Essay, Old Cars

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

Originally published 22 July 2016. 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.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Old Cars, Photography

A long ago car show

On a mid-September Saturday in 2007, my longtime friend Brian and I documented all of the old alignments of US 31 we could find in northern Indiana. When we reached the town of Peru, we found the highway closed through the heart of town for a car show.

Miami County Courthouse

This is one of the reasons why I love to take road trips — you never know what you’ll encounter!

Brian knows I love old cars, so he patiently let me walk among these and photograph them. This little Nash is heavily customized.

Car show

I’m pretty sure this is a 1947 Chevrolet Fleetmaster.

Car show

This 1960s Chevy truck was heavily customized. I liked its front end, so I squatted for a close photo. I make a cameo appearance in the bumper.

Car show

This boy from South Bend always stops to look at a Studebaker.

Car show

A Chevy Nova SS. It’s likely this didn’t roll off the assembly line as an SS — most Novas were what we used to call “grocery getters,” with boring sixes under the hood.

Car show

My favorite car of the day was this 1966 Plymouth VIP. Ford luxed up the Galaxie to make the LTD, and Chevy the Impala to make the Caprice. Plymouth put fake wood trim and upgraded seats into its Fury, and called it the VIP.

Car show

This one looks to have been modified some. The fake wood is missing, and the door cards don’t look stock to me. But whatever; it’s lovely and I lingered over it.

Car show

As I prepared to take the shot below, a fellow tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’ll have to charge you a quarter for each picture.” He owned the Plymouth. When I told him I had recently seen an old television ad for the VIP on one of the online video sites, he lit up for a moment. He told me that there was precious little information available about the VIP, which didn’t sell very well. He said he had had a difficult time finding trim parts for the car, and pointed out a few places where he had to use slightly scuffed chrome or parts that didn’t fit together just right because that’s what was available.

Car show

This blog was about six months old when I found these cars. I wrote about this Plymouth then; read about it here.

My camera’s battery died while shooting the Plymouth, which brought me out of my old-car delirium to notice that Brian was standing politely on the curb, ready to move along. Even though there were more cars to see, we headed back to my car to continue our trip. I fished my spare battery out of a cup holder, put it in the camera, and we were on our way.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
Old Cars

Carspotting 2020

I love old cars! Always have, probably always will. I’m excited to see an old car still on the road, doing what it was designed to do. I photograph them when I come upon them parked.

COVID-19 saw me out and about far less this year. But I still managed to find 23 old cars parked. By “old” I mean made at least 20 years ago.

I am shocked to realize that a car from the year 2000 is now 20 years old! 2000 doesn’t feel like that long ago to me. But I remember being in college in 1985, playing classic rock on the campus radio station. These were songs largely from 1965 to 1975, give or take a couple years on either side. That 20 year stretch felt like a long time ago to me then! I guess your sense of “a long time ago” grows ever longer as you age.

Here now, the cars.

1966-70 Jeep Jeepster Commando. You never know what you’re going to find in my mechanic’s lot. This survivor looks all original.

1968-73 BMW 2002. Spotted in Old Louisville, this Bimmer sports a custom paint job. I love the way these look. I imagine the visibility inside these is commanding given all the glass in the greenhouse.

1970 BMW 2002. I haven’t spotted a BMW 2002 since 2015 — and this year suddenly I find two. On the square in Bloomington, Indiana. I assume this is a ’70 because of the custom front plate.

1973-79 Volkswagen Bus. This cheerful reminder of the freewheeling 1970s was parked for months by a boutique in Zionsville. Readers with long memories might cry Foul! because this Bus was on last year’s list. But this is my blog and I’ll do what I want! At least I legitimately made this photograph in 2020.

1974-80 Triumph Spitfire 1500. Margaret and I saw this tiny car tooling around Bardstown, Kentucky, the whole weekend we visited. We found it parked in front of our Airbnb, right on the main drag.

1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V Cartier Edition. This might be my luckiest find of the year. A tiny bit of Googling pinned this one right down. On the trunk lid, within the fake spare tire hump that was the Mark’s signature styling element, is a Cartier emblem. The Cartier edition had the red stripe and coach lamp bordering the landau vinyl roof only in 1979. Boom. Spotted at Meijer, of all places.

1979-83 Toyota Truck. I thought surely all of these had rusted away in the Midwest, but here’s this one, still hanging on. I found it on the old Northside of Indianapolis.

1985-92 BMW 325i convertible. Here in wealthy Zionsville, all manner of fun cars show up in the Meijer parking lot. Most of them are newer, but classic BMWs do show up from time to time.

1987-90 Pontiac Firebird Formula. I came upon this one in Bloomington’s Switchyard Park when I was there to take a long walk with my oldest daughter. It looks like a good, original driver.

1990-92 Cadillac Brougham. I’m pretty sure this one is owned by someone who works at Meijer, because I see it there all the time. It’s easy to tell it’s from 1990-1992 because of the composite headlamps. Earlier Broughams had two sealed-beam headlights on each side.

1992-95 Geo Metro convertible. In Old Louisville we came upon this itty bitty convertible. It’s surprising to see it still on the road — these were not the hardiest of cars.

1992-97 Ford F-150. I see lots of these but simply because they’re still so common I frequently fail to photograph them. I found this one parked in my neighborhood.

1993-97 Ford Ranger. These second-generation Rangers are mighty rare these days. Isn’t this dark teal color totally 90s-tastic? I’ve seen it running around Zionsville for a long time, and I was pleased to find it parked on a downtown street.

1994-96 Cadillac Sedan deVille. I thought for a long time that Cadillac built these on the same platform as the Chevrolet Caprice. But nope — it’s on a stretched Cadillac Seville platform. This Caddy was just down the street from the F-150 above. Both are parked in these spots most days.

1994-97 Chevrolet S-10. Chevy made these for 11 years and they were reasonably sturdy trucks, so they aren’t uncommon today. In 1998 they facelifted the headlights and grille, so when you see one with a face like this you know it’s from the first three years. I like those wheels on this truck. I spotted this a block from my home.

1996-98 Ford Mustang convertible. One of these would make a very nice “starter” old car. These are hardly scarce yet, and parts are widely available. Spotted at Meijer.

1997-2001 Jeep Cherokee Sport. This late XJ Cherokee was in the parking garage at work. I rode in one exactly once and was shocked by how narrow they are inside, and how little legroom they have. Spotted in the parking garage next to where I work.

1997-99 Buick LeSabre. Spotted in downtown Shelbyville, this era of Buick LeSabre (and Buick Century) make a great inexpensive used car. If I needed cheap wheels, I’d look for one of these.

1998-99 Ford Taurus. People thought these looked flat out weird when they were new, but I liked them. I even bought one, albeit the Mercury version, and as a station wagon. Single most unreliable vehicle I ever owned. I spotted this Taurus at my nearby Meijer.

1998-2002 Chevy Prism. This beater rebadged Toyota Corolla parks in my neighborhood.

1998-2002 Chevy Prism. As reliable as these cars were, it’s surprising how few of them remain on the road. It’s therefore even more surprising that I came upon two of them this year. Spotted in the parking garage at work.

1998-2005 Chevrolet Blazer. Chevy made these for a lot of years. The headlight and grille treatment narrow it down to these years. Spotted at Meijer, obviously.

2000 Saturn SL. Here it is, the first car unambiguously from the 2000s to show up on my annual Carspotting list. Honestly, I might have come upon more of them, but I don’t know that I noticed them as cars from 2000 and after still seem new-ish to me. I might be looking right past them. I would have looked right past this one except that it’s my son’s car. He stumbled upon a good deal on this car, which had only 30,000 miles on it when he bought it (after an unfortunate accident spelled the end of my old Ford Focus, which I had sold him). Here, it’s parked in the lot by his college dorm.

To see all of the Carspotting posts I’ve made over the years, click here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!

Standard
1957 Ford Ranch Wagon c

Ranch Wagon
Canon PowerShot S80
2013

I’m ending this series on classic cars as I began it: with a photo of a badge on the flank of a colorful station wagon.

This time it’s a 1957 Ford. The Ranch Wagon sat at the bottom of Ford’s wagon hierarchy as basic transportation. If you wanted a swankier Ford wagon, you opted for the Country Squire.

If you’d like to get more of my photography in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe.

Old Cars, Photography

single frame: Ranch Wagon

Ford Ranch Wagon badge.

Image
Swan

Cormorant hood ornament
Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M
Kodak Tri-X 400 (at EI 200 by mistake)
2016

Early Packard automobiles had an array of stunning hood ornaments. You might think this bird is a swan, but you’d be wrong; it’s a cormorant. You’d find cormorant hood ornaments on the finest Packards.

If I had not shot this at EI 200 by mistake, I might not have gotten just this perfect look.

If you’d like to get more of my photography in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe.

Film Photography, Old Cars

single frame: Cormorant hood ornament

A Packard hood ornament on Tri-X.

Image
GMC Truck

Turquoise truck
Minolta Autopak 470
Lomography Color Tiger
2016

One year I took a 110 camera to the Mecum auction. I’m not crazy about the 110 format for its itty-bitty negatives. But I’m also a curious man, and I wanted to see what that Minolta 110 camera was capable of.

I got the best photos I’d ever made on 110 film from that camera. That’s not to say the photos were particularly sharp or detailed. Maybe it’s better to say that I got the least bad photos I’d ever made on 110 film from that camera.

If you’d like to get more of my photography in your inbox or reader, click here to subscribe.

Film Photography, Old Cars

single frame: Turquoise truck

A turquoise GMC truck.

Image