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Yesteryear’s Memories: That New Car Smell


It doesn’t even have to be an actual new car, just new to you. It has some sort of mystery about it. You get to check out how the seats move, what’s included in the trunk, where they put the spare tire, and how the radio sounds. Those basic things haven’t changed much, although there are many more bells and whistles these days. I started thinking about it a few days ago, and I have to say I’m a little disappointed.

Back in the days of family cars with woodgrain on the sides and what we called “wing windows,” there was an excitement in getting a new car. There were the trips past the dealer, or maybe spotting a “for sale” sign on a car sitting in someone’s front yard. There were many decisions to make — like how many kids needed to fit in the back seat. Back then we thought of possibilities like how comfortable a car would be at the drive-in movie. Station wagon? Two or four door? 6 cylinder or V8?

It isn’t like that anymore. Sure, people still make trips past the dealer and people still look for cardboard for sale signs on windows. But there is a difference. Now buyers can look online to find out the average sales price of any car. They can search the area, or the whole United States for that matter, to find exactly the model they want. Instead of spending weeks trying to find that perfect car they want, their phone can present a list with options, prices, and colors in less than a minute. They don’t even have to speak to a human. Yes, it’s convenient. Yes, it makes choosing more efficient. It’s a little like picking a candy bar from a vending machine — look, compare, insert money and out pops your choice. Of course, there is a downside to convenience and usually it’s a higher price. The average price for a new car in 1960 (just about the time the big tailfins were disappearing) was $2200. The base price of a new Corvette convertible in 1972 (when it was my dream car at 15) was just over five thousand dollars. Of course, if you wanted a factory custom interior it would set you back another $158.

Then there was what we’ll call “the family preference.” That was the idea that “we’re a Ford family” or “we only buy Chevys.” It was a powerful concept. It could almost come to blows between neighbors — like the Hatfields and the McCoys. If you were on the opposing team, you must be just plain dumb or blind. No one in our next-door neighbor’s family was allowed to buy a car unless it was on the approved list. When their teen-aged son wanted a foreign car, it might as well have been that he wanted to become a bank robber or a serial killer — his dad was ready to have him committed or sent to reform school.

I guess I’m just stuck in the past. I want a real spare tire in the trunk, the little triangular windows that direct air right on your face, seat belts that don’t scream at you when you don’t buckle them, twenty page owner’s manuals that don’t have an entire section on California cancer warnings, and windows that roll down by arm strength. I want the little dimmer switch on the floor and windshield wipers that last more than three months. I want a guy at the gas station to ask me if I want my oil checked as he scrubs my windshield. And I want a car that is made of actual metal instead of plastic. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I want to get a spare key for two bucks instead of a programmable fob thing that the dealer charges six hundred dollars for. And most of all, I want a just-purchased 1967 car with the smell of real imitation leather and new rubber, and the feeling that I had to work a little to get the best deal from a human – instead of getting an auto drop-shipped from another state just by clicking a mouse. Besides, even if the salesman burned me a little on my trade-in, at least the money stays in town instead of going to some digital shyster in New Jersey. And the oil check is free.

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