Katy Burns: When cars were cars

  • A 1977 Corvette Stingray. Wikimedia Commons

  • The 1971 American Motors Gremlin is diplayed on the eve of the Paris Auto Show, on Sept. 30, 1970. AP

  • A 1903 Model A Ford. Wikimedia Commons

  • The assembly line at the Ford Motor Company plant is seen as Mustangs are built in Dearborn, Mich., on Nov. 7, 1966. AP

  • A General Motors handout photo shows the 1941 Oldsmobile 4-door sedan. AP

  • A two-door hatchback model of the Ford Pinto is shown in this 1976 photo. AP

Monitor columnist
Sunday, May 06, 2018

In 1903, Henry Ford produced his first car – a Model A, a predecessor of the fabled Model T (and not to be confused with another Model A he began producing in the 1920s) – in a rented factory in Detroit and sold it to Ernest Pfenning, a Chicago dentist, thus kicking off the great American love affair with the passenger car, or sedan, and earning Dr. Pfenning a tiny footnote in American automotive history.

And those early cars proved to be useful and long-lived. Both Model A and Model T Fords, stripped of everything but engines, seats, wheels (sometimes replaced by runners) and steering columns, lived well into the 1970s as ice cars, ferrying folks to their fishing holes off at least one Lake Erie island. I suspect denizens of New Hampshire lake towns used them as well.

And now the love affair, at least with Ford, is ending. The Ford Motor Company announced last week that it is largely getting out of the passenger car business to concentrate on trucks and SUVs.

By 2020 Ford intends to sell just two car models in North America, and neither will be a real sedan as untold millions of American families have known – and loved – sedans. One will be the Mustang, which has become famous as a high-performance pony car, as they came to be called, and the other something called a Focus Active, described as more a crossover vehicle than a real sedan.

In the auto graveyard, never to be redeemed, are such names as Mercury and such models as the Capri, the Galaxie, Escort and Taurus, not to mention the lamented Thunderbird and the decidedly unlamented Edsel as well as everyone’s favorite police car, the Crown Victoria.

Will this prove to be a great idea – or a terrible one? Who knows.

But it has, among some older Americans (younger folk are hereby warned) – kicked off a parade of motorized memories of a time when owning a family-sized passenger sedan – and sometimes the brand sedan that was owned – just about defined some American families.

In fact, my own family would at one time have taken the demise of Ford sedans hard. Ours was a Ford family, buying a steady stream of Fords (including two station wagons, one a spiffy woodie (Google it, kiddos) and another a sleek turquoise number my lead-footed mother used to charge around our small town.

Why Ford? I dunno. That became the family chariot after the demise of Hudsons (Google again if you care!), which my father and mother, my aunt and uncle and my grandparents proudly piloted around town. My sister kept the faith. Her first car was a 1970½ Falcon. Yes, 1970½.

A lot of my confreres came from Chevy families. Again, not sure why, or why no Chrysler devotees. The passionate brand devotion likely had something to do with the fact that from northeastern Ohio to Detroit, auto manufacturing was king. But we didn’t have a lock on brand loyalty. My husband’s peripatetic family, which lived everywhere but the industrial Midwest, he remembers as faithful to Oldsmobiles.

Another friend, Laura, wrote a delightful mini-essay: “We did indeed drive many Fords . . . and many other things. My dad traded cars more often than he changed neckties. I remember our first (and only) family vacation to Florida, traveling in a 1951 Plymouth we had named Polly. My parents, my sister, both brothers, my grandmother, and I somehow crammed into that car and drove to St. Petersburg. I can’t imagine how we survived the trip . . .

“The first foreign car I ever saw was a used English Ford that my dad got in a trade. It was ‘my car’ while I was in high school. When I had a slight collision in the graveyard with a classmate also driving an English Ford, the local paper ran an article, ‘Foreign Incident in Local Cemetery.’ ”

Another friend grew up in New Jersey and said his dad liked Plymouths, although they once had a Ford. His wife, a native of southern New Hampshire, remembered that her father always drove a company car, always a station wagon but no particular brand.

And yet another friend recounted that his dad “had a long commute, so he would buy really cheap used cars (including a Pinto and a Pacer) and drive them into the ground. My mom was never much of a driver but did have a red 1977 Corvette for a while.” A red Corvette! I’m jealous. Even if it was at heart a Chevrolet.

And, a Pinto? Boy, talk about a trip down bad American car memory lane! The Pinto was a Ford product, a subcompact, cute little thing. It had just one teeny flaw. Its gas tank was located in the rear, near the bumper. After a rear end collision, the car could – and did – just explode in flames.

A tasteless joke of the day – we weren’t a sensitive lot back then – involved outfitting a Pinto with Firestone 500 tires, since the Pinto problems arrived about the same time that Firestone was trying to deal with batches of tire separation leading to what one writer called “grisly, spectacular” crashes.

Yeah, that was a thing about American cars of a certain era. They were distinctive, fitted out with fins, acres of shiny chrome and every other flashy embellishment designers thought would make them attractive to buyers. But the quality control left a bit to be desired.

They rusted, especially in the rust belt (well, duh). Windows wouldn’t always work, wheels might fall off, and it wasn’t unheard of for steering wheels to become detached. Warranties were next to useless. It was a big deal in the ’70s when AMC made headlines by offering a one-year 10,000-mile warranty, as opposed to the three-year, 36,000-mile warranty manufacturers routinely offer today.

Imported Japanese cars started arriving in the ’70s and soon became a flood. No fins, little chrome, no stylized flourishes on the bodies, but those bodies didn’t rust. And all automotive systems didn’t cease functioning when the warranties expired. And as their popularity soared, American car-makers started – yikes! – aiming for quality as well as flash.

Now every car, whether a Chevrolet, Ford or Chrysler, looks like a Honda or a Toyota, which is truly sort of boring. They’re also well-built, well-designed and rust-free – a wonderful thing in the long run.

But we do keenly remember those often-terrible but exciting cars. And we can still wax nostalgic about those beautiful fins and that shiny chrome.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)