Turning 40 is a major milestone, one that your author celebrated a couple of weeks ago. It seems like only yesterday that I turned 30, and my twentieth birthday doesn’t even seem like it was that long ago, but my tenth birthday feels like a distant memory at this point. Yes, it’s only a number, and I personally can’t see why there is such a big fuss about it.
Looking ahead, I know there will be more things to celebrate, but this isn’t really the point I’m trying to make. A lot of things have changed in the last 40 years. When I was born, my parents weren’t blasting out pictures of their first born son to all their friends via cell phone or social media. They carefully took a few shots of their new baby, and developed the roll of film a few weeks later, so that the pictures could eventually find their way into a photo album. I’m pretty sure my kids don’t even know what a photo album is, and while I say this jokingly, they certainly have other preferences and may never have any photos of their own developed for quite some time.
With this being said, the automotive world has been turned on its head in the last 40 years. In 1979, there was certainly no talk about self-driving cars, nor was there such a thing as a hybrid, or even much thought about an SUV. For the most part, farmers drove pickup trucks, as they quite hadn’t started working their way into the suburban driveway yet, although they were definitely starting to become more and more luxurious by this point. There was no such term as soccer mom, and the minivan was still a few years away. The family status symbol was still a fancy station wagon with wood panelling and a backwards facing third seat, slightly downsized from the behemoths of the mid 1970’s, but still large none the less. The car was still king!
We often hear people talk about the good old days, and I’m thinking that it won’t be long before people refer to the 1970’s as the good old days. In fact, and as hard as it is to believe, I get the feeling that 40 years from today, in the year 2059, people may refer to 2019 as the good old days, and reminisce about how much more simple life was back then. Strange to think, but this is my prediction, and I’m entitled to it! While I can’t imagine my life today without my cell phone, which contains pretty much everything I could possibly need, I’m sure whatever fancy device exists by the time I’m 80 will be even more useful, and I’ll wonder how I ever survived without it.
In all honesty, I’m a pretty basic guy. There was a time when I wanted the fanciest things, with the most buttons, gadgets, and useless features, but as I’ve matured, I have come to the conclusion that more isn’t necessarily better. I have realized that I have a preference for things that are simple, easy to operate, and don’t need a manual in order to figure them out. The best products are manufactured and used the same way they have always meant to be used.
When I was a kid, so mid 1980’s, I was already a full fledged car nut. I would spend hours in my sandbox, or my mom’s garden, making roads for my Hot Wheels toys, and I loved it. Even in the winter, I would occasionally go out in the snow and make similar roads and imagine driving around in a real car for hours on end. Of course, I was always on the lookout for anything automotive that excited me, and my mom kept a photo album for me that was filled with pictures of cars that she took whenever she saw something she thought I would like. I pulled most of the pictures out of this little album when I was about 10 or 12, as I didn’t see the purpose, and filled it with other things that interested me at the time. I kept a few, but most were thrown in a box that disappeared when my parents got divorced.
This brings me to some interesting things to look back on from the year 1979. The period was not known for many interesting or unique styling features the way the 1950’s were, but there were milestones just the same. Automotive technology has always evolved at an amazing pace, and new features are introduced year after year to a public that is anxious to be part of the latest and greatest things on offer.
While I think it’s hard to believe that the automotive bailouts resulting from the 2008 economic downturn are already 10 years old, the major restructuring efforts undertaken by GM and Chrysler as a result of these events were not quite their first. In 1979, Chrysler required a bailout, mainly because of the fact that they hadn’t quite adapted to the market changes that had resulted from the two oil crises of the 1970’s. They received a government loan, and went on to produce sales winners such as the K car, and followed up by the Caravan. If it weren’t for these two vehicle lines, it’s possible that the company wouldn’t exist today.
Over at GM, the push to build smaller more efficient vehicles was well underway, as the X-car line was first introduced, replacing vehicles like the Chevrolet Nova. The new line, which included names like Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega, and Buick Skylark, marked a dramatic shift in the thinking at GM, and also brought front wheel drive to their portfolio in a larger way than the Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac offerings that were already on the market. In fact, the Chevrolet Citation turned out to be the top selling car for the 1980 model year, although it should be noted that it had an extended model year due to the early launch in 1979. Compare this to today where the Honda Civic remains a top selling model, while Chevrolet has cancelled their Cruze model due to poor profitability, but not due to poor sales.
Ford meanwhile was building many different car lines just like their competitors, and their St. Thomas, Ontario plant was in its third year of building the Ford Fairmont and Mercury Zephyr models. It was also still building the Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat, although these models would be phased out in another year. The twelve year old plant was a major manufacturing facility, and fit right in among many other large scale manufacturing operations in the southwestern Ontario area. Nobody at the time had any clue that just over 30 years into the future, this plant would suddenly be no more. Vehicles like the Mustang were popular, and their full-size offerings such as the Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis, and Lincoln Town Car, were all popular retail buyer choices.
A couple years ago I read that we were in the midst of a new performance war among manufacturers. I’m all for performance, and love going fast, but I wholeheartedly support doing it under the proper conditions. Our cars today are way more powerful than they were in 1979, and continue to get more powerful by the year. It’s hard to believe, but there weren’t many cars that could boast of having more than 200 horsepower straight off the showroom floor 40 years ago.
Your new 1979 5.0 Mustang (technically a 4.95 litre as it is a 302 cubic inch mill) produced a paltry 140 horsepower. The Pontiac Trans Am wasn’t much better even when ordered with the 6.6L V8 big block that managed 220 horsepower from 400 cubic inches. If you were shopping for a new Dodge, there was no such thing as a Challenger or Cuda anymore, as these nameplates had been retired, but you could order a Lil Red Express with a 360 cubic inch V8 putting out 180 horsepower. For a Dodge buyer who wanted even more performance, you could order the Midnight Express with a 440 cubic inch monster under the hood, pumping out a whopping 255 horsepower. Compare this with a 2019 Dodge Caravan, that puts out more power from its 3.6 V6, and has been since the engine was introduced for the 2011 model year. How ironic that a family van would be more powerful than a muscle truck!
All things considered, if you had a brand new 1979 car, parked beside a brand new 2019 car, the differences in my opinion are minimal. They still do the same thing, which is getting you from your home or workplace to wherever you need to go, but they definitely do it differently. Today, you can buy a vehicle capable of transporting a large family on a summer holiday with a heavy camper trailer in tow, just like you could have purchased 40 years ago. The difference is that your new ride probably has more power ports and tv’s, but do you really need them? In 2019, you can buy a muscle car to impress your buddies with a fancy paint job, special rims, and a big V8 under the hood, just like you could have in 1979. The difference is that you can use your built in GPS navigation system if you’re going on a trip, and connect your smart phone to the car. Again, do you really need these things? If you are a bit more budget conscious, or environmentally friendly, you can buy a small car with a 4 cylinder engine, just like you could in 1979. The new model may have more gadgets, but in the end, it does the same thing that the 40 year old model would.
If given the choice, I can’t actually say which I would choose, a brand new 1979 or a brand new 2019. The features in the new car are great, but I genuinely think I could do without. My concern with a brand new 1979 would be that I would have to put it through our winters and subject it to road salt and I think I just wouldn’t be able to risk destroying an old car. Here’s to being 40!