Monday, November 10, 2003

The Auto Show

I spent the afternoon at the South Florida International Auto Show that’s at the Miami Beach Convention Center (historical footnote – it’s where Nixon received the Republican nomination in 1968 and where my commencement ceremony from the University of Miami was held in 1974). I spent most of the time today as a volunteer keeping watch over the Memory Lane exhibit, which is a collection of 23 classic cars from the South Florida Region Antique Auto Club of America, of which I am a member. The cars range from a 1927 Packard to a 1972 AMC Gremlin, each one a Best-In-Show quality. The fun part was watching the reactions of the crowd – older people would stop and say, “I had one of those,” or a teenager would look at the 1967 Camaro Indy Pace car or the 1970 Dodge Challenger T/A or the 1965 Mustang GT coupe and say, somewhat wistfully, “Those musta been fun cars to drive,” to which I would nod and say, “Yeah, they are.”

I took some time to look at the new models on display, and while the new cars are dazzling with their electronic wizardry and sleek forms, these cars seem to be lacking a certain panache, a flair for style. That’s it, I think. Cars today are engineered, not styled. Yes, they run longer – it’s no great deal if a car turns over 100,000 miles; heck, my 1988 Pontiac 6000 wagon has 237,000 miles on it. But the style is gone.

When I was a kid, I used to wait excitedly for the day when the new cars would be unveiled in September – it was a huge deal at the dealerships. Days before the Big Day the car carriers would roll into town with the new cars under wraps, and the storage lots would be fenced off so that no one could catch a glimpse at the new models. In the 50’s and 60’s, model change-over was a very big deal – kids knew a 1964 Ford from a 1964 Chevy a block away. Nowadays you couldn’t tell one apart from the other if you were standing next to them, and they all look like they were copied from the Japanese cars. That’s another thing – growing up so close to Detroit, it was considered a sin to own a “foreign” car. Now, Japanese cars are built in Ohio and Pontiac GTO’s come from Australia. (Even my wagon was built in Canada.) Model change-over happens with no fanfare, and the only way you can tell a 2003 from a 2004 is to look at the registration.

I know cars today are safer, more reliable, and certainly cleaner and more efficient than the cars in Memory Lane. But if Cadillac can build an SUV, a pick-up, and a station wagon (they don’t call it a station wagon, but trust me, it is), then maybe they can put some style back in them while they’re at it. There is some hope. The “retro” look has been catching on; the PT Cruiser, the Ford Thunderbird, the Chevrolet SRS, and the next-generation Mustang all pay tribute to their forebearers. Let’s hope that’s a trend that flourishes.

Now if they can just get gas back down to 35 cents a gallon…