Almost everyone who has driven as long as I have had a story about cars. The recent dramatic increase in gas prices to nearly $2 a liter has reminded us how much our relationship with the automobile has changed over the decades.
For those of my vintage, cars have been an important part of our lives. Each model year, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and American Motors produced distinctly different and easily identifiable automobiles. Foreign models were very rare. We could often tell who every car in our village belonged to by color, make and model. There was a good reason for that.
The cars of the time had a lot more character than modern vehicles. Most cars today have similar aerodynamic designs to improve fuel efficiency. As a result, many automobiles look alike.
My dad’s 1957 Dodge was immediately identifiable, unlike the Toyota he owned 50 years later. These guzzlers were heavy and contained more metal than plastic. In the 1950s, tail fins and chrome were standard on many cars. Cars of the 1960s were lower on the road and sleeker.
One downside was that these older cars tended not to be as reliable as today’s vehicles. Exhaust systems, radiators and even engines had to be replaced or repaired regularly. However, old cars had no electronics and were much easier to repair. Some car owners have become backyard mechanics out of necessity.
When I started driving in 1971, gas was 50 cents a gallon. It’s about 11 cents a litre. Even taking inflation into account, it’s still a good price.
On our way to Glace Bay to “pull the dredge” with friends, we would first stop at Leo Amadio’s Fina or later Billy MacLeod’s and ask for $2 for gas. If we were in Glace Bay, we had over a dozen gas stations to choose from. A gas attendant would pump gas and return with your change. We’d all be up for a few hours of “dragging” and we’d have gas left over when we got home.
The first car I drove was our family’s 1963 Plymouth. It was propelled by a sturdy six-engine slant. The standard shifter on the steering column sometimes stuck in neutral. When this happened, someone had to get out to lift the hood and release the lever. It was while someone else was inside with one foot on the clutch pedal and the brake. Now it was a challenge walking up Commercial Street when it was a two way street.
It was the era of muscle cars. Dusters, Chevelles and Mustangs rolled through the streets. They were powerful machines that you could hear coming from afar; the driver revving the engine or “laying rubber”. Occasionally there was an impromptu late night drag race on the stretch near the ’roundabout’ just before entering Morien.
There seemed to be more accidents around this time, for some reason. Especially on the weekends, we would often hear about someone who ended up in the ditch. It was not without humor. A friend of mine told me he went on four wheels in the woods to “check his traps”.
That era ended with the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s. The motoring public realized that the days of an endless supply of cheap fuel were over. Automakers have responded by producing more fuel-efficient vehicles. This trend has continued over the years and many drivers are now considering switching to electric cars.
The experiences my grandchildren’s generation will have with cars will be very different from mine. That’s not a bad thing. Modern features like seat belts, a padded dashboard, airbags, anti-lock brakes and fuel economy mean they will have a much safer and more economical ride than ours.
All that said, the image of an electric car on the start line can’t compare to the puff of smoke and the rumble and roar of a Plymouth Roadrunner or a Chevy Nova as they roll off that line. during a drag race.
Ken MacDonald is a retired teacher and school administrator and community volunteer. His family goes back seven generations to Port Morien, where he has lived most of his life.