I’m one of those people who think engineers will save the world. I think it was Thomas Malthus who said the population will die out because you can only feed ten people on an acre of land, and as the population grows, people will starve to death. Well, now you can feed something like a thousand people on an acre of land. The air is cleaner than when I was a kid, the water is cleaner, things are safer. When I came to Los Angeles, there were 160 days a year when they told people not to go outside. Obviously, it’s not perfect yet, but we must have 10 times as many cars as we had 50 years ago, with maybe a tenth of the pollution.
I have a Tesla P90D. It’s one of the fastest-accelerating four-door sedans you can buy. When I was a kid, that would maybe have been the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3, and that used fossil fuel (a lot of it). I get in the Tesla, and it requires zero maintenance, there are no fluids to change, except maybe brake fluid every couple of years, and you change the tires once in a while, but that’s about it. And it’s one of the fastest cars I own. It is for all intents and purposes pretty close to a perfect vehicle.
Yet people are so pessimistic. You hear it all the time among guys my age: I’m glad I was born in an earlier time when things were better. Well, they are only pessimistic because they’re old. It’s fair to say that every major manufacturer is building the best cars they’ve ever built. The Mustang Shelby GT350R is the greatest Mustang ever made. It handles like a real sports car, it revs to 8250 rpm—it is basically a Ferrari motor in a Ford. If you had said to us 30 years ago that you’d be able to buy a Mustang with a four-cam, four-valve, 8250-rpm, 526-hp engine, we’d have said you’re crazy.
To me, the perfect car would not pollute at all—it would be tremendously exciting to drive, and it would be technically interesting. A lot of people think the McLaren F1 was perfect, but perfect for what? Perfect for delivering a driving experience, sure. But even though I have an F1 and it’s a fantastic vehicle, I can accelerate quicker, have better handling, and be safer in the newer McLaren P1, which has a hybrid-electric powertrain that makes it cleaner and more efficient.
You can enjoy the old stuff and embrace the new. It’s better now for car restoration than it’s ever been. I remember going to car shows and seeing Packards win with three bald black tires and one whitewall because they were the only tires the guy could find. And you got points because at least you made the effort to find the original-size tire. Nowadays, you call an 800 number to get whatever you need. To me, the greatest boon in car restoration has been 3D printing. You can now make pretty much anything. The idea of going through junkyards to find a piece of script that says “Bonneville” for your ’69 Pontiac is almost impossible. The junkyards don’t exist anymore, and the cars have been crushed up and sold for scrap. But now you can go home and make one, and it’s as good as the original, and it can even have the original numbers on the piece you’re making, because you’re making an exact copy. That’s fascinating to me.
When I started my shop, if we needed a piece we couldn’t find, somebody would have to make a mold, and that was maybe $2500. Now it’s 3D printed, and it costs $15, and you can make it in cobalt steel if you want.
My 1925 Doble steam car comes with a manual that has a section that starts, “Things for your man to do every day.” Every day! “Turn each grease cup after driving one-quarter turn,” and so on. A Duesenberg needs an oil change every 700 miles, my 1918 Cadillac, every 125 miles. Meanwhile, we have a Chevy Volt here at the shop with 89,000 miles on it, of which only 3200 were driven on gas. We’ve never fixed anything on it, and we’ve changed the oil once. That’s tremendous progress.
In the next issue I’ll talk about one downside of progress, but if you ask me if the best car that will ever be made has already been made, I’ll say no, I don’t believe it has. It is still out there in the mind of an engineer, and, boy, has she got some great ideas.