Commentary: Looking Back At a Sea Change
The historiography column tells the story of not just the classic car but also the history behind the development of the vehicle.
Why do I not talk about “classic cars?”
Well, isn't that what the Historiography column is for?
True. However, there are times which I have been challenged to try to go deeper with the specific classic car. The Historiography column tells the story of not just the classic car but also the history behind the development of the vehicle. That is definitely part of the story.
Yet, there are times in which I see something out there and would love to go deeper in telling its story. You know, when friends that own certain vehicles of era that evoke certain memories of my younger days. I always look from afar and wonder “what is it really like to drive one of those?”
Don't get me wrong, I love working with modern automobiles. They are examples of how far we have gone in well over 130 years of the development of the automobile. Of course, that's not just about the battery electric vehicle. Even though, they do represent the immediate future of this great mode of transportation.
Yet, I always think about the cars of my youth. Not to measure how far we've progressed. Rather to capture what it was like to drive something that I was driven in so many decades ago.
For example, to drive something from my birth year. Knowing the vast difference between American automobiles and the ones we used to call “foreign.” attempting to grip thin steering wheels that have not been protected by some sort of fabric or vinyl. Heavens forbid I would ever touch a vinyl on a hot day!
Of course, that also means reintroducing myself to those hot vinyl seats that we were subjected to as toddlers. Not that I really want to! There have been too many memories of burnt parts of skin when it's 100 degrees outside somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.
The idea that today's safety regulations had to be developed from the vehicles of the past. Rarely do you see a frameless window in a modern automobile. Of course, they were commonplace back when I was younger. My first car was a hardtop sedan that meant four sets of frameless windows and no guarantee that the electric switch would work on at least one of them.
I am of course referring to American cars. Maybe I should turn my attention to the foreign cars of the time.
A prime example was a recent video by a locally based YouTube channel featuring and friend of mine’s 1960s Toyota Corona. that car basically boosted the brand in this country at a time when it needed a major signal boost. I remember those cars vividly when they were brand new. The Corona put Toyota in a position that helped American consumers look at Japanese cars differently.
Although, there are some that would argue on the side of the Datsun 510. Granted, it had a bit more advanced engineering with its overhead camshaft engine. In turn, the 510 became a racing legend. this was another vehicle that I remember fondly from my youth.
Why the Corona and the 510? Why not the Volkswagen Beetle? Why not any of the French cars that were being sold in our market at the end of the 1960s? Why not Opel, that was being sold at Buick dealers? And, let's not forget the plethora of British cars that were sold in this country.
The reason why I bring up the Japanese is that because of my West Coast orientation. It is because we didn't see them coming at the end of the 1960s. Not just on the West Coast, but across the USA.
The average American laughed at the sheer size of a Corona or a 510. When you even size them up two, say, a so-called American compact car, the sheer size difference was quite daunting.
That is a sad fact. It is how we Americans saw ourselves as superior human beings in the middle of the Cold War. We won World War II, for Pete’s sake! Therefore, our vehicles should reflect our superiority through its sheer size.
Which was why I was fascinated with cars, such as the Corona and the 510. Let’s also throw in the BMW 2002 for good measure in thus conversation. These vehicles were indeed small and mighty. Yet, we did not see it that way. And, again, that is a royal shame.
Luckily, we can look at these small and mighty vehicles from a different lens today. Not just because of what they tried to do in the American market. It is about the message that they bring.
Perhaps, we should look at the Toyota Corona, Datsun 510, and the BMW 2002 from a different perspective. Just like electric cars of today, these three vehicles at the onset of the 1970s foretold a future that is part and parcel of the automotive scene today. If it weren't for these three vehicles, we would not have to do a lot of pivoting during the OPEC oil crisis come three years later.
All photos by Randy Stern