I was born just a few months before the first major petroleum crisis to hit the United States, in those last few days before the American car-buying public got its first hint that maybe – just maybe – the gravy train wouldn’t run forever. In response to the Arab oil-producing nations putting the screws on the world economy in October of 1973, my father – a shadetree mechanic since high school, which at that point was only three years ago for him, admittedly – decided, very reluctantly, to bite the bullet and buy a small car.
But not a foreign car, and especially not a Japanese one. Everyone knew that foreigners, especially Asians, couldn’t be trusted to build a car that wouldn’t fall apart within a year, and besides, parts had to come from overseas, making the supply unreliable and probably expensive. (His benchmark for this was the high price and scarce availability of parts for British cars, the only foreign cars he could really be said to approve of. It was only later that Dad realized the truth: Jaguar parts are expensive because Jaguar like to charge a lot of money for them, not because they have to be shipped to the dealers from Britain.) No, if the Hutchins family were going to suffer the indignity of having to ride in a small car, it was at least going to be an American small car.
The only problem with this, as anyone else who was there at the time can attest to, is that in the early 1970s American small cars were rubbish. That said, Dad was also not a Ford man, so at least we escaped having the worst small car ever made. Instead we had a Chevy Vega. An orange one, no less, which was fortuitous in that the rust it would inevitably develop wouldn’t show as obviously. I have only the dimmest memories of the Vega – it only lasted until I was about three – but I recall thinking it was cramped inside even then.
Fast-forward to 1976; the ’73 fuel crisis had mostly abated and happy days were here again. The Vega had pretty much rusted out anyway, and it was okay to have a big car again – so my father, overcome with glee, threw caution to the wind and ordered a brand new, fully customized Monte Carlo from our local Chevrolet dealer. It took months to come, and when it did, well. The 1977 Monte Carlo wasn’t just big, it was colossal – and at the time it was considered a mid-sized car! It had a hood you could land military jets on and four-foot-long doors that weighed about 100 pounds apiece. The front seats swiveled so you could get in and out without all of that pesky sliding-across-the-seat stuff you have to do in normal cars. It was the swankiest car Chevrolet made that year.
It got about 10 miles per gallon.
This became something of an issue in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution sparked the second major U.S. fuel crisis.
Probably not coincidentally, it was around this time that cars powered by things other than gasoline started to become vaguely worthy of the average consumer’s attention. “By the year 2000, $BIGPERCENTAGE of cars on America’s roads will be electrically powered” became the same kind of car-magazine mantra that “by the year 2000, cars will fly” had been in the middle of the century. There were a lot of pie-in-the-sky announcements of forthcoming new products and promises of wonderful things in the future.
Then the price of crude started to come down again and everybody more or less forgot about it, except for a few hippies and other ahead-of-their-time enviro-nuts. Electric cars went back to being inconvenient curiosities that weren’t really good for anything. The most the mainstream did at the time was to start looking more closely at diesel-powered cars, because – weird as this is to consider now – at the time, diesel fuel was considerably cheaper than gasoline, even when oil prices spiked. That was clearly an evolutionary dead end, especially when considered environmentally rather than economically.
Over the last 20 years or so there has still been the occasional spasm of searching for alternatives (oddly, they seem to coincide eerily with Middle East wars), but they always peter out again. The Alewife station on the Boston T’s Red Line had a rank of spaces with chargers for electric cars in the parking garage, right up by the entrance to the station, for years. I think I saw an actual electric car parked in one of them once. Last time I was in the station, the chargers appeared to have been removed. And yes, you do see the odd city bus or UPS delivery vehicle with a decal on the side proudly announcing that this vehicle runs on used fryolator oil or grass clippings or something, and that’s fine. It’s not as if a city bus could do anything with the power to go faster than a reasonably healthy man can walk anyway. Apart from that, though, it’s pretty much been business as usual.
Well, here we are in the first decade of the 21st century, and everything’s gone wrong again. Not only is gasoline ridiculously expensive by U.S. standards (which, since I live there, are the only standards I consider personally relevant), but now the green lobby has acquired such social, if not political, power that people who drive real cars get the same kinds of evil looks on the street that you’d once have had to do something really outrageous to get. Walking around in a full-length coat made of veal, say.
Admittedly, that kind of crackpottery isn’t new – I once, in about 1992, had a patchouli enthusiast come up to me at a gas station while I was filling up my 1968 Pontiac Tempest and inform me that I was “no better than a murderer” and that he hoped I was proud of myself. The temptation to pull the nozzle out of the car, douse him with premium unleaded, and strike a match was very, very strong. It seems to be more prevalent now, though. You get the same kind of feedback for driving small, reasonably economical cars like the one I have now, a Saab 900S convertible, and from people who you would swear are habitual bathers.
It is, distressingly, starting to look more and more like proper motor vehicles will eventually be forced out, turning the world into some hideous motoring dystopia, like in that old Rush song about the guy with the Ferrari 166. I’m not going to do the usual gearhead thing here and try to trot out obviously forced rationalizations about why piston-engined cars are practically necessary or the like. Yes, electric cars are still ridiculous. Yes, they don’t have a long enough range, high enough reliability, or low enough cost to be worth bothering with. Yes, most of those on the market right now are either insanely unsafe, utterly impractical, or both. Even the best of the current crop of electric cars that I know about, the Tesla Roadster, is hugely expensive, has only a 200-mile range, and takes three and a half hours to recharge. I live in the far reaches of Maine. They’re never going to sell me an electric car, unless I have no choice in the matter at all, before they can make one that will get me to Boston and doesn’t take a full viewing of Seven Samurai to “fill up”.
But that’s just it: Eventually, I’m sure they will. Everything I’ve said about electric cars above was also true of early motorcars, and all those problems were eventually surpassed. If engineers keep working on electric cars, they’ll one day achieve the same sort of evolution, and the electric vehicle will have arrived. Maybe the answer is fuel cells, I don’t know. I’m not sanguine about driving around with a charge of somehing so enormously more explosive than gasoline as hydrogen on board, but don’t go by me.
I’ll be sad when that day comes, anyway, for no better reason than that I like internal combustion cars. I like changing gears and keeping track of revs, even though in practical terms that’s just a contrivance for overcoming the piston engine’s main limitation, its inability to provide smooth or consistent power across a street car’s wide range of speed requirements. I like torque and horsepower ratings. I like the noise they make and the idea that, even if I’m never going to have any reason to ask it to, my car could go really fast. (Well, okay, the car I actually drive couldn’t go really fast, but it could still go quite a lot faster than I ever drive it.)
Yes, in strictly practical terms, I agree that there is nothing I require of a motor vehicle that some future electric model will be unable to do… but I can’t accept that we’ve climbed our way to the 21st century just to start accepting things that can only do what we need them to do. And I decline to just sit back and be demonized because I like cars that rev and make a bit of smoke. Technological progress is supposed to be about a steadily increasing standard of living, not more effective austerity measures.
Benjamin D. Hutchins is an author, public relations writer, and semiprofessional muser upon the random. His other nonfiction writings can be found here and here.