How Times Have Changed

  • January 29, 2024

Not only did cars used to have ashtrays – they often had several. My ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am has three. One up front for the driver and front seat passenger, two in the rear for the backseat occupants. A fancy car made that year – a Cadillac Sedan deVille, say – would have had four, Two up front and two in the rear.

New cars have none. They have multiple cupholders – and power points instead of cigarette lighters.

It’s a metric of the changing times.

Some cars used to have their gear shifters on the steering wheel column. Not a gear selector – for putting an automatic transmission into Park (or Drive). A shifter, to engage first, then second and third. There was no fourth. Else it would not be three on the tree. Today, this form of controlling the shift action adds an additional layer of unfathomableness to the operation of manual transmissions, which many under-30s have never learned how to shift at all – nevermind via the tree.

Turning the fuel reserve valve. If you owned an early VW, you could drive it until the engine began to sputter, which was the engine telling you it was running out of gas. The good news was there was still some in the tank. Just turn the valve to keep it flowing, so you could keep going.

Something newer that’s disappearing is the dipstick – which isn’t (necessarily) your idiot next-door-neighbor. It was a means for checking the engine’s oil level; if the car had an automatic transmission, there was probably one for that, too.

Emphasis on was.

The automatic transmission dipstick is already a near-relic in that many new (and recently made) vehicles with automatic transmissions do not have them anymore. They have gone the way of the ashtray – and for similar reasons. Most people don’t smoke anymore. And most people don’t check fluid levels anymore, either. They depend on a dealer – or electronics (in the form of “check fluid” lights in the dashboard) to do that for them. A few luxury brands – e.g., BMW – have electronic dipsticks that tell you the level (of the oil) from inside the car.

Glass headlights used to be standard equipment in all new vehicles. Few vehicles made since about 20 years ago have them anymore. Instead, they have plastic headlights. This is interesting, because new vehicles are more expensive – yet plastic is cheaper than glass. Except, of course, it isn’t – when you need to replace it. A sealed beam glass headlight still costs about $25. An inexpensive plastic headlight assembly often costs several times as much and it is likely you’ll need to pay that cost sooner, because the plastic yellows and cracks. The glass only cracks if you hit it with something.

It never yellows.

Outside hood latches. Almost all cars used to have them back when it was (generally) safe to have them. Because – for the most part – you didn’t have to worry about someone popping the hood of your car to steal parts from your engine compartment. Maybe if you lived in the ghetto. Today, all cars have hoods can only be opened from inside the car – because it’s no longer safe to leave your car anywhere (just about) without locking it up – including the engine compartment.

Gas caps behind the rear license plate. It’s surprising that this once-common way of hiding the gas cap is no longer used. Not only did it eliminate the need to cut a fuel door into an exterior body panel – thereby marring the lines of the bodywork – it also eliminated the need to line the right (or left) side of your vehicle up with the fuel pump at gas stations. Either side was just as good when the gas door was behind the rear license plate in the back and center of the car. And when you’d finished fueling, the gas cap was invisible – hidden behind the license plate.

A spare tire. Not the one around your middle. The one that used to be in the trunk, back when most cars had them – because most cars were cars (rather than crossovers, which have largely replaced cars). Crossovers may have a temporary use (rather than a spare) tire. The difference is you should not drive very far (or fast) on the space saver while you can drive normally – as far and as fast as you usually do – on the spare, which is full-size tire the same type as the others on the car. The temporary use tire is much skinnier and only meant to limp you to the closest tire store.

Many new (and recently made) vehicles don’t even have the temporary-use spare. Instead, they have an inflator kit. This is fine, if all you have is a flat tire. If you have a tire with a damaged sidewall, you can’t inflate it – because the air you put in just comes right back out. Then you’ll need a tow truck.

It’s the price of change – which isn’t always for the better!

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