You don't have to be too old to remember having a bench seat in the front of an American car. It's kind of a staple for a big domestic sedan to have three seatbelts up front and a column shifter for the slush-o-matic transmission.
Every big sedan offered a bench seat, even non-American ones like the Toyota Avalon. But few people still buy or want one, and when The New York Times reminded readers last week that the last bench seat-equipped car — the current Chevy Impala, riding on a Reagan-era platform –- was going out of production soon, I instantly remembered kinds of people who owned these types of cars and would probably hate the fact the 2014 Impala will come only with five seat belts and a great big console.
This also reminded me that a generation of bucket-seated kids will likely not experience the joy and comfort of a football field-wide bench seat.
Back when I was small, my grandmother's friend drove us around in her Buick Century. And if she had a full load of old ladies going to Bible Study, I had to sit front and center on squishy blue velour seats. In the pre-booster seat days, this was a place for a kid if you weren't in a minivan. In practice, the six-passenger, two-row setup makes sense if you need that occasional seat belt.
Plus there's the feel of being up front where the action is, seeing the world as adults do as adult conversations fly over your head. It's the kind of socialization that led to maturity, as opposed to sheltering them with headphones and Spongebob Squarpants DVDs in the back seat.
In a bid to get people who wouldn't normally be caught dead in a big American sedan, carmakers decided to spice them up with bucket seats and console-mounted shifters. That's a more modern approach, for sure, but modernization doesn't always mean progress.
Think about this: the last Ford Taurus wagon could seat up to 8 humans and had minimal luggage space. The Ford Flex seats no more than 7 with minimal luggage room, yet manages to be four inches longer. How's that for progress?
I understand no one wants to get squeezed in the middle, and stuff like airbags and child seats work against the bench. But why don't consumers have the choice anymore? Using the Ford Taurus comparison, the current one is larger and wider than any Taurus before, yet the center console is so massive it deserves its own zip code. I've never felt so cramped in such a big car, so I have no idea how wider people feel in that car. With a bench seat and a flip-down armrest, there's plenty of room to stretch out. If your car kind of drives like a sofa on wheels, why shouldn't it feel like one inside?
I will always have the memories of riding in the middle of a Buick Century to a church rummage sale or something like that, and in some ways I mourn the passing of the Avis-special Impala. Sure, you can get a regular cab work truck with a bench still, but how long is that going to last? And I can't help but feel it's going to drive buyers looking for wider front seat areas or the occasional sixth seat to three-row crossovers, which is exactly what the world doesn't need more of.
What about you guys? Any bench seat memories you'd care to share? Or is the demise of the bench a good thing?
Photo credit DVS1mn