headlights and most of the weather stripping in 6 months, and it was brand new when I got it.

    At least the old cars could be fixed at home most of the time with generally simple solutions or replacements.

  5. “Equipped with a 3 speed manual transmission, it had a top speed of 60 miles per hour.[2] It weighed under 1000 pounds, which exempted it from normal US safety rules. Fuel economy claims were as high as 66 mpg, but in Consumer Reports tests, acceleration was modest, with 0-50 times over 37 seconds compared to 14.5 seconds for a Volkswagen, and they reported to expect 25–35 miles per gallon.[3] When introduced in 1958, the 360’s engine turned out 16 hp (12 kW). By the end of production, power had increased to 25 hp (19 kW) with a 36 hp (27 kW) twin-carbureted engine as an option.”

    LMAO!

    • LOL!

      I just saw one on Ebay, and it RUNS!!! I actually, just for a second, considered bidding on it. The impulse passed quickly.

        • Bought a slightly used ’87. At the time they were really cheap because of their well deserved reputation. I had to judge for myself, though.

          The first thing I did after I bought it was change the Yugoslavian timing belt and all the rubber fuel line under the hood. The problems I found after that were mostly fit and finish issues, not technology. I felt like I found an old friend when I pulled the air cleaner off and stared at that good ‘ol 2bbl Weber I grew to know so well from my Vega and Pinto days. Emissions equipment was Ford. Once I sorted it all out I ran it for 60k miles and gave to my daughter in school and she ran it another 60k and sold it.

          It actually was a pretty good Fiat design. Peppy enough for the period and handled well. I often think that if they could have just got the build quality up Zastava would have been around at least until 1996 when we bombed the hell out of their factory for no good reason.

          I’m happy I owed a Yugo. It served me well and I think of it fondly. I wouldn’t buy one today, though.

          StanTheMan

  6. Ah, I remember the 1978 Honda Accord – a car that soured me against bad Japanese cars for a decade. Of course, my parents liked that exact same Accord, because they had previously owned a 1972 Chevy Vega to compare it with. I don’t really remember the Vega, but I do remember the awful succession of VW Beetles that they seemed to love . . .

  7. Memories!

    How about the metal plug on the back of the Solex carb that would sometimes just pop out? Mine did – and I discovered it was about the same size as a dime – which I RTV’d in place. Ran like a champ (for a VW)!

  8. 2 VW beetles (1971, 1973), 1 VW microbus, and a Reliant (K-car) with a MANUAL TRANSMISSION!
    While the microbus was a cop magnet, the Reliant was immune to cops… no cop would give me a second glance in my “old-man-mobile”, even when I was clearly speeding (in city).

    For the VWs, I carried spare carburetors, coils, distributors (no, not distributor caps, the whole distributor assembly), and miscellaneous parts to keep those cars alive. It taught me a great deal about figuring stuff out for myself.

    You forgot to mention an important aspect of owning a shitbox: going to junk yards for parts. That is an important lesson that every driver should experience.

  9. Oh, the 1971 Chevy Vega. And the 1972 VW 411

    I should have known better, but I bought the Vega in in 1977. I did not buy the corvair I really wanted… I wanted something more “reliable” (big mistake) After the “tune up” it needed turned into my first engine rebulld, I fixed the rusted through fenders and hood hinges, (on a 6 year old car). The in-tank fuel pump would accelerate the car to 60 mph in something like 12 seconds. Not bad. But that was only if it felt like it. If not, it would sound like a sick sheep, and 35mph on the freeway was the best it could do. Steering was actually quite good for the times. If Chevy would have installed the engine the engineers had in mind before the accountants had their way, the car might have done well. Of course a few dollars worth of rust proofing might have helped a lot too.

    Then there was the 1972 VW 411 4-door “luxury” car. A 4-door air cooled model. The one with the fuel-injected engine. Not only were the parts very expensive, but the F-I system was based on electrical resistance. Of course the resistance would increase due to time and road salt. Thus many hours spent keeping it on the road. The gas hoses would leak within five years. Many a VW died in flames. Good times… Acceleration sucked, the brakes were pitful. Then there was the heating system, or the lack there of. My Vega was actually a better car.

    I drove Volvo 142s with the same injection system. Replaced with carbs, they were good cars.

    Now i drive Nissans. Great cars, few problems.

    • I have had both of these – a Corvair and a fuel-injected air cooled VW (the Fastback)!

      The Corvair (’64 Monza) had its good points. Very roomy inside. Cute outside. Excellent steering response (for a ’60s American car). Decent power (compared with a VW). But you could spend a lifetime trying to get the multiple carbs synched; the handling was still evil (even with the transverse leaf spring) and the brakes (drums all around) were not much better than sticking your boots through the rusted out floorplans and using your feet to stop, Fred Flintstone style!

      The VW: It would often just refuse to start. I kicked it hard one morning and it did start! Turns out that force, properly applied, does work! But it did take me into DC and back to the Virginia suburbs for several years, so it wasn’t all bad…

  10. I’m fairly young by true shit box standards @ 39 years old but I’ve had several of them…an 86′ K car…an 88 Ford Tempo…79 Super Beetle….all of them met various levels of stupendous deaths at the hands of abusive adolescence(which I managed to retain well into my 20’s)…all left me stranded at one point or more.

    My first car was a “cool” shitbox, a 79′ Triumph Spitfire…I literally learned how to wrench myself because breakdown was a monthly or more affair-it met its death after the u-joint seperated from the wheel as I pulled in my driveway(the rocker arm had snapped a month earlier and bent the valve on cylider #4 so it was limping around on 3 cylinders anyway).

    I think my favorite though was my 69 Thunderbird…the “jet intake” styling that made it a non-classic generally despised vehicle…but it sported the very fun 390 V8 and skinny tires that would enable 1/8 mile long burnouts…seat 6 comfortably and carry a couple of beer kegs in the trunk. 100mph was truly a scarey event with its “over powered” power steering and semi-truck large diameter steering wheel.

    In one particular instance I managed to get it up to a keg party on a desert hill in So. Cal where Baja Bugs and 4x Toyota’s PU’s were racing a small dirt track ciruit on top of the hill. That night while everyone was drunk….The ole T-bird didn’t disappoint as I lapped faster than almost everyone there due to it’s huge engine and surprisingly long suspensions travel that helped through the “whups”.

    Fun times….my shitbox glory days I remember with a sense of humor and adventure now…but having no time to deal with shitbox cars anymore I can’t say I’m sad those days are gone.

  11. You guys are pikers! My first car was a ’58 VW with 36 horsepower, no heater (in Syracuse, NY!) no gas gauge, with brakes that had to be adjusted almost weekly. But it was great in the snow!

    • Owned a ’56 myself. Remember reaching under the dash and flipping the lever to the reserve fuel tank when it starting running out of gas while driving down the road? Still, modern radial tires outperform the old VW’s and bias belted in the snow. When folks talk about the old Bugs I tell them, “No thanks, I like heat and windshield defrosters!” 🙂

    • I can come close! Had a ’73 Super Beetle… but it was luxurious in comparison. Gas gauge. A red light for no oil pressure. And a speedometer! It would do about 85 MPH if you had the wind at your back and little downhill help… and a lot of time. Eventually, the floorplan fell out, while I was driving. Sparks flew.

      But you’re right – the thing was superb in the snow. It was the car that taught me ground clearance, weight on the drive wheels and a decent driver will get you there as well or better than Cloverite “safety” technology!

      • I started my driving in a 67 beetle. Being stationed in NC we didn’t have much snow but I found it to be superb on unpaved roads of sand or dirt. There’s a reason that bugs were being chopped into dune buggies!
        K-

        • Yep! Great little beasts to work on, too. Remember changing the oil? Just drain, clean the screen (no filter) and add – if I recall right – about three quarts of fresh oil – done! Solex single barrel carb was about as simple as it got.

          People used to hop them up and got… well, some performance out of them. Good times…

  12. Yet even these later modern Shit Boxes were miles ahead of their originals. I’m 59 and my first shit boxes (my 1st car was a ’55 Buick) like the Renault Dauphine, VW Beatle and Simca were truly, unbelievably bad cars. I followed them up by the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto but they were better than what came before them and the shit boxes of the 80s were better then what went before those. It always amuses me when I talk to old motorheads of my years when they wax nostalgic for the old cars of their youth. I remind them that their memories are failing because I remember them all too well. I owned them and WORKED on them. Hell, the ’57 Chevy is a shit box extraordinare compared to a modern Chevy like an Impala or something like that. Modern cars are so good that I can hardly believe it. And for all you old motorheads out there all I can say is: THANK GOD FOR COMPUTERS!

  13. Ahhh memories. My first auto was a 1979 Ford Fairmont with the 2.3 and a 4 speed manual. Twas a shitbox of legendary proportions. My favorite one tho was an underpowered 1979 Datsun pickup. Quite an upgrade from the Fairmont. I have never owned anything with more rust. But that pickup got tremendous mileage and was extremely dependable considering I purchased it for 50$ in 1993 after it had at least 150,000 miles on it.

  14. Ahh yes, the shitbox. I had a rusty but ran great 80 Subaru wagon, 2wd with 5 speed. 85 Subie 4wd wagon with automatic, and lots of miles. Slowest POS I have ever owned. It was almost unsafe to enter a highway. Also had my favorite shitbox, an 82 made in the US rabbit diesel. Also slow as molassas in January, but otherwise a decent car.It had the 3 plus E trans, which was a 5 speed without 4th gear. Made driving in the Shenandoah valley “interesting” to say the least. There have been others of course (I have owned over 100 cars….), but these were the most memorable.

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