Sometimes it turns out that we haven’t been quite as clever, or as inventive, as we thought we’d been. Consider this: Someone who came of age in 1927 would have witnessed some of the first commercial airline flights; both Pan Am and Transcontinental Air Transport (renamed TWA) started flying the original Ford Tri-Motor aircraft, Pan Am jumping from Key West to Havana. On May 26 of that year the Ford Motor Company ended production of its famed Model T. And the top-selling song of 1927 was Ben Berne’s I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.
Now fast-forward 43 years to that person’s imminent retirement. The newest aircraft that year was the Boeing 747; Pan Am first used it on January 22, 1970, to fly from New York to London. The best-selling song of 1970 was Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and you could listen to it in your new Plymouth Duster, introduced just that year. Or maybe in the first generation of the Chevy Camaro that was so popular at the time.
Try that same exercise again, with coming of age in 1970 and about to retire today. We’re still flying in Boeing 747s and car buffs can still buy retro versions of the Chevy Camaro.
Going from the Ford Tri-Motor aircraft to a Boeing 747 in one lifetime, while starting out motoring in Model Ts and ending up driving a Chevy Camaro, that one generation certainly witnessed a flood of technology and science in a very short period. The Boomers, on the other hand, have gone from the Boeing 747 to the Boeing 747 and from the Chevy Camaro to the retro-Chevy Camaro. And we call that progress.
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Yes, there were changes along the way automotively— often in areas one couldn’t see. But they were important changes nonetheless, primarily in three areas: More efficient use of fuels, safer travel and certainly less pollution. Not surprisingly, the aviation industry has also gone through those same engineering challenges. The difference is that, when Washington mandates improvements to automobiles, particularly in fuel efficiency, one hears the howling from Detroit to your neighbor’s garage down the street. The airlines, on the other hand, are extremely sensitive to their ongoing, generally high cost of aviation fuel.
When you look back four decades it might appear that some changes happened rapidly, but in fact they didn’t. Here are the other vehicles that made their debuts in 1970 along with the Boeing 747. The AMC Gremlin, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Vega, the Ford Pinto and the Toyota Celica. You may remember exactly which of your friends and associates owned one of those vehicles; compared to today’s vehicles, remember how measurably primitive they all were?
Maybe here we should go back to that original Model T. Its 2.9-liter, four-cylinder engine developed around 20 horsepower; it weighed 1,200 pounds and would reach 45 miles an hour —assuming you were driving east with a powerful west tail wind. Oh, and according to Ford, depending on conditions it delivered 13 – 21 miles per gallon. And each and every Model T was a moving pollution factory.
By the late Sixties virtually any car could be driven at twice that Model T’s top speed, had loads more horsepower, and got the same mileage. And suddenly it dawned on us that in many conditions our cars simply weren’t safe. I’ve used the example before, but it bears repeating: The 1968 Cadillac Eldorado took the length of a football field to come to a complete stop from 60 mph because of its drum brakes and bias-ply tires. Of course, if it was raining and you had to slam on the brakes, that vehicle — or any other of that era — simply turned sideways and slid out of control until something more permanent stopped your forward momentum.
Believe it or not, the first real push for changes to our automobiles had to do with air pollution. Detroit had sent its engineers out to the Los Angeles region as early as the late Forties to study smog and how engines could be changed to reduce it. They quickly concluded that they just didn’t have the technology the task demanded. It would take the Clean Air Act of 1970 and a hard deadline of 1975 before the catalytic converter came onto the scene and started us toward much less polluting vehicles.
But even as late as the 1973 Congressional hearings Detroit said it couldn’t be done; that is, until little Honda showed up and said they had already accomplished the new standard with the company’s CVCC engine. Only after Honda had seriously embarrassed America’s automakers did Detroit resolve our cars’ pollution problems. Honda’s programmed fuel injection engines would improve things still further in the late Eighties, and by 1998 Honda had created the first emission-free four-cylinder gasoline engine in the world. That is, until California purchased more sensitive testing equipment. Still, the reduction of pollutants from our automobiles over the past 46 years has been nothing short of phenomenal.
The second most important improvement was in safety, and it took just as long as getting pollutants under control did to get us to where we are today. First, seat belts had been around for a very long time. Airlines realized their value in the earliest days, when passengers found they didn’t care to bounce around the cabins during extreme turbulence. However, seat belts for carriages and ultimately cars were actually patented by Edward Claghorn in 1885. In their earliest configurations those belts were meant to keep riders from falling out of a carriage or vehicle on bumpy, rutted roads, which were far more common than accidents.
AMC put seatbelts in its Ambassador vehicles around 1950, while Ford offered them as a safety option a few years later. Still, it took federal regulation to make them a standard feature in automobiles; previously many manufacturers didn’t want to put them in cars. They were afraid that the public might think that a car only needed them because it was somehow unsafe.
For the record, all cars are unsafe in some drivers’ hands.
John Hetrick may have invented airbags in 1952, but it wasn’t until the mid-Sixties that the military created a detonation device fast enough to make airbags practical in automobiles. It would take another three decades for Takata to make inflators so unstable that we should be demanding that all airbags be removed from automobiles.
Now, before anyone thinks that might be a joke, it’s not. Because along the way the auto industry imported anti-lock brakes from the aircraft industry and added radial tires to decrease rolling resistance and therefore improve mileage and safety. In the late Seventies Mercedes designed and perfected crumple zones in the front of cars to lessen the severity of any impact. And now, in the earliest days of adaptive cruise control with automatic braking, all of the key elements are in place that will make airbags, always a problematical safety device, unnecessary. Seat belts, crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, superior tires and automatic braking. Not to mention collapsible steering wheel columns and padded dashes.
Engineering tolerances continued to be improved also. Everyone of a certain age remembers that, when you purchased a new car a few decades back, you had to change its oil for the first time at 600 miles to get all of the tiny metal shavings out of it. Now the first oil change isn’t necessary for thousands and thousands of miles — although, to be fair, the quality of oil has also improved in this period. And the same computerization that helped lower automotive pollution levels also gave us far more horsepower and boosted gasoline mileage to boot.
Furthermore, in 1970 as the Boeing 747 first took flight, fewer than half of all vehicles were bought with factory air conditioning; nor did they have power windows, power locks, moonroofs, side mirrors or anything more than a single-speaker, AM radio. And one last thing: In our youth many cars really started falling apart long before you hit 100,000 miles, and that was the rule for the next three decades. But over the past 15 years every manufacturer’s quality and engineering has vastly improved.
And so, except for its computerization, better fuel efficiency and lower noise levels, that 747 you might take to Europe this year is the same one we first flew on just after high school. There are many more improvements in the retro-Camaro over its first generation all those years ago.
All of that notwithstanding, have we made the same amount of progress that those who came of age in 1927 did in the same amount of time? Good question.
© 2016 Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace, a member of the American Historical Association, is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, conferred by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:15 on Fox Four’s Good Day and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org