The Hamilton Spectator
No a/c, no seat belts, no FM radio
Bridging the generation and technology gap between today’s cars and a 1955 Chevrolet
When my sons were younger, they loved to ride around with me in my 1955 Chevrolet. With no seat belts they thought they were bad-ass sitting in the front seat with me.
On one of these trips, Alex, who was 10, went to turn on the radio.
“Hey Dad, the radio isn’t working.”
“It takes a minute,” I replied. “The tubes have to warm up.” “Tubes? What are tubes?” While I tried to explain that before transistors and solid-state components in car radios, tubes made the tunes come out and the radio would start blaring.
“Where’s the buttons to change the station? And where is the FM?”
Then I had to explain the radio in the car was a base model and you had to tune in the stations with the knob. But the question of FM radio was a little tougher.
“There was no FM radio back then,” I said. “Cars didn’t have FM radios until the mid 1960s.”
Today, we remote start our cars, get in them, buckle up, and off we go. I did feel uncomfortable driving that car with no seat belts and would develop visions of getting in a head-on collision.
And the sound systems in today’s autos provide concert hall sound quality, whether it’s listening from the radio or to your plugged-in device.
There is so much we take for granted in driving today’s cars. They are so much safer, reliable, user-friendly, and economical.
For example, a 1955 Chevrolet was considered an entry-level car. Items such as a heater, radio, turn signals, outside mirror, and backup lights were optional. Even if you drove a “luxury” car such as a Cadillac or a Lincoln most of what we now consider standard was also optional. Those cars were just bigger, plushier, and harder on gasoline.
And no cars had any cup holders.
Over the past I have driven many vehicles as part of my duties as an automotive journalist. I have tested and written about economy cars, luxury sedans, small SUVs, big SUVs, pickup trucks, hybrids, battery-powered cars, sport sedans, and virtual race cars with licence plates on them. Cars that park themselves, cars that drive themselves on the highway, cars that go around corners like water goes through a hose, and cars that offer eyeball-scorching performance while still getting reasonable fuel mileage.
Cars that made my ’55 Chevy feel as if I was driving a truck. But that’s progress in our lives. Trying to compare a car from the 1950s with a car from today is a window in comparing advancements in technology and lifestyle in our society.
For an old motor-head like me, I appreciate and understand the advances in automobiles, just as I appreciate using a computer to write this rather than getting sore wrists using a typewriter. Punching a few buttons on a make-believe keypad and phoning anyone, anywhere, anytime has also made our lives easier. Perhaps not better, but easier
About the same time son Alex discovered the dark ages of car radio, he also asked me why we could not upgrade to a cable television package with more channels and a remote that worked not just the television but the VCR as well.
“Gee Alex, when I was your age, I used to have to get off my butt and change the channels on the TV itself,” I told him. He then gave me his “you’re from the stone age” look, a look I am sure all parents have seen over their years of raising their children.
But we can’t really live in the past. We can think about it, sure, but it is not practical. So accept what has developed over the years, and embrace the technology.
Speaking of technology, there are many items that make our lives easier to deal with in the automotive world.
Sure, we now have heated seats (and steering wheels), but a couple of items stand out. New cars have automatic headlights so you never have to worry if you left your lights on. Turn signals that operate three times when you flick the control stalk, a great feature for highway travel. Today you rarely see a car at the side of the road that has overheated. No longer must you pump the accelerator a few times to set the choke and pray the car would start up in 20-degree-below-zero weather. There are sensors in a car’s tires that tell you at a glance if you have a tire going flat, windows that go up and down at the touch of a button, and satellite radio which lets you listen to the same music from the Yukon to the Avalon Peninsula.
Our next generation of personal vehicles will be powered by something more sustainable than fossil fuels. Once the car-charging infrastructure is better equipped, more EVs will be on the road, and we will be bragging about how many kilometers we got on a charge instead of how many liters per 100 kilometers (or miles per gallon for us born in the 20th century). It’s the same bragging, we’re just using a different yardstick (metrestick).
I sold the Chevy 10 years ago. I bought it in 1976 and it went through several paint jobs, a couple of engines, and who knows how many tankfuls of high-test gasoline.
Do I miss it? Yes. I miss the simplicity of its mechanicals, the sound of the engine winding up when going through the gears, and the solid feeling of driving this car which was bolted together in a General Motors assembly plant in Oakland, Calif., in February of 1955.
But I don’t miss driving it in shorts when its vinyl seats became extremely hot in the middle of August. I don’t miss the eight to ten miles per gallon (35-40 litres per 100 kilomettre) that V8 sucked going down the road. And I don’t miss lugging out the battery and putting the car on jackstands in the garage every autumn.
There are more fond memories than not-so-fond memories owning and driving that Chevy. Driving a car more than 50 years old certainly has its nostalgic benefits, and it’s the personal things with that car I remember most, such as bringing home our daughter from the hospital when she was born or going down the road with our first terrier sitting in my lap with her head out the window. That Chevy has helped me go down the road of life.