The main reason people were more interested in cars, once, was because cars were more interesting, once.
This does not mean they were better – in the dispassionate sense. They were often not especially well-made or reliable, as most new cars are. Few approached the now-almost-boring performance capabilities of even average-performing new cars.
Park an AMC Pacer anywhere in public and it will draw more attention than a new Corvette. Not just because of the Pacer’s wonderfully interesting shape, which resembles an upturned bathtub and looks like nothing else. Unlike the new Corvette, which looks very much like everything else that’s “exotic” today. Unlike the exotics of the past, such as a Lamborghini Countach – which (like the Pacer) also looks like nothing else.
The Pacer was interesting everywhere.
One door (the passenger’s side) was longer than the other – to ease access to the interior. The seats could be covered in the same denim material used to make Levi’s jeans – complete with brass rivets. This was . . . interesting on a hot, sunny day. The car was originally conceived for rotary engine power but that didn’t work out. Instead, you could choose an inline six or a small V8. Three on the tree and three (pedals) on the floor.
It was unlike anything else. Like the oddball kid in your high school class that everyone remembers. It is part of what made high school memorable. It is why there are high school reunions. No one goes to a reunion of the “class” from their first cube-farm McJob. It was just a job.
Today, we have just cars. Most of which aren’t even that – cars having given way to crossovers and SUVs, all of which are so similar that they are as uninteresting as the racks of loaves of bread at the supermarket. Most people just grab one. Any one. What difference does it make?
One of the reasons why there is so little difference these days has to do with the design focus, which isn’t on design. That is an afterthought. The blinkered vision is focused on the numbers.
If it is a performance car, like Corvette, then it is the zero-to-60 number. The number indicated by the stopwatch at the end of a run down the Nurburgring. These numbers become all-that-matters and the result is that much is lost – such as the intangibly interesting thing that is being able to shift for yourself. Obsessed by the numbers posted by others, the Corvette’s designers got rid of the unpredictable performance of the manual transmission, in favor of an automatic that shifts by-the-numbers, every single time. The Corvette’s rivals did the same.
A kind of Nexus of Sominex is reached when all the numbers are the same. Even if they are zero-to-60 in 2.9 seconds.
A ’67 Corvette couldn’t do that. But have a look at it.
The consequences of this fixation on numbers can be seen everywhere – in the uniform sameness of almost everything that is new. It is why almost every make/model of new vehicle comes standard with the same 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine. It might not be exactly the same, but the layout and displacement are – because that is the layout and displacement that best suits the numbers laid down by government regulators. This is also why the Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic is becoming the same transmission in so many new cars, too. It helps the car companies meet the fuel economy numbers.
You don’t see much difference in shapes anymore, either. Nothing Pacer-like, at any rate. Also because of the numbers. Shapes are constrained by them. A kind of Universal Crossover shape is taking hold because that shape best hews to the numbers as they relate to bumper and side-impact standards, rollover/roof crush and so on. And so we end up with the same overall shapes, with styling differences limited to the shape of the headlight assemblies and grills – some lower and wider, others taller.
It’s not very interesting inside, either.
The newest cars all have a digital-display dash with another digital display off to the right. Soon, they are likely to all have these, with the differences limited to how big one is vs. the other. Which is the difference between a large and a super-sized soft drink.
Back when cars were still interesting, many didn’t have any gauges to speak of. A few did – and that made them very interesting. It is uninteresting when every car has a tachometer (and even less so when almost every car has an automatic transmission, for the sake of the numbers).
They also had interesting steering wheels, specific to the car. Much attention was given to making these different because they were once the centerpiece of the car’s interior. The three-spoke Formula steering wheel that came standard in 1970-81 Pontiac Trans-Ams, for example, helped make them more interesting than the 1970-1981 Chevy Camaro it was related to. Today, all the steering wheels in all cars look pretty much the same because they have to have the same air bag in them, as decreed by the numbers.
Maybe it wasn’t as “safe” before this obsession with making everything the same took hold. But it was a lot more interesting. Like dating a different woman rather than the same Fembot, however perfect she may be, by the numbers.
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