Old Beaters vs. Public Pleasers

A car friend sends out a weekly missive on the state of the automotive world. It’s his views on cars and motorsports, heavy emphasis on the “his views” aspects. Over the last few editions, he’s talked about the growth of cars over the years and, as Lotus founder Colin Chapman knew early on, the best way to increase the performance of a car is to “add lightness.”

My friend has given examples of great cars that were low weight and questioned why they aren’t made anymore. I sent him the following in an email this morning, then decided to share it with all of you … because I know how much you care about cars …

Something to mix into your thoughts on modernizing older, lighter cars – a lot of those cars, if you just updated the emissions systems, still wouldn’t be legal for sale as “new” cars in 2009. There are a lot of structural and safety changes that have been mandated over the years, every one of which adds weight. And that weight has a cascading effect.

Take, for instance, the inclusion of airbags. An airbag weighs, at most, 8-10 pounds I would guess. So that’s 10 pounds. But now you need circuitry and wiring to activate it, so that’s another pound. But then you need something to mount it to, so that means a stronger firewall and support bars, so there’s more weight there. And you need to make sure the firewall won’t deform from the push-back when the airbag detonates, so now your front subframe and upper supports need to be stronger, so there’s more weight there.

And then you move in the other direction … the seats now need to be stronger so they won’t snap when a passenger gets pushed back by a deployed airbag. And the seat mounts need to be stronger, so there’s weight there. And the flooring has to be reinforced, so there’s weight there. And you probably should have seat belt pre-tensioners to make sure the passenger isn’t moving forward as the airbag is deploying towards them, so there’s weight there …

It’s a cascading effect throughout the car. And then you have to think about the value proposition – once you’ve spent the money for all of those safety enhancements, you have to charge for them, even if they’re things the buyer doesn’t necessarily want or understand that they’re even there. So to raise the perceived value of the car, they add in other things as basic features – air conditioning, power locks, sunroofs, extra sound deadening – things that don’t cost them too much money but raise the perceived value of the car.

And, of course, the weight.

I owned a 1992 Sentra SE-R and it was an awesome car. The power-to-weight ratio was perfect, it was very well balanced, bulletproof reliable, cheap and a blast to drive. But I’ve also been in the passenger seat of a 2001 Sentra SE-R Spec.V that went off the road and into a tree at 50 m.p.h. Aside from a bruise on my chest from slamming into the seat belt, I walked away. I watched the airbag come at me. I felt the seatbelt tighten across me. Had I been in the 1992 version, I don’t know that I would have walked away. There was no airbag, just “passive seatbelts” that mounted to the door instead of the B-pillar.

So it all comes down to regulations and who do you protect. For those of us on your list, we are active drivers – we pay attention, even on the short trips to get milk. We thinking of driving differently than someone who merely looks at a car as a mode of transportation. With my family in the car, I want all of the safety features and I’m willing to pay both the up-front cost and the fuel mileage cost. Not because I’ll do something stupid, but because someone else might.

So we have a Honda Ridgeline with front and side impact airbags and all the safety features Honda has. But I also have a 1966 Mustang and a 1991 BMW – cars I will drive when I want to drive, not just get somewhere. I sought out those cars (one this year, one nearly 19 years ago) because they offered something unique, something I, as a driver, wanted.

But they are not something the average commuter should be out in. Modern cars are much better commuter vehicles – safer for everyone. And when a non-driver buys a car, they buy it based on perceived value, not performance. If you offer to sell a 1982 Honda Civic 1300FE (my first car) today, people will buy it – and think they’re perfectly safe in it as they flail down the highway slurping their mocha half-fat latte chai cinnamon infused Slurpee thing and checking their Crackberry.

As a society, we need to think of everyone as a collective whole – even if that screws over some individuals. But we individuals have a wide array of “older” cars to choose from and the ability to both maintain them and drive them well.