On New Cars

Family Cars, Options and other Necessary Evils

       The first family car I can remember was the 1939 Packard Eight that my father purchased in 1941, He loved that car. In addition to looks, status, and power,it had outside spotlights and every conceivable option a car could offer: A heater/defroster, an AM radio, and a cigarette lighter. Then, he bought an after-market kit and installed directional turn signals. Now, in winter, you didn’t have to lower the window and stick out your arm to signal a turn (while freezing out everyone in the back seat). What more could there be?

          My father worked in the auto parts business, and growing up I heard all the stories about his early motoring days: The hand crank to start the engine (it could break your wrist if you held it wrong); the knob over the driver’s visor that you manually turned to make the windshield wipers move; the “defroster” crank which allowed you to open the bottom of the windshield a crack to help clear frost off the glass; and don’t even get me going on driving a car with a planetary transmission (three pedals/no shift). Maybe a heater/defroster, an AM radio, and a cigarette lighter were the only options you really needed.

I kept that mind set over the next 15 years or so, until I got my first car: a 1949 Studebaker (this was in 1958). It too had a heater/defroster (which could not be turned off, even in summer) and a cigarette lighter. It did not have a radio. It took another 6 months to find the money to buy a used radio at a junkyard and pay somebody to install it, and the antenna, for me. Then, Life was good. I had it all. Almost.

A few years before, Jesse, our family mechanic, had built and installed an air conditioner in his own car. It was a kit, bolted under the dashboard, the size of a small refrigerator, but it cranked out cold air on the hottest summer days. It was wonderful. Such an option was beyond me, of course, but I did want one. However, I managed to buy a car that had another new option: windshield washers. By this time, I was in the Army and doing my share of highway driving. If a trailer whisked by you at 60 mph, depositing mud and road junk all over your windshield, you had to pull the car over to the roadside, and get out with a cloth to wipe the windshield clear enough to see through. The washer shortened travel time. Now, you merely pushed a button and a water spray cleaned the windshield while the blades wiped it off; most of it anyway.

I still wanted that air conditioner though. I kept at it and sometime in the late Sixties, about 10 years after the Studebaker, I got my first air conditioned car. It was a 1968 Ford LTD station wagon. I bought it off the dealer’s lot, as is, and learned when I got it home that in addition to the A/C, it had an automatic transmission (no more shifting!), an AM/FM radio and a power tailgate. You could raise and lower the tailgate window from the driver’s seat, while in motion. It was a wonderful device. When you just wanted fresh air, you lowered the back window and that big wagon just sucked in the fresh air like a vacuum cleaner. The car did not have seat belts, and I had 4 kids who loved to play in the “way back,” but, as far as I know, no one ever fell out, and this new option was a great success.

Surely, surely, there was no other option that could possibly be added. Wrong. Sometime in the Seventies, a neighbor bought a Cadillac that had heated side view mirrors and heated seats. I thought that was ridiculous – until we were both shoveling out our cars one winter morning. He just sat inside with the heated seats warming his rear end, while the ice melted away and dropped off his side view mirrors. Yes, heated mirrors and seats were the wave of the future, and made it to my list of necessary extras.

Later, in that same decade, the option floodgates really opened: the radio now had an 8 track tape player, idiot lights on the dashboard that warned of pending mechanical doom, spiked snow tires that eliminated the need to crawl under the car in winter to install chains (the spiked tires didn’t last all that long; they tore up the roads). I bought a 1973 Mustang convertible that had all these good things, plus power windows and locks.

The Eighties brought even more new stuff. Once, while I was on the road, I rented a new Buick in Canada. When I returned to the hotel that evening, I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the headlights. They stayed on even when I shut off the motor. I asked the garage attendant for help and he told me not to worry. That was a new option: headlights for better visibility in daylight driving (“…at night, the headlights let you see the other car; in daytime, the headlights let the other car see you.”) He said the lights would go off by themselves in 5 minutes or so. They did.

And on it went. In the Nineties I got my first car with a “popper” door lock. No more toil actually inserting and turning the door key in the lock. You just pushed the button and “pop”, the door unlocked. And still, like the incoming tide, the options and extras kept rolling in.

My latest new car has a GPS locator. I shut off the sound because I don’t need to hear any new voices when I think I’m alone on the highway. But, I can’t get lost anymore. It also has a satellite radio. I thought the radio was unnecessary until I tried it, and learned I could select whatever kind of music I like, and play it 24 X 7 without repetitious commercials, and DJ’s who talk too much. I like satellite radio now.

And finally, another friend recently bought a new, top of the line Cadillac. It’s got everything I’ve mentioned here, and much more. He offered to let me take it for a spin but he said, “You really should come in and watch the factory DVD with me so you can understand some of the new features.” I knew that wasn’t necessary. I’d just sit in the driver’s seat and familiarize myself with everything. I did that. It was like sitting at the control panel of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The first thing I noticed was that it didn’t have an ignition key, nor any keyhole that I could find. I stopped there. I thanked him for his offer, but said I was pressed for time. I draw the line at watching movies before I can understand how to start a car.

You know, I haven’t smoked for years, so I don’t need a cigarette lighter anymore (not that they offer them anyway). Maybe a heater/defroster, air conditioner, and satellite radio are all the options I really need anyway.

Once again, Dad was basically right.

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Filed under Pop Culture/Nostalgia

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