Curmudgeons always tell us how good the good ol' days used to be. Automotive curmudgeons point to the variety of sports cars, interesting sedans, and shapely aesthetics of the '50s and '60s, while decrying the lack of variation in today's offerings. Although I enjoy the cars of yesteryear, it must be said that technology, legislation, and the needs of a changing world have given today's enthusiasts a broad choice.
Consider the huge variety of engines: in-line three- and four-cylinders, flat and straight sixes, V6s, V8s, V10s, V12s, W12s, and W16s. We have rotary engines, electric cars, gas/electric hybrids, engines running on E85 ethanol, diesels, propane-propelled cars, and-thanks to BMW-even one that runs on hydrogen. There are supercharged and turbocharged engines, variable tract-length intake manifolds and variable valve timing. We have electronic throttle/drive-by-wire. Computers control everything, including automatic transmissions that can hold up to seven gears.
Power output ranges from merely adequate to completely outrageous. Driveability is as good as it's ever been. Exhaust emissions are low and engines easily last more than 100,000 miles without any real maintenance. Compare this to the cranky, high-polluting, hard-to-start and difficult-to-maintain engines of the recent past and we can score one for modern technology.
It isn't just engines. Vastly improved tire technology, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability systems allow modern cars to perform at levels that exceed all-out racing cars from just a few years ago. Advances in tire compounding have included the incorporation of silica to enhance grip in the wet. Modern manufacturing techniques allow more sophisticated tread designs and advanced computer models allow designers to optimize the tire's contact patch. The result has been much higher levels of dry and wet grip with exceptional stability at high speeds.
To use all this extra grip and performance, features like ventilated disc brakes and electronically controlled anti-lock systems are combined with electronic stability controls that help in an emergency. Better training might keep the driver from getting into an emergency in the first place, but telling people they aren't good at driving has never been a vote-winner. So legislators have decided that all cars must be equipped with electronic stability controls by 2012. Meanwhile, engineers keep forging ahead with brake-by-wire, electronically controlled pneumatic suspension systems, and computer-controlled damping strategies-all designed to make cars handle even better. Score two for the present.
Nobody would want to be in a 1950s car crash. No seatbelts, hard dashboards, chromed steel horn rings and non-collapsing steering columns made even a relatively low-speed crash an often deadly occurrence. Of course, today's cars have dozens of systems to help keep an occupant safe, even in severe collisions: structural crumple zones, collapsible steering columns and pedal clusters, energy-absorbing interior materials, three-point seat belts, front, side and curtain airbags. All this safety equipment has added both weight and cost, but it's hard to imagine insurance companies, government regulators and the buying public ever letting us go back. Score three for modern cars.
What's fast? In modern terms, any vehicle that takes more than about nine seconds to go from rest to 60 mph is considered a slug. Three-ton sport utility vehicles do it quicker. Back in the '50s, a true British sports car like an MG TD or Austin Healey Sprite might take 25 seconds. Big Healeys and Jaguars were quicker, taking 10 to 11 seconds, but these were expensive, high-end sports cars renowned for exceptional acceleration and performance.
Top speed is another measure. The Jaguar XK120 got its name because in early testing, a 'slightly modified' car was able to achieve 120 mph. Now, almost any run-of-the-mill contemporary econo-car will hit that speed, largely due to a low aerodynamic drag coefficient. What's more, even at high speed, the driver of that car will be in a relatively calm, quiet, air-conditioned environment. The XK120 driver will be buffeted by winds as the straight-six engine screams and the Moss gearbox whines. Pleasant sounds, but none too relaxing for a long drive. Four to nothing so far for modern machinery.
Although beauty is subjective, to my mind the period between the late '40s and the late '60s was the high point for European automotive styling. While American stylists of the '50s were fascinated with huge fins and bulbous shapes, the Europeans were creating taut shapes that tightly packaged a car's components in a way that made it look ready to leap. Jaguar was the master at this, but Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin at the high end (plus MG, Triumph and Austin Healey at the mid-price) made cars that looked particularly right. Intersecting curves and the newly discovered use of curved windshields made these some of the most sensuous automobiles. Even at the economy level, cars like the Saab 93 and 96 and Volvo 544 and 122 had real character.
By the late '60s and into the '70s, bodies began to be shaped more by packaging and aerodynamic requirements. Giugiaro's Volkswagen Golf and Lotus Esprit were space- and aerodynamically efficient, but they didn't drip sex the way a Ferrari GTO or Aston Martin DB4 did. In the '80s, Ford influenced the rest of the world with its jelly-bean shapes from the European Sierra and domestic Taurus, and today's cars have followed the dictum that aerodynamics and packaging should be king. Consequently, too many really good cars look bland and unappealing. Cars of the past get the nod for pure styling and sex appeal.
So old cars beat new cars four-to-one in my little competition? No big surprise. That the styling of the past is the big winner provides justification for retro-cars like Volkswagen's New Beetle and the Mini. Yet these are niche products designed with specific styling cues to appeal to a certain nostalgic audience.
Mainstream cars-even sports cars-largely eschew such character to avoid offending potential buyers. A new car represents billions of dollars of development costs; the name of the game is avoiding risk. It's only a guess, but if someone built a mainstream car with real old-world character, using modern, alternative, energy-sensitive technology and underpinnings, perhaps a bunch of enthusiasts like me would beat a path to its dealership's doors.