New cars can do all kinds of things—even drive themselves.
But there were all kinds of things you could do in the cars of the past that you can’t do in new cars.
Like Snuggle Up With Your Sweetheart, For Instance
New cars and even new trucks have bucket seats and center consoles in between them. It’s very hard to sit close beside someone in a car (or truck) like that. The best you can do is lean into them a little and even that is hard because of mandatory buckle-up laws (in most states) that make it an offense to snuggle up next to your sweetheart.
Follow a Suspect with Your Car’s Lights Off
It was once a staple of cop/detective/mystery shows and real life to stealthily approach a “suspect’s” hideout with your car’s lights off, for the obvious reason, to not be seen approaching the “suspect’s” hideout.
And there was another reason to keep your headlights off in the daytime, so that emergency vehicles, motorcycles and funeral processions stood out from the pack. This was safer for everyone.
Then came always-on Daytime Running Lights. They’re not required by law but almost all new cars have them or at least have parking lights that always stay on unless the car isn’t moving (transmission in Park).
Peg the Speedo
Cars used to come with realistic speedometers; realistic in the sense that it was feasible to wind the thing all the way around, or all the way across the dash, to the highest number, which was usually no more than 120 MPH.
Modern cars routinely have speedometers that read to 160-plus and many of them are fully capable of achieving it, given enough room and nerve. But few people ever see it, for both of these reasons, so the upper reaches are tantalizingly out-of-reach, like a mirage in the desert.
For a handful of years in the late ’70s and into the early ’80s, the federal government stated that speedometers should read no higher than 85 MPH—to discourage speeding. All this did was encourage people to wind the needle around the clock past 85 and back to 15 or 20.
Flip the Air Cleaner Lid Over
Why would you want to do that? Well, before car engines became electronically fuel-injected engines they had carburetors—mechanical things that dripped liquid gas into the vortex of the running engine, which also sucked air through the carburetor. It operated like a vacuum cleaner, kind of, and flipping the lid over opened up the vacuum, so you could hear the carburetor sucking air and the vortex howl of the carburetor’s throttle blades opening up.
Back in the carbureted days, different brands of cars had different carburetors—Rochesters, Holleys, and Carters—and they each made a distinctive sound, unlike today’s same-sounding fuel injection systems (most of which have common parts made by the same supplier, such as Bosch).
Carburetors were also the first thing kids curious about cars would fiddle with, because they were pretty simple mechanical things you could directly touch and see the workings of—something that’s impossible to do with electronic parts, which probably explains, at least in part, why today’s kids are less curious about cars.
Sit Facing Backwards
There was a time when cars were regarded as fun things rather than dangerous things and part of the fun was to go for a ride facing the opposite direction of travel. New cars and trucks came from the factory with rear-facing seats; sometimes, bench seats that folded out and let you sit three across. Big station wagons, which unlike today’s big minivans had V8s and were rear-wheel-drive—like the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser—were the venue for great memories of good times enjoyed by kids who grew up before the killjoys took over (in the name of safety).
There were also pick-ups that had seats bolted to the bed (e.g., the Subaru Brat) as recently as the ‘80s… but that was a long time ago.
Crack the Vent
Not a drug reference. Air conditioning was a luxury feature within living memory of people over 40. Gather round, Millennials! Many new cars didn’t come with it. Or you had to pay extra for it. A great deal extra. Many didn’t. But everyone wants to stay cool or at least not feel like they’re taking a steam bath on the way to work. So almost all new cars came with manual vent systems, including wing-vent quarter windows for the driver and front seat passenger as well as a system of pull knobs under the dash you could open or close to let outside air flow inside the car with the windows shut (helpful in the rain).
At speed, these ventilation systems were surprisingly effective and they were very cheap.
All modern cars have AC as part of the standard equipment suite and so do not have manual ventilation systems. This means you’re dependent on the AC to keep from sweating in the summer sun. Put more finely, you can’t make do without the AC.
Which means you have to pay to get it fixed if you don’t want to sweat!
Dim the Lights with Your Feet
In a new car, if you want to turn the high beams on (or turn them off) you generally pull a stalk, which of course entails taking at least one hand off the wheel. It also entails the risk of inadvertently engaging something else because it’s common for the stalk that controls the high beam on/off to control other functions, such as windshield wipers.
In a few cars, the stalk you think turns the high beams on/off controls which gear the transmission is in. This includes reverse and park.
Luckily, the engineers anticipated the problem and the system won’t put the transmission in reverse or park if the car is moving forward.
In the past, most cars, at least, most American cars, had a floor-mounted dimmer switch that you engaged with your foot. This kept both hands on the wheel and eliminated any possible operational confusion involving multi-function stalks.
And in those halcyon days of yore, most people turned their brights off faster than today’s automatic high beam systems do; some of these bathe opposing traffic in searing blue-white light for several retina-assaulting seconds before languidly switching off the brights.
Back in the day, of course, drivers were expected to be courteous. Today, drivers are encouraged—by automated systems—to be unconscious.
Photo attribution: Christopher Ziemnowicz