Soul Suck: Four Things That Made Us Love Our Cars Less
At the dawn of the automotive age, anyone with even the slightest mechanical know-how could create any kind of car imaginable. But safety regulations and uniformity standards eventually put an end to the anything-goes creativity of early car makers. Modern cars are definitely safer for it but, as this shortlist points out, some of those standards may have come at the cost of style.
Years ago, cars didn’t have bumpers. And for good reason: there simply weren’t that many other cars around. As more and more cars made their way onto America’s roads, multi-car accidents began to crop up. Over the years, a number of safety measures were created to help lessen the literal and figurative impact of car crashes, all of them practical, not all of them aesthetically pleasing.
Sturdy and functional, edge-to-edge chrome bumpers used to epitomize American automotive styling. A car wrapped in protective, gleaming, old-school chrome is a luxurious thing to behold. But chroming was a lengthy and costly process. Chrome bumpers were also heavy, expensive to replace and always showed damage, even in low-impact collisions.
Covering a vehicle in chrome made less and less sense as America became obsessed with aerodynamics and fuel economy in the early 1970s. Plastic was more easily produced, cheaper to replace, and could be molded into any sleek shape imaginable yet was still durable enough to meet government safety standards. A win-win for everyone, except auto owners.
Plastic, Styrofoam-filled bumpers are not only characterless but—as anyone who’s ever backed into a street sign at low speed knows—also highly susceptible to expensive cosmetic damage. Even a minor mishap with a plastic bumper can cost hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars in damage that otherwise may have been prevented with chrome bumper protection.
Wipers. Wipers. Wipers.
During a trip to New York City in 1903, Mary Anderson noticed that streetcar drivers had to open the windows of their cars when it rained in order to see. She soon patented “a swinging arm device with a rubber blade that was operated by the driver from within the vehicle via a lever.” By 1916, the windshield wiper had become standard equipment on all American cars.
In 1972, Ford “invented” the rear windshield wiper, now considered standard equipment on hatchbacks and SUVs. The year prior, in a classic case of a great idea gone gimmicky, Saab introduced headlight wipers on its Model 99. Eventually, somebody who didn’t understand that too many mechanic add-ons on a car are an eyesore decided to patent the idea of side mirror wipers; thankfully, however, the gizmo has not yet caught on with automakers.
Let There Be Light
It used to be that brake lights came in all shapes and sizes, varying from car to car and generally plastered wherever it was most aesthetically pleasing (so long as it was somewhere on the rear).
That is, until the implementation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, which sought to standardize automotive lighting in order to “reduce traffic crashes and deaths and injuries resulting from traffic crashes, by providing adequate illumination of the roadway, and by enhancing the conspicuity of motor vehicles on the public roads.”
The third brake light, commonly known as the “idiot light” in car circles, arose in the mid-1980s. While the exact wording of the law varies from state to state, federal regulations required a third brake light on cars manufactured after 1986. Trucks followed suit beginning in 1994.
To further the “conspicuity of motor vehicles,” car makers have since added more external lighting to automobiles than the Griswold house on Christmas Eve. Standard fog lights and LED side-mirror turning lights are now standard equipment on most SUVs and luxury sedans. Yes, all these lights serve a function, but when is enough enough?
There was a time many of us surely can recall when cars didn’t come with seatbelts. That changed in the mid-1960s as regulations tightened in the form of lap belts strapping us into our sofa-sized bench seats. Shoulder straps soon followed, along with PR campaigns urging the usage of seatbelts. Their purpose, functionality and safety capabilities are all well understood and widely accepted by most.
To further the reminder that you need to wear your seatbelt, auto manufacturers began installing annoying buzzers, chimes and flashing lights, all of which refused to silence themselves until you strapped the ol’ belt across your body. The first flashing lights began appearing in 1972, as they were seen as more cost-effective than the installation of pricey airbag systems. Flashing a warning for a full 60 seconds for both the driver and passenger once the vehicle was put in gear, they started off harmlessly enough; mildly obtrusive, but easy to ignore if you really wanted to.
That changed in 1975 when all the buzzers, bells and whistles we know today were first put in place. By going off for four to eight seconds at a time until the belt was securely fastened, the new systems demanded total compliance lest the occupants of the vehicle be driven clinically insane.
What are some other modern vehicle add-ons that you feel make them unappealing or less fun to drive? The HVA would like to hear from you. Comment below or take a minute to head over to the HVA's Facebook page to check out what other members are saying.