A recent Associated Press story (Herald, Aug. 16) raised the question: "Is it the end of classic cars?"With the involvement of the government in vehicle design, the advent of the "econobox" and mandated safety and fuel economy standards, it's logical to question whether anyone would choose to restore a 1994 Hyundai, a 1989 Impala or, good grief, an AMC Gremlin. The majority of cars produced in the last 30 years have no attraction to collectors. Most become ugly with age, and were intended to recycle themselves into oblivion, which they effectively did, along with many of their respective companies.
But if you define "classic cars" as those made before about 1975, you have a group of vehicles produced over more than 60 years that continuously stretched established boundaries.
Do you remember your uncle's Edsel? How about grandpa's royal blue '37 Chrysler Imperial - later replaced by a pink-and-white 1955 DeSoto? Or dad's yellow-and-white four-door hardtop 1958 Ford with the "police interceptor" engine? We of a certain age tend to link friends and family with the cars they drove and worked so hard to purchase.
Why? Because cars were socially important. Like it or not, Madison Avenue made them a measure of success, and they became more than mere transportation.
The U.S. automotive industry was the provider, directly or indirectly, of employment for millions of Americans. And while the industry has changed, it's still a keystone of the U.S. economy.
During the 1950s and '60s and later, our extended family was the beneficiary of the fruits of this mighty American industry. It transported people out of unemployment or poor-paying jobs to jobs that provided educational and social mobility to their children and grandchildren.
Most of us who benefited from that prosperity came from families larger than those of today. Can you remember the family gatherings? Recall the good times, the picnics - and the cars. One of my earliest memories of the early 1950s was when Uncle Bud brought home his newly painted, dark green 1937 Plymouth "hump back" sedan. I think I can still smell the new paint.
If you were from Southeastern Michigan, you were a Ford person, a GM person or a Chrysler person. My dad was a Plymouth loyalist, until he went to work for Ford Motor Company. My mother's father and several uncles were Chrysler people to the bitter end. Another uncle always drove Buicks. Imports were a novelty, not to be taken seriously, and certainly nothing to be imagined as ever being a threat to the "Big Three."
So, what constitutes a classic car? It's in your mind and in your memory. It's the smells and shapes and sounds of what you grew up with. It's Uncle Bud's red 1955 Plymouth convertible, the first new car for him, and a watershed event in his life.
Classic cars are more popular than ever. It takes a certain visceral appeal to qualify as a "classic" car. It's emotional and it tugs at your imagination, your memories and your gut.
Today we have "tuners" and "belly-button cars" - souped-up imports and cars so mundane that "everybody has one." Do they qualify? How could they? Today's cars have appeal and panache when we drive them off the dealer's lot, but with the passage of a fortnight, they quickly become just transportation, things to be left out in the weather and subjected to the indignities of parking lot door-dings, or worse.
Not so with a classic; many are kept in the best of facilities and are cleaned, waxed, covered, heated and more. These are not utilitarian; they are reminiscence, art, a physical link to our youth or our families.
Classifying a car as a classic can be highly subjective. A 1935 Cord, or a Duesenberg Model J? No question. How about a '75 Chrysler or a '65 Ford Galaxie? More to debate there. But, if that '75 Chrysler represents an emotional attachment, and you own(ed) one, it's your classic, and that's all that counts. If you have a Corvair or a Studebaker or a classic Mustang, you know it's not only unique, it's special.
There is the inevitable question of social responsibility. How politically correct is it to drive a '37 Ford V8 that emits a level of hydrocarbons greater than a locomotive?
That one is easy. Classic cars are driven on rare occasions; they are not used for the daily commute or for 500-mile trips. Typically, they are driven short distances, and maybe on a handful of Saturdays during a few-month window of good weather. Their numbers are small, and statistically they make virtually no contribution to pollution or global warming.
And safety? Classic cars may not have anti-lock brakes or air bags, but these cars are driven with a high level of care and awareness. Ever see a classic car run a red light, or the driver of one on a cell phone? Never. If you have any doubts, look at insurance industry statistics.
The automotive industry is responsible for problems and prosperity, major concerns and personal freedom, industrial might and industrial excess, and most recently for bad management.
The industry is ever-changing, and the classic motor vehicle reflects that, as well as the history of our tastes. Knowing where our "daily-driver" sprang from is critical to our understanding of that which we take for granted today.
Today's cars are produced to different criteria and different standards than those of four or five decades ago. But, while today's cars unexcitingly and reliably serve their purpose, they represent anything but a death knell for classic cars.
To the contrary, today's cars enhance the attraction, mystique and iconic status of the classic car. Simply put, they are who we are. Just ask the millions who enjoy the chrome, the sound, uniqueness and the styling of classic cars.
Going my way?
Tim Blake grew up in Detroit, and has been involved in the international auto industry in the United States and abroad.
He lives in Bayfield.