There goes a Chevy, or was it a Ford?

Staff Writer
Story City Herald

—by Bill Haglund

I have a tough time understanding how anyone today can tell one car from another.

I can’t.

To me, almost every car looks the same – at least the so-called “mainstream” cars. When I was young, it was easy to tell a Ford from a Chevy and a Chevy from a Dodge and a Dodge from a Ford. Even with a slew of other makes and models (whatever happened to the Studebaker, the Packard, the Kaiser, the Willys, the DeSoto and the Hudson, among others?) we had little trouble naming them all.

Traveling down today’s highways, virtually every car looks like every other. They call it new technology, and it is, at least to a point. Wind tunnels have become an essential part of automotive design. Because of government mandates on better and better gas mileage, car design has become so high-tech that wind tunnel results, just as much as engineers, determine the shapes and sizes of today’s automobiles.

I suppose it’s good, but it’s hard for some of us to stomach – at least those of us who grew up in the post-World War II automobile craze. There weren’t any cars built during World War II – manufacturers instead turned their attention to building military vehicles like Jeeps and tanks. Metal became a precious war commodity.

Once the war ended, however, the so-called “Big Three” really flexed their muscles, so to speak. We had Fords, Chevys and Dodges with big, very big, engines under the hood and the bodies were designed so that it was impossible for anyone not to know one make from another. Within 10 years after the war, cars not only had big engines, they also had big fins.

Some of those cars have become really iconic. Remember when Chevrolet went from the 1956 models to 1957? The 1957 Chevrolet has become a treasured vehicle for many and its distinctive design is easily recognizable. Same goes for the Fords between the same years. The 1957 Ford is so easily recognizable that it would be shocking if someone couldn’t identify it.

And, it wasn’t just the Fords and Chevys and Chryslers that suddenly appeared on showroom floors with distinctive fins. Even the Cadillac – long a favorite among privileged Americans – came out with a big tail fin in 1957.

But just as we began getting used to, and expecting, new designs and more powerful engines each year, the first gasoline crunch hit in the early 1970s. Suddenly, car manufacturers became more concerned with gas mileage than individuality in body design. Once it started, it didn’t end. With each passing year, car bodies became more and more alike.

However, before gas mileage became a big incentive, we found American automobile manufacturers going in the opposite direction. The 1960s became the decade of muscle in America. Big block engines became a status symbol for many young Americans. We all tried to show off our own car’s power by testing it against a friend’s vehicle on a marked quarter-mile strip – and there were plenty of new asphalt sections of roadway where we could mark off a quarter mile.

A whole generation of us even had our own car songs. Remember the classics like “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Little GTO,” “409” (“Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up 409”), and “Hey Little Cobra?” We also had songs about driving those cars, even though some bordered on being morbid. Remember “Our Car Club,” “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” and “Dead Man’s Curve” among others?

Those days are long gone, and we’ll never again see big cars with big engines. I can’t imagine folks today waiting with anticipation as new models are unveiled. It’s far more important to drive a car that gets 30 miles a gallon than to drive a car that can go from zero to 60 in a few seconds.

For folks of my generation, however, there are plenty of memories of that era now a half-century old. Some older cars still exist and many bring huge prices when they’re sold. For many others, the cars are just memories and pictures in scrapbooks or on the Internet.

And, I find it easy to relive some of those days in other ways. Ah, here it is – it’s my Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits album.

(Bill Haglund is a retired staff writer from the Boone News-Republican and Dallas County News. He can be reached at bhaglund13@msn.com)