Avoidable Contact #60: To make cars better, we’ll need to make them much worse

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Nissan Datsun Luxury Competitors Comparison Advert
Jack Baruth

If you won the $700 million Powerball or whatever it’s up to at the moment, what would you do? I know what I’d do—I would quit racing cars. Isn’t it obvious why? No? Do you think that perhaps you would start racing cars if you won that kind of money, even though you absolutely would not? Alright, bear with me for a moment.

I’ve been racing wheel-to-wheel for a decade and a half. Spent twice the price of my house doing it, in exchange for a shelf of five-dollar trophies and two short appearances on cable television. I’ve seen the LifeFlight arrive at my sessions a half-dozen times, watched a fellow competitor die a hundred feet away from me, stood in silence while another one died in the helicopter. In 2015 I got turned by an out-of-control E30 BMW then center-punched at 80+ mph by that same car. The video shows my helmet bouncing between rollcage bars at the carefree speed of a dog’s wagging tail. The year after, I exited the uphill Esses at Watkins Glen backwards and missed a deadly impact by maybe 18 inches. I’m moving to an open-cockpit car for this season, which will no doubt end in some sort of tears.

Why do it? The answer is simple: Like many men of my largely-forgotten generation and oft-reviled background, I have almost nothing to lose. A wife who doesn’t need my money, a young son who could make better use of my insurance payout than he does of my frustratingly oracular attempts at moral guidance and bass-guitar instruction, a cohort of ex-girlfriends who would welcome the opportunity to wear a snazzy funeral dress. Having broken my neck and back on bikes, I’m not exactly gonna be Fred Astaire in retirement, in which I’d be dirt-poor anyway because I’ve been “investing” in Edward Green spectator shoes rather than in the Magellan Target Date 2035 Emerging Dictatorships And Rhino Horn Powder Fund. Keep that in mind the next time you’re next to me on the run down Mid-Ohio’s back straight and considering our respective brake points, why dontcha?

If I won $700 million tomorrow, though … well, things would change. I could tour the world’s beaches and nightclubs in delightful early retirement, accompanied by a dedicated medical team, two full-time tailors, and all remaining members of the Doobie Brothers. I couldn’t afford to get my son into Formula 1, but we could definitely manage an IMSA prototype seat. I’d have enough time to finish my autobiography and enough money to defend it in court. I would have so many options, so many opportunities, so much limitless pleasure to anticipate. In such a felicitous situation, what kind of fool would get into an SCCA P-class car and play chicken into the first turn? Who would take that risk, with so much to lose?

The answer, of course, is that many people do have those kinds of resources and do take those risks anyway—but I’ve been racing against the #Blessed crowd for a long time now and I’ve noticed they are simply more cautious than we are down here in the cheap seats. Having money makes the future feel more … real, somehow. (The reverse is also true; people who can delay gratification and look to the future are also more successful over time than people who put race cars on credit cards and quit VP-level financial-industry jobs because said jobs interfere with a Friday qualifying session, thus leading them into the sort of downward spiral which ends with them writing this column.) The more of a future you have, the more you’re likely to act in a manner which protects that future.

The advertisement at the top of this column comes from a 1979 issue of OMNI magazine, which I was perusing last week; it’s for the Datsun 810. Ah, those halcyon days when you could walk into a crummy little Datsun dealership and order yourself up an inline-six, rear-wheel-drive, manual-transmission, Japanese car in all sorts of instant-fade colors! Which would you choose? The five-speed coupe is the pick of the litter for me. About the size of a modern Corolla, 500 pounds lighter, not really much less powerful. It’s the one you’d want to restore today, I think.

You’ll search in vain for its equivalent in showrooms now. I have a pair of Accord V-6 stick-shift coupes which aren’t too far off, but they’re mid-sizers, and the 810 was a big car for the time. The Acura Legend Coupe was probably the last of that breed, and it’s been gone for … uh … 25 years. Incidentally, those Legend Coupes are also the pick of the collector’s litter among full-size Japanese cars. So if the 810 coupes were the best 810s, and the Legend Coupes are the most collectible Legends, why can’t you get a modern take on that formula today?

I think it comes down to durability and price. The Nissan Maxima you can buy today has none of that old 810 coupe’s charm, but it will last much longer in regular service. The average age of the car on the American road nowadays is 11.8 years. When Datsun introduced the 810 coupe for the 1980 model year, the average was 6.8 years. Not only were cars less durable, they were also considerably cheaper; about 60–75 percent of today’s prices, adjusted for inflation. A Datsun 210 was $14K in today’s money, compared to a new Sentra at nearly 20 grand.

The new-car buyer of 40 years ago, therefore, was spending less money and getting something which wouldn’t last as long. In other words, his choice had less future to it. There was less risk involved. He might decide to buy the 810 coupe instead of the more practical sedan, knowing that in two or three years he’d be back in the market for something else. Today’s customer, confronted with cars which often feel close to brand-new at the six-year mark and also facing a payment term out to 72 or 84 months, has a greater sense of the future. Might as well get that automatic-transmission CR-V. Just in case our needs change between now and six years from now. We’d hate to be in a situation where we needed an SUV (if, in fact, one is ever truly needed) but we were still “upside down” on a coupe or convertible.

Longer vehicle life cycles and ownership terms also lead to a bit of option/package frenzy: If we are going to keep this truck for seven years, why not get the LTZ instead of the LT, or the High Country instead of the LTZ, or the Denali instead of the High Country? Even Toyota buyers, who have long been by car-dealer anecdotal acclamation the most parsimonious of customers, are starting to crank up the trim-level mix. This, in turn, leads to higher prices, which lead to longer ownership terms, which encourages customers to buy “more car.” And go round and round and round in the circle game.

It’s true that more customers are leasing than ever before, which should make them more carefree in their choices—but what really happens is that the banks control the residual and money factors to encourage the acquisition of conservatively-designed, resale-auction-friendly vehicles. Even if your eye isn’t on the future, the eye of your loan officer is firmly fixed there. When I bought my first Accord Coupe, I was told that the lease rate would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of $550/month. At the time, the same car with four doors and an automatic transmission was on a $289/month program. The MSRP was about the same. But the bank didn’t want no freaky-lookin’ two-door clutch-pedal cars crossing the auction block on their dime.

All of this leads to a frustrating, but truthful, conclusion: The only way we are going to see the return of interesting cars is if those cars get significantly worse. If your next vehicle was only expected to last two or three years, you’d buy whatever struck your fancy at the time, the same way that most of us don’t buy our clothing (or food) on the basis of resale value. Bad cars would be bad, of course, but they would also be fun. It would also help if they were cheaper than they are now.

There’s a chance of this coming to pass, and that chance is battery-powered. The reader would be forgiven for not knowing this, given the extravagant pricing and tax subsidies attached to electric cars at the present time, but a fully-mature electric-car design should be significantly less expensive to build than its internal-combustion equivalent. Everything about them, with the sole and serious exception of the batteries, is easier and cheaper to design and implement. In markets where battery life is irrelevant, like scooters and whatnot, this is already proven to be the case. A few years ago, I bought a top-ranked electric motocross bike for my son, followed by a 50cc gasoline equivalent. The latter was four times as expensive. They have similar performance in virtually all respects except for one: what happens when the energy on hand runs out.

I’m not a big fan of the “electric singularity,” and you’ll need to apply some nontrivial force to get me out of gas-powered cars, but I do like the possibilities ahead for cheap-and-cheerful choices in the battery-powered automotive market. We could see the return of sports cars, convertibles, full-sized coupes, all sorts of stuff. It won’t have the same charm or the same spirit as today’s gas-powered cars, so were I you I’d go ahead and buy the “real” cars you want while you still can. That’s what I’m going to do; I’m out here buying race cars, motorcycles, old Mercury Grand Marquis coupes. Everything but a lottery ticket. After all, I can’t win if I don’t play—and if I don’t win, I can keep playing.

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