Like a clean shave, we often want to go back to basics.
The basic look, along with basic necessities and simplified lives, is a way to ground ourselves and our souls from the complications of the universe. Our world is confusing enough to cause confusion and chaos within ourselves. Yet, we soldier on with our smart phones, our broadband and our brand allegiances towards semi-dehumanization.
If you recall owning a car with roll-up windows, a heater and manual steering, then you know exactly what I am about to discuss.
I grew up in a time when power windows and locks were an extreme luxury. Velour was simply crushed velvet fabric made to be as luxurious. Power steering was only found on cars that were larger and needed that vacuum boost into their recirculating ball box. Power brakes actually were a form of active safety – that needed pressure onto the brakes made cars and trucks safer, in relative terms.
Simple cars for simple lives – those were the days, my friends! Then, things changed…thanks to victory in a big war.
The 1950s introduced American car buyers to power assisted everything. The Postwar economy fostered new conveniences for a growing population. The spoils of victory meant cheaper steel, electricity, fuel and other materials. America was capable of making everything in house and down the street. To offset hard work in building new homes, shopping centers and paving old farmland, convenience was introduced – and we gobbled it up!
Not everyone fell for the newfangled conveniences of Postwar America. How many of us recall growing up with an automatic dishwasher, color television and an electric blender, but had a very basic car in the garage? How many of us actually had a garage?
A read through a brochure from the early 1960s showed you can order power steering as an option on almost every Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth. Volkswagen never offered power steering or brakes on any of their vehicles during that era. Air conditioning was a rare offering both in domestic and imported cars. If you ordered a radio – with only the AM band – you only had one speaker to listen to Elvis, Chubby Checker or Leonard Bernstein in your car.
Leather upholstery was only offered in the most expensive cars of the era. Vinyl was a cheaper alternative, as was woven cloth. If you lived in a climate that had hot summers, you regretted ordering the vinyl seats and hoped for the best from the ventilation system. In that case, you already rolled down your windows, only to be greeted by bugs, flies and mosquitoes.
Perhaps the biggest convenience that arrived during the baby boom was the automatic transmission. The third pedal began to disappear on domestic cars, as did the rough-and-tumble action of shifting three-on-a-tree off of the steering column. Floor shifters remained and became the standard way to manually shift gears with that third pedal. Yet, convenience would challenge the consumer to choose between a synchromesh gearbox with a clutch or a planetary gearset with a fluid filled torque converter.
In the 1970s, basic cars were still around. You had fewer cars with manual steering and brakes, three-on-a-tree, vinyl bench seats and a plastic space where a radio could be installed. Going into the 1990s, you still had cars with manual steering and roll-up windows. As the decades go by, the "power" convenience features seem to have taken over across the line – some might say completely.
The reason for the acceptance and wide availability of electric windows, power steering and other convenience features has been the increase in reliability of these features. Add to the idea of efficiency of a lot of these systems. Power steering systems now run off of the electrical system than through a pump off of the engine’s serpentine belt. The Freon that went into air-conditioning systems is a thing of a past, thanks to CFC-free climate control set-ups that are safe and versatile to use.
We only talked about cars at this point. Intentionally, trucks were not part of the conversation since some of the more "work trucks" still use roll-up windows and lack plenty of conveniences of modern vehicles. Still, any new vehicle would be remissed for not having all of things once considered a "luxury" several decades before.
Still, the idea of luxury conveniences on the lowest priced vehicles was never envisioned just 30 or so years ago. Yet, I have not been able to uncover that moment when the industry decided to offer everything standard that was once an option on a 1954 Cadillac. I suppose I kind of doubt that some Marie Antoinette figure waltzed into a marketing meeting, proclaiming that everyone "eat cake" and some marketing person enthusiastically responded with glee and excitement to do so.
So, I am conflicted. I admit being spoiled with modern cars. It is not just the power windows, brakes, advanced automatic transmissions and cleaner climate control systems. The idea of adding infotainment, telematics, connected systems simply put the modern car in perspective. No longer is there a single-band radio with a speaker – we got satellite radio, internet radio, streaming radio via your mobile device, CDs, DVDs, iPods, USB drives, internal hard drives and a dozen speakers scattered around the cabin and inside your cargo hold.
Then, there is the quandary. My fondest memories of cars came from the least complicated ones I had a chance to drive in. We had a 1967 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe with roll-down windows, an AM radio and no air conditioning. Granted it was a nice car, but it was simple, uncomplicated and just absolutely gorgeous.
Yet, I had been swept into the whirlwind of convenience right from my earliest days of driving. I blame that 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight – my first car – for spoiling me. Obviously, the big Olds had power windows (that sometimes worked), power door locks, power trunk opener, power bench seat, power steering (you think we complain about modern steering systems for lacking road feel), power brakes…and an AM/FM stereo with two speakers!
Even in one my most seminal vehicles in my driving life – the first generation Ford Taurus – I had the convenience of power windows and such. Let us not forget about cassette players! I made mix tapes for my long drives…
Is the term "back to basics" even relative to time and experience? If you walk up to a pristine monotone 1956 Chevrolet and notice the lack of chrome, peer inside. You did not expect much inside that Model 210 – even without a radio or any other embellishments. Buying a 1970 Ford Custom 500 rather than upgrading to a Galaxie did not mean you were thrifty or frugal. You wanted the comfort of a big Ford, but could care less about all of the extra trim and options a Galaxie had to offer.
This recalls another story. At the Car Craft Summer Nationals this past July, I met a man with a rather pristine 1972 Plymouth Barracuda and its only owner. As I explained, he had the Slant Six – a rarity for the Barracuda. Even so, he only ordered three options – the TorqueFlite automatic, whitewall tires and full wheel covers. Everything else was very basic. It proves the point of even the most iconic and revered vehicles did come with just the basics.
For the sake of convenience, remember one thing: You have it so good now. If you survived the days where power windows, automatic transmissions and FM radio were hard to come by, then you are a survivor. You know what it is like to get back to basics and live with a simple vehicle that went places you never thought were possible.
Including a clean shave.
All photos by Randy Stern