Date:23 June 2011
Think they don’t make cars like they used to? They don’t – and it’s a good thing they don’t. By Mike Allen
I get mail every day from readers (you know who you are) lamenting that the cars you grew up with were so much better than today’s cars. I hear about the accident that destroyed your new Mazda6 but would have barely scratched Dad’s ’77 Fairlane. I hear about riding in a station wagon’s rear-facing seat and making faces at following motorists. Nostalgia aside, you’re oh so misguided. Technology and a host of government regulations have made today’s cars far more fuel-efficient, better-handling, cleaner and safer by orders of magnitudene.
* Staying alive
Thanks to car bodies and frames that are designed to absorb impact energy, and to seatbelts and airbags, these days you’re far more likely to survive an accident. Recently, America’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety staged a 64 km/h offset impact between a 1959 Chevy Bel Air and a 2009 Malibu.
See image 1 –
The 2009 Malibu’s controlled-crush structure and safety devices would keep the driver from serious harm. Contrast the 1959 Bel Air, which collapsed during impact, would probably result in major injuries.
The surefire way to survive a wreck is to avoid having one. Antilock brakes allow you to steer around obstacles even during panic stops, while stability-control systems automatically prevent spinouts.
* General improvements
Sealed beams, mandated in the US in 1940, replaced bulb-and-reflector designs that corroded and dimmed. Federal law required their use until the modern quartzhalogen lamp came along in 1978. Some vehicles now use HID lamps – and LEDS are just around the corner.
Remember inner tubes? Tubeless radial tyres have universally replaced poor-handling, short-lived bias-plies. They’re so much more puncture-resistant that some new cars don’t even come with spare tyres. Bonus: better fuel economy due to reduced rolling resistance.
Most of a modern car – including the plastic – is designed to be recycled. And thanks to a robust process, the modern car is the single most recycled object on planet Earth.
Dad had his choice of two colours for the clothcovered bench seat. Now we ride around on poweradjustable, heated and cooled leather buckets, grasping leather steering wheels that have radio and telephone controls on the spokes. All the major controls are now within easy reach, and we even have automatically dimming rearview mirrors.
Every car designer has to study aerodynamics to get a degree. Attention to airflow has reduced the drag coefficient of a Mustang from 0,46 in 1979 to 0,36 today.
Henry Ford painted Model Ts with black lacquer and a paintbrush. Except for spray guns, the process didn’t improve much until paint-booth emissions requirements made carmakers adopt durable clear-coat enamel in the ’80s.
Getting your mail in older cars meant driving down the lane to the letter box. Now you can tweet from the dashboard, send maps to the nav system from your cellphone and let your car schedule its own service appointments.
It’s ridiculously easy – without any tools – to hot-wire a classic car. Contrast that with the rolling-code transponder keys and immobolisers in modern cars. You can even follow a stolen car online, and shut it off for the police.
Air conditioning is now standard on almost every new car. And many come with multizone controls that can be tailored for driver, passenger and even rear seats.
AM radios ruled, and the upgrade was pushbutton tuning. Modern car stereos are more powerful and fullfeatured than the best home audiophile systems of 20 years ago.
* Under the bonnet
1 612 kg
1 786 kg
Your dad’s mechanic had to be a cross between a horse whisperer and a rocket scientist to keep a carburetted, ignition-points car running smooth. Now the engine tunes itself, and you can monitor its operation with an iPhone app.
In the old days, only temperamental race motors produced 100 horsepower for each litre of displacement, and they needed frequent rebuilds. Today, you can buy a Honda Civic Si at an affordable price that delivers the same power and will run for a long, long time.
The gold standard used to be a three-speed automatic with a slushy torque converter. In the interest of fuel economy and quieter cruising, we now have seven- or even eight-speed automatics, locking torque converters, continuously variable transmissions and quick-shifting automated dual-clutch gearboxes.
Weak, whining generators went bye-bye in the ’60s: new cars have at least a 100-amp alternator; most are 135 amps.
Low friction engines
Attention to detail in the engine has reduced fuel consumption considerably. For example, this roller camshaft (left) replaces high-friction tappets with freerolling, needle-bearing cam followers.
* Quality control
Solid axles are still used on trucks, but cushy independent suspension is now the norm. Some cars use electronically controlled shocks that change settings before the wheel sinks into a pothole.
Back in the old days, the average car was lucky to wheeze along to 250 000 km. Now, it’s not unusual to see twice that on the odometer. And when was the last time you heard of a catastrophic engine failure?
Imagine having your oil changed every 1 500 km, and pumping grease into a dozen suspension fi ttings. Most cars now have sealed suspension joints, and oil-change intervals are as long as 15 000 km.
Drive behind a ’60s vintage car and the acrid exhaust fumes will burn your eyes. Today’s cars emit less than one per cent of the smog-producing chemicals that cars put out four decades ago, and very little carbon monoxide.
Modern cars have precise power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering gear, grippier tyres and far better suspension kinematics. Now you control where the car goes, not the other way around.