The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems

When we look back at the past, all too often it’s through rose-colored glasses.

But who doesn’t like to indulge in nostalgia? I sure do. I especially enjoy photographing classic cars and reminiscing about times when they still roamed America’s roads. One of my favorites is the 1966 Ford, like this convertible I found at the Mecum auction in May. My dad owned one when I was small, a two-door hardtop. I spent many happy hours in its spacious back seat.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

Check out that styling! This long, low car looks so purposeful, so strong. Aren’t those tail lights just the bomb? It’s so much better looking than the tall, blobby cars they make today. And they made these cars out of heavy steel. You could sit five people on the hood of this car! Man, didn’t things just make sense back then? Today’s cars are bodied in steel so thin that if you sink your bottom onto a hood, you will dent it.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

But those wistful memories can’t mask the truth: you’re safer in any modern car than in this one. And it’s not just that this old Ford lacks airbags and has only lap belts. Fords of this vintage were famous for sloppy handling, making it hard to quickly steer to avoid a crash. And the brakes are drums all around, subject to fast fading during a hard stop. Oh, and see that steering wheel? It’s mounted to a rigid steering column. In a head-on crash, it becomes a missile that smashes into your face. In modern cars, that column collapses on impact. Also, in modern cars a safety cage frames the entire interior to resist crushing in a crash. That thin exterior sheet metal, along with everything else outside that safety cage, is designed to absorb impact and keep you alive and intact. If you had a serious accident in a ’66 Ford, the car would crush in, and you would absorb the impact. The safety advantages of modern cars are well documented; check out this head-on crash between a 1959 and a 2009 car to see it in action.

1966 Ford Galaxie 500XL

When we look back on the past, we often fall prey to nostalgic preferences and the fading affect bias. In other words, we tend to remember the past’s good parts and forget the bad. It’s human nature to forget that in a crash, an old car like a 1966 Ford would cheerfully maim or kill you, and that far fewer people die in crashes per mile traveled today than 50 years ago.

But this forgetting tends to make us think whatever bad things are happening now have sunk society to new lows. We live in a time of great national economic uncertainty, racial unrest, and global terrorism. The specter of authoritarianism and fascism has risen in this year’s Presidential election. We have a right to be worried, angry, and even afraid. But think back to any time in the past and consider national and world events then. Racial tension has always been with us and has led to violence at various times in our history. Terrorism has been going on for years, but until the last 15 years or so it was largely a problem only in the rest of the world. Our government, a magnet for narcissists, has always contained people who have committed crimes and immoral acts. And at various times in our collective memory, we’ve been at war, or in economic recession or depression.

Life is like riding a roller coaster. While you’re on it, it’s scary. You don’t know what is coming: tall loops, long drops, hard turns. Yet when it’s over, we look in a new light at the parts that scared us. Retroactively, we find them to be exhilarating — or, at least for those of us who don’t enjoy roller coasters, safely completed. What was unknown is now known and our minds reframe the experience accordingly.

We look upon past times like roller coasters we’ve ridden: reframed based on what we know now, viewed through nostalgic preferences and fading effect bias.

We face very real perils and need to address them squarely. But perils have always existed. Now is not necessarily worse than any time in history.


12 responses to “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”

  1. mfobrien1956 Avatar

    And people forget how short the lives of those cars were. Today, it’s nothing to have over 150,000 miles on a car and have it work just fine. Radial tires last far longer and are safer than the bias-ply tires of old. Fuel injection is so superior to the old carburetors. You can fix up those old vehicles until they look better than they ever did when new, and yes they are beautiful in their own way. So are old southern mansions. We just should not forget the past, and must improve on it. We did it with cars, now if we can only do it with people.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh absolutely. My old beater has 179,000 miles on it and starts faithfully every time. My main car, a Ford, has 121,000 miles and looks and runs great. During my 1970s kidhood, a car that made it to 100,000 miles was pretty used up.

  2. DougD Avatar

    Well said Jim. I always remind myself that when my Grandfather was my age he had lived through a depression and a war in Europe, lost a child, emigrated with nothing more than his family of seven and built a house with his own hands. My life has been relatively safe and straightforward, and all our lives have statistically been more safe and easy despite ongoing problems in the world and at home.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yep, someone in our past is bound to have had it worse than us!

      This is the thing that has bothered me most about the Republican convention, by the way: the messaging that life is dangerous and scary. It’s less so than at any time anybody alive can remember!

  3. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    Just wanted to say that I like the post title.

    I had pretty much forgotten “Keeping the Faith”, but it seems to be in the current rotation at my local grocery store this month.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wondered if anybody would catch the reference!

  4. pesoto74 Avatar

    Well said. I have been having some of the same thoughts lately. I have a hard time understanding how so many people have lost their grip on reality to the point where they believe that we are now in an especially perilous time. I was first becoming aware of the world back in 66. I can remember a President and several other leaders being murdered and large areas of our major cities burning in riots. Then there was the nuclear gun that the US and USSR was pointing at each other Then there was the Vietnam war. By comparison today seems like a pretty quiet time.

    I also love the 1966 Fords. My first car was a used 66 Ford Fairlane. Still I sure would not want a 66 Fprd to be my daily car today.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think that a lot of what people seem to be afraid of today is mostly ginned up by the news media. Especially FOX News.

  5. history is cool Avatar
    history is cool

    What is most disturbing about the 1959 bel air vs 2009 malibu crash test is the number of people it did not convince. I saw the video when it came out, and looked at the responses on both youtube and dozens of message boards, both automotive, and other ones that were simply off-topic discussions. For years after, and until this day, an alarming number of people think that the 59 somehow had to be “altered” or “weakened” for it to fall apart like that. Bolts were removed. Frame was cut. It was rusty. The most common lie spread around the internet was that it “had no engine”. Just stated like that without proof early on by some ignorant idiot, and it spread like wildfire all over the discussions. (There are a few pictures from the other side that clearly show the inline six after the crash.) It has been quite amusing to read just how ignorant many classic car enthusiasts are about how new cars are built. That new cars are actually much stronger than old cars. Almost none of them knew that the reason the new car destroyed the old one to that degree is that new cars, of the past 10 or 15 years, have passenger compartments made of ultra high strength steel which is 3 times stronger than conventional steel. The entire old car is made of conventional steel. The new cars only use that kind of steel in the crumple zone. And in parts of the outer skin, so the door skins are conventional steel, (also known as mild steel), but the door frames and inner structure are ultra high strength steel. The firewall, a-pillars, floor pans, are so much stronger in the new car than in the old one that once the crumple zone finishes crumpling and gets bunched up against the firewall, that entire assembly then proceeds to keep going and destroys the old car quite easily.
    And I am old enough to have driven all those old cars from the 1960s and 1970s. Over 400,000 miles driven with cars that have points, carbs, manual drum brakes, and only lap belts in some. New cars are better in every way.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember the brouhaha. Oy.

      I wonder what would happen if you crash a 1959 Chevy into another 1959 Chevy — would the cars crush as badly?

  6. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    This makes me think of one of my favourite quotes:

    “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” Frankin P Adams

    Stephen Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now (which is where I first heard that quote) is an interesting take on the subject, pointing out that, no matter how grim things look now, evidence shows that we’re far better off than we were in the past. It’s not a reason for complacency, or avoiding dealing with the problems we do have, but that we should also realise that in general our progression has led to improvements in the majority of situations.

    There’s a TED Talk video covering some of the stuff from the book:

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You brought your A game to this comment. I used a car to illustrate my point — you used Stephen Pinker!

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