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January 29, 2004

Auto Nostalgia

Dear Friedrich --

You'll probably enjoy this Forbes article-plus-slideshow; its subject is the worst cars of all time, here. As you'd expect, the slideshow is a trip down nostalgia lane for those of us old enough to have had driver's licenses back in the '70s. There's the Vega (aka "the rustmobile"), the immortal (kaboom) Pinto, and the AMC "Mooncar" Pacer. Ah, the memories.

Not every car on the list is from the '70s and early '80s, but still: what in god's name happened to the American auto industry during that stretch? When youngsters these days yak enviously about how great life must have been back in the '70s -- an era when all anyone did was wear funny disco clothes and have endless amounts of unprotected sex -- I'm sometimes moved to point out that not only did we not have computers (imagine that!), we also had cars that were uncomfortable, dangerous, and prone to falling apart. The kids, naturally, doubt me. TV has told them that the '70s were a campy blast, so as far as they're concerned, that's what the '70s were.

Highlight of a great era in engineering

I was surprised that the AMC Gremlin I drove for a couple of years didn't make the list. It was really something special. It weighed several tons, and had a tiny engine and no power steering. Its front seats were the worst I have ever spent time in; 30 minutes guaranteed a backache. But my Gremlin's most infuriating trait was that it stalled in the rain. I'd be driving around, rain would begin to fall, and infallibly the car's engine would die. As far as I could tell, the damp KO'd the distributor. So there I'd be, by the side of the road with the car's hood up, trying to dry out the distributor cap in the midst of the pouring rain ...

Bizarrely enough, there's a page devoted to the AMC Gremlin here. Hey, here's another one. Can it be that the Gremlin has made the leap from piece-of-shit to ultracool? Damn, why'd I get rid of mine?



posted by Michael at January 29, 2004


The best part of the seventies was not just the Gremlins and Pacers: it was also Honda Civics that were almost like go-carts, they were so small and light and probably unsafe, but got like 100 miles to the gallon. And remember the early eighties with Trans Ams with fire and dragons painted on the hoods? The nerdiest, most persnickety optometry student I ever met drove a bright red Trans Am, thinking it pepped up his sexual IQ. And then absolutely giant boats like Cadillacs and Lincolns. A good thing of the seventies is that they still made the original Volkswagon bug.

Posted by: annette on January 29, 2004 9:00 AM

Although the early Hondas were about what you would expect from a motorcycle company, once the Japanese got their act together they were selling cars that put the American cars to shame. If the popularity of the Toyotas/Datsuns/Hondas hadn't forced Detroit to give a damn about quality we would still be driving crap.

Posted by: toyota driver on January 29, 2004 2:05 PM

Distributor Cap: it probably needed a gasket.

I've got a friend who owns a '72 Buick Riviera -- the 19-foot monster with the tapered rear window & a 425 engine. It's still going strong!!

Posted by: Twn on January 30, 2004 12:16 AM

When I was in college (early '90s), my friends were driving Gremlins, Bugs, Vegas, Pintos and MGs. Cars like that help you understand why the American economy was in recession through most of the '70s. These things were despair and defeatism made tangible.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 30, 2004 7:45 AM

Wasnt the Gremlin the one that had major problems with gas tanks blowing up if you got rear ended?

And Tim, I have always had the impression that MGs were the height of coolness, not despair and defeatism. Of course, I got that impression from guys who think anything made by Morris, including their Mini, was the height of coolness.

Posted by: Deb on January 30, 2004 10:58 AM

The MG I knew was a rusty little black convertible, and its canvas top was literally held to the frame with baling wire. One time the wire came loose while my friend was driving, and the entire top flew off into the middle of the street. It nearly caused a ten-car pileup.

That little MG was always breaking down, but since my friend worked in a garage, he could always jsut fix it himself. He also took any spare cash he had to buy parts, so he could soup up his little car and go drag racing in it.

The Pinto, not the Gremlin, blew up when you hit it. (A friend of mine who drove a Pinto kept a bumper sticker on his car that read "Caution: This Car Explodes on Impact.") Sometimes the classic Ford Mustang blew up, too, because a rear-end collision could throw a bunch of fuel into the driver's compartment.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 30, 2004 11:24 AM

I liked the muscle cars myself. I had a 71 lemans pontiac. I like the Oldsmobile 442 as well My folks had one. There is nothing like the sound of a 442 idling. (1967 ish, I know it was not the 70's but still a nice car)

I would rather live someplace that I don't need a car though.

Posted by: ShipShape on January 30, 2004 1:19 PM

my family had both a Vega & a Pinto, so it was good junker-getting-stranded training for my later life. but what i remember most, was going to a junkyard for a Pinto part. every one we found, curiously enough, had been BURNT UP.

it was scary. like a curse...


Posted by: graywyvern on January 30, 2004 4:30 PM

Wierdly enough, the Pacer had an afterlife as a very desirable demolition derby car. Whoever has the '72 Riviera, I'm jealous!

Posted by: Bradamante on February 6, 2004 3:58 PM

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