The Cars They Drove

By Fenster, Julie M. | American Heritage, October 2005 | Go to article overview

The Cars They Drove


Fenster, Julie M., American Heritage


OF ALL THE MARKETING departments that helped raise the postwar generation, none were as cunning in the art of manipulation as those of the automaking companies. Any vehicle of the era could, after all, transport a person from one place to another. But then there were cars that evidently made the owner younger. Stronger, richer, or smarter. More fun at the beach.

In the matter of cars and practically everything else, baby boomers were left with the unpuritanical idea that desire is at least as important as reality. And so an accurate memoir of a baby boomer has to include an equal accounting of each. The two should rightly be relabeled, though, in deference to that third parent of the baby boomer....

What You Wanted to Buy

Shelby AC Cobra 427 (1964-67) An utterly practical sports car ... for the nearest Grand Prix. Consisting largely of a Ford V-8 engine in a lightweight English chassis, the Cobra was so fast it hurt. Accelerating from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds, it left your head behind. Meanwhile, your stomach was flung somewhere on the side of the road when the car was going through turns at twice the posted limit. The Cobra was a sensation. For drivers coming of age in the 1960s, it has never quite been topped for performance in its purist form.

What You Ended Up Buying

MGB (1962-80) About one-fourth as expensive as the Cobra and one-third as quick, the MGB was a docile sports car that racked up more sales than any other foreign sports car (104,603 to, for example, the Cobra's 1,011). As a result, many a baby boomer owned a used MGB, if not a new one, somewhere along the way. It was relatively safe, handsome, and reliable (at least until the floor rusted away). But a docile sports car? In daydreams, that's a contradiction in terms.

What You Wanted to Buy

Plymouth Road Runner (1968-74) Back-yard mechanics in the postwar years coaxed extra power out of family cars by stoking the engines, widening the wheels, and bolting on as many parts as possible from the Edelbrock or J. C. Whitney catalogues. In response, Detroit started to offer souped-up "muscle cars" straight from the factory. The Plymouth Road Runner was admirable as one muscle car that always remained within reach, a fairly inexpensive car that couldn't be embarrassed by much when the light turned green. In honor of the Road Runner of cartoon fame, the car offered an optional horn that went "beep-beep."

What You Ended Up Buying

Honda Civic (1973-) To be a young hothead in the early 1970s, when practically anyone could afford a potent car like a Road Runner, new or used, what could be better? Almost anything. No sooner did the price of fast cars come down to a commodity level in the form of muscle cars than insurance companies soured the fun by raising rates on high-performance cars. Then the oil shortages of 1973 and '74 hit, the price of gas soared toward a dollar per gallon, and the fun was evidently all over. Compact cars rushed in to fill the void. Among them was the Honda Civic, an intelligently planned, solid little car that offered a kind of dignity amid the chaos.

What You Wanted to Buy

Porsche 911 (1964-) The Porsche 911 is like no other car, particularly in two respects that matter most to the slightly rapacious type of baby boomer. First, the limits of the car are all but impossible to find. No matter how well one drives it, with whatever degree of bodacious precision, the Porsche is still the teacher. …

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