Why New Cars Tend to Look Alike

Maybe You Can Personalize Your License Plate

When my cousin Ilona visited me from Communist Hungary in 1974, she marveled at how our car models were so differentiated from one another. There was even more variation in color. The Ladas, Skodas, Zhigulis, Tatras, and Trabants of her own country struck her as comparatively grim.

Well, times have changed. Now most new cars from Japan, Europe, and the United States resemble one another more than they differ. There even seem to be fewer colors. Even my 2018 Subaru Forester, which I love, has a hard time competing with my old 1994 Nissan Pathfinder in terms of styling.

You can see this video from CNET on the top five reasons why new cars look alike. (It blames most of the changes on the survival of pedestrians who are hit head on.) Writing for the Mother Nature Network, Jim Motavalli adduces several other reasons as well. These are, in no particular order:

  • Government requirements relating to fuel economy mean that all cars try to wring every bit of aerodynamic efficiency possible
  • This means very uniform front ends ending in what CNET calls a “Mrs. Doubtfire” boxy butt
  • Big door pillars protect drivers and passengers when the car rolls
  • In most cars, you feel as if you were sitting in a bunker due to higher door sills and smaller windows, especially along the sides
  • It is possible that, in future, aerodynamic efficiency will involve the loss of outside rear-view mirrors (I certainly hope not)

Cars do seem safer today, and I am rather fond of having 100% all-wheel drive on my Subaru.

 

 

 

 

 

American Car Culture

1934 Ford Model 40 Deluxe Roadster

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting automobile museums—of which there are five that I know of in Southern California—is that classic American cars represent a culture that is so uniquely different from that of our European cousins. That 1934 Ford Roadster from the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar is brash, yet built along classical lines. Compare it with a Rolls Royce, Voisin, Maybach, Talbot Lago, or Bugatti and you will see it different from American cars in pretty much the same way that American literature is different from European literature.

There are some classic American car designs that are characterized by some restraint, but for the most part Detroit says, “Here! This is what you want! It’s you!” One feels one has to grow into a Bentley or a Hispano-Suiza: It is something to which to attain. The American model is much closer to the Id, whereas the European model is closer to the Superego.

The Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack

I was enthralled yesterday by this Pep Boys plastic logo at Oxnard’s Murphy Automotive Museum. I compare Manny, Moe, and Jack to the automobile repairman in Patrick Modiano’s novel Villa Triste: cool, detached, intellectual.

It is possible, perhaps, to carry this McLuhanesque comparison too far, but it does seem to make sense. Look, for example at the logos.

Plymouth Barracuda Logo

Can you imagine Rolls Royce calling one of its Silver Phantoms a Phan’? Or Talbot Lago, a ’Bot? Even though Rolls Royces are affectionately referred to as Rolls, the company would never abbreviate the name on one of their automobiles. Yet, Plymouth gladly adopted an abbreviated name to put on the rear bumpers of their later model Barracudas.

Now then, is the American approach any worse? It appears to sit well with the American automobile-buying public. Of course, it would be far better if the American automobiles themselves have not declined so precipitately. I have owned nothing but Japanese cars since I began to drive. Yet, looking back at Detroit products of the Golden Age, I would have had no trouble with Packard or Pierce Arrow or Duesenberg. They were beautiful cars that compared favorably with the best that Europe could manufacture.

 

Driving in LA: Emergency Blinkers

Annoying When Not Used Correctly

I did not get my drivers’ license until I was forty years old. (Before then, I was on Catapres, a blood pressure medication, which put me to sleep whenever I rode in a car.) When I finally learned to drive, I made a shocking discovery: I suddenly discovered how utterly incompetent most adults are. Every block, I descry at least two or three major violations. Martine asks, “Where are the police?” I smirk while answering, “Where’s the nearest doughnut shop?”

One of the most irksome driving (mal)practises is the incorrect used of the emergency blinkers, or hazard lights. It seems that many (mis)users of this capability are telegraphing to other drivers this message: “I am a pale, fragile flower. Please do not kill me if I stray into your lane or omit directional signals, or if I slow suddenly on the freeway while texting.” To the police, should they be inclined to notice anything so unexciting, the message is: “I am signalling you because I am in the process of committing numerous moving violations. Please cite me at once and save me from myself.”

This is the first in a series of occasional posts about the experience of driving in Southern California. There are a lot of very capable drivers on the road, but the ones who aren’t make for an interesting experience.

 

 

Valentino’s Voisin et al

1932 Pierce-Arrow V12 Model 52 Sedan

On this cool and cloudy Saturday, Martine and I paid another visit to the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar. We saw many of the same cars as on previous visits, but were newly impressed with the variety and beauty of automobiles manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1932 Pierce-Arrow practically called me by name as I walked by it. Like all the cars at the Nethercutt, it shone like a jewel. Even the tires look bran new. And yes, that is an old fire engine in the left background.

When I compare today’s cars with what was available a hundred years ago, we have lost individuality. (It looks like all the car bodies today were tested in the same wind tunnel, whether from Mercedes, Range Rover, or BMW.) Do you think the Toyota Prius is a new concept? Not so, there were hybrids a hundred years ago—and they looked better, too.

Rudolph Valentino’s 1923 Voisin

Many of the automobiles on display have fascinating histories. For instance, there were only eighteen Rolls-Royce Silver Phantom IVs manufactured, and they were all sold tom heads of state. The Nethercutt has one of the two that belonged to the Sheikh of Kuwait. At the time he owned them, there were only twenty miles of paved road in the whole country.

And then there is the gray 1923 Voisin that belonged to Rudolph Valentino. He purchased three of them, and brought one of them back with him to Hollywood. The hood ornament is a custom-made cobra head which was given him by fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

There is even a Duesenberg Twenty Grand that cost … twenty grand. It was the only one manufactured, a special order made for the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

Will I ever get tired of seeing these beauties? Not bloody likely.

 

New Wheels

2018 Subaru Forester

Today I picked up my new Subaru Forester. Inasmuch as I loved my old Nissan, there were a lot of things it didn’t have, or which no longer worked. It’s nice once again to have a radio which I can tune visually: The light on the Nissan radio had burned out years ago. And I would much rather play CDs than tape cassettes anytime. On the other hand, there are ever so many more controls with which I have to familiarize myself. It will take a while before I am altogether at home driving it.

As you can probably tell, I did not take the picture above. It looks, however, just like mine, except that mine is white. The funny thing is that the basic configuration of the Forester is what I wanted: no moon roof, no GPS, no phone.

I’ll take some pictures of me with my new car in a week or two. Right now, I am still trying to cope with Martine leaving me; and that’s what occupies my waking (and sleeping) thoughts. Life is a mixed bag.

Last Look at an Old Beauty

My 1994 Nissan Pathfinder: A Last Look

It doesn’t look its age at all, does it. (Of course, the accident marred the other side only.) As my vehicle was insured with Mercury Insurance, and they declared it a total loss, I was faced with a difficult choice. Before long, I would have to start spending big bucks on a new engine, new automatic transmission, and so on. Or I could take what Mercury offered me and lease a new car. I chose to do the latter. Already, I would rent a car every time I took a longer field trip, to Santa Barbara or the Desert or other point farther afield. The combination of impending repairs and car rentals would soon begin to weigh heavily on my finances.

So … sniff … good-bye.

This afternoon, I leased a 2018 Subaru Forester for 36 months.

Double Whammy

Martine at Captain Kidd’s Fish Market in 2006

Troubles, when they occur, rarely occur in isolation. Today, I was inundated. First of all, Martine has decided to leave me two weeks from today. We have been together for thirty years—not actually married—but man and wife for all intents and purposes. My little French girl, like her mother before her, has a tête Normande, a so-called “Norman head,” famous for stubbornness. Around the same time, she got tired of Los Angeles, my apartment in Los Angeles, and me. I know she is initially headed for Sacramento, where she lived when I first met her, but where she goes from there is anyone’s guess.

I still love her and would give anything to continue our relationship, but that does not seem to be enough for her at this point. Once before, in 2005, she left me for several months. But that was to take care of her mother, who was not being well cared for in the institution where she was housed. She came back then; and I hope she will come back again. If not, my life must go on.

Every day, I see large numbers of crumpled-looking old people who can barely get around to do the basic chores of their life. I have no intention of succumbing to that condition. As Dylan Thomas wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I still have places to go and things to do. And books to read.

A second trouble also hit me between the eyes today. You may recall I wrote about an accident I had last Saturday. Today, Mercury Insurance declared my car a total loss, which it really isn’t. Although my 1994 Nissan Pathfinder is twenty-three years old, it is still a gem of a car, with relatively new tires. But I may have to give it up, because, once it is declared a total loss, I get nothing but Blue Book value (plus or minus). Perhaps it would be cheaper to lease a new car than to deal with upcoming major repairs, such as a replacement engine or transmission. So it goes.

I loved both my girl and my car and must say good-bye to both of them around the same time.