Why don't they make cars like they used to?

While sitting in traffic today, Boy from Mars and I were admiring a Ford Galaxie in the lane next to us, and we began to wonder why it is that car companies don’t seem to design cars these days with many of the design elements of more classic cars, like wings, chrome and straigher lines. We suspect it may have something to do with cost and safety, but given the street appeal of these cars, it is surprising that a way isn’t found to produce a modern car that has some of this look. The only ones we could think of were the PT Cruiser (which I have to confess to me is similar in look but not appeal to a hotrod) and a coupe from Nissan. Why is this not more common?

A lot of the pod shapes are to improve streamlining and gas mileage. Also probably uses less materials and thus is lighter.

Though I am a Nissan fan, not sure what coupe you are talking about.

Frankly, in it’s time the Galaxie was about as vanilla as a car you could get.

I am not an automotive engineer, but I can give a few general reasons.

  1. As mentioned above, aerodynamics. And weight.

  2. Some of the classics that I’m guessing that you’re thinking about had fenders, hoods, doors, etc. that were a little more complex to manufacture. A lot more thought is put into the ease and cost of manufaturing now. For example, it likely took many more steps to stamp out the rear quarter panel on a '57 Chevy Bel-air than for a new Malibu. Then engineer that can design steps out of a manufacturing process gets a bonus.

  3. Robotics. Body parts now have to be designed to facilitate automated assembly.

  4. Customer demand. How many old timers got torqued when they were told it would cost $125 (I made that up) to replace the chrome trim around the taillight on their '62 Cadillac? I remember getting angry about paying over $50 to replace a chrome beauty ring (yep, that’s what they called it) on the front wheel of a 1980 Chevy pickup. They popped off every time you hit a pothole.

  5. Nostalgia. They made plenty of butt-ugly cars in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Nobody bothered to preserve them.

I do agree that more attention could be paid to visual appeal, and I think occasionally it happens. But, on the whole, I’m glad they don’t make them like they used to.

My dad had a '66 Ford Galaxie 500 7-Litre coupé. Not really vanilla. It was a hot car at the time (which, I suspect, is why dad bought it). Dad sais it got 8 mpg from the day it left the showroom until the day he sold it and bought Toyota Corona Wagon.

I was mildly surprised, reading old car magazines from the '60s, that some American cars back then touted fuel efficiency of 20 mpg or more. Why don’t they make 'em like they used to? Fuel efficiency, for a large part. It seems the steel was thicker back then, making the cars heavy. And the cars were pretty huge, and the shapes weren’t very aerodynamic (as has been noted).

Styles change. Reference the outrageous fins back in the '50s. Even my MGB technically has fins, as does my Triumph on which they’re more obvious. So part of it is just changing tastes. But (and I can’t back this up) I think that rising fuel prices and tougher emissions laws played a part as well. As U.S. emissions laws became more strick, carmakers tried to make cars lighter and more slippery so that they could use smaller engines or engines that were bogged down with emissions equipment. Flashy chrome added weight, and I think it did not lend itself to the new shapes.

There were also crash safety issues. Using the MGB as an example, since that’s a car I know a little bit about, it originally had stylish chrome bumbers and grills. In the late-'60s and early-'70s they added rubber to the bumper overriders. They also changed the grills to make them more ‘modern-looking’. (There’s one that’s called The Black Hole, which is a chrome surround with a black ‘egg crate’ inside.) By 1975 chrome bumpers were not able to meet the 5 mph collision rules and they came out with the ‘rubber baby buggy bumpers’ (actually urethane). That was the end of most of the chrome on MGBs. Around the same time other carmakers also switched to big urethane bumpers. Without the large bits of chrome at the front and back, other chrome bits looked out of place.

People have always wanted things to be ‘modern’. The Bulgemobiles of the '40s gave way to slightly less bulbous cars of the '50s. In the '60s cars became lower and wider. More modern. They looked more like jets than DC-3s. In the '70s people wanted fuel-efficient cars, so the cars became smaller and lighter and crashworthiness laws required bumpers that did not lend themselves to chrome. Thus less chrome became the ‘modern’ paradigm. Cars with 50 pounds of chrome trim just looked dated.

So I think it’s a combination of changing tastes, more aerodynamic designs, and crashworthiness.

As for the New Thunderbird, the PT Cruiser, the Prowler, and that Chevy pick-up whose name escapes me, I think they’re trying too hard.

It’s called a Nissan Figaro , apparently designed in 1991.

The Nissan Figaro you talk of is a Keicar. which are really only sold in Japan and Europe. As much as I would like to own one, it would not really be worth my while to import.
They need to price them a little more cheaply for them to take off in North America, I think, since people generally won’t pay $20,000+ for such a tiny car.

I don’t personally find the cars you speak of to be particularly attratcive, but then I was born in 1983, so you might as well be from another planet when it comes to these things. But apparently the domestic makers are sidling up to your type. Alls the pity, I’ll have to wait 20 years before “retro” cars from the 80s look cool.

2008 Dodge Challenger

2009 Chevy Camaro

2009 Chrysler Imperial

And of course you know about the new Charger and Mustang.

There is a simple, one word answer to the OP (okay, it’s an acronym): CAFE

Yeah, it’s the “old fogey lament.” Many cars that were very distinctive now have morphed into squat, square, ugly buckets.

Some models got pretty weird, but, for example, you could always spot a Cadillac from the shape, as was the case with many good cars. Long hoods, easily recognized grills and other features made them easily identified.

Even cars such as Mercedes-Benz had a unique, vertical grill and a long, graceful shape. Every year the grill gets squatter (a word?), smaller, more angled and uglier, and the car today looks pretty much like every other blob of metal on the road.

Until recent years, car phreaks could tell almost every model of car by its shape, but pretty difficult to do now.

Other than sports cars, I personally feel the Jag XJ8 is still one of the classiest-looking cars on the road that is affordable (well, just barely). Long, low and mean.

My viewpoint is from inside the auto industry, where the motives aren’t always so obvious.

Chrome trim- Two parts: Trim used to be held on with fasteners every 10 inches or so. Every hole in the body invites rust, and requires a workers to mount a fastener. What little trim we have today is stuck on with doublestick foam tape. Also, chrome plating involves hazardous chemicals, which are now very tricky to dispose of. The plating tanks belch out fumes and even acid fog, which ate the paint in our parking lots. Before my plant took out the plating tanks, we had a whole water treatment plant across the street just to extract the metals and acids from our waste water.

Simplicity means fewer flaws- every operation you do in making a car is another opportunity to make a mistake. A big tail lamp used to have one housing, two lenses, a big vinyl gasket, 5 mounting studs, a big chrome bezel, and 10 or 12 screws. The new one has one housing and one lens, pressed together with goopy glue. There are three mounting studs and no screws at all.

Fewer choices mean fewer mistakes- If you can dig up an options chart for a 70s Galaxie and compare it with one for a 2006 Fusion, you’ll see a big difference. They loaded up the basic model, and the number of optional features is small. In the interior, you can get black or grey. You don’t want A/C? Tough. In the 70s you could get a dozen or more colors; now, it’s six.