It’s like mental comfort food: In times of stress, much of the human race has this strong tendency to recall a time long gone — when things were not only simpler, but somehow better, in much the same way as adults wonder why kids’ music today isn’t anywhere near as good as the music and artists we had in our youth. It’s that societal nostalgia that made the president’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan resonate with so many potential voters. The problem is that, although they’re pleasant, for the vast majority of individuals those memories are false. Romanticizing the past in personal nostalgia is fine, but societal nostalgia can stifle progress. When it comes to our thoughts and imagination, stress clouds the present but is usually absent from how we fondly recall the past.
If you doubt that, we should return to 1965. That year a hot 45 record cost $1; an album that typically had that one hit song and nine filler tunes cost $4; your mother still purchased iron-on patches for your blue jeans because replacing them cost far too much money; and, depending on his plant classification, a United Auto Workers member made barely over $3 an hour building automobiles.
Thinking further back, starting in the 1950s individuals on the move started purchasing small transistor radios, which came equipped with both a small speaker inside and a single earpiece — which was fine, because at the time we listened to AM radio broadcasting in mono. However, most forget that one of the earliest of those units came from Raytheon in 1955 and had a retail price of $80. The first Sony units out of Japan were half that much, but it wasn’t till the early Sixties that the price of these portable music machines fell to $15 — around five hours of work on a factory line building Chevrolets.
Therein lies the real problem. Many remember how inexpensive their first transistor radio was, and how cool it was to have one, but forget how little money they made at the time. But don’t be misled; that very first Raytheon TR-1 transistor radio, adjusted for inflation, cost about the same as an iPhone does today.
I couldn’t possibly count all the radio callers and emails over the years that have focused on the same lament about our superior past; their stories always involve a vehicle purchased 40 years ago and how great it was for just $5,000. (Many write or call claiming that they paid prices for new vehicles that were financial impossibilities at that time, but that’s another story.)
But that brings up one of the funnier stories from my time in the auto industry. In 1975 an older gentlemen drove his 1969 Olds Cutlass S into our dealership to trade. It was a dark gold metallic color with a black vinyl top and in just mint condition. But affixed to the back passenger window was the original window sticker for that vehicle: $3,995 list price. One couldn’t help but notice that there was a substantial amount of varnish covering both the window sticker and that back window.
Now, I had never seen a car owned for two days with the original window sticker still attached, much less one varnished into place on a car 6 years old. I asked the gentleman about that and his response was classic. He told me that he knew it was illegal to remove a window sticker from a new car under penalty of law. And although he was well aware that everyone else seemed to be doing just that, he knew that sooner or later the law was going to crack down on the public for removing their window stickers, and he was not going to be ticketed no matter what. Then he launched into a mini-tirade about how the manufacturer’s glue holding that window sticker in place had just been junk, which was why he wound up using varnish to ensure that his window sticker was displayed properly. I wish you could have seen his face when I informed him that it was only illegal for the new car dealer to remove a factory window sticker before delivering the car to the end user. He thought I was making that up.
The important part of that story is that we know beyond any doubt that the factory price of a typically equipped Oldsmobile Cutlass S in 1969 was $3,995, or adjusted for inflation, $27,151 in today’s money. First, one should know that according to the Census Bureau, in 1968 the median household income was just $7,700 and just 12.8 percent of households were considered upper middle class (earning more than $15,000 a year). So for 48.2 percent of the households in America, that 1969 Cutlass’s price was half or less of their annual income. What’s more surprising is that percentage still holds true to this day. High-volume popular vehicles, such as the Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu, Toyota Camry, and others actually deliver more value against median income than they did 50 years ago.
Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1971 that half of the new cars sold in America were purchased with air conditioning. Most had only an AM radio, or an AM eight-track tape player if one splurged on the options. Come to think of it, tilt steering wheels and cruise control became the norm in 1974 and 1975 because GM started paying dealership management a hefty bonus for every car they ordered with those options. FM stereo radios became popular in 1976, and cassette players followed quickly.
By the mid-Seventies you could purchase the option of a small joystick on the dash to control the passenger side-view mirror. Radial tires on new cars came about in late 1979 as Detroit found that radials could improve fuel efficiency slightly, and this was a direct result of the Second Energy Crisis. Compact Disc players made their first appearance as a super expensive option by the mid-Eighties, and were soon standard in foreign luxury cars. And we doubled the fuel efficiency of all vehicles from 1975 to 1985.
In this same period cars got safer, too. Padded dashes finally became the norm, 40 years after Dr. Claire Straith installed seat belts and made a padded dash for his car; being a plastic surgeon, he’d seen way too many patients who required his services after automobile wrecks. Crumple zones were designed into new automobiles starting in the late Seventies, airbags became widespread in the Nineties, side impact protection came about, and only in the past 18 years have anti-lock brakes become the norm.
Oh, and during this period we went from exceptional paintwork on most vehicles to using water-based paint, which often faded away in a year or two, back to exceptional paintwork on automobiles once again. And today we can store thousands of songs on our cell phones and slave them directly to the infotainment systems of our vehicles. Even our portable music demands a price adjustment. As stated earlier a hot-selling 45 record in 1965 cost a buck, or $7.90 in today’s money, whereas you can go online today and purchase a hot-selling song for $1.29.
Maybe we should discuss gasoline, too. Because in December of 1968, pumping gas at the Conoco station on Camp Bowie cost customers just shy of 34 cents a gallon. True, there were gas wars back then from time to time, when the price would fall to 29.9 cents, but at regular prices today that gasoline would cost $2.44 per gallon. Only today’s cars get at least twice the fuel efficiency of vehicles in that period.
Don’t take this to mean I don’t also feel nostalgia. I too have very fond memories of coming of age in that period in America. It’s just best to temper memories of the past by direct comparison with what we have today that replaced all of that. The products we buy and use, whether it’s consumer electronics or automobiles, in terms of direct costs against incomes, they are no more and often much less expensive than they were decades ago. Outside of the hard costs of the base equipment, the safety gear is downright exceptional and added no net costs to the vehicles. Yet these are the things we tend to believe were so much better in the past and for so much less money. That’s just not true.
Ironically, the costs of services have gone through the roof, and yet no one ever brings that up. I keep on my desk a number of canceled checks from 1996 as a reminder. A Southwestern Bell bill was just $15.30 and at the time that included free and first-rate service if anything went wrong with your phone or your phone line. A Marcus Cable TV bill in July of 1996 was only $62.28. An electricity bill for TXU for June of that year was less than $200. At the peak after deregulation that electric bill was often more than double that amount, but has settled back to a reasonable charge now.
When Otto Bettmann came to America from Germany during the Great Depression, he observed the same mindset as the MAGA phenomenon. It seemed that everywhere he went, Americans were looking back nostalgically to the period of the Gilded Age and strongly yearning for that wonderful past, believing that that era was the best time to have been alive in this country. Over the next few decades Bettmann amassed one of the greatest photographic collections of American history ever known, but almost immediately he found it impossible to reconcile the public’s nostalgia for the past with what the photographs were showing in black and white.
That disconnect led him to become a pop historian of the American scene and to research whether the public’s memories were faulty, or his photographs were just biased. In the end he wrote his famed 1974 book, The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible! As someone recently wrote, we often tend to make our critical decisions based on our imagination instead of facts. As generation after generation discovers, that’s probably always been true.
© Ed Wallace 2018
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org