Gearheads and the Future

Growing up first in Los Angeles in the 50s, then further up in the Central Valley, I used to wait with anticipation for October. And Los Angeles was/is the center of the car culture.

There probably wouldn’t be a Porsche today without Southern California. In their early days, more Porsches were sold in Los Angeles than Germany.

And after less than 3 years, when the 300SL “Gullwing” took the world by storm at the New York Auto show, The original 300SL – a race car made to a street version, became a roadster because of the demands of the Southern California market.

I probably became a gearhead at the age of 6, when my mother visited a friend in the Hollywood Hills, and the friend of hers had a brand new yellow ’56 T-Bird. After some conversation at her house, with dusk coming, she suggested that the 3 of us take a little drive.

I was small and sat in the middle, on the “transmission hump”. The sun had set and we were cruising on Sunset Blvd with the top down and even at the age of 6, I thought “How cool is that“?

My gearhead status was further solidified when my mother dropped me off at my elementary school  in her 7 year old  Pontiac (named Zeke!). While I was getting out, some kid was dropped off in a red Mercedes-Benz Gullwing. That made an impression on me. There were some kids who were children of movie industry people. This was probably 1957 or 1958.

I grew up listening to songs like this.

I was mentioning how the country used to always wait for October for the unveiling of the new models. Dealers kept their new cars being delivered before October hidden. It was really like a movie premier. Most of the time, they were simply re-bodied or a different grill added, etc.

By the way – a sidebar – among car nuts, many love the “Tri Five” – the ’55 through ’57 Chevy. In 1955 Chevrolet introduced a completely new car with a V8 engine for the first time. What we know as the ‘58 Chevy  was supposed to be introduced for the ’57 model year, but GM didn’t have all the tooling ready. So they told legendary head of design Harley Earl to just “freshen up” the ’56.

The ’57 turned out to be one of the most desirable cars to hot rodders and collectors and proves the adage the great screenwriter William Goldman said about the movie business: “Nobody knows nothin’“. If there is one iconic car that exemplified the 1950s, my vote would go to the ’57 Chevy.

Probably nothing better exemplifies this excitement  than a Chevy commercial in late 1964 showing the new models on what was America’s favorite show, Bonanza. Bonanza, incidentally, was one of the first shows in color and shown on Sunday evenings. This gives you a feeling for the “premier” of the new cars.

Incidentally, I think that Corvette, made from 1963-1967, is still the best looking Corvette ever made, thanks to Larry Shinoda and Bill Mitchell’s design studio.

So when did this excitement start to die out? My guess is the 70s, with the awful smog equipment on cars. Not that I am “for” smog and air pollution, but those early attempts made the engines run poorly with horsepower way down. GM, up through the early 70s, was the industry powerhouse. Cars started looking homogenized while the makers were concentrating on smog controls.

Does anybody today really care about new model introductions?

GM at one point was concerned about selling more cars because, having about 50% of the market in the late 1950s, they were worried about the Justice Dept breaking them up.

Those were the days. Personally I think if it isn’t already, it would make a good business school study on how Detroit ceded its market share to all of the foreign competition. Or the networks ceded their dominance to  cable TV (and streaming today).

I thought of giving an automotive test. Although I think this applies only to the Baby Boomers like myself, I am going to give some numbers that just about any boy of that era knew how to associate. Answers at the end of this post.

Oh, every single one relates to solely an engine.

(A) 327

(B) 427

(C) 426

(D) 289

(E) 351

These are just numbers that virtually every boy I knew would associate while I was growing up. There’s plenty more “famous” numbers.

But America’s love of the car may be coming to an end.

“After one too many snowstorms, Boston tech executive Larry Kim had had it with shoveling out his car and struggling to find parking. So in 2014 he ditched his Infiniti luxury sedan and began commuting by Uber and Lyft—at an annual cost of as much as $20,000. “I would never go back to owning a car,” says Kim, chief executive officer of MobileMonkey Inc., a Facebook Messenger marketing platform, who says he’s recovered an hour a day by not driving. “Your time is not free, right? Your time is worth more than $20 an hour. So in my case, why not spend $15,000 to $20,000 a year to get all of that time saved?”

The automobile—once both a badge of success and the most convenient conveyance between points A and B—is falling out of favor in cities around the world as ride-hailing and other new transportation options proliferate and concerns over gridlock and pollution spark a reevaluation of privately owned wheels. Auto sales in the U.S., after four record or near-record years, are declining this year, and analysts say they may never again reach those heights.” 

Then I have heard from various  sources that many Americans, particularly Millennials, have “fallen out of love” with cars.

“Car ads sell a romantic fantasy. They often feature a driver on the open road taking the curves along a mountain or speeding through a curiously depopulated urban landscape, rugged and free.

But in the real world, congestion and the high cost of car ownership may have cooled the romance between Americans and their cars, especially for younger adults, according to a new national survey.

Almost half of more than 1,000 consumers surveyed do not enjoy most of the time they spend driving, said a study by Arity, a Chicago transportation technology and data company created two years ago by Allstate Insurance.

The numbers are starkest for millennials. More than half of adults between the ages of 22 and 37 say a car is not worth the money spent on maintenance, and that they would rather be doing something other than driving.”

I get it. But I also believe that cars will always be a source of freedom – and enjoyment – for people.

Some years ago, while visiting Manhattan (for a first, and so far only) time, an acquaintance at the time gave me a ride in his Ferrari. We left Manhattan with some other friends and drove to West Point on a beautiful road that followed the Hudson River.

Listening to that classic V12 was – bellisimo!

Owning a car in Manhattan takes some dedication. You may pay for a garage space at a rate that rivals apartments in other cities. My friend and I solemnly walked some blocks to the garage, whose location I swore to secrecy. (while he didn’t ask I’m keeping him off the Net, too).

Once in, it was almost a ceremony, removing the car cover. Hearing that V12 start (first – and only time (at about 1 minute if you, like me, wonder if that guy is ever going to start it) – I have been in a Ferrari) was a thing of beauty. And hearing that engine on the road was a lifetime memory .

Listen to all these cars with their sounds from the cult classic Gumball Rally, about an unsanctioned race across the country. Listen to them as they are racing though Manhattan with the sounds reverberating off the skyscrapers early in the morning.

Maybe that is what we are “evolving” to – still having fun transportation but reserved for weekend travel – or rural travel. For everyday travel maybe we’ll will be hailing ride sharing companies or sitting in little self-driving electric boxes.

The passion for driving will be gone, and I will miss it.

I’d still take that ’65 Corvette at age 15, now, or when (and if) I am 80.

Gearheads and Millennials

A Gearhead test: Would you rather ride in this or some electric self-driving box? OK, maybe it depends on whether you have open and beautiful road or traffic urban gridlock.


Gearheads and Millennials1

Last test: If you find this engine beautiful, you pass the Gearhead test. 3 Weber Carbs! (the 250GTO you heard – about 40 made – was even higher performance with 6 Webers.


(A) Probably the most enduring V8 in Detroit history, the 327 “small block” Chevy started out as a 265 cubic inch motor  in 1955 and evolved to this day in cars like the modern Corvette.

(B) there’s really 2 answers here, most common is the 427 “Big Block” Chevy that powered Corvettes, but it is also the mighty 427 Ford that powered mainly Cobras and a few very limited production cars like the Torino.

(C) the 426 “Hemi” was a legendary engine from Chrysler. Without looking all of this up, and ready to stand corrected, I believe from memory it was originally developed for NASCAR. They then offered it in cars such as Chargers and Plymouth Road Runners. It was a hugely expensive option and thus they are very rare (and valuable) today.

(D) the 289 was a small block Ford engine that originally started out (IIRC) as 260 cid (cubic inch displacement). It powered a lot of Mustangs and other Fords and in higher tune, powered the mighty Cobra and Mustang GT350.

(E) The 351 Cleveland was a small block Ford engine that powered a lot of high performance Mustangs in the early 70s.


Update 03/05/19 : 56 years after its introduction I think the Sting Ray still looks cool. What do you think? To me an enduring design has a timeless look.




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