Long Read Rewind: Fall 2017
It was a very good year, a very good year for cars of every kind. And most of us didn’t even notice. We were having too much fun in our cars to realize that everything about cars was about to change.
Wide-ranging government emissions and safety regulations would soon be in effect. Higher bumpers and uncovered headlamps were on the way, as were air pumps and other rudimentary anti-pollution equipment. But in 1967, we got one final moment of how-things-used-to-be.
I was a dyed-in-the-Harris-Tweed-wool British sports car aficionado driving an underpowered and drafty MGA. But, damn, it could make 40 mph feel like 120 in the S-bends! Of course, secretly I yearned (as did every lusty young American male) for a date-bait Corvette C2 Sting Ray. This was the star performer in the postwar drama of American exuberance. Trimmed of the flimflam from GM’s 1950s styling playbook, the Sting Ray’s go-to-hell spirit remained intact. I didn’t know it was on its farewell tour.
The 1968 C3 “Shark” Corvette would be undeniably handsome and visually up-to-date. But it was a more ponderous statement of the Vette ethos. Like a lot of things in the late 1960s, it took up too much psychic space. I should have cashed in my college education and bought a ’67. Back at the St. Louis assembly plant there was a further upside for the final Sting Rays: engines from 327-cu-in and 300 horsepower to the mighty L88 427, conservatively rated at 430 horsepower.
Shelby’s Cobra was also bowing out. Neither the awesome 289 nor the fearsome 427 would outlast Carroll Shelby’s relationship issues with Ford.
Car lovers should have staged an intervention and sent them to couples counseling for the sake of the children. The mating of AC Ace beauty with Ford brawn bred offspring so appealing that Autokraft and other specialty manufacturers were still trying to adopt them 30 years later. But FoMoCo divorced Shelby in ’67, although—with an eye on getting as much alimony as possible—they kept his name after the separation.
This was even more of a shame because the ’67 Mustang redesign cured the pony-car cute, took the car out of the typing pool target market, and made it the right gift-wrapped package for the Shelby GT350 and GT500. After 1967, Shelby American ceased to be the Santa’s workshop for the Mustang GTs.
The revised Mustang was aimed at the same market as Chevy’s new Camaro, which could also be engine up to make it anything from a coma-inducing commuter to a drag strip dervish. The 1967 Camaro was also maybe the handsomest-ever GM car. The styling was Italianate and, if a little retro, only in a comforting way—a whiff of Ferrari 250 GT Europa home cooking.
For my beloved British sports cars, 1967 was the pinnacle year. It was all downhill after that. I was about to lose many of the cars that I daydreamed about owning. That is, when I wasn’t smoking something and I was daydreaming realistically. Four-cylinder Triumphs, Morgan Plus Fours, Sunbeam Tigers, and the best of the MGBs were, in my reveries, taking their final leak on my driveway.
Looking back, with heartbreak, I see the final year of design and performance purity for the Jaguar XKE.
The Series I E-type, with its Mona Lisa pout grille, long-legged hood and “Sophia Loren in sunglasses” covered headlamps, was the prettiest thing that anyone who wasn’t a millionaire could buy. Sporting big triple SUs and 265 horsepower, it could reach a top speed of 150 mph. For one last time, Americans—admittedly Americans who had more in their pockets than I did—could savor the best British vehicle since Boudicca’s chariot mowed down occupying Roman legions in 60 AD.
But what truly shocked those of us who waved from our sports car at anyone else driving another sports car was the demise of the Austin-Healey 3000 Mk III.
The 3000 was so essential to the sports car concept of sportiness that each one seemed to come equipped with open-knuckle driving gloves, a flat cap, a Liberty of London headscarf, and an attractive couple to wear them.
Just to see that lucky pair in their sleek roadster lifted the heart in 1967. But how would they get from their country club to their beach house in 1968? I hate to think of them taking the bus.
To add indignity to end-of-an-era gloom, the Austin-Healey wasn’t even a casualty of safety concerns or emission controls. It just got lost in the shuffle when British Motor Holdings merged with British Leyland.
Also on its last visit to America was that tiny elf with giant charm, the Mini, which couldn’t meet any U.S. emissions or safety standards. Even back in the UK, where the car remained in production for the rest of the century, the Mini was noted for lack of passive safety features and threat of engine intrusion during collisions. It was a little engine, but more than you wanted in your lap.
Another goner was the Alfa Romeo Spider. I was personally so madly in love with the boattail 1600 Duetto that I was deeply offended when it was portrayed as unreliable in the Dustin Hoffman movie The Graduate. After 50 years, I still refuse to see the movie again.
Due to a friend of mine who was a lot happier about being a rich kid than Hoffman’s Benajmin Braddock, I got to drive a Duetto. Along with its perfect lines, it had splendid handling (if you didn’t mind some frame flex) and just enough power to scare me (though not too badly). Okay, okay, Alfas were unreliable, but not as unreliable as they would be when they returned to the U.S. market in 1969. The new Alfas had traded their twin Webers for fuel injection—Italian fuel injection.
However, 1967 wasn’t just a year of long goodbyes and damp-eyed partings. Although it was above my pay grade, the Porsche 911S was introduced with horsepower boosted from the standard 911’s 148 to 180. And the 911 Targa arrived, an unintended consequence of regulatory frenzy convincing carmakers that purely topless cars would be banned.
In a way, muscle cars were, like Targa tops, also an unintended consequence of federal regulation. American high-performance engines had attained such burly heft that they could withstand mandated PCV burdens, 72-percent reductions of tailpipe hydrocarbons, 56-percent reduction of carbon monoxide, and almost anything else Washington threw at them. Plus, muscle cars were big. You could crash test them to your heart’s delight. (And many young men did.)
Some fun things were getting started in 1967. Sports sedans were parked just around the corner. The BMW 2002 was introduced in ’67 as a ’68 model. Yet the very mention of “sedan” brings home the fact that forever after it would always seem as if a lid had been put on the fun. Why did the sky-high automotive euphoria of 1967 have to come to an end?
Ralph Nader took a lot of blame for his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed. Nader showed an utter incomprehension of why anything—including the Corvair he so famously savaged—was fun to drive. He showed a naïve surprise that highly mobile machinery with the power of 300 Budweiser Clydesdales could be dangerous.
The highly publicized 1966 congressional hearings about highway safety weren’t conducted by gearheads. Nor did we write the 1965 Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act that specified 1968 emission standards.
All output of crankcase hydrocarbons was banned. Anyone who has fumbled with a PCV valve knows positive crankcase ventilation isn’t just a matter of running a garden hose from the oil pan to the air cleaner.
But perhaps we car enthusiasts should be more forgiving. In fairness to legislators, the air in 1967 America stank. Los Angeles would get so thickly smogged that you couldn’t see the Pacific Ocean until you fell off the Santa Monica Pier. The number of cars on the road went from about 20 million in 1927 to more than 80 million four decades later.
Safety was more than a ‘fraidy-cat concern. U.S. motor vehicle deaths increased from 36,932 in 1957 to 50,724 in 1967. The mortality rate rose from 21.8 per 100,000 people to 25.5.
In 1967, there were 5.3 motor vehicle deaths for every million miles driven. By comparison, in 2015, the figure was down to 1.12 per million miles, and total vehicle deaths in a more populous and heavily trafficked nation were 35,092.
By 1967, cars had become something besides a pleasure. In the 1920s and ’30s, you wanted a car. In the 1940s and ’50s you needed a car. In the 1960s, you had to have a car or you’d be hitchhiking from your suburb to work, to the grocery store, and to your next-door neighbor’s house, if it was one of those suburbs with large lots.
Cars had become a utility—just the sort of thing you’d expect the government to regulate. There was nothing utilitarian about the cars I loved in 1967. Maybe they were even kind of useless. But I wish I could go back in time and do more of the useless things I used to do in every one of those cars. I’d cruise the burger stand in a Sting Ray that had all the personality I lacked back then. I’d rattle and squeak down country roads to nowhere in a Morgan with a wooden frame less sophisticated than your garden shed. I’d take the dancing and deportment lessons that mom wanted me to if it would make me one half of that couple in the Austin-Healey. I’d work my supermarket stock boy job eight days a week and all night too just to afford to dress well enough so that they’d even let me inside a Jaguar showroom. Then I’d go down the street and shoplift a Mini Cooper S and stick it in the pocket of my rented tux.
It’s not just nostalgia. Well, maybe it is for me. I was 20 in 1967. There‘s a glow around the memory of things when you were 20. But people who wouldn’t be born for another generation love the cars of 1967. They look at a Shelby Cobra from 50 years ago and get a feeling I never got from a 1917 Ford Model T Speedster.
Cars are better today, cleaner and safer, far more reliable, easier to drive at high speed and, in many cases, faster and more powerful as well. But enough complications have been added to make a shade tree mechanic use his tree to hang himself. And quirkiness has been subtracted. The science of aerodynamics and the ease of computer modeling has calmed styling. High-tech electronics have soothed manic—and depressive—mechanical traits. Modern automobiles are high-functioning, but they’re on Prozac. Back in 1967, the cars were crazy good.