I’ve been watching with great interest as the photos from Jalopnik’s recent ‘Radwood” ‘80s and ‘90s car show come trickling out over the internet. I’m happy to see that, after years of being overshadowed by the cars of the earlier decades, cars of this era are finally getting some love. As a member of Generation X, I feel a special kinship with these cars and it’s not just because they were the cars I drove and/or lusted after back in the day. No, it’s because I have, over the years, come to realize that when I look at these cars I am looking into a mirror.
To understand why, you have to consider what came before and how the cars of every era are the sum total of the people’s desires and aspirations in combination with the technological abilities and the economic realities of the times. It explains why the cars of the thirties were more advanced than those that came before but still necessarily austere. The cars of the ’40s, at least for those few years when people weren’t actively working to destroy one another, continued this trend while the cars of the 1950s flourished in the buoyant post-war economy. Cars flirted again with austerity in the early 1960s but then shifted to serve the growing youth market later that decade. In the ‘70s many of the cars targeted at the Boomers grew bigger and more luxurious as that generation came of age, but grew less powerful as the insurance industry demanded better safety, as the government demanded better emissions, and as the Arabs demanded more of the money in Americans’ wallets.
It is important to notice how, prior to that era, the auto industry had been more than willing change up the sheet metal every couple of years while piling on the cubic inches under the hood in an effort to give people faster and more powerful, but not necessarily more advanced, cars. There had been no real external force working on industry to ensure technological development and, instead, the manufacturers had focused on style. For example, I still believe that the 1974 Chevrolet Nova coupe I drove as a teen is a work of art, but beneath the sheet metal with its 250 cubic inch in-line six, its three-on-the-tree transmission and its utter lack of any power options, it was positively agricultural and would not have presented any surprises to the average mechanic had it appeared in their service bay back in 1934. So it was for most cars of that era.
The changes the ‘70s demanded found their full effect in the ’80s. Through the lens of nostalgia it’s easy to think of the ‘80s as good fun and, if one looks at the pop culture of the times, that certainly appears to be the case. The truth is, however, that that times were hard and America was in the doldrums. The watershed events of the previous decade, the unhappy end of the war in Vietnam and Watergate scandal, had left the country deeply divided and our attempts to return to simpler times in the latter part of the decade, through the election of Washington outsider Jimmy Carter, had been dashed by stagflation and the paralysis of the Iran Hostage Crisis. There was a feeling that the country was out of options and sliding towards the abyss. Every day brought something worse and we weren’t sure if we could ever get back on our feet.
We know today that things did get better, but having lived through the times, I can tell you that it was a long hard slog. And the truth is that the real world conditions we endured are better reflected by the shape and function of the cars we bought than the ebullience of the songs you still hear played on the radio today. Like fat men gone serious after a brush with a heart attack, the land yachts of the ’70s went on crash diets that left them short of breath and trapped in lighter but oddly shaped bodies. Chrysler, as close to death as a company can get, was brought back by a last minute miracle that left it forever changed as the K-car and its progeny gave America exactly what it wanted in a domestic car – cheap, undramatic practicality in plain brown wrapper. For other companies, the changes weren’t so drastic but, in the face of foreign competition, their cars also got a lot leaner but in no way meaner over the years.
And while the domestics suffered, the foreign automakers who had grown up in austere environments felt the benefits of the good habits hardship can bring and it was their rise that provided real hope to the car enthusiasts of the day. By the ‘90s the Japanese were entirely ascendant. Japan’s booming economy pushed their technology beyond the reach of all but the highest-end American cars which, even then, often resorted to adding cubic inches and burning more gas in an attempt to offer similar performance numbers. They were reliable and efficient and most of the Japanese companies offered more than one car in that magical place where sportiness met affordability. Perhaps that’s why they are still so loved and why they were so well represented at Jalopnik’s Radwood. Through them, we were healed.
The cars of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Generation X, were born into a world of diminishing expectations. I know that this is something the Generation Y-ers out there who struggle as they find their own place in the world don’t want to hear, but it’s eminently true. Generation X has its roots in the good, simpler days of the past and, although we got the slightest taste of those better times in our earliest years, we came of age in a time where there was little left over for us. The new times demanded a new survival strategy and, like the cars of the ‘80s, our lives are built on being just good enough to get a few more miles – and a few more years – down the road. We endured by constantly kicking the can a few steps ahead and then walking to it until we finally reached a place that, while maybe not as verdant as the place the Baby Boomers occupied, was as good as we were going to get.
And although my generation may appear happy, we are not. Our dissatisfaction lies just below the surface and if I hear on more member of Generation Y complaining about how hard they have it I’m going to have an apoplectic fit. We had to struggle for every step forward and we earned our place at the table. Now that we are here, it is time for the objects that best represent us to be shown alongside those of the generations that came before.
Radwood was a festival for us. It was a Woodstock for the car guys of the ‘80s and the ‘90s and an announcement that we too will now have our place in the sun. The time is right and the people are ready. Three years ago when the Leavenworth Cruisers welcomed me, an outsider in town for only a year, to their Friday night meets at the Market Square, they were a little dismayed when I parked my Shelby alongside another member’s stunning 1966 Charger. Still, they were a gracious lot and they welcomed me and my little car, so out of place among their own, into that special circle. And while the vast majority of people who visited those shows had no idea about what to think when they saw my little Dodge, plenty of guys my own age did. Occasionally I would catch their eye as they looked at the little car’s angular lines and diminished size and, in that moment when we recognized one another, all the hopes, aspirations and hardships of our generation flashed between us. We may not have got everything we wanted but, like the cars, we have endured.