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Are we driving forwards or backwards?

There’s one thing sure about progress - no one ever knows which way it’s headed. There is no better example than today’s vehicles.

Before I continue, I must admit I am a product of the 1950s. I started driving cars (legally) in 1955, owned (and loved) several 1950 vintage automobiles and still feel a special quiver when I see one pass by.

The first vehicle I remember was a 1935 Ford. It served as our family car for what seemed a century. Actually we owned the car through most of the 1940s, when World War II made it impossible to buy a new car.

I can still hear my dad defending that old Ford every time someone in the family complained about its age. He’d answer with: “Who needs a newer one? You can’t tell the difference between the old ones and the new ones anyway, so why spend the money.”

That lasted only so long. Dad finally gave in and we traveled all the way to Bedford, Ind., to pick up a new 1948 Ford. New cars were still hard to find so, Dad had talked his brother-in-law, George Cumming, into using his influence as a Ford salesman to find him one.

As we rode back to Iowa in our new car, I had to agree with Dad: There really wasn’t that much difference between the 1935 Ford and our new 1948 model. However, it did have a cigarette lighter, a radio and smelled new.

We barely got that 1948 Ford broke in when the 1949 models hit the showroom floor. All of Detroit had evidently come up with the same brainstorm – every new car looked like it had been all stretched out. Gone were the days of the squatty-looking car.

Poor Dad. He became one of the first victims of “designer cars” – a movement that was destined to get wilder and wilder over the next three decades.

Dad didn’t know what to do. That new design was bound to hurt the resale of our just-about-new car that now looked 20 years old.

So, he did what seemed to be the only sensible thing. He traded our 1948 in for one of those streamlined 1949 models.

A couple of years later my uncle George came out to visit us from Indiana. His job with Ford had always allowed him to be driving the latest in cars with all the fanciest of extras.

The 1951 model he was driving had this weird new transmission which worked without a clutch. All he had to do was move the gearshift to the proper letter and off the car would go.

“It’ll never sell!” the men hanging around King’s service station stated as they looked under its hood. “It won’t have enough power and it’ll take too much gas.”

They were partially right. Over the next several years, Detroit continued to lengthen their cars, added more and more horsepower and stuck in a multitude of energy-saving devices, while the gas mileage went from bad to terrible.

Then, about 1970, a guy by the name of Nader came on the scene and suddenly we discovered what pollution was all about. Detroit started adding all sorts of filters and traps and all of a sudden, that terrible gas mileage of the ’50s and ’60s started looking good.

Within a couple of years, the price of a gallon of gas went right up through the roof of those big, gas-guzzling ships from Detroit.

So what happened? First Japan and Germany started importing boatloads-full of little cars. The more they brought in, the more we bought. Within a few years the size of the average car shrunk in half as our trade deficit doubled.

Detroit joined the act and started shrinking down their cars, but for some reason, the price of a miniature Cad or Lincoln remained as high as the stretch models. Big and long went out of fashion. Short and squatty was the look, and the price of the streamlined auto took a nose dive.

Now we are living in the age of the SUV (sports utility vehicle). By definition: “a rugged station-wagon vehicle built on a light truck chassis.” Naturally, most of these are all-wheel drive.

The bigger the SUV, the less gas mileage it racks up. The less miles per gallon a vehicle gets, the more it costs to drive.

So here I am. A product of the 1950s in the world of the 21st century. I look at all these modern vehicles with the armor-plated bodies and huge tires and I think back to Dad’s 1935 Ford.

Is it progress or regress?

(Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife Sharon live outside of Cambridge.)

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