Nostalgia is a potent drug and, like any old bastard, I’m highly susceptible to it as well. Hell, I work in a sort of idiotic shrine to a very specific kind of nostalgia. But there are some details of the past that, even with the rosiest-colored glasses, are still very clearly garbage. I’m talking about being a kid in the back seat of many 1980s GM cars, specifically the GM cars (and one Chrysler) that, somehow, didn’t let you roll down the rear windows.
These cars — which were GM’s A- and G-bodies from 1978 to 1983, and the 1981 Chrysler four-door K-cars — represented a huge percentage of cars on the road when and where I was growing up, in 1980s America. I feel like pretty much every family I knew at the time had at least one car from this lineup, and the reason I remember this so well is because of the painful memories of sweltering in the back seats of these metal mausoleums, in the heat of a North Carolina summer, with rear door windows that remained steadfastly and cruelly fixed.
The list of dirt-common cars that were like this is ample: Buick Centuries, Regals, Oldsmobile Cutlasses, Pontiac Bonnevilles, Chevy Malibus, and those early K-Cars. I think there were some others, as well, but these sorts of cars formed the backbone of the carscape of America at the time, which means the plague of no-open-rear-seat-windows was widespread.
This is also from an era when air-conditioning on cars was not always a guarantee; I seem to recall that while most of the cars I ended up in had A/C, certainly not all did, and even those that did were likely to be either broken or forbidden from use by one of my friend’s professionally trained cheapskate dads.
Hell, even when they did work, their effectiveness was usually limited to the confines of that big front bench seat, as back in the 1980s rear-seat A/C vents were as bold and improbable a dream as jetpack ownership: Technically feasible, but there’s no way in hell it’s happening for you.
I also remember that for some of these cars, like the Malibu, some soft-hearted body designer at GM managed to sneak in a tiny little vent window, which you could open like 3/4 of an inch and press a narrow, sweaty strip of your face into, greedily drinking in the passing air like a starving dog over a dropped pot of chili.
For decades I’ve wondered why GM chose to do this, and the only reason I can think of is miserable, penny-pinching perfidy at the expense of actual human comfort, especially the comfort of children, the most common occupants of those seats.
It sure as hell wasn’t a technical issue; GM had been building four-doors with roll-down rear windows for literal decades before, operated by hand, vacuum power, or and electric motor. Then they went back to building cars with roll-down rear windows afterwards. They knew how.
This wasn’t a case of there not being enough room in the door to drop the window into, either — these were all on big-ass cars, and even in other cars where there would be a conflict with the window and, say, the rear wheelarch, they’d at least let the window decend halfway, which is all the way better than nothing.
Hell, other smaller and often cheaper cars managed to do it just fine; my family had a 1980 Honda Accord four-door, and those rear windows rolled all the way down with the gleeful abandon of a tumbleweed. The Honda was almost the exact same price as a Buick Century in 1980 — around $6,500, which would be about $21,000 today — and they somehow managed to still make money on their cars and have the windows roll down.
It’s not like the fixed windows were only on base-level, stripper, bargain cars — this was across the lineup, from Chevy to Buick and Oldsmobile. All across the board.
And, no, this wasn’t done out of safety concerns, despite whatever slimy ’80s Pontiac dealer salespeople likely told befuddled families. Nobody cared that much about safety in this era — this was still a time when the first thing my parents did with a new car was to have the seat belt buzzer disabled so they could ignore using seat belts. If they were worried about one of us kids launching themselves out a moving car window, they kept that pretty secret.
My good friend had one of those 1981 K-Cars as his high school car, and sitting in the back of that sweltering shitbox was awful, too. In Chrysler’s case, we can be a little more forgiving, since that was the first year of the K-Car, and they managed to engineer opening rear windows for the next year.
But GM? They kept up this misery for five years! This seems like such a basic bad design decision, so contemptuous of the customer, and I just can’t imagine modern GM or really any other carmaker trying to get away with shit like this.
It’s fascinating, really, what was considered fine back then. I can almost imagine the meeting where some suit from accounting stomped his way down to the G-body design studio and started asking what they could lose to save some money.
Let’s imagine the scene as a little play!
SUIT (looking at rear door assembly): Hey, is there any reason we can’t lose all the crap that makes the windows go down?”
DESIGNERS and ENGINEERS: Well, yeah, but that’s going to make the back seat really hot in the summer.
SUIT: I don’t give a shit! Who usually sits back here? Kids! Kids are broke! Kids don’t buy cars! Besides, if we make it bad enough, maybe those cheap dads will have to spring for the A/C!
DAUGHTER OF ENGINEER WHO’S IN THE STUDIO BECAUSE I FORGOT TO TELL YOU IT WAS TAKE YOUR DAUGHTER TO WORK DAY: Daddy, please don’t let the bad man take away our opening windows!
SUIT: Ha, ha, ha! Too late, asshole! They’re gone! Fuck off, little girl!
(suit then stubs out his cigarette in the little girl’s hair and SCENE)
So, now that summer’s coming and you may find yourself in the back seat of a (non-1980s GM A- or G-body or 1981 K-car) car, take a moment and reflect how much better things are today, and maybe give a moment of thought to those of us that grew up sweating buckets into the absorbent velour of suffocating 1980s sedans.
(Thanks, Hans, for reminding me how much this sucked!)