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Avoidable Contact #60: To make cars better, we’ll need to make them much worse

If you won the $700 million Powerball or whatever it's up to at the moment, what would you do? I know what I'd do—I would quit racing cars. Isn't it obvious why? No? Do you think that perhaps you would start racing cars if you won that kind of money, even though you absolutely would not? Alright, bear with me for a moment.

 

I've been racing wheel-to-wheel for a decade and a half. Spent twice the price of my house doing it, in exchange for a shelf of five-dollar trophies and two short appearances on cable television. I've seen the LifeFlight arrive at my sessions a half-dozen times, watched a fellow competitor die a hundred feet away from me, stood in silence while another one died in the helicopter. In 2015 I got turned by an out-of-control E30 BMW then center-punched at 80+ mph by that same car. The video shows my helmet bouncing between rollcage bars at the carefree speed of a dog's wagging tail. The year after, I exited the uphill Esses at Watkins Glen backwards and missed a deadly impact by maybe 18 inches. I'm moving to an open-cockpit car for this season, which will no doubt end in some sort of tears.

 

Why do it? The answer is simple: Like many men of my largely-forgotten generation and oft-reviled background, I have almost nothing to lose.

 

Read the full article on Hagerty.com:

https://www.hagerty.com/media/opinion/avoidable-contact/avoidable-contact-60-to-make-cars-better-wel...

Replies (20)

Replies (20)

I’m all in favor of cheaper crappier cars but while today’s products can be rightly critiqued for being too well made, they aren’t necessarily any more expensive.

According to the NADA guide the 1980 Datsun 210 JB mentions went for $4969 back in the day, which my official US Government inflation calculator calculates to be the equivalent of $15461 in real money. And per Nissan’s website the 210’s modern day bottomfeeder counterpart Versa starts at $14730. Probably less fun to thrash than the 210 and no doubt regrettably better built and equipped, but not really any more expensive.

Or take the Datsun 810 for which JB nostalgizes. NADA has its MSRP at $8529 

which translates to $26538 today. There’s no contemporary equivalent at Nissan but while few and far between two door sticks can still be had. Say for example the 2020 Camaro which stickers for $25995 (although Chevy’s website has the “net” down to $24495).  Yes it substitutes a turbo four for that six and yes there’s a whole lot more road hugging weight but more than double the horsepower is at least some small compensation.

I actually like electric cars and think the whole soul thing is mostly projection, but you really don’t need to wait for the e-pocalypse if you’re hankering for a new car that’s fast and cheap. Or even better, you can follow my example and buy old cars that are fast, cheap and crappy. Trust me, it’s far more satisfying.

 

Pit Crew

In one sense, this is depressing. I've driven a Tesla model S, and while it is incredibly competent, I found it to be soulless. Mechanical things have soul--electronic things don't.

 

As for the cars people buy these days, I think part of the problem is people just don't care as much about cars as they used to. Compared even to the '90s, cars look like the appliances they are. Where in the '50s and '60s automotive styling was the height of commercial art, the teens has been the worst decade ever. 

Intermediate Driver

Being in the Air Show scene, I can relate. Having seen many crashes, several people die, a few of them close friends, more that I didn't see die, I can understand the sentiment. And, also like aerobatic or antique airplanes, racing is a quick way to turn a large pile of money into a small one. Therefore now I enjoy my little Miata and MGA on track and autocross days, and leave the racing on the computer. I have a little more to loose now than I did when I was younger. But man was it fun!

Passenger

I think caution, or lack thereof, is partly genetic. Much as I love cars, I never would have raced them under circumstances where people die, and I never drove dangerously. But I did ride a bicycle across the country, in 1975, because in my estimation, it was not a very risky thing to do. But before I set off, I bought Bell hard-shelled bicycle helmet serial #7022. After riding across the country, as someone who expected to put tens of thousands of miles on bicycles--much of that in the city (and did), I wrote an article on bicycle safety, figuring that knowledge would help keep me safe. 

 

People in my family did not run risks, either. My parents put seat belts in the '57 Chevy in '60 or '61, and we had the first shoulder belts in the back seat of a Peugeot station wagon in France, in '65, after my father, an academic economist, solved the topological problem of how to install them for the guys at the factory, when we picked up the car. Neither my brother's nor my sister's kids engaged in risky behavior. 

Intermediate Driver

Several point well taken, sir.

Passenger

Edward Green? I am a John Lobb fan, personally. 

The lesson I have observed about motorcar racing is that it takes a certain type of person who wants to do it, and although the kids of rich parents find the tracks already paved for their success, they risk their lives even though their future is bright doing something other than piloting a high-horsepower machine. 

I also suspect that most of the readers of your columns would use a $700 MM lottery winning wisely and establish a charitable foundation to do some good in this world, but only after purchasing a Bugatti (Veyron or Chiron) , a Ferrari Aperta, a McLaren Senna, a Porsche 918 and a Ford GT. OK, that's my list, but you get the drift (pun intended).


Pit Crew

"making cars safer has made them more dangerous" Absolutely, I want to lob anything heavy at the TV lately over the commercials showing how their new ca-o-matic 2020 can save the lives of drivers who have no reason being on the road in the first place. Laughing and talking with the passenger and can't look forward? Dropped your fries? Turned around to see what the spawn kicking the back of your seat wants? Backing straight towards a garbage can, bicycle or prone position child who tripped trying to get out of your way? No worries, it's the car's job to deal with that while you track down that new sushi place on the other side of town with your big screen console TV. I've been riding motorcycles for almost 50 years, and now I mostly take the convertible or sliding panoramic  roofmobile instead of one of the bikes, because I'm just not in the mood to be a human sacrifice. Broke 3 vertebrae in a 1974 MC crash, my shoulder in '75. Each time I couldn't wait to get the bike and myself fixed enough to ride. Now, I'm amazed how often folks don't even see my silver 1 Ton Ford E350 van as they turn left in front of me, zoom in front of me in a traffic circle of just start drifting into my lane. Guess they'll blame their car for killing me.

Detailer

Don't front, MC Ren

New Driver

Baruth loves to twist the facts to make a point.  Trump--another unreliable source--calls them "alternative facts."  I call it bull-loney.  And Baruth is full of it.  I spent a lot of time trying  to track down the actual MSRP for the Datsuns Baruth mentions.  But with only the NADA citation, I was reluctant to go to press.  I wanted a real price.  I finally found a price for a VW beetle in 1967--the year I graduated high school.  I got that price right off a copy a NY dealer's actual invoice--$1,758.00.  If there were mainstream cars available for less than a VW bug back then,  I never heard of them.

 

Now, I don't know where Baruth gets his figures, but the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics says that amount of money in 1967 is worth $13,495.00 today. 

 

There are several cars to be had today for less than that.  But the Mistsubishi Mirage outdoes the Beetle in all specs, from interior room to fuel economy--at almost exactly the same (relative) price.

 

Are cars better?  Of course?  Do they last longer?  Yup.  But are they more expensive.  No way.  Yet I constantly hear this wail about the high cost of living from  the mathematically challenged.  Gas is cheaper now than it has ever been--in real dollars.  And consumer goods are always cheaper and better than they were.

 

There is a lot to miss about cars (and life) years ago.  But the cost of goods relative to income is not among them.

 

 Hagerty, would you please fact check this charlatan?

Pit Crew

I think that one of the deciding factors today is the electronics. Everybody wants the latest technology. The problem is that cutting edge technology becomes obsolete. I drive a 2012 Accord LX that I love, but it has no bluetooth, no nav, no backup camera. When I tell people that it has a six disc CD changer, they just laugh. Its resale value is now affected by that. I'm sure that the Datsun 810 has a nice cassette player. Might as well dig out your old Van Halen tapes and your pencil!

Passenger

Regarding the first part of this article I must say that a race car driver  is a complete idiot  having a total disregard for his/her God given life.

Passenger

When I started driving in the 90s, I loved the cars of the 70s... because they were cheap and I could afford them, because they were highly modular (I could always contemplate putting a V8 in my inline 6 Camaro even if I never actually did it), and they came in every quirky shape, size and appearance imaginable. you could find one to fit your style and taste without effort

 

Modern cars are over optimized and over homogenized. I can drive a camry, and yes, there isn't much to complain about, but there isn't anything particularly interesting about it either... it looks just like all of the other cars in the parking lot. Forget performance upgrades unless you have deep pockets and know a hacker. That car came out of the factory running as good as it is going to and anything you do to it will make something worse

 

Yes, cars are better, but they are extremely boring which is why I still drive the old ones. Since 90% of people seem to like them that way, I am not as optimistic about a change in the future

Pit Crew

I'm speechless.     Jim.

Pit Crew

As you point out, the problem is that cars have become a long term asset and investment. People now buy cars with the unspoken subtext that "this may be the last car I ever have to buy," even if they are only in their forties. And paradoxically, making cars safer has made them more dangerous; driving a car of the early sixties at freeway speed was a fulltime job, and most people didn't dare drive much over the speed limit. Today, the lowest priced model of almost any make can cruise noiselessly and effortlessly at 80 all day long, and unlike the cars of the past, still do it when the car has 150,000 miles on it.

Detailer

Another approach is for the car makers to bring back performance low cost coupes (I prefer RWD) that can serve as an entry level for the younger generation.  How?  Make everything electronic (I hate nannies) an extra cost option along with sun roofs and other items considered "luxury" but do nothing for performance and by performance I mean a balanced approach so that you have sufficient HP (there is a limit to HP on the street) to make a pass safely along with a top notch yet comfortable (electric shocks) suspension, great steering, strong brakes on all four corners along with excellent handling tires/wheels.  Of course, all the mandated safety items would be included.  There is one last critical element - properly teach how to drive and not just for the teenagers to be able to safely avoid accidents but a new system of driver testing every 10 years.

Pit Crew

J.B. says he's not a fan of "electric singularity."  I'm not a fan of hybrid, because it seems to me like overlaying one complex electro-mechanical system with a second one.  Give me gas, period, or volts, period.

 

(Upon later reflection, give me one of each: volts for errands, and gas for distance.)

Pit Crew

Very well done, some good thoughts for the future, and I'm in about the same place you are including needing a big crane to get me out of gasoline powered cars and anything new because they are designed by people who are obviously detached from any aesthetic sense, and driven by ditzes. But I agree with the short term theory: we should be turning the cars every 3-5 years max and getting financed at a price level that makes sense. Otherwise, buy an old car, fix it, drive it, until economics retrieves its sanity. Once again, well done.

Intermediate Driver

Huh?

New Driver

I've written various overlap stuff with SSC on my own blog, hilariously enough...

Moderator

It was at this point, reading: “So in order to produce the highest-fitness animal, we need to – select for fitness less hard?” that a certain pleasurable frisson of synchronicity between this essay and this essay:

https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/05/12/studies-on-slack/

kicked in.  Sorry for the smol pomposity but I have a vintage Jag.  

New Driver