Steam Locomotive & Cars

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

There is a museum in my town devoted to the photography of O. Winston Link (see here). He was fascinated by steam locomotives and spent years — the declining years of the steam locomotive — taking pictures of them, recording the waning days of these mighty, almost living concatenations of steel, iron and fire.

It was the late 1950s and steam and coal were rapidly being supplanted by diesel-electric. Winston Link knew the sun was setting — and time was of the essence.

Today, one only sees steam locomotives in museums – and in the black-and-white stills of O. Winston Link.

They are are longer living things.

One can listen to old recordings and hear the whistles and hisses to get some sense — at much remove — of what they were like when they were alive. But it’s an echo from the past, rapidly receding.

Few men are still living who know how to operate a steam engine. All those levers, all those pressure gauges. They are as impenetrable as the controls of H.G Wells’ time machine. A handful of septuagenarians possess the knowledge, have the skills — but they are fading from the scene. Once they are gone, all that will remain are the static displays, the photographs, the memories.

The car is headed down this dead-end road to oblivion, too.

At least, as something more than a mere appliance. A disposable appliance fewer and fewer people have any emotional attachment to.

It is no great mystery why.

For the first time since the dawn of the car, the young are not much interested.

Here are some metrics:

* Since 2001, the average yearly number of miles driven by those in the 16-34 demographic has declined by 23 percent.

This is unprecedented in modern times. The young almost axiomatically drive more — or at least, they used to.

* 26 percent of young Americans in the 16-21 bracket don’t even have a driver’s license.

Also unprecedented. Most people over 40 today will agree that getting their hands on a driver’s license — and the keys to the family car — as soon as their 16th birthday rolled around was one of the big events of adolescence.

Today, not far from 30 percent would rather walk.

Or, ride a bicycle.

* In 2009, the 16-34 year-olds took 24 percent more bike trips, according to a National Household Travel Survey.

See here for a bunch of stats that suggest young Americans’ love affair with the car is not only over, it never even began.

So, how come? What’s changed?

Well, for one, driving isn’t much fun anymore. Just getting a license has become a huge hassle, courtesy of “graduated” license requirements that treat every 16-year-old as a presumptive moron (in preparation for a society that treats every adult as a presumptive moron) who cannot be trusted — in some cases for years — to drive at night or with others in the vehicle.

That pretty much nixes using a car for anything other than going to school or work . . alone.

Forget dates, forget road trips with your friends.

There goes the two main reasons most teenagers want a car. They’re no longer freedom mobiles. No longer fun.

They are a hassle.

An expensive hassle.

Everyone knows about the cost of gas. It’s more than doubled since Gen X (my generation) was in high school back in the ’80s — when teenage kids with part-time jobs could not only afford to drive their own cars, they often drove V-8 muscle cars.

$20 to fill up . . . with premium.

But it’s not just the gas. It’s everything associated with cars.

Have you priced an oil change lately? A quart of oil approaches $5 — four times what it cost in the ’80s. Synthetics are closer to $10 a quart. The minimum wage, meanwhile, has not increased four-fold over the same period to compensate.

Tires — “cheap” tires — cost $75 a piece.

Vehicle registration costs are at all-time highs — as are traffic fines, which in some states (CA, for instance — the birthplace of car culture) can exceed $300 for minor offenses.

The death of a thousand cuts.

But these are mere incidentals.

The real money pit is the car itself. To buy it, to maintain it, to insure it. Because of what government has done to it.

Thanks to the Cash For Clunkers program, for instance, good used cars are scarce and so — expensive. Getting something decent — something mechanically viable as transportation — is increasingly beyond the means of teens and 20-somethings to buy outright. That means a loan. Which you won’t get if you don’t have a decent, steady and verifiable income (forget cutting grass on the side in summer). And the young are so saddled with debt already — $50,000 is the average unshakeable debt albatross hanging around the neck of every recent college graduate — that the prospect of signing up for more is about as appealing as guzzling an asparagus and sardines milkshake.

New cars are also debt ball and chains — even more so.

Last year, the average price paid for a new car was over $30k — a new record. Not coincidentally, mandates from DC dictating new car parameters — how they’ll be built, the equipment they must have — are also issuing forth at a record pace. Cars are in a very real way not designed by engineers. They’re designed by bureaucrats. And we all know how much bureaucrats care about saving you money.

It’s true, of course, that one can buy a new car for less than $30k. But the point is it’s getting harder to avoid cashing out most of your savings — or signing up for 5-6 year debt indenture — in order to get behind the wheel of a car.

New or used.

Then there is insurance. Which you must buy if you want to own a car. Surprise, insurance costs have gone up by about 10 percent across the board since 2008 alone. Funny how forcing people to buy something tends to make it cost more.

But rising premium costs are not solely due to the mafiosi nature of insurance. Repair costs are through the roof, because materials costs have increased (a function of increased oil/energy costs) and also because modern cars are cosmetically quite fragile. They have unprotected front and rear clips covered by easily ripped rubber, with easily cracked and smashed plastic grilles and headlight “assemblies” that usually can’t be repaired and which often cost a small fortune to replace.

Even minor impacts — such as accidentally backing into another car while trying to maneuver out of a parking spot — can result in thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. If the air bags deploy, forget about it. The car will almost certainly be totaled if its pre-accident value was less than $5,000 — because the cost of replacing a couple of deployed air bags can all by itself put the tab close to the 50 percent of the car’s value threshold — at which point it is usually consigned to the crusher.

These costs bounce back at us in the form of ever-upticking premiums and deductibles. Even if you’ve never wrecked, the fact that it could happen — and if it does happen, the tab is likely to be high — means you pay more. It means we all pay more.

And the only way out — since we can’t say no to insurance — is to say no to the car itself.

Which is an easier and easier decision to make, especially for the under-40 crowd that will determine the automobile’s future . . . or lack thereof.

Because cars — because driving — is no longer enjoyable. You’re hassled — and dunned — at every turn.

Older people still have the fond memories to compensate — and also (more so than the young) the resources to indulge. But the up and coming generations don’t have the great memories to sustain their passion, aren’t emotionally invested — and to a great extent, can’t indulge in cars for fun even if they happen to be so inclined.

And so, they are walking.

At least when you’re on foot, you don’t have to sweat cops demanding you “buckle up” at gunpoint. Nor do you need to spend years dealing with rigmarole to get your permission slip to walk. And you can — for the moment — walk at your own pace, as fast — or as slowly — as you like.

It is free.

You can go where you like, when you like, how you like. If the mood hits you, just go.

This is what cars once gave us — freedom. And don’t anymore. They’ve become the opposite of free. Everything about them is micromanaged, controlled, dictated. From their design to how we’re allowed to use them. We don’t even own the damned things — not really. Not even if they’re “paid-for.” Because you’ll never be allowed to stop paying the insurance on it, or the property tax either.

Is it any wonder the car is going the way of the steam locomotive?

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2 Responses to “Steam Locomotive & Cars”

  1. Bruce Liddel says:

    The steam engine is not quite dead. Union Pacific operates three as rolling museums. http://www.up.com/aboutup/special_trains/steam/index.shtml

  2. bernie says:

    certainly 'the car' isn't going the way of the buggy whip in any conceivable future, but perhaps you could think of it as Henry Ford in reverse- taking a commodity affordable and enjoyable by the masses and reverting it to a plaything for the rich…and an 'appliance' for the merely well-off