Top Three Reasons The “Good Old Days” Weren’t Necessarily Always So Good For Car Owners

Remember when you had to pay extra to have seat belts installed in a new car? How about 90-days warranties, new car “break-in” periods and 30,000-mile tires? It wasn’t so long ago that buying and maintaining a daily driver was really a chore. Here’re a few, fun little reminders of what went into buying and maintaining a new car 50-odd years ago when times were slower and our attention spans longer.

Everything Was A Option

[source: curbsideclassic.com]

Remember when safety equipment in new vehicles amounted to a couple of seat belts—barebones lap belts that cost extra to install—on the driver and passenger side? Forget any seat belts in the back, unless you wanted to pay extra. One of the big reasons why base prices on cars from the 1950s and 1960s seem so ridiculously low is because pretty much EVERYTHING back then was optional.

Basic car prices didn’t include a heater, cigarette lighter (even though 50-percent of adults smoked in the 1960s), seat belts (nobody bought or wore them anyway), rearview mirror, and certainly not a radio (which would have been AM only when purchased). Except for more luxurious brands like Cadillac, upper-end Buicks and Mercurys, floors were covered with rubber mats unless you ordered carpet. Whitewalls, fancy trim and full-wheel covers (instead of dog-dish hubcaps) were all extra cost.  Even backup lights cost extra on many cars.

Typically, luxuries like power steering, power brakes, power door locks, power seats, power windows, push-button radio (instead of twirling a dial) were only purchased by the wealthy. And air-conditioning? Forget about that. Even Cadillac and Lincoln didn’t start offering air conditioning as standard equipment until the 1970s.

A Whole Lotta Work

Today, we enjoy working on our old cars because—let’s be honest—we don’t have to rely on them for daily transportation but instead only memories and fun.

Old car enthusiasts love to get all nostalgic about old-timey gas stations where young, strapping men in coveralls used to cheerily pop the hood to give the engine a once-over while they filled the tank and squeegeed the windshield. But there was a really good reason why everything under the hood needed checking at almost every gas stop—old engines demanded it.

The pushrod engines we love so much required much more frequent maintenance and attention than our current daily drivers. Tighter manufacturing tolerances, the incorporation of sophisticated electronics, and a market frankly averse to mechanical maintenance has rendered the typical tune-up obsolete. No longer do car owners worry about burned up points, greasing fittings, and topping off batteries. While your typical 1960s steel-laden steed required constant attention to keep in running condition, today’s drivers are lucky to change the windshield wipers, or maybe replace a timing belt at about the time the vintage pushrod engine would have needed a top-end.  Check out this maintenance schedule for a 1967 Thunderbird and compare to that of the one for the car you drive to work everyday.

[source:  The Old Car Manual Project]

Strikingly, many of today’s new cars offer no advice for engine break-in. While it may still be a good idea to take certain precautions on a brand new engine you likely will not find it in the owner’s manual for your new car and if you do, the prescriptions are certainly more lax than those set for the cars of the 1960s.

And on top of all of this, remember those 90-day car warranties? That’s right, 90 days! Now compare that to you’re 10 year/100,000 miles…

About Those Back-In-The-Day New Car Prices

Those old showroom prices, weren’t they great? Back in the day, if you wanted a barebones model with absolutely no add-ons, a few thousand dollars could buy you just about any car on any lot. But the idea that cars used to be cheaper relative to buyers’ income is somewhat skewed.

Running the numbers on 1965-era Mustang, Porsche and Corvette compared to their modern counterparts, Hemmings Daily provided an excellent reality check that shows modern cars are actually cheaper to buy and run today than ever before.

[source: hemmings.com]

“In 1965,” writes Kurt Ernst, “the sticker price of a new V-8 powered Ford Mustang coupe was $2,734.00 (the equivalent of $19,900 today), and the average production worker made $3.00 per hour; to purchase a new Mustang coupe with a V-8 engine, therefore, required 911 hours of work, or about 23 weeks. By 1985, the cost of an eight-cylinder Mustang had risen to $9,885.00 (today’s $21,100), while production wages had risen to $12.50 per hour, meaning that one needed to toil for just 791 hours (120 hours less than in 1965) to buy one.”

Old cars required more maintenance, more often. And, when you adjust for inflation, even gas was more expensive. Ernst compares pump prices, too, showing how a Saturday-evening cruise is actually easier on the pocketbook these days. Click here to check out the numbers and read Ernst’s entire breakdown.

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