6 Things You Can’t Do In A Car Anymore

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

1) Burnouts

It is still possible to light up the tires, but there’s more involved than just stomping on the gas pedal.

First, you usually have to turn off the traction control — which exists to prevent you from doing burnouts. As soon as the tires begin to slip, the electronic brain instantly pumps the brakes, or backs off the power — or some combination of the two — in order to restrain you from partaking of antisocial activities.

In some late-model cars, it is impossible (or extremely difficult) to turn the traction control entirely off. You think you did, but pushing the button only partially disengages the system. Real burnouts — the fishtail sliding type — are not allowed. At least (in some cars) not before you go through a multi-step process of depressing/holding the button — after which — for a brief time only — the computer will permit you to spin the tires. But only just a little bit.

Then it re-sets and you have to ask permission all over again.

2) Smoking

You can’t do that anymore, either. At least, not if you don’t want to burn holes in the upholstery.

Most new cars don’t come with ashtrays. You have to pay extra to get them — if they’re even available — as part of a “smoker’s package.”

It’s another passive-aggressive manifestation of subtle behavior modification techniques, like those 85 MPH speedometers cars had for awhile in the early ’80s. If the speedo doesn’t read any higher than 85, you won’t be tempted to drive faster. Right? So, if there are no ashtrays in the car, maybe you’ll give up that filthy habit.

Meanwhile, the automakers are writhing to outdo each other in getting Internet in cars, so you can read e-mail and surf the web while driving. . .

Because that’s so much safer than smoking.

3) Rest your left arm on the top of the driver’s side door

New cars have very high doors. In some, you feel like you’re sitting in a really deep bathtub, which makes it impossible to rest your left arm on the top of the door with the window rolled down, like you could do Back in the Day.

Doors have grown taller to provide better protection against side-impact crashes. Federal regulators demand it; the insurance companies lobby for it. Whether we — the people who actually pay for the cars — necessarily want it is apparently beside the point. Just like air bags and so many other things we’re forced to buy. If we want a new car, anyhow.

4) Pick a custom steering wheel

For most of the history of the automobile, it was possible to either order a new car with one of several available factory custom steering wheels — or buy one on your own, afterward, and install it in your garage with basic hand tools. It was a fun — and fairly inexpensive — way to set your particular car apart from the crowd. And also for the automakers to differentiate one trim level from another within a given model series.

Typically, the nicer/top-of-the-line trim came with a different steering wheel that became the centerpiece of the interior. For instance, in a ’70s-era Pontiac Trans-Am, you got a racy-looking three-point/spoked “Formula” wheel with thick custom padding around the rim — vs. the standard car’s cheap-looking vinyl deal.

In a new car, all trims within a given model get exactly the same steering wheel (maybe embellished with different trim). There are no optional wheels to select from and it is not possible to swap out the factory wheel for an aftermarket unit.

Because of the air bag. When these things were first introduced in the ’70s, almost no one voluntarily bought them. So the government mandated them. And now we’re all stuck with them.

5) Parking brake bootleg turns

Recipe as follows: With the car tracking straight, yank on the parking brake lever to lock up the back wheels as you simultaneously crank the wheel hard left or right (depending on which direction you want to go). The back end of the car will swing around, enabling you to make an abrupt 90 degree turn. Release the brake as the car turns, punch it — and go! (You can also use this technique to execute a complete 180 degree turn.)

Except you can’t — not in a new car, anyhow.

In almost all the new cars I have test driven recently, the parking brake is factory adjusted to barely have enough holding power to keep the car in place when it is parked.

It is insufficient to lock up the rear wheels suddenly, essential to a properly executed bootleg turn. There is also usually a super-annoying claxon (along with flashing warning light) that goes ballistic the second you begin to raise the brake lever, if the car is moving. Danger! Safety! What about the Children!

Possibly, you can tighten up the adjustment so that the brake comes on hard and fast when you need it. And certainly, you can ferret out the buzzer under the dash and smash the little monster to pieces with a ball-peen hammer.

But you shouldn’t have to do either, right?

6) Fine-tune the radio station

Years and years ago, cars had dial-type radios. The reception was crappy, but it was possible to find and keep on listening to a weak station for longer by making fine adjustments to the dial.

In a modern car with a digital-seek radio, this is often impossible. The radio will just skip over any station that’s not putting out a strong enough signal. You’re forced to listen to only the stations that the radio will let you listen to.

The other thing that’s gone forever — and maybe it’s not a bad thing — is the modular, one-size-fits-all stereo.

Most older-than-1980s-era cars, no matter the make or model, came with your standard rectangular slot — into which you could fairly easily swap in an aftermarket unit. This you almost had to do because most factory stereos sucked. The downside was that putting in a nice aftermarket stereo was an invitation to smash n’ grab thieves.

Today, factory stereos are very good; and they’re typically specific to that specific car — which is a deterrent to thieves, since the unit is useless outside of the car it came in.

But it was kind of fun spending a few hours on a Saturday afternoon installing a new high-powered custom stereo.

Like multiple ashtrays and three-across bench seats, that’s something that’s probably gone forever.


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