The Shitbox, Fondly Recalled

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The late and very great Brock Yates coined the term.


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 Yugo.

The Chevette is a contender. A Citation even more so.

No one makes cars like that anymore.

Things on four wheels with the hearts of worn-out lawnmowers and embarrassing names like Champ and Protege and Aspire (the car that hopes one day to be a car).

If you missed the ’70s and ’80s, you missed out.

Zero to 60 times in the 15-30 second range, with top speeds around 85 mph. 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 single-wides. A speedometer and a gas gauge, nothing more.

They leaked; rust began to bubble before the warranty expired. They sputtered and stalled. They made pathetic sounds and looked even more so.

Modern economy cars are nothing like that.

The least of them can reach 60 mph in about 9  seconds and most will do at least 115 on top, which is more speed than most late ’70s muscle cars had.

They come standard with air conditioning and are fitted out with a complete set of instruments and almost always not-half-bad stereo rig – usually with a CD player and four speakers.

They are far from shitty – or even boxy.

Some are nice enough in their own right that you’d think about buying one because you like it, not because you can’t afford something 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 or at least seen a Datsun B210, a Toyota Starlet, Subaru Justy, an early K-car or Plymouth Champ.

Those were shitboxes.

Thirteen inch steel wheels and four lug hubs 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.

All the crashworthiness of  a brightly painted cardboard refrigerator container. If you hit something, you’d feel it. Hit a tree , and it would be the very last thing you’d feel.

But they did have their charms.

With early onset tire squeal 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 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 kept sweats and other warm extra clothes in the trunk, 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 would 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 modern economy car that’s memorable in the way the old stuff was. They rarely break down and none of them are dangerous. Few are unpleasant to drive. They have AC, adequate stereos. Decent seats. More and more of them either have or offer GPS and satellite radio.

Driving cross-country in one would not be like crossing the Atlantic in the 16th century aboard a rickety, scurvy laden Golden Hind.

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.

Brock would grok this.

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  1. I had the opportunity to drive a rented KIA Nero hybrid through 7 states putting near 1500 miles on it in one week. Amazed by the comfort and 49 + MPG. I’m an old guy, and I remember the compacts of the 70’s and early 80’s. You are correct in calling many of them “shitboxes”. Despite all the regulations, things are better in many ways today.

  2. hmm, I learned to drive in a 1988 (I think) mitsu montero, the 2 door version which was later a dodge raider. The thing was great. I wouldn’t call it unsafe but boy was it fun.

    It had a plug in heater because the heat barely worked, in winter you’d have to get out and scrape the wind shield. Man I miss that car.

  3. I’ll guarantee you that some statist out there will claim this is due to the benevolent standards and regulations placed on the manufacturers by government. However, the argument holds no water. In reality, we would probably have even better, and cheaper, transportation options running a wider gamut of choices than we currently do. The fact that modern econoboxes are as good, and relatively inexpensive, as they are speaks more to the power of the market to overcome hurdles, be they engineering ones or regulatory onens, than anything else, and in the face of fewer artificial regulatory hurdles, their products would be even better.

    Consider that in many foreign markets, including even in Europe, which is not exactly backwater, one can easily purchase an econobox with somewhere around 50-70 hp, room for 4 adults and some luggage, capable of topping out around 100mph, and that gets well north of 50mpg (more, if diesel) for the equivalent of about $7-9k. These are not exactly unsafe or even that bad to drive, especially compared to their equivalents in the late ’70s and the ’80s. They are perfectly serviceable but do not exist in the US because of the wisdom of our government overlords in having the world’s most restrictive automotive regulations.

    The closest we have in the US to one of the old-style econoboxes is the Mitsubishi Mirage. Though it may be, by a substantial margin, the worst econobox you can buy new in the US currently, it would have been a superstar as recently as 15-20 years ago. As I understand it, it also has its charms. In the face of more sophisticated competition, it has a fairly simple (read: reliable, easy to work on, cheap to repair) engine under the hood and not a lot of electronics to go bad. Surprisingly, it’s not even the cheapest MSRP vehicle one can buy new in the US. That would be the Nissan Versa sedan, which also isn’t a great car by today’s standards but is quite good by historic standards.

    The free market, even one as kneecapped as the US automotive industry, is always competing for consumer dollars, even if it’s from consumers without very many of them. If there’s a demand, they are trying to find a way to meet it.

  4. Um the protege was the name for a couple-three generations of Mazda’s 323 or 3 series. Familia in Japan. They are not shitboxes by any stretch of the term. Maybe a 1980s 323 was but they were long gone before the Protege name started to be used.

  5. Ah yes! The memories of driving a Gremlin with 3 speed manual trans (no synchro on 1st gear), unstable 4-wheel drum brakes, 13″ bias-ply tires, manual steering (6 turns lock-to-lock), and vacuum windshield wipers. The rear end on that thing was so light that it would start to skid if someone down the street spilled a glass of water. Handling? What handling? Who needs shocks? Or sway bars?

    The car rode like a buckboard, the seats would break your back, and it rusted like crazy. But it was cheap, always ran, and got you where you needed to go.

  6. Driving through my grass patch wasn’t particularly rough but it did have holes, mostly from gophers and they would give you a jolt. One day I hit one in my Nissan pickup and the bottom of the seat impacted the floor, sorta rough on the old tush. Time for one of those old flat pillows off the end of a couch.

  7. You described my 79 Datsun 210 to a T! Especially the part about the seat springs jabbing me in the balls – so true, except I fixed mine with duct tape instead of electric. Rusted, rattling, falling apart, shitbox is a very apt description! Overall though, it was a pretty decent and reliable car for the times. Only problem I ever had was a bad u joint, which I changed in the street since we didn’t have a driveway at the time. I’ll never forget that car (nor will the wife) because my youngest was born in the front seat of it. She went into labor and he popped out before we could get to the hospital. Great memories, and you’re right Eric, I doubt today’s 20 somethings will reminisce fondly or have any good stories about their 2016 Hyundai Sonata 30 years from now. Best part of those cars was no 5 or 6 year loan. I paid around 400 bucks for it IIRC and it was only about 4 years old when I bought it.

  8. One other nice feature is that 4-6 guys could pick them up and move them, especially when the gas tank was empty (a common occurrence). Lots of fun in the school parking lot.

  9. One thing about the modern economy cars: They’re not really economical, like the shitboxes were; they’re just cheap to buy. Most of ’em can’t touch the MPGs of a B210 or Rabbit when new, much less after a year or two. Many of ’em get no better mileage than a good ol’ V8 would. (Friend’s wife’s Alero got 23MPG, same as my old Town Car!(.

    I wonder iffin the new ones are really even safer. The crumple zones crumple, and you end up with passenger compartment intrusion at the drop of a hat. Some of the Carolas and things of that ilk are STILL pretty tinny and unsubstantial when you close the door, or touch the window frame when the door is open- really no better than the B210.

    I hated the shitboxes, but at least for those who wanted real economy, they could get it. (I hated them so much, in the 80’s I had a friend who had an Escort, and it was such a downer to ride in that car, I was always happy to pitch in for gas if our other friend would take us in his Ramcharger!)


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