One of the Small Things

  • November 12, 2023

Little things sometimes have a lot of significance.

One of those things happened the year after my ’76 Trans-Am was built. The next year, 1977, the decals affixed to either side of the Trans-Am’s iconic “shaker” hood scoop – so named because the scoop was attached to the engine and poked through the hood; it shook with the left-right movement of the engine on its mounts when the driver goosed the throttle – were metricized.

Instead of “400” or “455” – denoting either the standard 400 cubic inch V8 or the optional 455 cubic inch V8 that were available in ’76 – in ’77 you could pick either the standard 6.6 litre (sic) 400 or the optional (higher-performance) “T/A 6.6” litre 400.

Italics added.

But no more mention of the 400 – or the cubic inches.

In one fell swoop, one of the most iconic American cars had been subtly used as a vehicle to normalize an un-American way of identifying engines in that it was the European/Japanese way of identifying them, via liters.

This is no small thing – because it was a key step in the process of homogenizing of cars, via their engines – which are no longer referred to affectionately (and almost personally) by their numbers, as once they were.

No one sings about their 2.0 liter four. There were hit songs sung about 409 big block Chevys and 389 Pontiacs.

One of the great joys of raising the hood of an American car – back when American cars were American cars – was seeing an American engine, frequently a V8. These often had names, such as the Oldsmobile Rocket (350 and 455) and the 440 (Mopar) Commando or the 340 Wedge. Early Mustang GTs proudly boasted – in bright chrome lettering on each front fender – the 289 that powered them.

This began to change in the mid-late ’70s as American cars became more like European cars and today American cars are – with a few exceptions – indistinguishable from European (and Japanese) cars. Most look like they came from the same lozenge factory.

It wasn’t an accidental much less natural evolution.

Traditionally American cars were gradually but systematically pushed off the road by forcing them to be (and so, look) more like European and Japanese cars. Meaning, smaller – and smaller engined. This was done via federal regulations that favored the smaller – and smaller – engined cars that European and Japanese car manufacturers specialized in. Japanese small cars were especially favored by the regulations that rewarded the manufacture of the smaller – and smaller engined – cars the Japanese initially specialized in almost exclusively. They didn’t make large (or large-engined) cars and were thus greatly advantaged by the regulations that punished the making of them. This isn’t to say the Japanese cars weren’t good; many were excellent.

But that isn’t the point.

The fact is the regs favored imported cars over American cars – and served to push American car companies to make their cars more like imported cars, such that today there is very little meaningful distinction between imported and American (especially since many “import” brand cars are made here, in America – and many “American” cars are made not-in-America).

One of the last American cars to be made was the Ford Crown Victoria, which Ford stopped making after the 2011 model year. Not because the car wasn’t selling but rather because it was getting harder and harder for Ford to be allowed to sell it. The Vic was not compliant with the latest – and pending – regulations, especially those pertaining to how much gas the car you’re allowed to buy is allowed to use. Ford would have had to redesign the Vic to make it “compliant” and that would have made it expensive, which cars like it once were not – if you can imagine that.

The Vic – a full-sized, V8-powered, rear-drive sedan that could seat six adults – had a base price of $31,180 the last year it was available. Even adjusted for 12 years of “inflation” – i.e., the devaluation of the purchasing power of the dollar – that would still come to just over $43,326 in todays dollars.

What does $43,326 buy today?

Take your pick of any of several different colored lozenges – most of them silver or white or gray. But you won’t be able to buy a V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive, full-size sedan that can carry six adults for less than about twice as much as that. And what you’ll get then isn’t American. It’ll be a European-brand full-size luxury sedan.

Even then, you won’t get much more than a a couple of liters for your money.

. . .

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