Avoidable Contact #134: How Bonzo’s sidekick killed the mass-produced mid-engined car

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I was doing 90 miles per hour, and I was moving out of the left lane, but not fast enough. The car behind me took a little swerve onto the shoulder in order to hasten the passing maneuver, followed by a little swing towards my side mirror on the way by. Total Spec Miata move: dip a wheel off for the pass then give a little shove afterwards to make it stick. But while I am certainly the very model of a modern majorly generic racer, the driver overtaking me appeared to be a woman of more-than-Spec-Miata-compatible-size in her mid-50s, holding her iPhone in her left hand and using her right to flail at the steering wheel with a ferocity that would have pleased Ahab. The stickers on the back of her RAV4, which set my Lincoln lightly swaying in its 917K-on-the-Mulsanne-esque wake, proclaimed that she was a “dog mom” and that she was ready and willing to enlist new people in her multi-level candle marketing organization.

There was no way she wasn’t doing at least 100 mph. Naturally, in this moment I thought of Stanley, Viscount Buckmaster, who in 1932 told Parliament, “It really is of no use blaming the drivers too heavily for [speeding], because if you have got a well constructed car, with pneumatic tyres, driving over a smooth road, to tell from your own experience what pace it is that it is going is an absolute physical impossibility.” The situation to which he was referring went something like this: The speed limit for motor coaches in the UK was 30 mph, but many of those coaches had the capability to travel at 40–45 mph. What they did not have was a speedometer. Lord Buckmaster’s thoughts on this, together with the responses, constitute an outstanding example of how the Western world was governed in its most civilized era. The clarity with which he and his opponents marshal, organize, and deploy their thoughts appears to be utterly beyond today’s degraded and autocratic lawmakers.

That aside, the consequence of this and many other discussions in Parliament on the same topic was that England assigned a 30-mph limit in “built-up areas,” but removed all speed limits from the nation’s dedicated motorways. This persisted until 1965, when a national speed limit of 70 mph was introduced. Prior to that, you could go just as fast as you liked on limited-access roads. To a certain extent, the same was true in the United States during the post-war era, though there was far more permitted variation in speed limits across states and municipalities.

So. You can go as fast as you want. How fast do you go?

With the exception of the occasional fellow stretching his E-Type or Corvette out to somewhere north of 130 mph, the common answer appears to have been: not very. On the other side of the pond, the typical family car couldn’t accelerate with any sort of verve; over here, it couldn’t stop very well. And in no cases were the tires up to much in the way of high speed. No doubt many of our readers have first-hand recollection of highway speeds in, say, 1950, but your humble author is only able to collate and average what I’ve been told, so I’d say that most people rarely went any faster than 60 mph for any reason. The 1960 Ford Prefect, a car so popular in the UK that Douglas Adams made it a joke in his Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, had a top speed of 73 mph on level ground. Getting to that velocity would take the best part of a minute.

Things were better here, but not much. The low-priced family cars from the Big Three were happiest below 70 mph. You’d need something really spiffy like a Turbo Corvair or Thunderbird to get too far past the 100 mark, and God help you if you needed to stop from that speed in any distance shorter than Idlewild’s Runway “D.”

This lack of over-the-road pace helps explain how Volkswagen made it big in the United States; having an effective cruising speed of 60–65 mph wasn’t that much of a problem if nobody around you was going any faster. Richard Nixon’s “temporary” mandate of the 55 mph double-nickel national maximum highway speed limit was just the icing on the cake. At that point, the automakers were free to build and sell dog-slow cars to their heart’s content. And thus it was until 1987, when the states were allowed to raise the limit on “rural” highways to 65 mph. In the decade that followed, federal regulations were further relaxed to the point that the states are essentially free to do what they like. Montana had a “reasonable and prudent” limit for a while that let people regularly do 100-plus mph during daylight hours, and Texas allows people to run 85 mph on certain roads today.

You can thank Ronald Reagan for that, by the way; it was at his insistence that the Federal Government returned speed limits to the states, one of the vanishingly rare times in human history where power was unilaterally grasped and then properly relinquished. How rare is such an occurrence? Well, the one Roman fellow to pull it off got a whole city in Ohio named after him.

Unfortunately, in doing so President Reagan also signed the death warrant for countless interesting and eclectic cars. In particular, he ended the very brief reign of the mid-engined van.

Question: What was the first minivan to go on sale in the United States?

No! It was not the Plymouth Voyager. It was the Toyota TownAce, sold here as just “Toyota Van,” and arriving in showrooms a few months before the famous Chrysler product. Of course, Toyota had a head start. It had been selling cabover vans, in which the driver sat above the front axle and the engine was located somewhere beneath and behind him, for two decades in Japan. Looking back, it seems odd that Toyota sold us the TownAce, which was its smaller commercial van, rather than the HiAce, which was essentially a Japanese version of the ’60s-era snubnose American vans, but at the time people really thought the size of the minivans was their selling point, rather than their ease of use, which was the actual selling point. A TownAce is 175 inches long, same as a 1984 standard-wheelbase Voyager.

Thanks to the cabover seating, the Toyota “Van” had quite a bit more usable space than did the Chrysler. Plus, it was a Toyota, and this was very much an era in which there was a palpable gap between domestic and Japanese reliability. It wasn’t uncommon for dealers to put 20 percent markup, or more, on the T-Vans. Some of them got a little more creative than that; they bought plain-Jane Toyota Vans with no seats, sent them to upfitters, and charged serious money for very, very inexpensively done conversions. So instead of letting you pay 12 grand for a “Wagon LE” with factory second- and third-row seating, the dealer would make you pay 14 grand for a $9500 cargo-grade van with a Superglued interior and a captain’s-chair/bench arrangement made out of cardboard and mouse fur. God help the families that got in a crash with children indifferently belted into those seats.

And crash they did, because the “Town” in “TownAce” was much more serious than, say, the “Town” in “Town Car.” Everything about these little vans was designed for low-speed urban duty. I have vague recollections of pinballing across lanes in a Toyota Van driven by the mother of a friend; it had 86 horsepower, 185-R14 tires, no anti-lock brakes, a short wheelbase, a decidedly unusual weight distribution, and styling that caught the wind better than an America’s Cup yacht. To do 70 mph in one required the same bravery as driving a Bugatti Chiron at 261 mph.

Scratch that. It required more.

Confronted with the possibility of imminent extinction in a Toyota Van or the thousand-cuts death of owning a Chrysler product, a lot of consumers decided to roll the dice and operate a vehicle where the crumple zone went back to the driver’s pelvis. Nissan and Mitsubishi brought their mini-boxes over a couple of years after Toyota did. To make their van more America-compatible, Nissan slapped in the 2.4-liter inline four that we know from the Hardbody truck and 240SX; the resulting Frankenvan caught fire with remarkable regularity. Mitsubishi put a 2.4 in its version as well, with less trouble, but by 1987 the dealers were already a little nervous about taking any inventory because the race on America’s highways was about to be on.

As speed limits increased, people did the sensible thing and bought cars that were more comfortable at speed. This meant more power, more size, and more “command seating position,” but fewer “feet ahead of the front wheels.” Toyota’s space-age Previa van went nowhere on the market, and Volkswagen’s EuroVan largely flopped because people thought it was a traditional VW Bus in a different outfit rather than the clean-sheet, front-engined effort it actually was.

By 1992, average traffic speeds in places like Chicago’s outer freeways were rapidly approaching 80 mph regardless of what the speed limit sign said. After making more than a dozen cross-country trips in the past 10 years, I’d say that the median open-road speed in this country starts off at 70–75 mph on the East Coast and increases as you go west. When I got my driver’s license, doing 62 mph on an Ohio freeway would get you a guaranteed ticket. Today the cops yawn at 82 and often don’t start ticketing until 90. In my last drive across Colorado, which happened five months ago, I often found myself doing 90 or more and still getting passed.

The aforementioned Viscount Buckmaster had this to say about toothless speed limits: “ … [T]he existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt. For that reason I was prepared to support the removal of the restriction. Nothing can be worse than that the law of this country should be universally disregarded and that courts of law should find themselves unable to secure its maintenance.” The Viscount didn’t live to see 1935, much less today’s bizarre legal climate of 2022 with its “decriminalizations” and “bail abolition” and whatnot; that’s fine, because we no longer deserve someone as clearheaded as he so obviously was. If you can’t enforce a speed limit, you shouldn’t have one. This goes double for the way speed limits are enforced in 2022, which is best described as “at random.”

Therefore, I would like to propose that the country adopt one of two different policies regarding highway speed limits. The first would be to have no limit whatsoever, but to automatically assign fault in an accident to the faster-moving vehicle. This is more or less how it’s done on certain sections of the German autobahn nowadays. Perhaps you could additionally say that “undertaking,” or passing on the right, is a reckless-op-level offense. No doubt you’d need a little more clarity on things like closing speed and whatnot. You don’t want people to run their Hellcats down the left lane at 150-plus flashing their lights at the poor RAV4 drivers who are only doing 105. It’s happening today in California and elsewhere, however, so it’s not like we are entirely avoiding that problem by having 70mph limits that are universally ignored.

My second policy suggestion is that we return to the 55 mph Nixon/Ford/Carter limit and enforce it vigorously. Like Ohio-in-1980 vigorous, or the way Virginia does it now if you’re unlucky enough to meet the wrong trooper. We treat speeding like a genuine and authentic crime, not an opportunity for public revenue collection. But at the same time, in recognition of our new safer-and-gentler motoring environment, we rewrite the infamous FMVSS to include a “non-compliant” class. What’s in the class? Everything fun. Side-by-sides. Kei cars. All those tiny vans you see used at resorts and on private property. If the vehicle is capable of reaching 55 mph on level ground, we clear it for freeway use. No exceptions. You want to drive a modern-day Isetta to work? Be my guest.

Without the de facto need to be capable of running at 85 mph with a Freightliner six inches off one’s back bumper, we could see a Pre-Cambrian explosion of diverse vehicles, many of which would be significantly smaller and cheaper than anything on sale today. They could be electric, gas-powered, diesel, you name it, who cares. Right now there are just two cars sold in America with under 100 horsepower: the Mirage and the Spark, which has 98 rated hp and in cold weather probably makes a hundred. Imagine how much cheaper cars could be if they didn’t need to weigh two tons and boast 200-plus horses as a bare minimum.

At the very least, we would see some more interesting vehicles for sale. I don’t believe that any sane person would claim that today’s car market is interesting. The vast majority of vehicles on the roads are either CR-V-style boxes or personally-owned pickup trucks, and there’s a reason for that: In today’s deeply atomized and lonely society, both of those vehicles promise that you will need no help from no one whatsoever as you live your solitary life traveling at a high rate of speed made less obvious by an elevated seating position. What if we all went a little slower, a little smaller, a little weirder?

Those of my readers who practice as attorneys are perhaps surprised that I have not brought up the most famous quote from Viscount Buckmaster. In an English lawsuit regarding a woman who was made sick by drinking a milkshake containing a decomposed snail, he referred to a precedent-setting previous case as “tabula in naufragio,” or “a plank in a shipwreck.” In many ways, the situation on today’s roads feels like a shipwreck, or at least the moment before one: vehicles that are larger and faster than ever before, being operated by people who have never been less qualified, more distracted, or more uninterested in the process of driving. There are many planks in this shipwreck, from the moronic enactment of CAFE that kicked Middle America out of cars and into trucks, to a set of Federal vehicle standards that have drastically raised the price of all vehicles to the point where you might as well spend 20 percent more to get the biggest and fastest one. If we want to return a diversity of function, appearance, and capability to an automotive market that solely needs it, we should start talking about pulling those planks up, and sooner rather than later. At the very least, I’d like to see what IMSA calls a “BoP” on those 105-mph RAV4s. As another great European man once said, “All the time you have to leave a space!”

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