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A Time Before “Cookie Cutter Cars”

By Jim Ignasher

I came out of a store not long ago and started walking across the parking lot to a car that wasn’t mine. It looked like mine from a distance, and it was parked in the same general area, but as I got closer I realized it wasn’t my car by the emblem on the front. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it seems that today most of us drive what I term, “cookie cutter cars”; cars that all have the same general appearance and are differentiated only by the plasti-chrome emblems attached by the manufacturer. It occurred to me that I could probably go to a junk yard, purchase car emblems of an expensive brand name vehicle, put them on my own car, and most would be none the wiser.

Perhaps this is why “cruise nights” are still popular. The one held every Tuesday night at the A&W on Route 44 is a perfect example. There it’s easy to distinguish, a Ford from a Chevy, a Buick from a Dodge, and even a Pontiac from a Plymouth. They remind us of a time when cars had style. A time of fat fenders, wide white-wall tires, long hoods, tail fins, and chrome – lots of chrome. It seems that somewhere along the line Detroit designers decided the auto buying public wasn’t interested in style any more.

However it’s more than styling, it’s the way they were made. One would be hard pressed to find any plastic in those old “lead sleds”, and when one closed the doors they heard the sound of a solid “thunk”, as opposed to the hollow noise made by the car doors of today. And they were roomy. One could stretch out their legs even in the back seat. Compare a “full sized” car of today next to something like a 1957 Chevy, and one can see how we’ve gotten used to being crammed into our cars while being told by the salesmen how “roomy” it is. (I wonder if a ’57 Chevy could carry one of today’s tiny “economy” cars in its trunk in lieu of a spare tire.)

Those old cars were simple and generally inexpensive to work on too. Unfortunately the days of the backyard mechanic are long gone since auto makers computerized everything. When the “check engine” light comes on the car has to be connected to a computer which diagnoses the problem.

“Your ‘check engine’ sensor is bad. That will be $10,000 dollars please, and that’s just for labor.”

I suppose the main styling feature that sets vintage cars apart from those of today is the amount of chrome they had. For one thing, they came from the factory with fancy, heavy duty, solid steel, chrome plated bumpers, some even equipped with rubber “bumperettes”. These classics were designed to take a hit. When two cars of that era bumped at a stop sign there was usually no visible damage. Today, a simple “fender bender” can be an insurance adjuster’s nightmare.

Other chrome plated accessories included grills, headlight and taillight assemblies, dashboards, door handles, door locks, hubcaps, gas caps, and chrome strips running down the length of the body as well as around the windshield and windows. And let’s not forget the decorative (and big) chrome hood ornaments. Dodge had a Ram, Oldsmobile had a Rocket, and Pontiac had an Indian, just to name a few.

My first car was a 1961 Ford, with “three-in-the-tree” standard shifting. For those too young to remember, that means it was a standard shift transmission, and the shift was on the steering column, not on the floor.

One of my favorite cars that I owned in my much younger days was a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda that I purchased in 1977 for a mere $125. It had been in three minor accidents, so I got a book on how to do body work at the local library, a fender and light assembly from a junk yard, and for another $125 dollars I had a cool ride which if it had a set of wings could have flown. It was an era of “muscle cars” with raised rear-ends, wide tires mounted on chrome plated rims, with engines that had a distinctive “throaty” sound that guaranteed a solid ten to twelve miles-per-gallon, but only if one wasn’t ‘burning rubber” at traffic lights while taking part in an impromptu drag race with the guy who just pulled up along side with his “mean machine”.

Of course muscle cars are still around today, but most look more like they belong in the “Fast and the Furious” movies instead of “American Graffiti.”

In the 1970s, a car’s engine might have shook the ground, but the sound system didn’t. Today’s younger generation probably can’t conceive of a time when the “thump, thump, thump” of a car’s sound system couldn’t be heard or felt from eight blocks away. They might be interested to know that at one time most cars only came equipped with an AM radio. Of course, FM was available, for an extra cost, but the radio still only had one speaker mounted in the center of the dashboard.

Then along came 8-track tape players that could be mounted under the dashboard. (Remember them?) One had to be careful not to hit a bump lest the player “eat” the tape. These were followed by AM/FM in-dash cassette players which were revolutionary for the time. Of course the quality of sound was only as good as the speakers, but we accepted it.

To be fair, today’s cars have a lot more safety features than those of previous generations, but I wish automakers would roll those features into a modern version of a ’57 Chevy.

I have to wonder if cruise nights will still be around in another twenty-five or thirty years, and if so, what will they look like? Will anyone be interested in looking at a fully restored 1997 mini van? I tend to doubt it. Somehow I don’t see someone spending time and money to restore one of today’s “cookie cutter cars”