The Uncle-ized Car

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What’s the cost of Uncle when it comes to our cars? How much have his various fatwas added to the MSRP?1971 R:T

One way to add it all up is to compare a current Uncle-ized car with a pre-Uncle car. That is, a car saddled with all of Uncle’s equipment – and which complies with all of Uncle’s various fatwas (bumper-impact and other “safety” fatwas, especially).

This is difficult, though, because most current and Uncle-ized cars are profoundly different from the pre-Uncle cars, which have been effectively exterminated by the fatwas of Uncle.Challenger rear view

But the 2016 Dodge Challenger R/T I recently got to test drive (review here) is strikingly similar to its early 1970s analog and not just visually. The layout – big V8, rear wheel drive – is the same and it can be ordered with goodies like an even bigger (392 cube) “Hemi” V8, a  Super Track Pack and “shaker” hood scoop… it also comes painted in glorious colors like Plum Crazy and Sublime, just like the original did.

That’s the good news.

But the new car’s sticker price is about $38,000 while a similarly equipped 1971 Challenger R/T (see here) with the top-of-the-line 426 cube Hemi V8, the Super Track Pack and Pistol Grip-shifted manual transmission carried a sticker price of about $4,800.1971 Dodge ad

Adjusted for inflation (see here) the  ’71’s price would be just over $28,000 in today’s Uncle-ized currency. So, the difference in cost between the two cars is almost exactly $10,000.

And what accounts for this difference?

Well, the 2016  Challenger’s Hemi V8 is painted “high compression orange,” like the ’71 Hemi… but it is fed fuel not by a pair of Carter four barrel carburetors like the ’71’s but via direct injection, with computer-controlled cylinder deactivation technology and variable valve timing –  technologies developed chiefly to eke a few more MPGs out of the politically incorrect V8 in order to comply with Uncle’s fuel economy fatwas.Hemi engine

New cars would probably still be fuel-injected absent Uncle, because fuel injection has a number of advantages over carburetors (especially cold-start operating characteristics) but probably not direct-injected and maybe not even port fuel-injected.

Certainly the rest of it – especially cylinder deactivation and things like “Auto-stop/start” (which shuts the engine off when the car isn’t moving, then re-starts it automatically when the driver takes his foot off the brakes) is there purely because of Uncle.

Few buyers care whether their car gets let’s say 27 vs. 28 MPG – which is all the difference these latter technologies have to offer. But the car companies have to care very much, because such slight differences become huge when factored over their entire fleet of new cars, which is how Uncle’s fuel efficiency averages are calculated – and fines assessed.1971 Chalenger interior

The new car also has an eight-speed automatic, for the same Uncle-ized reasons. The top several gears are overdrive gears, there to keep engine speed as low as possible as soon as possible in order to reduce fuel consumption by another couple or three MPGs.

It is a very complex – and very expensive – transmission.

The old car had either a three-speed automatic or a four-speed manual transmission, no overdrive. It used a lot more gas, of course. But it also cost a great deal less – both to buy and repair.

You do not want to know the replacement cost of the new car’s eight-speed transmission.

But the true price-jacker is the “safety” stuff Uncle imposes on new cars. The obvious stuff includes air bags – the new Challenger has seven of them, the ’71 had none of them – and the now-mandatory back-up camera system, which includes a bunch of micro cameras built into the car’s bumpers and an LCD monitor built into the dashboard.

It uglifies the car up – and ups the cost, too.Uncle-ized Challenger

ABS and traction/stability control are not formally mandatory but – like Auto-stop/start – are there chiefly because of pressure from Uncle, not demand from buyers. It is probable that most buyers of cars like the Challenger – which is a muscle car – would opt out.

If, of course, they could.

Same goes for the seven air bags.

If, down the road, the new Challenger gets into an accident and the dual front, side-impact and curtain bags deploy (that is, erupt out of the dashboard and steering wheel and seats/side panels with explosive force) the resultant ruination of the car’s interior plus the cost of the bags themselves is likely to total an otherwise-repairable car. This potential cost is why the actual cost of insurance (mandatory now, because Uncle) is sky-high, too –  but that’s another rant.

Building the new car’s body so that it can withstand extreme impact forces in a crash, from almost any conceivable angle, is another reason for the new Challenger’s high cost. The designers of the ’71 Challenger did not have to worry about this at  all – because Uncle had not yet set himself up as the Great Decider of “safety.”because Uncle

That decision (that cost-balance) was once upon a time up to buyers, who were respected as grown adults fully capable of choosing for themselves whether to buy a bigger/heavier car or a smaller, lighter car. The original Challenger was actually a pretty safe car, in terms of the hit it could take – because it was a big, heavy car. It was much “safer” in this respect than a car like a same-year VW Beetle. It just wasn’t as “safe” as the new Challenger… but why is that any of Uncle’s business?    

Also, air bags were available – as optional equipment – in a few early ‘70s Chryslers.. . though not the Challenger, because it was a muscle car and people who buy muscle cars are not like people who buy Volvos or Subarus… obsessed with “risk” and always fearful, like old hens, of their “safety.” Once upon a time, people who were obsessed with “risk” and “safety” could buy Volvos and Subarus… and leave the rest of us free to not buy such cars.

Now, because Uncle, we all have to be obsessed with “risk” and “safety”… or at least, buy the equipment Uncle decrees we’ve just gotta have.

So, the long and short of it is the new car costs ten grand more than its ancestor – because Uncle.

Which is why the new Challenger (and cars like it) are, for the most part, bought by middle-aged and older guys who can still afford the cost of Uncle – while the ancestors of cars like the Challenger were bought – brand-new – by guys not long out of high school or at least still in their 20s.

The muscle car thing was a youth thing.1971 ad two

Today, it is a Just For Men thing.

Because Uncle.

And – soon – it will be a thing for no one except the very affluent. Because Uncle’s fatwas are becoming as deranged and militant as anything coming out of the all-C-I-A-Duh. For instance, the nearly-here (2025, less than nine model years from now) federal fuel economy fatwa that will require all new cars deliver an average of 54.5 MPG.

Not even the current Prius does that.

A V8 muscle car is as likely to achieve this as Caitlin Jenner is to get pregnant. Both may be technically feasible but the cost will not be cheap.

If the Challenger still exists in 2025, it will probably cost twice or three times what the ’71 cost.

Because Uncle.

Be sure to tell him thanks.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. “New cars would probably still be fuel-injected absent Uncle, because fuel injection has a number of advantages over carburetors (especially cold-start operating characteristics) but probably not direct-injected and maybe not even port fuel-injected.”

    Excellent comment. For a clue on FI we can look to pre-Uncle mandates:

    Early FI corvettes had port injection(57′), the gullwing(54′) had direct!(though the gullwing injection washed cylinder bores and diluted oil).

    In regard to your comment, if you are suggesting TBI would be dominant without Uncle, I would agree that it’s an elegant/easy solution…I still have a TBI 350 that has very nice driving characteristics and the TBI has been mostly bullet proof.

    I’m just not sure that tuned port wouldn’t be the dominant technology. GDI scares the crap out of me and I have my doubts if it will allow cars to do 200k routinely without maintenance.

    Maybe those putting serious miles on GDI cars can let us know how they are faring, or if they are all suffering from carbon deposits on intake valves.

  2. Eric – you should do an article about what car a young man these days ought to get into, as a starter.

    There’s a running narrative that young men these days are not actually interested in cars, but the truth is that they just can’t afford them. In the old days, guys could buy a car, fix it themselves, and save money in the process. You could have a car that you could be proud of and might even impress chicks with. Now you got dudes in my city driving scooters and SmartCars to save money because they can barely make ends meet – this is how liberals want to see men: impotent and hunched over in a lame ride.

    I own a 2013 Toyota Corolla which I bought mainly because it was one of the cheapest cars they sell, and I wanted to own it for a long time. But it’s not remotely a fun car. After owning it about three years, I am wishing it will get totaled by an asteroid so I can take whatever equity I have in it and use it for a good starter car. I know the right thing to do is finish my payments and drive it until it dies…

    • “driving scooters and SmartCars to save money”
      Not sure how much money you save driving a ‘Smart.’ And you sure aren’t going to impress many ladies unless they belong to the “ugly is cute” camp.

    • As a scooter rider I take offense at these disparaging remarks 😉 Really though, mine is a 650cc BMW scooter that can go 110mph and is a hoot to ride. There are many advantages to being on 2 wheels, but mainly for me it’s just more fun.

    • I think a great deal of young people not caring so much about cars too is the age at which you can drive. Combine that with a group that is much more adept and cares much more about electronics than automobiles and society as a whole simply not into working with its hands.

      When those of us who reached 18 during the 60’s we were first and foremost interested(men)in not going to Vietnam for the most part. Once the lotto had passed and young men knew they wouldn’t be drafted they often left college and took a trade and that often involved a family business. It’s a whole ‘nother world now.

  3. How much of that 10K is because CPI is fictionalized?

    Year over year manufacturers have to provide more for less or the same price. That’s the game. Any feature that would have happened anyway is either going to keep the car the same price or would be something people are willing to spend a premium on. That’s why new things start at the high end and go down. They start with those willing to pay that premium and as cycles of more for less continue the price is driven down market.

    Port fuel injection is now almost assuredly cheaper to manufacture and assemble than a carb in 1971. The amount of assembly labor especially. Keep in mind what a manufacturer pays for parts is drastically lower than retail.

    Remember, someone, somewhere in 1971 was paid UAW wages to put that 4bbl carb together. Then someone at the factory was paid UAW wages to adjust it to the engine it was mated to, specifically or that task was pushed on to a dealership mechanic in new car prep. Given that in 1971 emissions laws were in place it was probably at the assembly plant. The ECU eliminates this job. Back in 1971 those carb bodies were probably machined by a person. Maybe a paper tape CNC machine. Maybe.

    Now there are some things were there is going to be an added cost and many of those people are willing to pay for today. Also today’s optioned up muscle car is aimed at much higher market than yesterday’s optioned up muscle car. For instance I doubt today’s has an analog to that simple vinyl interior that was only slightly improved with optional packages. But I would hazard to guess that much, even most of that ten grand is because CPI is a fictional political number. But then again, that’s still uncle at work.

    • I have the window sticker for my ’76 Trans-Am, which came loaded with almost every option available that year. It has power windows and locks, electric rear defrost (rare), AC, the premium interior with simulated leather (Morrokide) seat covers, the Honeycomb polycast wheels, etc.

      MSRP was just under $6k.

      About $25k today.

      Note also that car loans back then were 3-4 years.

      Today they are six, typically.

      Now, in defense of the new Challenger, it has literally twice the power and is about twice as quick. However… it was a relatively small matter of a couple hundred bucks for a cam/lifter kit, headers, jets and other small parts to nearly double its factory output and put it pretty close to the performance capability of the new car.

      Sure, you could up the new Challenger’s power to something sick like 600 or 700 with just a supercharger… but you have to spend the $40k on the car first!

      • Somewhere I have my mav’s sticker, but I forget the original sales price. Mid 2000s in 1973 dollars. But most everything mass produced costs less now in real terms. The reason you rarely find a car without power windows these days is that power windows became so cheap it didn’t make economic sense to offer anything else. The development and carrying cost of a second set of parts was more than just eating the excess cost of the power windows on the base cars. That was 20 years ago. Now the manual regulators probably cost more than the power ones for most passenger cars.

        Rear defrost is regional in how it was deployed. For a winter driven car around me it was pretty common starting in the 70s.

        Anyway I just remembered about shadowstats and other ways of calculating inflation. Sadly these are subscriber based and the only one I found that isn’t is returning low six figures for $4,800 in 1971 so I think it’s broken.

        I believe CPI understates the inflation in manufactured goods like automobiles because it has absolutely no mechanism to account for what people like me do. Hold price constant by reducing cost in the face of inflation and offering the customer more at the same price. So when $2 of cost is taken out of a product so the price stays the same in the face of say a raw material price increase the BLS doesn’t see that as the 2% inflation it is but if a feature is added and the price stays the same the BLS counts that as deflation. If the price goes up and the feature is added the BLS counts that as noflation.

        • Another thing about these new cars that’s striking is how fragile they are in some respects, notwithstanding their superior crashworthiness. For example, the hood of the ’16 Challenger is so thin and light I could literally bend it with my bare hands. The Trans-Am’s hood, in contrast is a massive slab of heavy steel. It is held up by a pair of beefy hinges with strong springs; the new car’s hood uses flimsy little gas-charged struts… ’cause that’s all it needs!

          The new car’s fenders are also tinfoil-like compared with the TA’s sheet metal.

          Yet the Challenger weighs about 500 pounds more than my TA!

          • In another forum I got blasted by the boobus because I dared say cars so damn heavy because of uncle. One told me everything was nicer and thicker. It was laughable. My ’12 is weight saved almost everywhere vs my ’97. Even the composite hood on my ’97 is heavier than that the aluminum one on my ’12. I really like that composite hood. Ford did such a good job it seemed like it had to be steel in its rigidity to me. Anyway I digress. But the one place my ’12 isn’t lighter is structure. The ’12 has massive frame rails and such. I haven’t had to take it apart so who knows what’s lurking inside the doors and other hidden places. Probably something bigger than the door beams in my Mav.

            Basically anything that doesn’t carry load is weight reduced as can be so it goes into the structure.

            • Yup!

              The Challengers’s A and C pillars are freaking enormous. I am going to take a video and do a comparo… then write a rant about all this!

          • Those steel panels are way stronger then you think. In May 2008, my neighbor bought a brand new GMC full size pickup, and the panels seem thin for a truck. Three days later, we had a tornado. The funnel ripped a huge chunk of one of my silver maples and tossed it butt end first (almost two feet around) onto the hood of that truck. I thought that truck was going to be toast. We un-bury it, and all there was is this little dent and the plastic trim between the hood and windshield was broken. Sent him over to a buddy that has one of those vibrate the dent out shops, and he gets the dent out no problem. Of course had the branch gone 2 inches further, it would have gone through the window.

            But the steel industry has put lots of resources into R&D lighter and stronger. There is a R&D center not to far from my house and that is their main project. They claim they are doing it to compete better with aluminum.

            • Hi Rich,

              Dunno about dents, but I could definitely bend the Challenger’s hood and front fenders with my bare hands.

        • Let’s not also forget that technology is supposed to reduce prices. A 386 computer used to be $2,200 in 1991, and 1991 dollars. Now a $99 smart phone blows it out of the water, in 2016 dollars.

          But then, computers have been a relatively unregulated market. No surprise almost all the gains in the automotive industry have all come from advanced computerized and interface technology. Oh, yeah, that and magnetic-fluid shocks…

          • My own personal example: a 5 GB hard drive, in January 1997, cost me $220.

            A 500 GB drive, ten years later, cost $47.

            That larger drive, had it existed, at that rate, would cost $22,000 in 1997. And in 2007, $220 would buy a drive of 110,000 GB.

            That’s because the government doesn’t give a damn about the technology in this case, it’s not built with unionized labor, and there’s no political points to be scored by ****ing it up.

            • Brother John, I once thought the government didn’t care about toys but a new idea has come to me. It’s not that the government doesn’t give a damn about computers and consumer electronics technology it’s that they need it because they can use it to further their goals. Central control, central management of society requires a lot of computing power and data storage. In the minds of some the old systems failed because they were human and paper driven. With modern and future electronics they feel that they can overcome the deficiencies of previous attempts. Remember to them it’s not that they are wrong it’s just that they were lacking the power to accomplish it.

              Thus they need it to grow and the people at the top know if they leave it alone it will grow. They know deflation is a benefit not a problem. That’s why they fight it. deflation is good for the people and bad for their power.

    • “Keep in mind what a manufacturer pays for parts is drastically lower than retail.”
      My cousin operates the parts dept. at a major SW GM dealer. He sells me parts cheaper than any of the body shops or mechanics to the extent they’ve had me order parts for their own cars.

      He used to send me parts care of B_____’s Wholesale that were ridiculously cheap.
      If I call and have another person quote me a parts price it might be double(and that’s cheap)what his price is to me.

      I was considering buying a P-Trac unit for a pickup one day and mentioned it to him. “You’re in luck he says” after looking at the price. “Those units have gone down”. How down asks I. “Well, they were $800 and now they’re $400”.

      Gosh, I guess they have a bit of a markup to play with says me. “Yes, they decided to get competitive on a lot of parts”.

      Well, I always knew they could judging by my parts costs but never imagined they would. This was at the time, somewhere over a decade ago when a great many companies offered various types of lockers and clutch packs like P-Trac.

      I’m sure there are still dealerships that charge full-blown outrage prices for most parts but it seems to be less among US companies. It’s one way they beat foreign carmakers.

  4. Let’s not just look at this as a $10k increase. Let’s use Uncle’s trick and look at it as a 36% increase.
    And that says nothing about the fact that the price in nominal (fiat) dollars is nearly 6 times the old price. By the time your income has increased 6-fold (if it has), you have moved up several tax brackets and need to make even more to afford such a beast.
    So yes, Uncle’s fatwas are a problem. But Uncle himself is even more so. Hang him!

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