I am a car guy and, as I do most years, I strolled through the North American International Auto Show which is held in Detroit every January. Unlike the auto shows in smaller cities that are mostly venues for local dealers to whet the appetite of local customers, this show attracts journalists and auto industry types from around the world who come to see the concept cars and advanced technology car makers think we’ll want in years to come. Nevertheless, there is plenty of dreaming by the masses, most of whom see cars as personal statements and engines of their independence.
I waded through throngs of everyday folks gawking at cars they might never afford and stood in line to sit behind the wheel of cars I could never afford or justify bringing home even if I could. Like everyone else, I felt the shifter in my hand, touched the controls, and adjusted the seat to exactly how I’d want it. I observed it from every angle as it rotated on its platform, wondering how it would look in my driveway. I imagined how I’d look piloting the big motor version with sport rims and fat tires and what my friends would say about my new ride. I listened to the siren song of the comely model raving about the performance, driving characteristics, and luxury features of this, the latest and greatest, and I saw thousands of others lost in the same revelry. It is the revelry that comes from the chance to have your true identity (or the person you want the world to see) displayed in a mobile package that doesn’t care which side of the tracks you come from. It is your personal expression and your independence, limited only by your ability to make the payment.
I have always loved cars, but it is not always the big motor or great color that has me smitten. One of my top ten lifetime rides was a 1967 Plymouth Valiant with a Slant-6 motor. I bought it for $90, brush painted it Rust-Oleum brown and slammed that thing around every mountain road I could find when I lived in rural West Virginia. Legend has it that New York cabbies would run a cab with a Slant-6 until the body fell off and then run the motor in another cab until it was toast. Mine never failed, and it was running strong when I sold it for $35 with nearly 200,000 miles on the clock. I knew they were strong; I helped build them when I worked at Chrysler’s Mack Avenue stamping plant in Detroit in 1968 churning out 273 Valiant fenders an hour.
As I made my way through the displays of various manufacturers, I saw their homage to the emerging technology of autonomous cars and self-driving technology. Many manufacturers touted their lane following systems that use multiple cameras and proximity sensors so you can comfortably manage your car hands free, at least on major roads. Almost everyone has autonomous braking, and many manufacturers are making it standard equipment, a technology that will undoubtedly reduce rear-enders in stop-and-go traffic. This technology will soon be good enough (and some say it already is) that a driver will be unnecessary. Google and others have millions of crash free driverless miles in the rearview mirror, not that a rearview mirror will be needed. Truck drivers should be worried.
But how will this technology square with cars as a personal statement and driving as pleasure? What do I care about the shifter, the big motor and the sport wheels if cars become something I don’t own but merely summon when I need to get to work? Even if I own a self-driving car, will I care if it does not take the scenic route I enjoy every morning? The physical act of driving provides its own autonomy since I, alone, sit behind the wheel in full control and can decide mid-stream to stop for coffee or pin myself to the seat with a burst of delicious power. The conventional wisdom is that self-driving cars will be safer because they don’t drink and drive, don’t speed, and never fall asleep. They’ll communicate by satellite instead of horn and middle finger. Autonomy will undoubtedly bring its own benefits in the form of less road carnage and greater convenience, especially for those who don’t like driving in the first place. But will I feel frustrated riding along at 55 mph on a freeway that currently moves at 80? Will I need a special “driver’s” license to actually drive a classic sports car made well before seat belts were even required? What if I want to drive it at 80 mph? Will I be dodging legions of driverless mobile pods doing exactly 55? If that happens, I guess I’ll never again be able to be absorbed unconditionally in the sweet and immediate moment of the next turn.
It could be comforting to know that the latte slurping motorist applying make-up in the mass of metal next to you is not actually in control. Maybe I’ll be able to return some calls without violating Detroit’s no cell phone law. But it remains to be seen whether this technology portends the end of the love affair I’ve had with cars or the beginning of a beautiful, safer relationship with the road.
Question: What is your dream car?
Russell Ethridge is a prominent attorney in the Detroit area and longtime contributor to Today’s Machining World.
Russell, I enjoyed your well written article. It balanced nostalgia with where the automotive industry is headed.
As one who’s been interested in cars and the industry, beginning as a four-year-old, when I could name all the brands by the hood ornaments, I identified with what you wrote.
As for my dream car, there are many I’d love to drive, such as a Ferrari, but would have no interest in owning, for various reasons. The stories behind antique, collector and modern cars, including the people and manufacturers, have always been of great interest to me. I subscribe to Hemming Classic Car and Collectible Automobile.
Russ and Maury, I am driving my 14 year old Toyota Avalon because I have no passion for cars. I drive my 5000 miles a year and let my wife and others drive me distances. This is partly because I am a cyclops with one functional eye but also because I am indifferent to cars and other forms of personal transportation.But I do care a lot about the business of cars because my livelihood depends on it.
I fear that the machining world will be disrupted by the changes coming n the manufacturing of cars. Electric cars will have simpler powertrains than gasolne. Changes in the ownership model will mean fewer cars sold yearly as they become unadorned hourly rentals. Fewer accidents, though desirable socially, will mean fewer repair parts sold. I would short the stocks.
My favorites so far:
62 falcon coupe, 144 six, manual choke, vacuum wipers, 3 on column, bench seats no belts
63 fury, slant six, pushbuttons
86 Honda CRX-HF, 1.3L carbureted, 5spd, 50mpg highway
79 Ford Bronco
2010 F150XLT, nicest vehicle to date
I abhor the thought of self-driving cars.
I actively seek any vehicle that delivers that driving experience as best as possible. Usually this means manual gearbox, defeatable driver e-nannies like ESC, and sorted steering and handling characteristics. Power, to me, comes second after those first 3 priorities. Unfortunately most manufacturers deliver lackluster experiences all around.
Happy to see that some manufacturers still offer something along the lines of a fun car in the $20k-$30k price range with their modern offerings.
Ford, Mazda, Subaru, VW and even Honda to some degree seem to still hold people like me in consideration when they build a line up of products. Chevy does to a lesser degree, if you dont want a Camaro or ‘Vette, they have little else to offer. I’m seeing fewer and fewer ‘vettes with 3 pedals these days too. 🙁
My current ride is that ‘big motor version with rims and fat tires’…a Ford Focus ST, specifically selected because it was affordable and still delivered that relatively raw driving experience you can only get with 3 pedals.
It fits the budget.
I drove my dream car for about 6 months in the early 90s: a Mercedes station wagon. I found out it was lousy in the snow, and kept locking me out because it didn’t believe my key was the right one. I had a kid in a car seat at the time. I traded it in on an SUV and revised what I wanted in a car.
Now I drive Volkswagens and drive them until I’m afraid they’re going to break down. It’s been in the 6 figures each time. Just got rid of a Jetta station wagon with dog drool and hair embedded in the center headrest and I cried. My dream car gets me going where I want to go all the time. And it has heated seats. that’s it.
Just wait until you get one with a heated steering wheel.
My 1st car was a 1934 Ford 4 dr. Sedan. $120 bought at 15 and left it in Hawaii when I moved one year later. 2nd car was a 1933 Ford 5 window coupe. Turned it into a hot rod, chopped channeled etc. sold it when i went off to college. I too had one of those slant 6 Valiants given to me when I went off to college. Then nothing exciting until about 40 years later. a 2006 Chrysler SRT8, slightly modified, tuned 400 hp rear wheels. Lotsa fun. Thanks for this topic, I as well as Lloyd see that cars will become less important and less exciting. I supply the aircraft industry mostly so that will not disrupt my business as much.
My second car was a manual transmission 1967 used Dodge Dart . I learned to drive it in the car dealer’s parking lot. It was $900 and we bought it because that was what $900 could buy. I was proud of how quickly I learned to drive it and was humbled quickly when I returned to St. Louis and stopped for a red light near the top of a hill. Next, we became a two car family and purchased the Dart’s counterpart, a 1971 slant 6 Valiant. Loved it and had both cars for several years.
I appreciate the comments about the changes in cars and am reminded of the saying “when one door closes, another one opens.” The jobs will change–with the new technology, one worry will be hacking into some of the computer systems that may make or cars move. We are already seeing hacking in transportation and the devastating effects it can have.
Many cars since– I enjoy driving Mazdas and Suburus. I like simplicity in my cars–the fewer things that can go wrong or need servicing, the better. That said, I think I will want my next car to have heated seats and I hope the gps systems will improve, especially the voice control applications. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought Syri must be either a sadist or on drugs.
I’ve always enjoyed cars, and the exploits I was able to handle with them. Although I’ve never gone big budget, there were plenty of vehicles in lower price ranges that satisfied both my basic need to get around, and having fun driving. Except for my very first car (a ’67 Mustang with a worn out 200 C.I. 6), and my present car (a somewhat boring 2015 Subaru Forester), all my cars were 3-pedal types – and I miss it.
I do really love the Subarus though. They’re invaluable here in New England when there’s snow on the ground. And my previous Forester (2004, 2.5 XT Turbo), was a blast to drive. However, I also had a 1974 Mustang II with the 2500cc 4 that was both fun to drive, and fantastic in the snow. It got me home (and around) during the New England Blizzard of ’78 (most of the people I worked with were stuck in the office for a week).
My dream car was always the Jaguar XKE. However, not being the type to get into modifications, I’m not sure I’d want to put up with the constant flow of repairs necessary to keep one on the road.
Many stories over the years about someones mother or grandmother that ran a Slant 6 out of oil and how it refused to die. I feel sorry for the kids of the future that won’t be able to experience the thrill and freedom of learning to drive and owning their own car….that does not drive itself.
I also feel sorry for people that don’t get that from driving and Automobiles. I’ve never been to a live Baseball game and have absolutely NO interest in any ball sports. Much too boring. I attended my first Stock Car race when I was about 4 years old, and have been hooked on cars ever since. It’s all about what you’re exposed to I guess.
Wouldn’t trade the experience…..
I see a lot of comments about the Slant 6 Valiants and they were hard to kill but the Valiant with the 273 c.i. V-8 was a major HOT ROD! Hard to leave a stop light without spinning the wheels.
11 years old bought a 1949 Cadillac …. did my paper route, nice sound car
11 years old bought a 1941 Dodge Power wagon …… paper route and boggin;
14 years old bought a 1957 Fleetwood Cadillac …. Drove to school and anywhere else;
15 years old bought a 1951 Diamond Reo 6 X 6 military ….. went anywhere I wanted to;
16 Years old bought a 1966 Olds delta 88 (new) …. Loved it
20 years old Lincoln Continental Mark III (new) …. Women Killer Awesome Car
My next (3) were Olds 98 all new … best cars I ever bought and drove;
Got married …. drove anything that had wheels … Not New.
Currently drive a 2004 GMC 3/4 ton Sierra, 6.0 and other than gas millage I love it.
Had stock cars, air planes, hang gliders, Snow mobiles, Harley’s but the best vehicle was the Dodge Power Wagon 4 X 4 and winch ………. and the best engine was the 283-V8 those were the best years ever !!!
You’ve got to be the Max I know! I remember you having at least some of those vehicles. Those were the days, for sure!
Afternoon Dick … I suspect you do. We/ and others had a really good “those were the days”