Back When … Which Era Are You From?
We’ve all heard the old mechanic at the repair shop tell us about those simpler times; the times when you could fix a car with bailing wire and a boot strap. Let’s take a look back at the way things were, back to the time when the old salty dog mechanic was just a green apprentice in the shop, and see what it was really like. Maybe you’ll find where you are, where you come from, and where we’re all heading.
1940’s to 1949
Pre-War and Post War Era
The Artisan Years
The major setback to the automotive industry was of course World War II. The 1940’s is by far the most unusual time in automotive industry. This was the only time when production actually stopped. 1942 was the last civilian production year and no new production was started back up until 1946. Early 40’s cars were all about luxury, and showcased the wealth and status of its owner.
Throughout the 40’s there was a sense of pride to the craft of creating an automobile. Luxury, style, and pure craftsmanship were evident in almost all the models produced back then. A new car in the 1940’s would set you back about $800.00, and a full out luxury convertible by 1949. with all the bells and whistles could run a whopping $3,970.00 (Chrysler’s Town and Country Woody).
By the mid 40’s gas prices shot up to .18 cents a gallon. Average mileage back then for a production car… 15-20 mpg. Fluid drives, over drives, and power brakes were offered as standard features. Sealed headlights and heating systems were becoming standard features as well.
1950 – 1959
The Style and Chrome Era
The post war years brought on a prosperous time in America. Soldiers returned and settled with their young families in a new concept of housing… the suburbs. Farms were getting larger and smaller farms were being combined. Farm tractors and implements made huge advancements in their capabilities, which meant that fewer hands were needed on the farms. It was the time when more roads and bridges were being constructed, as well as full scale manufacturing of all types of goods was sweeping the nation. More returning GI’s searched out work in the big cities, and getting there required a car. By 1950 there were almost 40 million cars on the road, (40% increase from the 40’s) and 3 out of 5 families owned a car.
Car manufacturers were going for the glitz, glamor, and larger size of cars. Some models by the late 50’s reached epic proportions. Advertising was more likely to emphasize the cosmetics of the car rather than the mechanical features. New colors, chrome, automatic and power accessories overwhelmed a new car buyer. Tail fins started out small in the early 50’s, but by the end of the decade they were the size of small sails. These designs all grew out of the big fad of space travel, rockets, air ships, and plane travel.
Tail light lenses had the shade of ruby red lipstick, paint schemes came in two tones, large front bumpers and lots and lots of chrome. Chrome seemed to be everywhere, inside and out.
Car sales dipped a bit by the mid 50’s, which drove a few of the smaller car manufacturers out of business. Mechanics of that era were all about turning wrenches and keeping things in working shape, and with so many cars on the road it wasn’t hard to stay busy.
A new trend was starting to take hold in communities all over the country… the used car market. It had been there for many years before, but wasn’t as strong a player in the automotive market. Now with more models, more changes and innovations people started trading in their cars more frequently. Everyone wanted the latest, greatest models offered. (Advertising at work…) By 1957, buying a car on credit became the norm.
1955 the average car cost $1500. to $3000, and a gallon of gas… .23 cents.
1960 to 1969
The early Muscle Car era
Most connoisseurs of the muscle cars would say the first muscle car was the Olds Rocket 88 from the 40’s. True… but, in the 60’s mom and dad could go down and purchase a new family station wagon that could run on the drag strip that afternoon with no modifications… straight from the showroom. By the early 60’s the “Big Three” (GM, Ford, Chrysler) dominated the global market. 93% of all cars came from the big three back then. Although companies like VW and other foreign manufacturers began to gain a foothold on American soil with their small economical vehicles as well.
Styling was still important, but raw horsepower was definitely the selling point at the dealerships. Some cars got the term “sleeper”, because from the outside the dull and unassuming body style hid a raging high powered V8 engine under the hood. Every manufacturer was putting out more and more muscle type cars well into the mid 70’s, but the mid-size and compact market was a growing market as well.
The Chevy II, Monza, Corvair, Dodge Dart, Chrysler Valiant and the Ford Falcon are just a few examples of the small sized cars available back then. Some say it was the VW Beetle and the gas crunch that brought it on, others say it was government regulation on emission and safety standards, and the smog conditions in some parts of the country that brought the end to the leaded gas years, but whatever it was, I’m still a fan of the raw horsepower of a muscle cars.
In the 60’s a new car might set you back about $3000, while .32 cents put a gallon of gas in it.
1970 – 1979
The Last of the Muscle Cars
The Technical Era
The first microprocessor came out in 1971 (the Intel 4004), the video game “Pong” came out in 1972, and things like the liquid crystal watch made its debut. Electronic ignition was a biggie, which started in the early 70’s It became popular for a lot of mechanics to switch older rides over to the more reliable electronic ignitions. Lots of various systems were developed; on board lean burn systems (Chrysler) in 1976, Dura spark, and many others. Radial tires, stamped out aluminum rims, and electronic charging systems became common place. (Chrysler had the first alternator car back in the 60’s). Anti-lock brakes became an option, and many other innovative ideas started being added to the cars back then.
A lot of the technology had been around for decades, and some manufacturers used some of those innovative ideas even as early as the 40’s, although, most of them didn’t become a standard feature or workable until the advent of the early computer age.
By far the technical aspect of what was happening around the automotive world had a bigger influence on the market place than any styling or horsepower. It was the sign of the times … economy, safety, emissions, and mpg that stood out as the biggest concerns. By the 70’s it wasn’t uncommon for a family to have more than one car. Mom would have the family car, while dad had his ride. The signs of the busy, fast pace life (as we know it today) had its meager start with the ability to do more, go to more places, and be more mobile.
By the mid 70’s a new car had a price tag of around $2500.00 to $4000.00 while a gallon of gas ran about .57 cents.
1980 to 1989
The Check Engine Light Era
With the clean air act established in 1963, improved amendments added in 1970 (more changes in 1990 also), and the national speed limit dropped to 55 mph in 1974, (prompted by the spike in oil prices of the late 70’s) a huge change was under way for cars that were produced by the time the 80’s came along. Car and Driver Magazine referred to the last muscle car as "The Last of the Fast Ones". Their pick for the last of the show room hot rods was Pontiac's Firebird Trans Am SD455 model of 1973–1974. The 80’s had an entirely different outlook about cars than they did in 70’s… times were changing.
The big car was getting smaller. Some of the same names for those muscle cars of the 60’s and 70’s were still used on the new models, but the car was entirely different, and was nothing like its earlier predecessors. Gone were the tail fins of the 50’s, and so were the muscle cars of the 60’s and 70’s. Now things were geared for fuel economy and safety. By 1984 some states started making seat belt use mandatory, and it wasn’t long before everyone else required it.
Computer aided systems were the new innovations. There were a few earlier computerized/ECU controlled systems before the 80’s (the first production car with a working electronic computer system was a 1968 VW type 4. In the USA the 1975 Cosworth Vega, and later the 1979 Cadillac were the first that I know about.), but by the mid 80’s most productions vehicles had a check engine light and some sort of ECU.
All in all styling was secondary, horsepower wasn’t what it used to be, and the overall length and size of the family car was changing as well. Now controlling emission and gas mileage was the big concern. The check engine light was here to stay, and so was the computer age in the automotive world. Things were changing and changing rapidly.
By 1985 an average car would cost about $8500.00 and gas was a whopping $1.20 a gallon.
1990 to 1999
Converters - O2’s
The Smart Car Era
By the time the mid 90’s rolled around computers were in charge. The biggest changes were definitely with the electronics in cars, and that hasn’t stopped yet. The ECU, ECM, PCM became not just a device that watched for failed emission readings, but now has become part of the actual operation of the car. There were a lot of earlier models with chips and proms that governed the operation of the vehicle, but with the more up to date computers things like the air conditioning, transmission, lighting, and practically every other function in the car was handled by some form of computerized control.
If you could take a time capsule back to the 60’s and see the smog level in some of the larger cities, and compare it to now, you’d see a dramatic difference in the air quality. Needless to say, the catalytic converter made the difference. Using the modern computer systems with their O2 sensors monitoring the exhaust, the car of today has a much healthier emission foot print than those of a few decades ago. Granted, a lot of “tuner” mechanics will tell you that a properly tuned and well maintained car from the muscle car era will have just as clean an exhaust as its modern counterpart. That might be true, but… that’s a hard and probably impossible task, considering the number of cars on the road. You’re just not going to be able to keep them all tuned to that efficiency. But, the converter in today’s car makes it all possible.
By the late 90’s styling starting coming back into the picture. Gone were the boxy body styles, the early emission systems with their countless vacuum tubes, and toned down horsepower models of the 80’s. Horsepower started to get some notice again, and there was definitely some interest in a show room hot rod, just as it was way back when. Especially after 1995 when the 55 mph act was repealed. The need for speed was back. Of course we also have the added features like air bag systems, better suspensions, better handling, better brake systems, better engines, better transmissions, etc… (the list goes on and on.) Computers and technology really made a difference in the automotive industry in the 90’s. Handling was better, performance was better, and overall the cars were better. With proper care a lot of these cars could go well past 100k miles on the odometer.
The average car off the show room floor in 1995 was around $15,000. While a gallon of gas was $1.15 (Interesting compared to the 80’s)
2000 to the present
The Computerized Era
It’s the era of computers, internet, smart phones, face book and the like. Cars have GPS satellite coverage, self-parking, automatous capabilities, and can perform a lot of its own self checks with internal diagnostics. Styling is alive and well… maybe not to the extremes of the 50’s, but a more modern approach to a stream lined body style with a touch of the old nostalgic look as well. Horsepower from smaller displacement engines is the norm, lots of horsepower by the way. Mileage is increasing with every new model, too. There’s no doubt the electronic computerized engine control era is upon us. With more advancements and better technology waiting to be implemented, it’s just a matter of time before cars surpass anything that resembles the mechanical wonders from decades ago.
In the near future the next generation of mechanics will undoubtedly be nothing like the mechanic from the 40’s. Oh sure, they’ll still have a big box of tools, but along with that they’ll also have an understanding of electronics and computers their predecessors never needed. The sad part of that is the craftsmanship of those early pioneers in the industry will be few and far between. Computers and technology override the old “hands on” approach to car repair.
Average new car in 2005 was around $25,000.
In 2010 the average car would set you back about $28,000.
2005 a gallon of gas averaged 1.95, while in 2010 it was 2.51
I’m looking forward to introducing those mechanics born in this time period to the world of automotive repair, and what a world it’s going to be, Hybrids, Electrics, GDIs, and other variations and innovations.
I hope I haven’t bored you with my take on what it was like to be a mechanic throughout these decades I’ve listed. Of course I couldn’t cover everything, or some of the other important highlights. It’s more of what I thought was interesting for those time periods. So which decade do you fit in? When were you born?
The changes are all around us, and sometimes those changes are evident by which decade your car comes from. Taking a look back at the automotive industry from a different perspective might make you appreciate your mechanic and your car just a little more than usual. But don’t forget, keep one an eye on the future too.