(First published 8 August 2016.) You didn’t mess with my grandma. She was barely 5 feet tall, but she swore like a sailor and drank like a fish. And she always drove 4-wheel-drive trucks. One of them was an orange 1972 Chevrolet K/5 Blazer CST very much like this one.
Grandma was so short she had to grab the steering wheel and pull herself up into the cab. That had to really work her biceps! I’ll bet it gave her a mean right cross. But had she ever needed to defend herself, she would have instead reached for the .22 pistol she always kept in her purse.
My favorite place to ride was the front passenger seat, and I called shotgun as often as I could. Even though SUVs weren’t common in the 1970s like they are today — we didn’t even have the term “SUV” then — riding around in that seat didn’t exactly give me the rooftop view of traffic that you might think. Grandma lived in rural southwest Michigan, where serious winter snow and unplowed side roads meant almost everyone owned four-wheel-drive trucks. I was used to looking at tailgates ahead as we rolled down the road.
Grandma preferred the lightly traveled gravel back roads to the highways, though, and so I got to take in a lot of Michigan’s beauty while riding with her. Even when I had to ride in the high and upright back seat, I had a good view. That seat also sat a good distance back from the front seats, giving unbelievable legroom. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I think GM should have moved that seat a foot or so forward to give more aft cargo space. It was pretty tight back there.
Grandma and Grandpa had been a one-truck family (a 1972 Dodge 100 Power Wagon) until the grandkids started coming to visit for extended stays every summer. Riding four abreast in Grandpa’s truck worked while we were all very little, but as we grew the cab became too cramped and so Grandma bought the Blazer. We ran around all over southwest Michigan together running errands and visiting various taverns for lunch or dinner and, for Grandma and Grandpa, always a beer. I knew then that back home in Indiana I wasn’t allowed in taverns. Maybe Michigan’s laws were different. Or maybe it helped a lot that Grandma and Grandpa seemed to know every law-enforcement officer in six or seven counties. Perhaps Grandma’s smile, nod, and words of greeting to any deputy who stopped in were enough to secure us. We were certainly less uptight about such things forty years ago.
After Grandpa finally retired, they sold both trucks and bought a top-trim 1978 Bronco in gold with a white top. The CST package meant Grandma’s Blazer was top-trim too. This is what passed for luxury in an SUV in 1972. Today, these big body-on-frame SUVs are all but gone out here in rust country.
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.
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.
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.
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 help one of our sons launch into independence, we decided to buy him an inexpensive used car. The criteria: Under $3000, four doors, cosmetically and mechanically okay, a couple years of life left in it.
You’d be surprised how many cars at this price are clapped out and beaten up. Darn good thing we weren’t in a hurry, because it took us about a month to find this 2005 Ford Escape. We paid $2600.
It had nearly new tires on it. They’re some off brand I’ve never heard of, and I’ve already found them to be so-so on wet pavement. I’m sure they went to some tire store and said, “Put on the cheapest tires you’ve got.” Regardless, I was happy to see them when we went to look at this car. These tires probably cost $500, a large percentage of the car’s purchase price.
I’m not an expert in buying used cars. I did pay for a Carfax report, which revealed just two owners and no accidents. I checked the car for things I know how to check. When I stuck my finger in the tailpipe, it came back grey and sooty, which was good. The oil was dirty, but it wasn’t foamy or low. The belts I could find were old but not dry or cracked. I grabbed the top of each front tire and pulled and pushed hard, looking for loose front-end linkage. They didn’t budge. All the switchgear worked, and there were no lingering idiot lights on the dashboard. The car drove and stopped straight, and had good, smooth power all the way up to highway speeds.
A couple minor issues were evident, however. The headliner is starting to separate from the roof where it meets the windshield. One of the hinges for the hatch glass was broken. I replaced the hinge myself — it’s incredible the car parts you can buy on Amazon and the instructions for repairs you can find on YouTube. I let the headliner go.
Whenever you buy an inexpensive used car, Murphy dictates that it will need some sort of repair shortly after. So I drove it for a couple weeks to shake it out, to keep our son from having to deal with it. Sure enough, one day I pulled into the parking lot at work and found the oil light to have just come on. My mechanic said that the valve gasket cover was leaking ever so slightly, and that there was a temporary plug in the oil pan, neither of which is great. But he said that for a car this old with this many miles, he wouldn’t invest in those repairs, he’d just drive it like that. He replaced the oil pressure sensor and couldn’t get the oil light to come back on, so we both declared it good.
It’s been only in the past few years that I stepped up from driving old cars much like this one. I know very well that after a certain number of miles, you live with some issues that you choose not to fix because the return isn’t worth the investment.
This Escape has 175,000 miles on it. I remember a time when a car with 100,000 miles was used up. But despite this Escape’s issues, I’ll bet it has at least 25,000 miles left in it — maybe 50,000 with good care and good luck.
I forget which camera I used to make these photos — it was one of my 35mm SLRs, probably with a 50mm prime lens. The film is Ultrafine Extreme 400, which I developed in the last of my LegacyPro L110, in Dilution B.
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.
A law went into effect here this summer prohibiting drivers from holding their phones in their hands while driving.
The only reason I pick up my phone in the car is to skip a song or start a new playlist. I play music from my phone over the car’s Bluetooth link. But my car is just old enough not to have integrated controls. The only way to interact with my playlist is via the phone itself.
I bought a phone holder that clamps to the vent’s louvers. Because the phone is so available, it tempts me more to interact with it. Could Indiana’s new law have backfired?
I haven’t owned many cars in my time but until these two I never missed one when it was gone.
I really loved that Toyota Matrix and I was sad when I had to let it go. It had become a beater worth maybe $500, and it needed a repair that cost twice that. When you own a beater, you think long and hard about every repair because the accumulating repair money would soon buy a better car. You learn to live with most broken things. But in this case, the broken thing made the car a safety risk. Goodbye, Matrix.
I wasn’t excited about the Ford Focus when I bought it. The price was right and it met a critical requirement of carrying me, the kids, and the dog. But then I found out that it handles like a sports car, cornering tight and flat. It had decent oomph for an economy car. I threw that car hard down twisty highways. I loved driving it. But it was getting up there in miles, and my son needed a car, so I sold it to him and bought a used VW Passat. The Passat is a surprisingly good car, perhaps the most reliable and competent vehicle I’ve ever owned. But it just isn’t fun like the Focus.
My son had the Focus for about a month when someone ran a stop sign and put an end to that poor little Ford. My son was uninjured. His stepdad found a great deal on a used 20-year-old Saturn with just 30,000 miles on it. Between the insurance payout and the price of the Saturn, my son came out $500 ahead. Not bad!