A Miracle and a Tragedy

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Henry Ford gets the credit for putting America on wheels via the Model T – which was not only the first mass-produced car but also the first affordable car, which is what made its mass production possible.

Ford’s other achievement, however, wasn’t a car. It was an engine. The first mass-produced and – like the T – affordable V8 engine. Chuck Berry sang about it in Maybellene:

I was motorvatin’ over the hill

I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville

A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road

Nothing outrun my V8 Ford

The Ford flathead V8 came out in 1932 and – just like the T – it changed everything. It was light and inexpensive and easy to manufacture. So it could be sold inexpensively – and in quantity.

Previously – just as cars had once been for the affluent-only – V8 engines were ornate, complex and expensive. They were indulgences of the affluent – not unlike an electric car today.

The flathead Ford V8 upended that. For the next 60-plus years, the average American could afford to drive not just a car, but a car with a V8.

A big car.

These, too, became commonplace – and uniquely American. In no other country could you see fleets of big cars being driven by ordinary people. It was extraordinary.

V8s made that feasible.

And the V8s grew to be even bigger.

By the early ‘70s, it was common for sedans (and station wagons) to have engines in the seven liter range. These were middle-of-the-road family sedans and wagons. Not high-end models.

Everyone coulda had a V8 – or just about.

These were six passenger full-size (and rear-wheel-drive) cars and wagons – the wagons often being nine passenger-capable. The roads abounded with them. They were the analogs – from the ’50s through the ’60s and into the ’70s – of a Camry or Accord.   

Then along came Uncle – and once again, everything changed.

Most people now drive cars like Camrys or Accord – if they are lucky. Mid-sized cars with four and – maybe, occasionally – a six cylinder engine.

Almost always front-wheel-drive.

They are very nice cars, but diminished in a tangible way – at least for those who can still recall a different time. 

Today, V8s are – mostly – for the rich only. Or at least, the very comfortably affluent. There is only one new sedan priced under $40,000 that comes with a V8 – the  2017 Dodge Charger R/T, which stickers for $34,895 to start.

It is a great car – particularly because of its stout 5.7 liter Hemi V8. But whip out your inflation calculator. That $35,000 (I rounded) is equivalent to about $5,500 in 1970 money (see here). And in 1970, you could buy a full-size (the Charger is mid-size) Chevy Impala (here) with a 7.4 liter 454 V8 for just over $3,200 – which is the equivalent in today’s dollars of about $20,500.

This is just a couple of thousand dollars less than the current price of a brand-new four-cylinder (and FWD) Camry ($23,070).

Large, rear-drive cars are all-but-extinct. Unless you can afford a Benz or a BMW or  Lexus or Infiniti or Porsche. These brands still sell rear-drive cars and cars with V8s. But – notice – they are all luxury brand cars. They sell small numbers – at high cost.

It is because Uncle.

He didn’t outlaw big cars – or V8s. Not exactly. He just made them expensive so that – once again – they are for the rich only only.

Cleverly, he did this indirectly – so he would not get the blame – by fining the car companies for making them. These fines – “gas guzzler” taxes – are folded into the price of not just the large/V8-powered cars (the ones that remain) but also drive up the cost of other cars – making it twice as tough to make the big ones with big engines.

This is why they are rare – and becoming more so- as they shuffle down the road to extinction.

The V8 Charger probably will soon join their ranks, incidentally. Unless Trump remembers why he was elected, stops bombing foreigners and instead rescinds the latest federal fuel economy fatwa – the one decreeing that all new cars must average at least 54.5 MPG by model year 2025 (seven years away, not that far in the future) it will no longer be possible for FiatChrysler to sell cars like the Charger – and its siblings, the Challenger coupe and the 300 sedan.

The only way they’ll get 54.5 MPG is by running a chain from underneath the radiator support to the bumper of a couple of Teslas serving as electric Clydesdales. They won’t get far, but they won’t burn much fuel.

The other option is for FiatChrysler to just fold the “gas guzzler” taxes into the price of the cars. This is what high-end brands like BMW and Mercedes do. But then, Dodge and Chrysler are not high-end brands. It is doubtful many people will pay $40,000-plus for a Dodge – and even if they wanted to, how many can afford to?

Henry Ford is often vilified but the man not only made mechanized personal transportation possible for the average man – he made it possible for the average man to live large.

Uncle’s agenda is rather different.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Is it so shocking that 8-cylinder cars are harder to find because 6-cylinders engines have the power of the older 8-cylinder engines?

    • Hi Anonymous,

      THat’s true, about modern sixes having the power of older eights. But it’s not apples-apples. V8s just sound and feel better (usually).

      Example: The current Camaro’s 3.6 liter V6 makes about as much (and possibly more) horsepower as the 7.4 liter 455 in my mid-1970s Trans-Am.

      But the 455 has charms the 3.6 V6 hasn’t got and never could have – no matter how much horsepower it makes.

      But the fact is that large engines are being extincted by the government, not because small engines have become stronger. Small engines have become stronger (usually, via turbos) to try to make up for the absence of the bigger engines.

      • I agree Eric. No modern engine sounds as nice as a cammed V-8 with headers. I have never even heard a cammed V-6 or straight 4.

        • Amen, Nunzio…

          Every time I fire up the 455, I remember

          For me, it’s like the difference between a battleship and a modern missile frigate. Which is the more awesome sight? Or an old steam locomotive from the ’40s vs. a modern electric blecchhhhhh…

          • Eric, I don’t care how many horsepower* these modern li’l 4 and 6-bangers put out- they’re sissy-engines! They make that pathetic little ‘whizzzzz-whizzz!” sound when you rev ’em (That’s the sound of Uncle pissing all over us)- It’s like saying you have a “dog” guarding the junkyard, , but instead of hearing the rrrrRRROOFFFFf! of a Rottweiler, you hear the li’l “yap-yap-yap” of a Chihuahua!

            [*= And I do believe the way they rate horsepower these days has been changed, and is now greatly exaggerated. I know it sure is for lawnmowers, as my 12HP 1970 Cub Cadet rider could literally run circles around my ’06 18HP Crapsman of the same deck size; and cut grass with ease that would choke the Crapsman]

          • Hey, Ya know, Eric? I like my V-10 -but knowing that it’s so politically-incorrect, and such an anomaly these days, makes me love it all the more!

            I’m surprised there’s not some kind of aftermarket retro-fitting following turning up for these things- to put ’em in other vehicles. Then again….how many of these modern shoeboxes would they fit in? (Not that we can just swap engines anymore, anyway, if we can make ’em fit. Of course, with all the electronics and all, that’s pretty much a thing of the past….)

  2. My only beef with the Charger/300 design is the crappy old generation Mercedes front suspension they come with. A million ball joints that all wear more quickly than a traditional a-arm or macpherson strut setup in the name of “ride quality”.

    It’s really the only fly in the proverbial ointment…but I agree with your overall sentiments on V8/rear wheel drive when it’s executed properly.

  3. The reason central planning fails, is because of the ingenuity of the people. In soviet Russia when the fatwa came down to “produce 30 million nails instead of 5 million” the factory would spit out 30 million tacks. When they changed the fatwa to require 30,000 punds of nails, it would spit out 30,000 railroad spikes. When the MARKET drives production, the factory spits out exactly the right amounts of tacks and spikes.
    This will happen (has happened? see Volkswagen diesels) with the 50mpg fatwa. The car companies will add a battery (that lasts 10 minutes) and a motor to the drive train – and make 50mpg on the govt test. As soon as the consumer gets the vehicle home, they will NOT use the “plug” to charge the vehicle, and it will get 30 mpg just as if the motor had never been added.

  4. “Unless Trump remembers why he was elected, stops bombing foreigners and instead rescinds the latest federal fuel economy fatwa – the one decreeing that all new cars must average at least 54.5 MPG by model year 2025 ”

    Inexplicably, even though Trump could do this by executive order, he has not tossed out this outrageous Obama era POS commandment. He seems to be turning into just another Republican neocon. His cabinet is full of them as well. But personally, I’m still waiting and am hopeful Trump will come around.

  5. Cheap V8s were a result of cheap high quality steel too. The ability to produce more consistent product with greater precision and control over the alloys meant engineers could get more precision machining making better balanced cams and crankshafts. Ford’s V8 wouldn’t have been possible until metallurgy could deliver the product.

    Of course the same thing has been the driver for the current turbo’d up 4 cylinder plants. Hard to boost pressure when all that extra air blows out the valves and past the rings.

  6. Australia was a lot like the US in their love of big cars and big V8’s. Many were unique for the market. A few I wouldn’t mind having. The Northern Territory didn’t have speeds limits until around 15 yrs ago. After instituting them the Stuart hwy had them removed, then reinstated.
    Plus side here in Michigan the new signs raising the speed limit to 75 started going up and from 55-65 for most 2 lane state highways from Mid-Michigan north. Granted most are still going to drive 90-100, I still will. Luckily there is no statutory reckless driving for speeding that I know of and I’ve been caught going 90 in a 65 back when the freeways were 65. Also 85 in a 55 on a 5 lane undivided highway.

  7. Fordism
    https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fordism

    The choice of Henry Ford as the deity-like figure in Huxley’s dystopia reveals the new world’s value system. Henry Ford was famous for the perfection of mass production and the assembly line. In Huxley’s world, even humans are mass-produced and grown with the help of, yes, that’s right, an assembly line. Efficiency, production, and consumerism are the most important values here; not morality, compassion, or piety.

    • The “oil crisis” was nothing but propaganda, obviously- as we are still awash in oil 45 years later. And who was responsible for that propaganda campaign? Uncle.

      Now we have a new propaganda campaign. They obviously can’t endlessly keep saying that we’re running out of oil, so now they’ve convinced everyone that using that oil which still flows abundantly will destroy the earth by causing “gloooooobal waaaaarming”- and when we had years of record cold, that was then adjusted to “climate change”.

      Just keep changing the story, and the majority will keep believing.

  8. THANKS ERIC,
    Again reminding us that NMA is the friend of the true car guy. I drive a 23 year old car and do my own work, And our town tax accessor, in CT, has decreed that anything 20 years old is a collector car,, and has a special tax book, to up the property tax. I could register as an antique, but that would defeat the spirit of the $500 tax valuation max for true antiques. I have 3 registered that way.
    Dave Coe

  9. What if FiatChrysler lost the Chrysler name and all the Vipers and Challengers suddenly became simply Fiats? Just so they could pull the same guzzler switch Benz and Bmw do. “Have a look at my brand new Fiat Hellcat, I was going to get the Fiat Demon, but couldn’t find one.” Not long after: “New for the 2019 model year, introducing the Chrysler 500 Abarth!”

    • The ability to simply pass on and absorb the gas guzzler tax comes from the high end price point (margin) and the proportion of their sales in the US market. I don’t believe CAFE law has any distinction for make branding because a big Lincoln would be offset by a small Ford.

      The saving grace of the bigish car might be the footprint rules. The bigger the footprint the lower CAFE requirement. This is a sort of half-assed thing the government came up once it finally realized over twenty years after the fact that CAFE pushed people into enclosed trucks.

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