A good percentage of my job is understanding the role nostalgia plays in the automotive preferences of readers while analyzing and embracing my own biases. Through this process, I’ve noticed that not only are good new driver’s cars increasingly few and far in between, I fear the best examples of automotive perfection are in the past.
I don’t pretend to be a trendsetter, phrase-coiner, or arbiter of particular trains of thought. I do, however, know what I like and I understand how society works, even if I am a pea-brained millennial that has no concept of why anyone would consciously use Snapchat other than sending pictures of their genitals to strangers. Cars and car culture is a big deal to me, not only because it can play a vital role in larger society, but because I think the time for truly great driver’s cars has passed.
It’s important to note that “great” in this context isn’t a subjective valuation of cars I particularly like, but rather describes cars that allow their owners the greatest amount of feedback and communication with the least amount of compromise to other aspects of the car.
Before I report on particular shades of doom and gloom, one has to come to terms with the fact that the proverbial driving experience is changing at a rapid pace.
Not only are cars becoming more safe, feature-rich and efficient, but engines have never had more output, whether it’s an econobox Hyundai Sonata churning out a torque curve that would literally twist the swiss-cheese frame of a Mk. I Golf GTI, or the more insane Dodge Charger Hellcat, with its ticket-to-the-pearly-gates 707 HP supercharged V8.
While those upped power figures put a smile on the face of my inner 12-year-old, they come with quite a large asterisk - the power is fed through a series of computers that analyze, thousands of times per second, what the body of the car is doing, how far down the suspension is compressed, what gear the transmission is in, and if you’re checking your Twitter account to see if Jessica Nigri favorited your Comic Con pic. She didn’t.
It’s couched in the notion that all this makes your car more safe, and it does. Cars employ a degree of safety unseen by any previous generation, with the IIHS and NHTSA figuratively holding car manufacturers hostage to produce cars that can, in theory, survive both a five mile per hour bump with a garage wall and thirty seconds of sustained small arms fire.
However, as with anything in the known universe, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, no matter what ‘80s John Travolta will tell you. With legislation putting forth mandates for increased complexity in cars over the last three decades, automobiles have become, on average, more than 800 pounds heavier than they were in the late ‘80s.
In addition, car prices have drastically increased over the years, even when inflation is accounted for, fueled in no small part by the added cost of development and implementation of the systems that serve as layers in between the driver and an unfiltered driving experience.
For example, A loaded 1983 Volkswagen Golf/Rabbit GTI cost around $8000 brand new, which translated to just over $19,000 in today’s money. Fast forward to today, where a 2015 Golf GTI with all options ticked would set you back more than $31,000.
The model also gained over 1,100 pounds in curb weight over the same time, but has yet to accept TLC’s reality show offers.
For those of you who aren’t quite grasping my philosophical musings, I’ll put a finer point on it. The BMW E30 3 Series is considered by many to be one of the best driver’s cars ever made. Its lightweight chassis, taut suspension, rev-happy engine and relative practicality made this car, by any measurable standard, an analog masterpiece. Although it could do with a bit more power admittedly, the handling and barebones feel of the car was, and still is, the yardstick to which other cars can aspire. The E30 was all about the driving experience and nothing else; an embodiment of the “Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan BMW has been slinging since the Nixon Administration.
Why can’t I buy a new one, then?
No, I’m not talking about a ground-up restoration of one found in a barn in the early ‘90s and sold on Craigslist for the amount of Call For Price. I’m talking about a car with an utter lack of compromise and a burning contempt for safety.
Granted, the E30 did have emissions and safety restrictions of its own to deal with at the time of its inception and the issue in question does go back further than cars of the ‘80s, but those restrictions don’t seem as all-encompassing and pervasive as they are now, and it’s my concern that cars, even boutique, low-production models, will never employ that sort of simplicity ever again.
Why can’t I buy a stripped-out BMW with little to no modern crash protection, stability control and race car handling, with a warranty? Why is my only option now to have a car that likely has an automatic transmission, 800 pounds of anti-tank strengthening, numb electric power steering, and traction control that never really turns itself off? Why can’t I have a car that owes its look entirely to design and not some weird safety standard that says the headlight should be at least a toddler’s chin hair above the ground to be legal?
Sure, I’m not the only person on the road, and maybe it wouldn’t make sense if we all drove hobbled-together replicas of the cars in Mad Max, but as it stands, it’s currently legal to buy and drive a Ford Model T - a car so behind modern standards that it thinks safety is a glove on your drinkin’ hand.
The public is buying into the notion that safer cars are necessarily better cars, car companies are abiding by the laws proposed by those that never cared about driving in the first place, and as a result—at the risk of sounding like an conspiracy theory alarmist—the freedom to have a truly engaging, uncompromising driving experience with a new car is eroding.
While automotive products are a function of buyers’ attitudes and needs, it’s a sobering fact that can’t be avoided - buyers and car manufacturers alike are in favor of cars that place predictable personal security over even the slightest of risk when it comes to driving demeanor.
For those in the comments typing away ramblings like “Why would you want an unsafe car? Do you want people to die? Are you trying to corner the Chevy Corvair market?”, there are two things that you need to know. First, I would never advocate that all cars employ yesteryear’s safety measures, or lack thereof. If you want your family to be safe, by all means, buy a mid-size sedan that gets them to their destination with their limbs intact.
Second, I can already buy a cheap new vehicle with little to no safety protection, an engine that’s specifically made for enthusiastic acceleration, with little regard for anything other than the experience of maneuvering such a machine: it’s called a motorcycle, and unlike my imaginary new E30, it’s an uncompromising experience that BMW will actually sell me with a warranty. If a vehicle exists that puts safety second, it makes no sense why that quality can’t be present in a new car, as we all use the same roads.
For every automotive journalist singing the praises of the new Mazda Miata or Ford Fiesta, I can’t help but wonder what would’ve come out of a automaker’s factory when the company wouldn’t have had to deal with the stringent regulations that tie the industry down to making cars that all look and feel relatively numb.
I get that the industry is beholden to regulators, beholden to a nervous public, beholden to lawyers and beholden to being better than their competitors. And I get that the costs of production, and the realities of the market, make it impossible for manufacturers to make me the stripped-out death machine I crave.
But I can still utterly lament the fact that we’ll never have anything approaching the rawness of a BMW E39 M5 again and why the new Acura NSX, no matter how poised and taut it may be, will never live up to the sheer visceral thrill and simplicity of the original because the driver is six additional degrees removed from the road in 2015.
I yearn for the day when high-end sports car manufacturers revert back to using hydraulic power steering systems instead of a electric ones for “weight savings.” Hey, Porsche, you know what would save more weight? No power steering at all. It seemed to have worked just fine for you in the ‘80s.
I welcome the Autonomotive Singularity in principle but fear its looming presence as it’s unclear what will happen with my cherished tire-shredding, fossil-fuel burning culture and whether public stigma will relegate it to the mistakes of a backward culture, or simply as a whimsical hobby enjoyed by those that have the means of pursuing it, risky as it may be.
Car enthusiasts in general are a subset of a subset of a population; a forgettable niche in the grand scheme of things. And as things change around us, we must point out the things that are important to the culture as a whole and how connecting with a car in a responsive, analog way, should not and cannot go by the wayside, no matter how risky the proposition might be in the long run.
To paraphrase, no one watches edited R-rated movies on TNT because they want to hear Samuel L. Jackson say “Dang!” They watch them because there’s nothing else on, and despite the superfluous and ham-fisted edits, it reminds the public of ideas that weren’t afraid to be dangerous, and ideas that were just too good to be safe.
For those of us that know better, check out the world of experience that’s available to you - while you still can.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes and makes videos about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata.