Yesterday’s Auto Industry: 16 Things That Used To Be

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

I am in my early 40s and like most people do as they enter mid-life, I have started to notice how much has changed since I was a kid.

Here are a few things I can remember from yesterday’s world:

1) Leaded gas; it was available through the early-mid 1980s; now it’s banned.

2) Heavy yellowish smog in big cities; it’s mostly gone now — because leaded gas is gone and cars all have extensive emissions controls — which they didn’t before about 1975.

3) Getting prizes at gas stations. I have dim memories of a time (early ’70s) when gas stations gave up sets of drinking glasses or other stuff (often directed at kids) if you filled ‘er up. Full service was common. Pumping your own was not.

4) When motor oil came in these cardboard-like cans and you had to use a punch to open them and pour out the oil. It made a god-awful mess. I don’t miss that at all.

5) CB radios; in the ’70s, they were as common in cars as GPS is today. Nowadays, only truckers still have them.

6) Floor-mounted dimmer switches for the high beams. Now they’re always on a steering wheel-mounted stalk — along with other stuff such as the wiper control, etc. I miss the floor-mounted dimmer — but it’s gone because some thought it unsafe or hard to use.

7) Aluminum wheels were rare and found for the most part only on a few high-performance cars. Almost all luxury cars still had steel wheels with pop-on wheel covers (usually fake wire wheels) on them.

8) Carburetors; until about 1987, almost every car engine had one. Today, none do.

9) Round air cleaners; they went away with carburetors. They were fun because you could flip the lid, which let the moaning sounds of the four-barrel carb get through when you floored it. Most fuel-injected modern cars have elaborate “air boxes.” No more lid-flipping.

10) Bumpers. Only trucks have bumpers today. Cars have “fascias” — rubber/plastic front end clips painted body color. These look ok but lack the character (and physical strength) of the old-school bumpers.

11) Interesting steering wheels. The advent of air bags has imposed near-uniformity on steering wheel design. They’re almost all the same blob (for the air bag) with a rim around it. Pre-air bag cars often had wild-looking and unique-to-that-model steering wheels that were the essential character element of the vehicle. For example, ’70s-era Trans-Ams and the spoked Formula wheel that was an integral part of the package.

12) Ashtrays. New cars always had at least one — and sometimes several — ashtrays. Now most cars don’t. They have “power points” — but no cigarette lighters or ashtrays. If you want them, you have to order them at extra cost as part of a “smoker’s package.”

13) Three-across bench seats in luxury cars. Most modern luxury cars have buckets and a center console dividing the passenger compartment. They’re more like sports cars than luxury cars.

14) The three-year new car loan. It has been stretched to five and even six years as the price of new cars has gone up and the savings/income of average buyers has gone down.

15) Rust-through within three years of purchase. That was common in areas where road salt was used in winter. Body integrity (and corrosion protection) is much-improved nowadays.

16) Three on the tree; you know (or maybe you don’t!): A manual three-speed transmission controlled by a stalk on the steering wheel instead of a gearshifter on the console. The pattern took some time to master — and made you feel proud when you finally did.

If you are in your 20s today, 20 years from now you’ll probably look back in time like me — and wonder what happened to CD and MP3 players, gasoline-burning engines and maybe even cars that were controlled by the driver (and not a computer).

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