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What Was That Car?

Driving back from Twisp a few days ago, an attractive car went by in the opposite direction. “What was that?” I wondered aloud, and my observant wife responded with “What was what?”

She is not to be accused of ignorance about whatever was going though my head, she was probably surveying the battle between weeds and native plants at the roadside. Anyhow, I responded that I was speaking of the automobile that went past, and then I complained that they all look alike anymore. And it’s true. Even car advertisements from around the globe have a certain sameness to them, which leads me to believe that—in an effort to save money—global automakers have hired a single firm of designers to create their wares.

Used to be (and pardon me again younger readers for going into the past) that one of the high points of the year came in late October when the new models were introduced. Never mind the auto shows around the country, the hype on TV (when it became popular) and the radio, and the magazines extolled the intro of the new cars. It was in the ‘50s I would guess when Motor Trend began its still extant “Car of the Year” award. As the years rolled on it became apparent to us car nuts that the same company rarely, if ever, earned this accolade. To the cynics, including me, it was a hint that there was money changing hands.

With the advent of foreign cars after the war (World, #2) many of us looked down our noses at what became known as “Detroit Iron.” Large, oh-so-large vehicles with lousy gas mileage, even at 24 cents a gallon, compared to the smaller Euro cars, both sedans and sports cars. The Brits were the first to invade our shores with the Austin sedans and the MG-TC sports car.

The English cars had their shortcomings, mostly notably the electrical systems made by a company called Lucas. Ultimately, Lucas became known as “The Prince of Darkness,” a nick-name brought about by failures with headlights suddenly going dark and many other electrical difficulties.

I am guessing the Italians were next. It did not matter what model of what car, it had “brio,” an all-inclusive term for fun-to-drive and remarkable handling. Why not, they came from the home of Ferrari, Maserati, and Alpha-Romeo. But the bread and garlic butter cars came from Fiat. I owned four of them, even after they were cursed with the acronym “Fix It Again, Tony.” Despite many problems they were my favorite cars to drive, including rallying and off-track racing.

In those days, you could identify any car you saw, be it a wallowing Detroit sedan or a Peugeot D-11 from France. My dad bought a 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 new for $6,800. This car was the epitome of the chromium era: when and wherever it could be stuck, chrome was applied. But it was identifiable from its younger sibling, the Olds 88. Even with the same body, a Chevrolet had some design feature that distinguished it from Pontiac which shared the same body. A Ford could be distinguished from a General Motors offering, Packard from anything else.

Today they all look alike. Whether it was the hard times of the ‘80s or a lackadaisical attitude toward public desires, the cars began all to look like, as my son in law put it, potatoes. And indeed they did. From there they have become streamlined, aerodynamically more efficient and now identical twins, triplets, quadruplets and more with most of the family cars in the world.

Fortunately this does not hold true for my 1992 Lincoln Continental. Granted it looks like the rest of its siblings, but mine has the distinction of being wired by The Prince of Darkness. Fair warning to you all.


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