Back In The Old Days, Cars Came Only With AM And FM. And A Cassette Deck. And A CD Player. And We LIKED It!

Northland VW in Cincinnati, Greta's previous owner

Northland Volkswagen

This past weekend, I noticed a number of car ads featuring blind spot warnings, anti-collision systems that slam on the brakes, and, of course, the Cadillac’s that combine backup cameras with warning radar. What struck me is which models had this technology. While Cadillac is still a luxury brand, it’s often a harbinger for things to come for Chevy, Buick, and GMC. But the blind-spot warnings? Kia, the budget-priced line from Hyundai. Anti-collision braking? Subaru. Cars you or I might expect to own. I’m surprised Greta (the 2011 Jetta pictured left) does not have any of this yet, given that Volkswagen’s engineering rivals that of Benz and BMW (with the odd-for-Germany distinction of being easily reparable.)

But the Jetta has antilock brake that don’t feel like antilock brakes. My previous three cars had antilock that made you feel as though you were rolling over rough ground. I’ve had two occasions to slam on Greta’s brakes. The Jetta clearly has antilock, but it actually feels like brakes being slammed. The calipers and drums squeeze so fast that it’s clear the car is not going to go into a skid. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to send you flying through the windshield despite the seatbelt catching.

What struck me was how far we’ve come with cars. My first car, along with all the cars my dad owned up until the 1990’s, was a rear-wheel drive with no antilock (such things were about ten years into the future or only on expensive cars like Mercedes or BMW), no air conditioning, not even a cassette deck. My first car stereo was a boom box that I got very good with swapping tapes while flying down the freeway at 70 mph (long before Ohio had a 65 mph speed limit.) I didn’t own my first front-wheel drive car until about 1994. Every car I’ve since owned has had a tape deck or a CD player or both. Every car I’ve owned since 1999 has not had a spot of rust. Some of that is because I could afford newer cars, but at the 100,000 mile mark on the odometer, the cars had little if any rust at all on them. The body of my dad’s Taurus (a car I still miss despite its blandness) was still rust-free when I got rid of it.

57 Chevy

Photo by vegavairbob, Creative Commons

My dad’s first car was the classic 57 Chevy. A friend of mine in high school restored one. The car was a stick shift, which was standard up until the 1990’s. It had a heater and no air conditioner. Had the car been sold in the South originally, Detroit would have left out the heater. It did not have power steering. It didn’t have power anything. It would have reminded me of the Yugo had the cars not been so solidly built. Thousands of cars from that era still prowl the roads of Cuba fifty to sixty years later. But think about what came before.

Turn signals, invented in 1907, did not become standard until just before World War II. Between World War I and World War II, we had cars that had to be started by crank instead of key. The choke, a part that no longer exists on most modern cars (fuel injection, you know), had to be manually operated.

Softeis, Creative Commons

Softeis, Creative Commons

Before World War I? Cars were basically carriages with a primitive gasoline engine, sometimes electric, mounted underneath. The steering wheel? Sometimes it was a stick. Cars at the turn of the twentieth century were like PC’s in the 1980’s. There was no standard way to make one. No two looked alike. Even when cars began looking like the modern enclosed machines we know today, only the passenger seat in the back was enclosed. The driver, usually a hired driver since such vehicles were luxury items, sat out in the open.

xeno.org, Creative Commons

xeno.org, Creative Commons

But if you really want to get primitive, you have to go back before Henry Ford, before the first Oldsmobile, before Daimler and Benz mounted the first gasoline engine beneath a horse carriage, all the way back to 1769, before the United States even existed. French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot mounted a steam engine, then an experimental technology much like today’s electric and plugin hybrid cars, on an artillery wagon, inventing the first viable automobile. There is evidence of a Jesuit priest building one in China about a century earlier, but the vehicle was too small for a passenger or driver. Cugnot built several for the French army. Two years later, one of Cugnot’s vehicles crashed into an arsenal wall, causing the world’s first traffic accident. Cugnot was fined for the incident, which gives him the dubious distinction of the world’s first traffic ticket.

Cugnot’s contraption needed to be constantly refired, had very little power – less than a lawn mower – and was hard to steer and brake. Now? Radar and self-stopping cars. Some parallel park themselves. Almost no one learns to drive stick anymore. Stereos, air conditioning, power steering, and power windows and locks are all standard. Some cars don’t even use keys anymore. And now we’re ten to fifteen years from hydrogen-powered cars and self-driving vehicles.

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