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.
This was a great post. At 48 years old, I can get a lot of what Thomas says as far as diminished expectations. I think we knew that we were just not measuring up to the greatest generation. My father, 49 years old at my birth and a WW II vet grew up poor and died having achieved security. He was self taught but had far more book learning than myself, despite my PhD. Where his children fell short, it was not from lack of instruction or opportunity. The greatest generation had no time for despair and it’s accompanying lack of motivation. The baby boomers just did not have to struggle as much and got it easy. This lessened their achievement and the legacy they are passing on.
I love the picture of your Shelby Charger. My first car was a Plymouth Turismo with the NA 2.2 Built off an American owned French platform, the car was transformed by American styling and good old cubic inches. The French versions after all, were running pushrod 1.4 liters.
A better example of international collaboration than the Japanese who redesigned their cars to go after the heart of our market. Who would have thought in 1985 that a decent Accord would be transformed in 5 years to an A body competitor. And that the baby boomers would be so happy to welcome them in and displace the big three. At least Reagan required USA assembly but where were the baby boomers to defend a great industry.
I enjoyed that Thomas.
It’s good to read your stuff again.
Now there is a name I haven’t seen in a long while! Where are you writing these days?
I also like your Shelby, I have 2, an 86 bought new, and an 84 I bought in 2016. Being a boomer, it surprises some folks that I like these little road terrors having caught the leftovers of the muscle cars (got my license in 73). Even back then I preferred American iron, though I did build a couple of B110 (named here as the 1200) Datsuns. The 80’s definitely saw the gradual return of performance in cars, and now we are at about the pinnacle I think for an ICE.
Great article. I remember those Shelby Chargers well, because I had the snap kit as a kid. It’s still in a box somewhere. It was molded in metallic blue and pretty detailed.
I think this is a good looking car .
I’ve never driven one but would enjoy trying one out for size .
As usual, a thoughtful and well written article .
If you don’t like Baby Boomers, get off your ass like I did and do better, don’t make B.S. insults because you’re lazy .
I’m an uneducated Boomer who made damn sure my Son had every opportunity to get ahead even though we lived in shit holes .
Not surprisingly, he has zoomed far ahead of anything I have ever done .
Now, GET OFFA MY LAWN DAMMIT =8-) .
Your son is the classic “stands on the shoulders of giants.” I remind myself of that same thing every time I get to feeling really good about how far I’ve come.
From what you’ve written about yourself over the years, I imagine you are a lot like my dad was. He was raised as the son of a Kansas dirt farmer and learned to work on telephone when he was in the Air Force in the 1950s. When he left the service, he went right into the field back home and started building a life. for himself. When he’d gone as far as he could at home, he moved the family out to Washington State and started over. He worked all the time – as many hours of overtime as he could – and then came home and worked some more. Every one of his five children saw that example and every one of us have gone on to live successful, productive lives. He set the example and we followed. You’ve done the same for your son, Nate, and if he hasn’t told you how great you are yet, he needs to.
I don’t know any giants he stood upon .
Don’t be too impressed by the things I do, I lost three foster boys this year in spite of my best efforts .
If you saw the hovel I live in you’d wonder what the heck .
I’m not stupid but nothing special either .
I am on the young end of Gen X and I hate those fucking cars. I hate the Dodges, C4s,whatever generation of Camaro and Mustang that is, I hate the 300Zs from that era, I hate the MkIII Supra, the FC RX-7, I hate all of them. I don’t think I liked anything that wasn’t pre-smog until maybe the Miata and Z32 Z and even them I didn’t like all that much. Probably not until the FD and MkIV did I care for any new cars.
Hey, hey I have an FC RX-7 convertible.
It is a great chassis married to a terrible motor.
I don’t dislike them as much as the others but I have a particular animus towards them. Not long after I got my license a family friend was visiting and he implied that he would let me take his FC for a spin but I never got to. Years later I found out he had a bit of a problem with the drink so he probably didn’t remember offering but it really soured me on them for a long time. Conversely the FD is one of my all time favorites even though I generally don’t care for Japanese cars.
The 90’s are when everything started turning around: Acura Integra, Lotus, Honda Civic S… my kids (ages 26 to 35) all learned to drive on a ’64 Chevy C-10 truck, but most of them owned Toyotas or Hondas or Hyundais in high school (with the exception of my son’s oddball ’68 Ford Galaxie hotrod). Two of them have since owned BMW’s, my second son owns GM trucks, and the youngest has a Toyota Tacoma. So, their nostalgia is for Porsche Boxsters and 90’s Corvettes, and they have never heard of British sport cars, and Alfa Romeo is a foreign word to their generation.
Thomas, you should enjoy these photos: http://www.carsindepth.com/?tag=shelby-dodge
Nice essay Thomas. To some extent every generation thinks the previous ones were either better or had it easier or both, in part because the things that survive from those generations tend to be the best of their time. The pristine Hemi Chargers, Boss Mustangs, Fuelie Corvettes, Z-28 Camaros, 409 SS Impalas that dominate the auctions and cars and coffee events of today lead people to think that they represent the “average” car of the baby boomer generation, when the reality is most boomers drove something closer to a rusty 4 door Nova and Falcon with tired 6 cylinder power, heater, and AM radio. Same with sitcoms, movies, and music – only the good stuff gets repeated on Nick and Night, or TCM, or oldie radio stations, while the garbage of the time is seldom seen or heard. The big problem for cars during a good part of the 1970s to 90s is that most automakers did not offer the halo equivalent of a Hemi Charger or 409 Impala, but the “everyday” stuff was certainly better than the everyday stuff offered in the 50s and 60s – I’ll take a 80s K-car or A-Body over a 1960s “everyday” 4 door Chevelle or Belvedere any day of the week, but of course none of them are as good as a modern Civic or Cruze.
This is spot on. The artifacts that tend to get passed own are usually the best or the coolest – I don’t see many Ford Pintos these days but they were sold in the hundreds of thousands over the course of their production run. The same is true for pop culture, which selects for the best and lets the rest slip silently away.
The oddest thing to me is nostalgia. It’s our own brains playing tricks on us. We smooth out or gloss over the rough parts and build up the good times. I wonder how future generations will handle it when they have chips implanted in their heads that record everything as it happens…
A car show without fuzzy dice, oldies music, poodle skirts or stuffed Tigers/Roadrunners?
Count me in!
The only problem is you have orca-fat creeper Brad Brownell trying to basically steal the “RAD” logo and artwork from the original movie, doubly ironic because the only way anybody in his family is going to go up a quarterpipe is if there’s a jelly donut nailed to the vert transition.
This article made me happy that others may share a similar perspective. I am a Generation X’er who owned a Daytona Shelby Z. Also spent a lot of time driving around with a WWII Purple Heart decorated Navy Medic who was at Normandy and also in the Pacific on the USS Intrepid. He connected me with the post war middle-class prosperity. I used to laugh as he steadfastly refused to let the small Japanese and German cars merge in front of his Buick or Mercury. Steelworkers and Railroaders from Pittsburgh were none to kind to the foreign econoboxes. That the small cars seemed to be better on gas, and overall, while stealing market share and jobs certainly didn’t help. That high tax, high interest, and low growth era was in many ways a paradox of our current situation. Low tax, low interest, high growth, and amazing automotive products. Memories of that era and my “kick the can” mentality don’t allow this, and I suspect many awkwardly introspective Generation Xers, to participate in the current new car horsepower bonanza, despite the financial wherewithal to do so. Some of my less tenured and less financially secure colleagues, aka, millennials, have no problem borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars for giant homes and these new and perfect cars. Oh well, off to eBay or wherever to browse, and not buy some older yet nostalgically perfect old cars, like yours!
Great article Thomas as usual. And thank you Jack for giving him a place to write.