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Thread: A politically incorrect trip into yesteryear

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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Jul 2006
    The Land of The Edentulites

    A politically incorrect trip into yesteryear

    Yesterday I took a ride in a time machine.

    I traveled back to the year 1976 behind the wheel of my Carousel Red, 455 powered Pontiac Trans-Am. To an era when Toyota and Honda sold depressing little economy cars, there was no such thing as a Japanese luxury brand and Jimmy Carter had just been inaugurated president.

    But it wasn't all bad back then, I thought - surveying the view across the long, pleated hood of my bright orange muscle car, the monster 455 thumping and vibrating its vitality. One could, after all, still buy a car just like this one - brand new. And it was legal, too.

    You could get away with selling a car that had a fat Rochester carburetor - and no ECM! The aroma of evaporating Hi Test (yes, leaded gas was still available in those days) hit your nostrils as soon as you popped the hood. Sure, the Trans-Am's trademark shaker hood scoop had been boarded up by then - on the orders of EPA federales just beginning to feel their oats. But they were still a weak bunch and easily circumvented.

    Pontiac's engineers made it so all you had to do was remove three bolts and - viola! - the scoop (and the Quadrajet carb's massive secondaries) opened to the atmosphere once more. At just over half throttle, those vacuum-actuated secondaries - a pair of holes some 3 inches in diameter - would flap open and the 455 would gape in great lungfulls of air, an unmistakable howl accompanying the heavy consumption of oxygen and gasoline.

    Inside the TA, you were in control - and on your own. No electronic idiot-proofing got between you (and your skill, judgment and, let's face it, luck) and the Freightliner torque of one of the biggest V-8s Detroit ever put into production. The 455 may not have the horsepower of a modern Corvette, but its 7.4 liters' of displacement and those long-armed connecting rods produced leverage worthy of heavy equipment - 450 plus pounds feet of torque at around 2,200 RPM. That kind of twist feeding through 15x7 inch rims and 70-series rubber without the intermediary of stability or traction control could get you into big trouble, real fast.

    But that is what it's all about, you know. Or would know - if you were there with me, circa '76.

    It was direct and raw and, yes, more than a little bit dangerous. But GM sold cars like this in their hundreds of thousands every single year during the mid-late 1970s. Today (in your present) GM is having trouble selling anything.

    Does it mean anything? A lesson?

    As I gaze out the windshield my glance falls to the air bag-free, three-spoke Formula steering wheel - one of the most distinctive and attractive features of the '70s-era Trans Am. Such steering wheels are impossible in your world, thanks to the requirement that all new cars be fitted with both driver and passenger air bags. These devices may have their merits, but they have been aesthetically ruinous. Your future is one of look-alike blobs with a rim around the blob.

    It may be safer, but it's much less inspiring.

    All this heavy thinking tends to make a guy sweaty, so I turn the TA's air conditioning on. I move the lever (note: no "mice" or "menus" - just a simple, effective manual lever) over to Max AC; I can literally feel the load on the engine as the legendary (and legendarily consumptive) Harrison AC compressor clutch engages and Freon (yes! Freon) surges through the system. One forgets - in your time - what AC used to be like. These old Harrison units weighed something like 75 pounds (and that was just the compressor) and drew tremendous energy, so much that even a beefy V-8 like my TA's 455 briefly staggered under the load when the compressor cycled for the first time.

    And it was cold.

    Not cool, like a Future Car (your car, with its puny, just-barely-adequate radial-style compressor and R-134a refrigerant). I mean, uncomfortably cold - if you left it on "Max" for long. Frost the vents cold. In summer. Save the planet? Hell no. In '76 only fruitcakes cared about such nonsense. What mattered was being comfortable - and nothing does the job like Freon - just ask the hole in the ozone layer.

    Oh yes, there were catalytic converters in those days. But just barely - and not only were they easily removed (there was a handy device called the "test pipe" that just happened to be a section of exhaust tubing precisely the same length as your car's converter, that plugged right into its place) but even better, there were no consequences for gutting them. Environmental compliance was - wait for it - mostly voluntary. No annual smog check in most places. So, the first thing you did when you got home with your new '76 TA was jack her up, lose the cat - and gain 10-20 extra horsepower!

    Did I mention the sticker price?

    My TA - a loaded car with virtually every option you could tack on - left the dealer for just over $5,200. People in your time will tell you about inflation and how the comparison's not really fair. But people in '76 didn't need five or six years to pay off a new car. The typical loan was more like three years, then.

    So, who's the poorer now?

    It was good times - and GM was making money hand over fist. Maybe, it was because the cars were better. Maybe not in terms of quality or durability (I give modernity its due) but how about where it mattered at least as much - maybe even more? How about how the car made you feel when you drove it - or just how it looked parked in your garage?

    Those are things with heavy mojo. And GM lost that somewhere along the way.

    And, so have we.
    Last edited by Eric; 11-29-2008 at 09:55 AM.

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