Although we still care about our cars, the relationship just isn’t the same.
Cars used to be seen as extensions of our personalities. You could tell what sort of a person someone was — or wanted to be — by the car they drove. Muscle cars equaled macho. Sports cars meant sexy. Overpriced status cars screamed inferiority complex.
These days, we think of cars from a platonic perspective. Instead of focusing on, say, the 0-to-60 stats, we ask about gas mileage. Styling has become secondary to reliability. And remember mag wheels? Now we want technology: GPS, satellite radio and a backup camera.
Here are some of the classics that were at the center of our romance with cars:
The original woodies of the ’30s actually had rear bodies made of wood. They were replaced by steel bodies — which provided more strength — that were covered with wood veneers, which, in turn, later were replaced by plastic and vinyl veneers that could pass for wood (at least, in the dark). The car became an emblem of pop culture in the ’60s when the Beach Boys packed up their woodie for a “Surfin’ Safari” and TV’s hip “Mod Squad” chased bad guys in their 1950 Mercury woodie wagon.
Introduced by Chevrolet in 1953, the Vette was America’s answer to the Jaguar and its ilk of low-slung — and high-priced — European sports cars. It initially was available only as a convertible. Chevy eventually gave in to those who wanted a hardtop, but it never backed off its resolve against adding a back seat. In 1963, the company introduced the car’s “second generation,” subtitled the Stingray, launching a debate that still rages over which version was better.
The muscle car was a family-friendly version of the sports car — it had a trunk big enough to hold grocery bags and a back seat into which you could load a couple of kids. These high-performance darlings cruised the streets on Saturday nights. Every manufacturer had at least one, but it was the introduction of the Hemi engine that made the Barracuda a legend. That, and a clever marketing campaign in which Plymouth claimed that the engine was so powerful that it was recommended only for drag strips.
The most successful introduction in Ford history, the Mustang gave birth to a subset of roadsters that were called “pony cars” in its honor (and much to the chagrin of the other car companies). Originally conceived as a lower-cost option to the Thunderbird, the company anticipated selling 100,000 models the first year. Instead, they reached that mark in just three months, and within 18 months of the first Mustang coming off the assembly line, there were a million of them on the road.
The forerunner of the minivan, the Volkswagen bus was the primary mode of transportation for hippies, peaceniks and Deadheads. They were legendary for the abuse they could take and their amazing adaptability to ad hoc repairs fashioned from paper clips and duct tape. The small engine, tucked into a compartment not much bigger than the glove box, didn’t provide much zoom, but the folks who drove them were so blissed out that they didn’t care — or, perhaps, didn’t even notice.