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., Creative Commons, 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.

Five Cylinders All Mine!

Northland VW in Cincinnati, Greta’s previous owner

Six years ago, my late father’s venerable Ford Taurus, dubbed “The Wintermobile” ran afoul of a common Ford ailment. It stripped a spark plug and sucked it into the engine. After an expensive and aborted attempt to replace the motor (which my brother eventually succeeded doing), I punted and bought another car. As this was the first time gas had hit $4/gallon, I went cheap and lightweight, buying a 2005 Dodge Neon.


It wasn’t a bad little car, easy on gas. But at the same time, it had a balky transmission and loose motor mounts. At 105,000 miles, it was pretty clear Mercedes had no freaking clue how to build an American car as the Neon began rattling and blowing minor parts. After blowing two sensors in a month (including a camshaft sensor I’d had replaced last year), I decided it was time for The Princess to either take Grandma to the grocery store or finish its life with the punishing duty of pizza delivery car. So about five minutes after my mechanic called to say the car was done (and remind me the water pump was on its last legs), a ad popped up on the Weather Channel site. One of the cars was a 2011 Jetta with 30,000 miles and the right price. I clicked on it, looked it over, and shot the dealer an email saying I wanted to look at it.

They called me by 6:30. I was at the VW dealership by 6:45. By 8:30, I owned the car, and The Princess was ready to be towed to auction. (The cheapest car on the lot was a 2005 Toyota Corolla that, despite the high miles, looked pretty clean. This dealer does not screw around.)

This was fast. But then the car was certified, so essentially, I benefited from VW’s sign and drive. That was not my first experience buying a car through the dealer. That honor went to a local dealer I’ll dub Irish Bastard Motors, or “IBM.” (Sorry, Big Blue.) IBM tried to sell me a 1988 Dodge Spirit that listed CV joints among the items that still needed repaired. My sales rep wanted to send me to buy the car as-is. I said I’d drive it off the lot as soon as they fixed the CV joints. The repair job would have been three times my car payment. They balked. I made them sell me a Camry. A month later, they told me the car was in an accident. I said that’s great, the transmission went out. By then, I learned you don’t buy a car, even a Toyota, with over 100,000 miles on it from a dealer. Strangely, one of IBM’s main dealerships is a BMW store.

A few years later, I went to IBM’s main competitor and bought a 98 Chevy Cavalier. They kept me at the dealership for six hours after promising me I would not miss work that day. I would not have minded getting screwed on the financing had they bothered to use lube.

So I vowed never to do business with either of those dealerships again. The Princess came from Hyundai dealer with a better rep. It helped that I walked in with a down payment, had pointed out the car I wanted, and made a counter-offer that suggested I wanted to save a buck, but without the delusion that I could get the car 25% under wholesale. I’ve seen too many people go in spoiling for a fight and come out without a car (or driving the 88 Yugo when they were going for a brand new Audi.)

Car buying has changed much since I bought that first car 21 years ago. The hard sell is a good way to chase customers off the lot, especially since the more daring auto buyer can go online and just order the car for delivery. Car Fax reports are almost mandatory now if a dealer hopes to move a car off the lot. When I bought the Cavalier, I demanded a Car Fax report several times before going home and ponying up $20 for one. Now?

“Would you like to see the Car Fax report?”

I’d already read it online.

They quoted me a payment based on VW’s best interest rate (short of 0%.) That was the one panic moment I had. Had my credit recovered from the layoff three years earlier? “Um… Can we go longer if you get some bad news?” I got some bad news. They couldn’t give the original interest rate, so my payment was $5 more than originally quoted. On the upside, Nita and I have matching car payments. When I mentioned that her bank couldn’t get her as good a rate as VW, the finance guy actually high-fived me. (Um… My wife reads this, doesn’t she? Er… Prank caller! Prank caller!)

So, the car? As the caption above reads, she’s been dubbed “Greta.” Yes, I know that rhymes with “Jetta,” but that wasn’t why I picked the name. Greta is a German name, and this is my first German car. Essentially, a Volkswagen is an Audi is a Porsche, which have all owned each other at various times since the 1930’s. Dr. Porsche was that rare German engineer who, while adhering to the German obsession with precision car-building, had this odd idea that cars eventually breakdown, and that it might be nice if a mechanic could fix the car by yanking out a part and putting in its replacement. Gee, that sounds like…

American cars. Japanese cars. Korean cars. Yes, GM and Chrysler still need to learn Statistic Process Control (Huh? That’s the thing that makes Japanese cars put more miles on them than the average Apollo command module.). However, I’ve known people who keep their more expensive German machines over 100,000 miles only to discover that it’s easier to replace the space shuttle than to find out what broke on their Beamer or their Benz. Yes, kids, we Americans like to drive cars a really long time. Why? Even the cheap ones are expensive.

But Greta handles like an Audi Quattro (I’ve been able to drive a couple over the years. Sweet cars.) She also has more room than any car I’ve owned except the Wintermobile. And speaking of Audi, Greta sports a five cylinder engine, which gives me V6 power with 4-cylinder mileage. But I know what you’re asking. What about the most important part of the car?

How’s the sound system?

I took Nita and AJ out for a spin last night. (They all want to drive Greta. AJ informed me he’s taking it to Western New York this fall. Hmm…) AJ cranked the sound system up and was able to adjust the sound to his liking quickly. (I had to reset it this morning.) Nita felt the music. Oh, yes. We will be blasting Zeppelin this summer.

A lot.

What about The Princess? Do I miss it?

Not really. It handled sloppy and was a bit underpowered. She did her job, but in the end, she was a needy car that looked sporty but drove like a Pinto. I’m glad I had it when I did, but I really don’t miss it.

Besides, I can plug my iPod into Greta. And isn’t that the only reason to buy a car?

The Nitamobile

On Saturday, as I was screaming George Carlin’s seven words at the Neon while I worked on the brakes, Nita took AJ to get his license. He passed with flying colors and became a card-carrying slave to the automobile culture. His reward? We gave him Mabel, the 2003 Santa Fe that has served us well for these many years. Of course, now Nita needed a car. So she went to a dealership where a former coworker now sold. What did she get?

This is the Nitamobile, a 2011 Nissan Versa. The thing scoots like mad, though AJ found the accelerator hard to get used to. I like it, though. The brakes are a bit of a shock. Both the Santa Fe’s and the newly rejuvenated Neon’s are a bit of a soft touch. The Nitamobile’s remind me of Ford brakes. If you own a Ford built since 2000 – Well, for starters, good call. Up until about 2010, they were the only American cars worth a damn, and I still have my reservations about Chrysler. Anyway, as I discovered first with the car I inherited from my dad, then with a rented Focus in New York City, Ford brakes are quite capable of stopping the car on a dime, often at risk of sending the driver through the windshield. The Nissan’s are like that. I consider this a good thing, but damn, after four years of Dodge and Hyundai brakes, it’s a bit of a culture shock.

The Nitamobile is also the only car we own that you can plug your iPod into. Mabel, the 2003 Santa Fe, has a cassette deck that you can use with an adapter, but that sounds like crap. The Neon is too new for cassette, too old for an audio jack, and really depressing unless you want radio or CD.

So what’s with the names? Well, I used to name my cars. Some of them, anyway. There was a disposable beater phase I went through where naming the car was an exercise in futility. The car would blow a rod or seize up before the year was out, and it was off to spend another $700-1000 on something equally decrepit. But in the beginning, there was Besse, a 75 Nova that proved in the 1980’s that they didn’t build them like that anymore. There was The Bluesmobile, a rusty 1973 Buick Centurion. There was the Wintermobile, the Ford Taurus my dad drove when he died.

The Neon didn’t have a name, but while Nita was shopping for the Nissan, she dubbed the venerable old Santa Fe “Mabel,” after the old lady who owned the house before Nita bought the place nearly twenty years ago, and, we suspect, still haunts it. Mabel (the car) is old, reliable, and takes care of us. She even took us Tennessee to get married. So Mabel it is.

I decided the Neon also needed a name. The Neon hasn’t given me too much trouble – a cheap battery, brakes, a transmission line that Chrysler took its sweet time sending a replacement for – but it is temperamental. It’s very much a feminine car and has the lines of a diva. I called it Princess because it’s a whiny bitch that knows it’s cute. Never mind that similarly designed cars have more guts under the hood and handle curves better. Princess looks like a sports car and wants to be treated like one. Never mind that it’s a sedan with a spoiler.

So as Nita pulled in, there remained only one name to bestow. I looked at the car, white and cute. It reminded me of Nita’s personal avatar, Marilyn Monroe. I said, “Marilyn.” Nita said no. “Marilyn” should should be sleek and sexy. As if to prove her point, a Corvette rolled by. “That’s Marilyn,” she said. So the car became the Nitamobile. Thus it has been spoken.

It’s a rough time for us to get a car, but I keep pointing out that we have two cars getting up there in miles. Princess is over 86,000 miles and near the end of its loan. Mabel just crested 100,000 miles. AJ will be driving it mostly around here. Otherwise, he’d be driving the Nitamobile to work. We need something long term after AJ takes Mabel away.

It’s a sweet little car. And being a 2011, we’ll have it long after the loan is paid off.

The Cars They Are A-Changing

Right now, the guys I envy the most are the ones converting their cars over to fully electric. It’s a throwback to the 1930’s-1960’s when young men would get under the hoods of their cars and try to improve on what Detroit shipped them. But even in the 70’s and 80’s, when you had to, you could get into an engine and do what needed to be done.

Out walking the trail Sunday morning, I noticed the cars parked along Riverside and Eastern and at the Sky Galley at Lunken Field. They’re all front-wheel drives, with the odd Mustang or Charger running rear-wheel. Those cars, like the Neon I’ve driven for the past three years, aren’t very friendly to modification or do-it-yourself work. Even changing oil is a pain. And tune-ups?

Good luck with that. I no longer have the ratchets needed to get at the plugs in today’s engines. If I did, I’d still be driving my father’s 2000 Taurus.  Ziggins owns it now. Ziggins worked on cars in the 1990’s and still has some of the tools I can’t justify buying now.

Back in the eighties, when I was too broke to do anything but dream, I wanted very much to buy and restore an old muscle car. Likely a Plymouth or Dodge from the late sixties. One of my uncles swore by Chrysler (which he hasn’t really done since that idiotic merger with Benz), so I would have a lot of input on how to go about it and what parts I should have used. As it was, I spent most of the late eighties and very early nineties trying to keep really cheap beaters running.  And it wasn’t hard. Open the hood, and everything you needed to get at was there. If you had a four- or six-cylinder vehicle, so much the better. The sixes were some of the best engines to run and to work on. Chrysler’s inline six had a slanted block that put everything you could possibly work on right at your fingertips. It also had the advantage of blocking water from shorting out the electrical system.

The cars I least liked working on – and ironically the cars I like best these days – were Fords. Fords needed special transmission flood, put metal tubes in the way of fluid dipsticks, and leaked oil like sieves. Mind you, this was back in the days when Detroit somehow forgot how to build a proper car, from about 1973 through the early nineties.

Even the first foreign cars I owned – an old Datsun I bought off my ex-brother-in-law and a Toyota Corolla – were easy to work on. Both were built in the mid-eighties, the heyday of the Japanese car.  Now?

It’s hard to find anything. You can’t rig anything to work when it breaks because everything is computerized.

But the guys trying to get ahead of the electric curve, they’re the new hot rodders, the tinkerers. The technology is new, like it was early in the last century. Had I the money and the time, I’d probably be trying to convert the Neon.  Just for the helluvit.

Benz Gets A Clue

Daimler has just taken a 10% stake in electric car builder Tesla.  Tesla is that little car company that could, and possibly also a partner for struggling GM if they ever want to make the Volt or the cars that come after it succeed.  However, Tesla has struggled.  It took an extra year to find the right transmission for their roadster, something normally not an issue with electric cars.  Then again, most electric cars aren’t driven 150 mph.  (Unless you’re Al Gore’s son.)  On the other hand, them that build Mercedes have been trying to build an electric car since the 1970’s.  But who wants a $50,000 golf cart dressed up like an E Series that has to spend 12 out of every 24 hours plugged in.  (Pop quiz:  Why did GM really abandon the EV1?  Answer:  How many golf carts do you see in downtown Chicago during rush hour?)  Daimler Benz had an opportunity to make it big in this market.

But when they bought out Chrysler, they ran off the Dream Team that put the Detroit automaker back in the game, killed their hybrid program, and ran the company into the ground.  Then they sold what was left to a company that’s never built anything to do with cars before.  Result?

Benz cars are the laughingstock of German engineering.  Chrysler’s hybrids will be designed by Toyota and built by Fiat, and my guess is only the Jeep nameplate will survive the next five years.

Dear Daimler:  Try not to screw it up this time.


Remember the Plymouth/Dodge Neon, the little cab-forward car that was Chrysler’s answer to the Ford Escort?

Remember how that car was ridiculed as a toy and “gay” and no one in their right mind in the era of the mighty SUV would be caught dead in one?

Well, Superior Automotive had one on their lot this weekend, a 2005 with spoiler and a sunroof. 6 people asked for it. All 6 said, “I have to have it! It gets 26 miles to the gallon.”

All 6 were disappointed. It now sits in my driveway, awaiting the tags off the Wintermobile.

To all those saddled with SUV’s you can’t trade in now and have to pump $200 worth of gas to run every week…