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Unforgettable Cars

Updated on December 27, 2016

1928 Model A

Twenty years after the introduction of the Model T.
Twenty years after the introduction of the Model T. | Source

The Ford

Henry Ford still remains controversial. I don't have years and years of research to draw upon, only some reading and viewing. My main source is Ford: The Man and the Machine (1987), the movie starring Cliff Robertson, based on a book by Robert Lacey. My first impression of the man, whether in print or on video, is that he was an old-timer. Naturally, this could not have been the case when he was alive in the spring of youth or in his later prime. Back then, he had a passionate, abiding interest in mechanics. In his autobiography, he reveals that tools were his toys. However, if that were all, he would never have become such an enigma. He was also idealistic. His first cars, which were indeed the "first cars", did not, to be sure, run on idealism. But before they were built and tested, they were also the outcome of dreams and inspiration. In particular, he envisioned farmers, empowered with the ability to ride into towns and cities, see the lights, or street lamps, then return, all within the framework of a single day. "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?" Simple. Buy a Ford.

Ford is still the best-known name when it comes to the history of the American automobile. What little I learned was that it did not suddenly materialize. The Model T of 1908 was a breakthrough in terms of modern engineering and pop culture that far outperforms anything computers are doing, or probably ever will do. Don't get me wrong. I like writing on an iMac. But I sometimes wish I were on the Interstate instead of in an office chair. How else would I ever have experienced the Rocky Mountains if not for an automobile? In NYC, without a car, I used to regard movie screens as my gateway to the world. Now, it is getting to be a sick joke. The little screens (not so little, I admit, if you have the means) are not the same. Photos appear, mainly on computer screens, in astronomical numbers, many as minuscule thumbnails. But this is only a side story. With the original advent of the motor car, you could have had everything -- the farmland of Michigan, for instance, and the city streets of Detroit. You would not have painted the Rockies into the picture creeping along at ten miles an hour. In all fairness, however, the Model T could reach much racier speeds.

1948 Tucker

A museum piece as well as rejected treasure.
A museum piece as well as rejected treasure. | Source

The Tucker

Other than the movie, starring Jeff Bridges (Tucker, 1948), I have nothing to go on, except this. When you start to break down the subject of cars and trucks (add in vehicles if you must), the subject gets very murky very quickly. What was it about the initial Fords that made Mr. Ford happy? It was affordable, put together on an assembly line, shortened work days to eight hour shifts, and introduced wages amounting to $5/day. But the business itself? Involving share-holders? Investors? Competitors? Politicos? Strikers? Unions? I hesitate to mention family, a touchy situation, especially when one's own name is at stake. The point is, the car biz, or any other, for that matter, is not for everybody. When I first started school, I had a premonition I might end up in business. But I was not going to chuck myself into that burning cauldron if I had the slightest opportunity or ability to do something else. It seems as if, if there is any truth to the movie, that Tuckers were all about car quality. It was not, it turns out, a successful business. In fact, it landed the man in a legal squabble only a career criminal should have to undergo.

By 1948, car culture was well out of Ford's control, though the Big Three, as they were called, still tried to hang on to the awe and prestige en route, gradually, to extinction. When I finally left NYC, I was advised to buy either a Toyota or a Nissan: I had to have a car, preferably a good, cost-effective one. Only later did the Buy American mentality sink in, starting, probably, with T-Shirts, not just labels sewn on. Check it out. Wal-Mart sells sweaters made in Egypt and/or Lebanon. Do they profit the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah? Who knows. When a Japanese or Korean car company made plans to build a plant in the U.S.A., it was hailed as though a gift from heaven. That was an even better indicator of how far things had changed. We depend upon foreign nations, and foreign nationals, like Mr. Soichiro Honda (1906-1991), as never before. Saudi Arabia was able to discourage the U.S.A. from a lawsuit on behalf of the victims of 911. China could, if it wanted, exchange its holdings in American bonds for mass panic on both Wall Street and Main Street. Russia allegedly hacked and possibly tampered with the United States presidential election. But . . . let's get back to cars.

The Corvette Sting Ray

Still beautiful as well as packed with power.
Still beautiful as well as packed with power. | Source

The Corvette

Nowadays it is hard to associate Chevrolet with one of the best looking sports cars ever, but the Corvette serves as well as any model to show how taste rather than practicality sometimes took command in the purchase of cars. No one needs a Corvette. It was an expensive two-seater, beginning as a convertible only, with no real windows. But enough buyers were willing to shell out, despite in-house executives who wanted to scrap it, in despair over the popularity of its main rival, the Ford Thunderbird. Books of homage to old cars might overemphasize design, craftsmanship, engines, and interiors/exteriors without ever mentioning the men behind the machine. In this case, it was the son of Bolsheviks, Zora Arkus-Duntov (the hyphenation was thought to have been more American), who later found asylum in America, from Berlin. He championed the Corvette when others more powerful walked away, if only from a sketch or diagram. The fact is, the sports car went through a series of metamorphoses. Most think mainly of the Sting Ray, but there were other superbly attractive models as well, all the way until 2013, when the legendary line was finally discontinued.

Unsafe At Any Speed

A looker, all the same.
A looker, all the same. | Source

The Corvair

Reading up on the genesis of the Corvair makes one think of the search for the Holy Grail. If such were the case, test drivers and manufacturers were somewhere in between King Arthur's Knights and the Monty Python cast of irreverent comics. They drove the car up and down mountains without snow tires or chains. They went to Panama City and back, getting 30 miles to the gallon. At 25 cents to 31 cents per at the pump, these stunts were not as costly as they would be today. Yes, it was the finest in automobile bang for buck the early sixties could produce. Then came the unexpected, like a horror movie, only real. The accidents were horrendous. The car was not weighted correctly. One tire tucked underneath and produced rollovers that could be deadly, or cause injuries not able to be shown on national television.

How true it is that one man's misfortune is another's fortune can be in part judged by the way in which Ralph Nader made an immortal name for himself by writing a best-seller, like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring on pesticides, about how consumers were being ripped off by the makers and sellers of the Corvair. It was, according to the title, "Unsafe at Any Speed". The book came out in 1965. By this time there was no denying the car had undergone an unusual amount of serious mishaps. Some suggestions to improve safety might sound naive or silly. For instance, Nader advocated seat belts. Makes one wonder about Old Detroit. But whatever evil brewed in the backrooms of the American car capital can never outdo the muckraking masterpiece of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), concerning Chicago's stockyards. Sinatra might have sung about them, but he never actually worked there. It was much the same with cars. Uncountable songs came out about them. But how many players or fans actually rode a "Hot Rod Lincoln"? Written and sung by Charlie Ryan in 1955 along with the Livingston Bros.

You Be the Judge

1959 Cadillac Convertible

Doesn't have to be a sports car to be red with the top down.
Doesn't have to be a sports car to be red with the top down. | Source

The Cadillac and the Beetle

More than anything, the Cadillac said it all. It did not speak for everyone, of course. But for those who wanted them -- fins, that is -- from 1959 onward, take a course in pop psychology. It was purely a mental issue. But, let's say, excess found a ready-made accommodation in the Cadillac. It was, and remains, though somewhat streamlined, the car of American monstrosity. It has its loyal membership of sorts. There is no arguing with taste. Well, the car also takes the fall for so much else about car-dom that reeked of egotism and wannabe-ism. What was it about the tail fins on a huge car known for prestige and a genuinely smooth ride when it could not actually either fly or swim? If he were alive, we could ask the chief designer, Harley Earl. He must have laughed all the way to the bank. But the car, like works of art, allows critics the final say. In most cases, however, there is nothing to add; the ostentation speaks for itself.

Then, take the Beetle, on the road at the same time. It was tiny with no frills. It had been called the "People's Car" in Germany. Everyone had to squeeze in. But it served its purpose nicely. It went from point A to point B, the same as a Corvette or Cadillac. Nowadays the Smart Car, released by DaimlerChrysler, is not known for being really smart. Get hit or sideswiped by a truck, and your chances are much better in a Caddy than in "one of those". Another caveat: if you owned a Beetle instead of a Caddy, you were subjected to many jokes -- some not so terrible. The Beetle (forbidden to be described as such in Germany, where it was known, variously, as "the honest car", and the KdF [strength-through-joy]-Wagen), has the distinction of having been revived. Re-introduced in 1997, it also re-activated the inevitable friendly slaps and slugs that went along with spotting the new model, as hard to miss in traffic despite its diminutive size as the original.


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Built to Last

Whatever else one says about old American cars, it cannot be denied that they easily fell apart.
Whatever else one says about old American cars, it cannot be denied that they easily fell apart. | Source

2-300,000 miles and beyond

I once knew a man who worked for GM. He was retired. But with a generous pension and penchant for the latest offering, he bought a new car every, single year. He boasted of having criss-crossed the nation several times using only side roads, off the Interstate, which would have been my first choice. I tried his more treacherous preference in Virginia and often enough thought I would never see the light of day. No big green signs; no nicely spaced conveniences. We all have prejudices and comfort zones. When I cannot see recognizable commercial outcroppings, only farms and twi-light zone gas stops, I get plenty nervous. There is no real point to a skimpy review of a handful of cars except to get readers to remember, if they forgot, how much cars shaped their destinies. It is even more true today than yesterday. Kids are chauffered rather than ride bikes, too vulnerable in today's world. But adults, too, cannot so much as walk the length of a parking lot without first having to relocate a parked car, if only for a few more yards. There is safety in numbers, and also in cars.

But here is the crux of the matter. Regardless of the fact that both the big and small beauties of yesteryear are rarely seen except on sunny weekends or at shows, the ugly new ones last so much longer. We ride around in plastic contraptions without half-thinking about them. We do not have to. They are much more trustworthy. They break down less and last longer. Gas stations are almost never manned by mechanics who know more about cars than the average driver -- which, sadly, is not much. Do not get me wrong. Automobiles must be both maintained and repaired. It can be done by you or somebody who knows what they are doing. There is no getting round the obvious. Moreover, like everybody, I wonder about the future. There is much talk about driver-less cars and environmentally safe fueling options. One can only speculate on the President-Elect and the new administration. Has the time come for renewable energy in earnest in addition to organic food-stuff on an unprecedented scale? No, I have not forgotten profit motives and incentives. How about breathing? Not good enough? Somewhere down the line, somebody will think of something. It is only natural to want to be a hero as well as invent a cash-cow.

Fast & Furious 6

This is just an afterthought. Fast cars are fun to watch, whether on screen or at NASCAR. I might take exception to the unreality of the Fast & Furious series. But I checked out #6 just for the sake of background material. I was glad I did, though I have little to remark, except to say that the Camaro was once meant to match the Mustang in terms of muscle and sales. It is still a great muscle car. I was never into cars much when I was younger. I drove plain Pontiacs, a Toyota Tercel, then Ford Rangers. If I have any regrets, it is that I never owned or drove a GTO. The latter is another story in itself. I'll leave it for the sequel.


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