Americans’ love affair with the car has cooled off but not because Americans don’t love cars. Rather, it is because of what cars have become.
Once, they were like the pretty girl who smiled at you in class, back in high school. They made your pulse uptick, filled your mind with happy possibilities. You wanted one. And – once upon a time – the one often led to the other.
Or at least, helped.
Now, cars are like a sourpuss pants-suit-wearing wife who long ago stopped smiling at you – and bats away your hand when you try to hold hers. You don’t want to see – much less hear her anymore – and wish you could get away from her, but you need to stay married for the sake of the kids or so as to avoid losing your shirt.
This transition occurred because of the sourpuss, pant-suit-wearing types, not necessarily your wife – which makes it even worse.
Pants-suiters such as Joan Claybrook – the old sourpuss who headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (italics added for the should-be-obvious reason) back in the ‘70s, when saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety – as defined by some old sourpuss – somehow became a function of government, formerly concerned with ensuring that people’s rights were respected and dealing with people who caused harm to others.
Claybrook was a disciple and acolyte of another pants-suiter who happened to be male, nominally – Ralph Nader. He was the John the Baptist figure of Safetysim, the cult which first ruined cars and is now ruining everything else.
Nader anointed himself a “public citizen” and began to “represent” the “public,” despite not one member of the actual public ever having voted to give this man proxy power to “represent” them or anyone else. He and his termagant protege began to agitate for the government to impose (via regulations) “safety” standards upon new cars; which is to say, to impose them upon new car buyers – most of whom had previously expressed no interest in them, as via a willingness to pay for them. And who may have had a very different view of what “safety” constitutes.
For some, “safety” meant a car that was road-worthy, free of defects in design or manufacture that rendered it dangerous to drive – controlled by a driver competent to sit behind the wheel.
One example will suffice to make the point.
Nader became famous by smearing the Chevrolet Corvair, which was an unusual car for an American car of the early ‘60s. It was rear-engined, like a Porsche – which made the front end light and also made for easy steering without need of power steering. It was a very nimble-handling car, which was also very unusual for an American car of the early 1960s.
But it was important to read – and follow – the tire inflation pressure recommendations, which were not the same, front-to-rear. And that was also unusual, for an American car. The sticker was right there, but some people didn’t read it – and inflated all four tires to the same PSI. This worsened the lift-throttle (in a curve) oversteer tendency that all rear-engined cars – including the same era Porsches and VW Beetles – were prone to. Just as front-drive cars today tend to understeer when put into a curve at high speed.
Oversteer is different. The rear end breaks away and the car tends to pirouette into a spin if the driver doesn’t know how to correct for this. It is less forgiving than understeer and magnified in the case of the Corvair with incorrectly inflated tires. But it is also enjoyable – for those with skill, who know to keep on the throttle in the curve. And who follow the tire inflation pressure specifications.
The problem, then, was not the car but its owner/driver. The latter often mismatched because the Corvair – unlike the Beetle – was powerful enough to get the unschooled into trouble, sooner and – unlike the Porsche – was affordable enough to be purchased by lots of people, some of whom who didn’t have much experience with rear-engined, European-style sporty cars.
Ralph who-didn’t-drive and who dislikes cars blamed the car – describing it (though not the fundamentally similar Porsche or VW Beetle) as Unsafe at Any Speed. His fame – and influence – spread. Abetted by an if-it-bleeds-it-leads media, corporations were browbeaten and government was empowered.
Cars were festooned with ugly “5 MPH” bumpers, ruining their looks like braces mar the face of an otherwise pretty girl. Seatbelt interlocks were ordered. You had to “buckle up” before you could drive.
Saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety became policy. Not roadworthiness. Not competence. Beauty – and fun – took a back seat to how fast you could drive a car into a tree and live. Every time someone did something idiotic, everyone else got idiot-proofed. Someone reverses over a kid they didn’t “see” – because the Safety Booty of their government-mandated car is so bulbous no one can see what’s behind it anymore?
An idiot pushes the accelerator to the floor and “unintentionally” accelerates into the living room? Hound Audi to near ruin.
Outlaw bed-mounted, rear-facing jumpseats. Make T-Tops impossible, via “roof crush” regulations.
Idiots drive SUVs at 90 MPH on balding, under-inflated tires? Blame Ford – and Firestone. Force a redesign of all SUVs to accommodate idiots who neither understand nor respect the difference between an SUV and a sports car. Make every new car buyer pay for electronic tire pressure inflation monitors so as to not have to bother with actually confirming the tire pressure, themselves.
Claybrook became the head of the federal saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety apparat under Jimmy Carter. She was eventually succeeded by another pants-suit wearer, the harpie wife of Bob Doooooooooooooooole. She was the one most responsible for the “passive restraint” mandates that led – first – to those idiotic automatic-buckle-you-up seatbelts that many cars made in the early ‘90s came with and then to the deadly air bags all new cars now come with.
All six or more of them.
Fast forward to now and practically every new car is a kind of mobile pants-suit, jabbing you in the ribs at every turn via “driver assistance” technology that jerks the wheel when you attempt to turn off the road or change lanes without signaling first – even if there’s no other car in proximity to see you signal. Lights that flash in the dash – and brakes that come on, unbidden – when the four-wheeled-pants-suit thinks you are too close to whatever it thinks you are too close to.
The engine cuts off at every red light. If you try to back up with the door open – so you can see the curb, say – the pants-suit summarily puts the transmission into Park. Soon – within just a couple of years – the pants-suit will analyze your breath to make sure you’ve not been drinking.
And they wonder why people drink – and no longer feel much affection for what cars have become.
. . .
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