Browsing through my Cruise-In pics from the last few summers, I came across this Sweet 1939 Ford Ragtop. Quite nicely done and shown at the most excellent Kannapolis Cruise In. It got me thinking about why these old custom cars and hot rods, and how they compare to the 2014 models.
When you take a close look at this particular car, it’s really quite an elegant shape. There are a lot of things going on from a pure designer’s point of view. Even so, the basic body plan, hood and deck, along with the fenders all blend together in a rather pleasing form. When you step back and see the whole form, it has that feeling of a crouched animal, ready to spring forward.
Another thing that hits you is how simple cars like this were. The interior is so basic compared to anything produced today. Just the basic instruments and controls, nothing else. I have a friend who just bought a new Toyota Rav 4, and it came with a manual bigger than some novels I’ve read. Plus there was an hour’s worth of instruction which covered the basics of operating the computer. That’s right, the basics. Not an in-depth course by any means. There’s enough menu options and voice recognition training to justify a few college credits if you learned them all.
Back in the days when most autos came with a manual transmission and analog speedometers, tachometers and other instruments, a person could get into any production car, and drive it near its limits. Now the limits are more about the Pandora and Blue tooth capabilities than performance limits.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way advocating going back to the 1940s or even the golden age of muscle cars, the 1960s. Cars these days are far safer, and far more efficient. They get a combination of gas mileage and performance that would have been considered impossible even a few decades ago.
You would thinks cars today would be horrendously more expensive. But that is not the case at all. In 1950 the average annual family income was $3300. An average price for a car was $1510. That works out to about 45% of income. Let’s jump forward to the most recent census. We find average family income has increased to $51,017, while the average price paid for a new car has jumped to $31,252. The cost / income is up to 61%. A decent jump, but considering the safety and performance gains, not bad value. And in some ways that increase is overstated. I’ve had two people I know well who’ve brought new cars in the last 12 months. One a Kia Soul, the other is the Rav 4 just mentioned. Less than $19,000 and $25,000 respectively. And both are high quality autos that do everything required and far more. Compared to a 1950 Ford, not even a contest.
But they are not simple pieces of machinery. Tune ups in the driveway are not happening. I guess a reasonably mechanically inclined guy could change the oil, but no one does. The days of shade tree mechanics troubleshooting a high speed miss are gone. Computer controlled cars just don’t have those issues. All things considered, cars these days are a bargain. But the popular models these days, the SUV’s and Crossovers, look more like a tiny and sleek apartment buildings, and they sure as hell are not simple. No crouching beasts here. I suppose a good trade, but it feels like trading utility for romance.