It Used to Be Fun

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New cars have everything going for them except fun. Most are suffocatingly “safe” – and as entertaining as anything else with that word attached to it.

Here are some things that were lots of fun, when cars weren’t “safe”:

The three-across bench seat –

New cars with two rows of seats only seat five – one of them (the occupant of the middle seat in the second row) uncomfortably. This is so because all new cars have bucket seats and (up front) a center console separating the driver and “shotgun” seat.

In the past, most cars except for sporty cars seated six – comfortably – because there was no center console socially distancing the driver and front-seat passenger – making it possible for the passenger to snuggle up to the driver (no forced seat-belt-wearing in those days, either) and making it feasible for a very sociable three-across up front as well as in the back.

It was cozy – or comfortable – and sometimes both. It was also practical because you didn’t need to by a vehicle with a third row to carry six people.

So why did it go away? For saaaaaaaaaafety! Harder to keep people cinched in place and facing their designated dashboard claymore without buckets to keep them cinched in place.

Even trucks have bucket seats now.

Idiot lights – 

Practically every new car has a full set of gauges – to keep you apprised over what you have little, if any control over. A tachometer, for instance – to keep track of how fast the engine is spinning even though over-revving is no longer possible because of rev limiters that cut fuel and spark if the redline is reached and because of the near-ubiquity of the automatic transmission, which shifts at the RPM it is programmed to shift at and won’t let you shift at an RPM its programming doesn’t like.

Back when almost no new cars except for high-performance cars had gauges, they had idiot lights – and you had more control over the car. It was very possible to over-rev the engine if you weren’t paying attention to the tach – assuming you had one. If not, you learned to rev by ear.

This was fun!

Also fun, the sudden, with-no-warning illumination of the idiot light. The oil light, for instance, which came on to let you know you now have no oil pressure. It was fun to sound the klaxons, call red alert and shut off the engine right now and coast to the side of the road, hoping it was just a bad sender or disconnected wire and not a spun main bearing.

Idiot lights were like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get.

Or, when!

Brakes that locked up –

Once upon a time, if you slammed on the brakes, the wheels would lock and the car would skid in whatever direction it had been going unless you had the presence of mind to let off the brakes.

This was before ABS (anti-lock) brakes, which became common in the early ’90s and ubiquitous today.

But skidding could be fun – especially if you meant to do it. If you can’t do it – because of ABS – you cannot perform the art of locking the wheels up, cranking the wheel around and then letting off the brakes to end the skid and send the car pirouetting in the desired direction. Which was all kinds of fun, if you knew how to do it.

Almost no one under 40 does today, because they grew up after ABS became ubiquitous and locking up the wheels became impossible.

Yes, yes . . . ABS is “safer.” But maybe not. People unafraid of uncontrolled skids that no longer happen tend to ride too close to the car in front of them – and all the ABS in the world can’t counteract the physics of not enough time to stop.

PS: Pull-up emergency brakes were fun, too. They’re still around – but rapidly disappearing. Have fun with them while you still can.

The power mast antenna – 

Modern cars still have antennas, but they’re built into plastic “shark fins” mounted on the roof. These are not nearly as fun as the mast that rose whenever you turned the radio on – and sometimes, not. Then you had the fun of fishing the thing out of the fender. There was also the fun of forgetting to lower it and coming back from dinner to your parked car to find someone had bent it into a right angle for you.

Lots of fun!

Another kind of antenna was the one embedded in the windshield – so as to keep it from being bent at right angles by curbside customizers. It left a clean look – even cleaner than the “shark fin” – but without much reception. Still, it was fun in a way to try to keep tuned in while moving.

Fast-moving power windows – 

Before the Safety Cult ruined the fun, you could trap a belligerent squeegee man’s hand in situ using the power window to so. There was no sensor to cut off the fun if someone’s paw was in its path. It was also possible to roll the window down – or up – exactly as far or not as you wanted it rolled up or down.

It stopped moving when you stopped pushing the button.

Modern power windows are automatic and “one touch” and trying to get them to stop in transit is a not-fun exercise in back-and-forthing. Plus, they’re useless for dealing with annoying squeegee men.

. . .

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33 COMMENTS

  1. Used to be fun, as a kid, riding in the back of a pickup, at 70 mph, up and down hills on country roads, all of us kids laughing at feeling our stomachs go up and down so much, the wind blowing our hair and faces, and every kid being happy.

  2. I’m totally down with the bench seat and column shift, now. I want my next vehicle to be as close to a couch on a boat as I can get. I want the seats to be so comfortable I fall asleep while driving. I want the suspension to be so soft, the car flips when rolling through a stop sign making a turn at 10mph. I want so much bounce, that when I hit a slight pavement elevation change, the car is still bouncing from it when I get home.

  3. Eric,

    I’ve come to your little island of sanity and freedom having been incensed full of atomic anger by the other media who keep pushing and pushing for saaaaaaffettyyyyy!!! and The Cases! The Cases!! GRRRAAAAAAAAHHH!!!!!!! I can’t handle it anymore!!

    Also, there was this old movie from the ’60s, I believe, with (possibly) Frank Sinatra, I saw a while ago They had a car with a big bench seat like the one you have pictured. While driving, the man and his lady broke out a f***ing bar, and poured themselves some cocktails! I thought “Jesus, America used to be so cool!”. No more. Just a bunch of sniveling twats whining for their saaaaaffety!

    Thanks for existing.

    (Everyone, feel free to correct me about the details of that movie if you’re familiar.)

  4. Notice the thickness of that bench seat, equals comfort! My 79 Gran Prix had that bench but with a fold down arm rest. Total comfort, and body on frame meant quiet too.
    When I bought it used in 84 it was on Consumer Reports “don’t buy list”. Idiots. 65k when purchased and 355k when it went to charity in 2005. 301 Pontiac V8 and the infamous Turbo 200 Metric trans. Transmission was rebuild before I bought it and other than fluid changes no fixes. Engine too, always prefill your oil filters! I miss you Old Yeller!

  5. Hearing the exhaust note (though often engineered and even selectable in today’s high-end vehicles) is fun that you’re not gonna have in an EV. At least an EV saves money, according to Tesla. But an Aussie site disagrees:

    “[Tesla’s] estimates include at least three incorrect figures: how much electricity a Tesla Model 3 uses, the cost of electricity at a Tesla Supercharger and the price of petrol.

    “The recent increase in the Supercharger cost to 52 cents per kilowatt-hour is well up on the 42c/kWh on the Tesla website.

    “That means recharging even the most efficient Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus – which consumes 18.8kWh/100km, according to figures supplied to the government – would cost $9.78 per 100km using a Supercharger.

    “A rival BMW 330i costs $8.00 per 100km assuming an average cost of premium unleaded of $1.38 [per liter], one sourced from the NSW Government’s Fuel Check website.

    https://www.whichcar.com.au/car-news/teslas-now-more-expensive-to-charge-than-petrol-cars

    Multiplying by 0.73 to convert to US dollars, that’s US$0.38 per kWh to charge an EV … more than double the average $0.17 per kWh in the Peoples State of California, and more than triple the $0.11 per kWh average in the US.

    Of course, Tesla marks up the cost of power at the Supercharger to recover its capital investment. But what’s ‘behind the outlet’ is a monopoly utility, facing costly renewable power mandates and needing its own aggressive rate hikes.

    It illustrates the long-term plan: force conversion to an electric fleet, then mercilessly mulct the victims to discourage mobility. And that’s no damned fun at all.

  6. The “feature” that, to me, wins The Golden Hemorrhoid Award is when you shift into reverse and the outside mirrors tilt downward.

    AARRRGGGHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. There is a thing which machines demonstrate that can not be quantified. Personality. Whether it be the sum total of the machine produced by the particular engineer that designed it, or simply the perception of the one operating it, it does exist. The more automated it is, the less it has. If a car is as simple to operate as a toaster, how is it going to demonstrate this ghost in the machine? A thing, or animal, with a personality does a thing that modern cars will not allow. It will argue with you. The modern car insists! The older car might be forced to comply with your desires.
    A thing about braking. Perhaps my intuitive engineering is wrong, but on dry pavement, at normal operating temperature, how can ABS stop you faster than pavement ripping rubber off of a tire?

    • A controlled rolling tire has more grip that a stopped, sliding tire. Skidding or sliding is when you do not have traction. (Conversely, how much acceleration do you have with a tire that is doing a burnout?) By automating “threshold” braking a car will stop more quickly. An added benefit it that a locked wheel can only go in a straight line while ABS allow for the Ability to Brake and Steer around an object.

    • ‘There is a thing which machines demonstrate that can not be quantified. Personality.’ — JWK

      The original Volkswagen — conceived in the 1930s when radar, transistors and jet airplanes were still a science fiction dream — rolled on for a 60-year production run that will never be equaled.

      Such was the force of its distinctive personality that it got nearly as many movie roles as Brad Pitt, without even speaking a word of dialogue:

      http://newsroom.vw.com/vehicles/tbt-ten-movies-co-starring-volkswagen-classics/

      Try to imagine ANY modern vehicle achieving such iconic cultural status.

      Though if post-nuclear dystopian flicks should enjoy a resurgence, one can envision some of today’s giant pickups appearing as rusty relics on a deserted beach.

      • And it’d be a great investment in basic transportation (daily driver and short trips, i.e. less than 200 miles). As long as you don’t live in an oven like Phoenix or Las Vegas, as only in later years did they have air conditioning, and the ones that did were terribly under-powered and the A/C wasn’t all that effective anyway. Until about ’68, you had to learn how to drive a ‘stick’, period, but that was part of the FUN. The nice thing was, the damned things, if you observed a strict maintenance schedule (oil change, clean the oil filter SCREEN (spin-on filters came later and you could get an adapter kit, but the engine was loose enough that retrofitting really wasn’t needed), adjust the valves no less than once a year or 10K miles (if you used neoprene gaskets, you could get at least two adjustments before they’d leak), yank the plugs and clean them, replace every other year, and time the engine…and if you didn’t have a timing light, there was a way to move the distributor with the ignition on and listen for the ‘snap’ which typically was just as accurate. On older ones, clean and re-oil the OIL BATH air cleaner. Check the clutch adjustment once a year, as well as pull the DRUM brakes off, look at the linings, and if they were good and the wheel cylinders didn’t leak, it’d take a couple of minutes per wheel to adjust the brakes. Get a grease gun and squirt the fittings on the front suspension and steering every other oil change. Seems like a LOT? Not really, most of that could be done in an afternoon of having the ballgame on the radio and nursing a couple of GERMAN beers. Oh, yeah, keep a point file and file those points and check the gap BEFORE you time that engine, most point sets were replaced way too often, you get three years out of a set of ignition points and condensor and rotor (just sand the rotor tip with some crocus cloth to brighten it). Keeping a VW Beetle “happy” was something almost any “shade tree” mechanic could easily do and it’s cost-effective and FUN.

        Want any bets that “Gabbin'” Newsome and CARB will outlaw old Beetles soon, citing S-A-A-A-A-F-T-E-E-E-E-E or “saving the planet” as reasons? In reality, it bugs then that, ala HL Mencken’s refrain, that someone out there is having a good time!

  8. I just bought a new car this year for the first time since 2002 and now I have this big touchscreen, which means there is no tactile feedback to messing with my music now. I hate it. I miss my old 90s Pioneer head unit, with which I could easily select tracks or change stations without looking, which I can no longer do because now I have to look at the screen. This may cost some poor pedestrian his life someday.

    Oh, and just to add insult to injury, this music system severely limits the interface when the car is in motion. It took me awhile to figure that out; I kept cussing and wondering why I couldn’t find the tracklist. All you can do is skip through playlists and tracks *serially*, if the vehicle is moving. I don’t think it’s safer, because what would have taken me 5-10 seconds to do before (finding a particular track), now can take 5 minutes, if I have to scroll through 50 songs, since the delay when scrolling through tracks and especially playlists is quite high. This is a 2020 Toyota 4Runner, by the way.

    • Hi D Hata,

      Yup; I ought to have added that. The peremptory nannying of new cars is stifling. But also inevitable. Once it became in vogue to make cars “safe” the car companies went loony making them “safe.”

      Because that’s the way the American mind works. Never moderation in anything. One hyperventilating extreme to the next.

  9. Those big back seats were FUN too! 🙂 My favorite memories of the “firsts” were all in those vinyl covered couches nestled between 4 wheels.

    One not fun at all thing about safety cult cars is the low window pillar. Try getting into a new car when you are 6′ or more tall and you find contortion is necessary. Forget elegant ingress/egress and no way can you wear a nice hat in a “new” car like the gents of yesteryear.

    Leftists are killjoys who allege that we conservatives are “oppressing” them with our “50s values”. Idiots. We all know you libtards hate the F word: “Fun”

  10. Cars today don’t look “fun” either. They look mean in a tryhard way. Robocars. Tuff and kewlcars when they’re anything but (oh danggg, is that a Honda CIVIC?!).

    I grew up in the friendly goofy looking cars of the 1990s with big happy “eyes.” Now all the headlights are aggressive little bitch squints. As above, so below.

  11. The power mast antennae usually only came on luxury cars; they were STATUS symbols! Radio Shack used to have a kit that would allow you to install a power mast antenna. But yeah, they weren’t that common…

    • I thought we won the Gott-damned war. If MacArthur could see how we’ve pissed away the hard-won victory over the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”…

        • I’ve heard more than a few commentators point out that the American electorate doesn’t seem to value their individual freedoms, but simply seek a “Better” Master. They forgot the quote from Daniel Webster:

          “There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters”

  12. I didn’t know about the more-aggressive power windows but man, would those ne useful.

    What I really hate is all the buzzers and warning lights you can’t exorcise. Let’s say, for example, that you have a car with TPMS.

    Let’s also say that one of your tires has a slow leak that needs 10 lbs of air every two weeks. So that’s what you do because fuck it.

    YOU know it’s no big deal but the car doesn’t.

    So every time you start the car, you have to not only turn off the stability control, but if the low-air-pressure warning comes on before you hold down the button to turn off the ESC, after the message that the ESC is off goes away, the TPMS warning starts over from zero. And lasts for ten seconds.

    When you pay it off, it gets sold and you go buy that third-gen Trans Am you always wanted.

    You know, the car built before The Freak Show ruined the word “Trans” for the rest of us.

  13. One thing you didn’t mention a column shift manual.

    So I’d make the point that some of those things were fun, some of them interesting and some just were the way things were.

    I had a 1968 FJ40. Toyota at that point put in 3-speed column shifter, a bench seat, warning lights. It was all that we think we like now. But by the time I’d sold it I had converted it to a later 4-speed transmission with a floor shift and buckets with a center console (storage being more important than passengers!).

    Some of this is the manufacturers bringing desirable features down to cheaper vehicles. That’s how capitalism and free markets improve things for everyone.

    There’s some of these things that are still available as options, like stick shifts, for knucklehead hold-outs like me. Which is also how free markets work. Most people since the 1950s felt an automatic transmission was a feature and many were willing to pay for it as an optional upgrade. A Corolla with a stick shift wasn’t trying to cater to an enthusiast, it was just because it was cheaper to make them that way and you got better MPG. Now a stick shift is truly just for enthusiasts and arguably that makes more sense automatics have very little efficiency penalty and are plenty reliable.

    I think we’re just nostalgic. I of course agree with you that the EPA and DOT distort the market but we can’t blame everything on that. A fair bit is simply competition to draw customers.

    People in the 1970s loved their Big 3 domestics but it turned out that wondering when you’d be on the side of the road working on your Buick was less fun than just driving your Honda. It was the Japanese relentlessly making more reliable and longer lasting cars that really I think took the real fun out of driving and make them as boring as toasters.

    • If all you want is plain old toast, it’d not a big deal. If you want English muffins, and Strudel, and Danishes, that’s another matter. At least you get to ENJOY life.

    • I once had a 64 Studebaker Commander with 3 on the column manual. Could get into all gears except reverse by not using the clutch.

    • 1976…Columbus, Ohio…early November…6PM…dark…raining…Fiat X-1/9…hit the left turn signal…left headlight goes up and down in synch with the turn signal…ahhh…good times…

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