Cars have come a long way since the Model T, which is good. I, for one, am glad I don’t have to hand-crank start my R8. Knowing my luck, it would break my wrists or something. It’s pretty temperamental sometimes. But, sometimes, I feel like old cars just had way more style. And these are 7 features that have gone the way of the dodo bird, and I think car companies should bring them back.
Pop-Up Headlights – Like the Song
Let’s talk about headlights. Specifically, I miss pop-up headlights. From the 86 to the ideal C5 Corvette to the beautiful RX-7, pop-up headlights were a staple of sports car style. They just gave so much character to a car. So, even if you’re like me, you can hop behind the wheel of an NA Miata, do the “Miata wink,” and everyone will instantly love you.
Now, safety regulations killed the pop-up headlights and, honestly, the switch to LEDs means that there’s really no reason to hide the eyes since they fit into the grill so well. There are new cars that would be perfect for modern pop-up headlights, though, and those are the cars that have no grills. Electrics, like the gorgeous Porsche Taycan, have no radiator, so there’s really no “grill” for the lights.
Just imagine if the entire front of the car was clean and unbroken. And then night hits and, boom, the headlights pop out of nowhere and illuminate the road. Speaking of a focus on style, where did all the chrome go?
Chrome – We Will Ride Forever
In the 1950s, chrome bumpers were a serious statement. It’s bling for your car, something that sparkles in the sun and protects your car. And it’s not just chrome; I’m going to take this moment to rant about how almost all cars look the same now because car companies have just lost the drive to be different. Big chrome bumpers. Giant fins. Vinyl. Tons and tons of vinyl. I’m not saying that design is completely gone (you can still get a shaker hood if you know where to look), but nowadays it’s reserved for only expensive or specialized vehicles.
In the old days, chrome, wild grill designs, insane doors, and absurd body shapes were the norm. Just look at the 1957 Bel Air. Not only does it have mile-high tail fins, shaped lights, and an incredible chrome bumper, but the gas filler cap is hidden in one of the fins. There’s a way for you to earn some money at a car show: find a Bel Air, then bet your buddy that he can’t find the gas cap.
Crash safety standards have ruined a lot of design cues, and a focus on aerodynamics ruined the rest of them. But I feel like car companies have gotten kind of lazy and have just let computers do all the thinking. Where’s the boldness, Mazda? And while I’m ranting about design details, I want manual gauges again.
Steam Gauges – Under Pressure
Be honest. The reason that the Supra and Eclipse in Fast and Furious were awesome is that they had a bunch of gauges that let you know that the action was happening. Maybe not. But, man, there is something so satisfying about knowing there is a direct connection between the engine and the little needle that tells you how fast the engine is spinning.
When you step on the gas and watch the RPMs climb, and watch the speedometer creep up in numbers, it’s a great feeling. Now, there’s an intermediary, a computer brain that decides what to show you and what not to show you. A lot of new cars don’t even have a tachometer. What am I supposed to watch when I drive? The road? That’s so passé.
And don’t even get me started on digital gauges that don’t have a needle, like if it just tells you the speed as a number. It messes with my brain. It can say 100, but I just see 10, and so I try to go faster, and then the cops show up. It’s a mess. Speaking of ranting about computers, I also miss dashboards that you don’t need a comp-sci degree to operate.
Dials and Buttons – Greasy Fingerprints
See, when you’re driving, you don’t want to have to take your eyes off the road and figure out how to turn the volume up. It’s so easy to just have a dial. The dial goes up and the volume goes up. No annoying touchscreen that you thought was on the Spotify app but was actually on A/C controls, so you go to skip a song and suddenly you’re being blasted by a damn furnace from hell. And then your girlfriend is staring at you like your some idiot that doesn’t know how to use a smartphone.
Yeah. I know the “Tesla” look is in, where there’s nothing but an iPad in the middle of the dash and ugliness everywhere else. The good news is that car companies are actually coming around. They kind of realized that going full-iPad is bad, and a lot of new cars are starting to feature real buttons again. So at least there’s that.
It’s too bad they aren’t doing that with manual transmissions. No, I’m not going to say that manual transmissions are extinct, although they are headed that way, along with internal combustion engines. It’s why we made t-shirts to save them.
I will, however, talk about a style of manual transmission that I think would be hella fun to bring back.
Column Shifters – Three on the Tree, Baby
Damn. He just shifted gears by pulling on a stick coming from the steering column. And, no, that’s not an automatic. It’s a manual transmission with a clutch. But, to save space and make the interior more open, car companies used to put the shifter near the steering wheel. You might hear it as “three on the tree,” meaning a three-speed on the “tree” (that’s the steering column) and, believe it or not, it was actually the base model option on a lot of trucks and cars.
Nowadays, just getting the manual option is rare. But, if you wanted like a ’74 Chevrolet truck, it cost more to move the shifter to the floor and even more to get an automatic. In fact, and it actually kind of hurts to write this out, but manual transmissions used to be referred to simply as “standard,” as in, “My 997 has a standard transmission instead of an auto.” In some places, you’ll still hear that, like in Europe where manuals are still pretty normal. But, in the USA, they definitely aren’t standard.
But, seriously, how cool would it be if you got behind the wheel of a new muscle car, like the Chrysler 300C, and it had the option of a column shift so you could just totally live the ’55 life. And, while you’re at it, throw a hood ornament on that thing.
Hood Ornaments – The Spirit of Danger
Remember those? Rolls-Royce has the Spirit of Ecstasy, which let everyone know you had a Rolls. Mercedes had the three-pointed star, which was still around in the ’90s. Mack’s bulldog, the dancing elephant, and, of course, the leaping jaguar all are instantly recognizable and add that little piece of flair that really completes the feeling of having a nice car.
You look back now and it’s just a hood. It’s “aerodynamic” and “clean.” More importantly, it’s easy to manufacture and cheap. But, in the golden age of automotive design, you look back and there, shining brightly on a pedestal, is a monument saying, “This car is sick. Check it out.”
Modern cars, though, aren’t tacky like me. There is a real push against material excess unless it’s random digital features, and it’s kind of boring. Not all the time, though, and I wanted to make sure that I do award some cars that did try new, radical things in recent history.
This next feature might be extinct, but it’s not classic. And, honestly, it’s pretty out there, so that means it makes a perfect honorable mention, baby.
Honorable Mention – Guitar Amps
And what are we honorably mentioning today? Guitar amps in cars! You plug your guitar into your car and you’re ready to rock! Yes, there really were a handful of cars that came from the dealer with a guitar jack. The most famous ones are probably from VW when they were trying to rebrand themselves as a cool company back in the early 2000s. In fact, if you bought a new VW Jetta, Rabbit, or Beetle in 2006, it came with a guitar. It was a cheap “First Act” Gibson knock-off thing. But, still, that’s pretty cool.
VW would continue to partner with rock music, later releasing the Fender edition Beetles and Passats, which had a “Live Stage” mode from a nine-speaker sound system. Not into VW or Fender? Well, you could get an Alfa Romeo who partnered with Marshall amplifiers to build a concept car that had a custom Marshal Stack fit in the boot. That’s badass.
And there’s no reason modern car companies couldn’t just add amp settings to the infotainment center. Hell, GarageBand runs on my phone, it should be able to run on Apple CarPlay. Honorable mention over.
It’s time for the number one thing that went extinct that needs to come back, especially now in our modern, everything-is-overpriced times. We need to bring back barebones cars that are cheap but still really fun to drive.
Cheap, Fun Cars – We Really Need This
It’s no secret that cars have been getting more and more expensive, but not all vehicle classes have been affected equally. In fact, adjusted for inflation, the truly terrible Ford Pinto cost about $15,000, which is the same as the brand new, truly terrible Chevy Spark. So, cheap, crappy cars have remained pretty much the same.
What hurts is that, if you actually like driving, well, you’re shit out of luck. There’s nothing cheap that’s also spirited. A Veloster Turbo is $25,000 if you can find one. A base Mustang is $27,000. Same with the “cheap, everyman sports car” Miata. And I know a lot of people are like, “Dang, a fun car for under $30,000? What a steal!”
But, if we go back to the days of the Chevette, when companies were willing to trust consumers to have fun-to-drive cars, a Mustang GT (not the base model, the GT) was $9,000. That’s about $22,000 adjusted for inflation, or $5,000 less than the EcoBoost. What about a spirited hatchback like the 1981 Mercury Capri RS? Adjusted for inflation, it would cost you about $15,000, the same as the Chevy Spark.
Sure, those cars were stripped-down and lacked all the computers and amenities that new cars have, but maybe that’s the point. We could have a fast, fun-to-drive car that cost less than $20,000 if manufacturers would stop filling cars with bullshit.