Boomers and Cars in 1971

It’s hard to believe 1971 was fifty years ago, but time is marching on. Mister Boomer remembers 1971 in many ways, one being the first year he purchased his own car. As is our customary mode of operations, let’s explore what was happening fifty years ago in the auto industry and see what effect that had on growing baby boomers.

By 1971, roughly half of the Boomer Generation was of driving age, approximately 38 million people. In Mister Boomer’s experience, the first car boomers called their own was either a hand-me-down from their parents, or a used car purchase. The Baby Boom had changed the auto industry in many ways, not the least of which was accommodating growing families. Large, “family-sized” four-door vehicles led the lists of best-selling cars for decades. In 1971, the best-selling car of the year was the Chevy Impala; it had been the number one seller, with few exceptions, since the end of the war.

The 1970s ushered in an era of pollution awareness, which seriously affected the auto industry. Sales of muscle cars, introduced in the mid-60’s and popular with early-year boomers, waned as fuel prices started to rise and environmental concerns over smog grew.

Another influence on U.S. auto manufacturers was the influx of foreign cars into the U.S. After hardly being more than a blip in terms of marketshare through the 1950s, foreign car companies made inroads into the U.S. market, most notably, Volkswagen, Toyota and Datsun. In an attempt to regain some lost marketshare, U.S. manufacturers introduced more fuel-efficient cars and compact options, the forte of foreign models.

To cut costs in a shifting market, U.S. car design didn’t change much in 1971, if at all, from those of 1970. However, with specific model sales plummeting and a new emphasis on sunroofs, both AMC and Chrysler stopped selling convertibles in 1971.

American insurance companies began lobbying in earnest for impact-resistant bumpers in 1970. A year later, regulations were enacted requiring, by 1973, that back bumpers would absorb an impact of 2.5 mph without damage to lights or latches, and front bumpers were required to take on a 5 mph impact without damage to lights. Standards and the entire approach to car bumpers has changed since then.

1971 was an interim year in many ways. The writing was on the wall that consumers valued safety, and were willing to pay the hundred or so dollars that these features added to the price of a new car. California, the most populous state, and known for its Los Angeles smog, led the way on restricting car emissions. This prompted manufacturers to meet California standards for cars sold across the U.S. Ironically, this very principle, that a state could regulate the emission standards of automobiles, is a political football even today.

The emphasis on emissions and smog control was the harbinger of 1970s regulations. The Oil Embargo of 1973 clearly illustrated the need for more fuel efficiency and less dependence on foreign oil. Coupled with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which created the Environmental Protection Agency, standards for emissions were set that car companies would have to meet within a few years. Thus 1971 saw efforts to move consumers toward their fuel-efficient models. Catalytic converters were added to production vehicles in 1973 as a further method of controlling car emissions.

Fifty years ago, in the Mister Boomer household, Ford was the car of choice. With the exception of a 1956 Chevy, Mr. B’s father bought Fords throughout his boomer years. In 1971, the family car was a 1970 Ford Galaxie 500. Mister B remembers it as a behemoth, not only in appearance but the way it drove. It was a two-door model, but the doors were longer and heavier than previous cars the family had owned. That year, Mister B’s father told him about a car a co-worker was selling and the two hopped in the behemoth to take a look. Mister B bought his first car, a 1964 Plymouth with push-button automatic transmission, for $200. Mister Boomer was environmentally conscious by then, having participated in local demonstrations on the first Earth Day in 1970. However, when it came to his car in 1971, affordable transportation to his college classes took precedence over emissions concerns. Nonetheless, he was happy to have a practical and reliable car that was not a parental hand-me-down.

What were you driving in 1971, boomers?

Boomers Were Promised Aerodynamic Vehicles

For a decade now, has been attempting to answer the questions boomers want to know, and here is another: whatever happened to our aerodynamic, streamlined cars? Like flying cars, we were promised we’d be driving the sleekest, most streamlined vehicles imaginable. Instead, we have a series of look-alike models across company brands that almost all resemble a box with a little pocket-knife whittling done along the sides.

When Mister Boomer was a wee lad, he’d attend auto shows every year. He was a long way from buying his first new car — or driving for that matter — but he went, along with Brother Boomer and the neighborhood boys. While Brother Boomer and some of the boys could appreciate cross-section models of V-8 engines, there was only one thing Mister B wanted to see, and that was the prototype cars of the future. Every show displayed these what-if dreams, where auto companies tested out designs and engineering challenges in an attempt to define what the public would want to buy in the coming years. What they showed us was mesmerizing: streamlined exteriors that were shaped more like rockets than cars, with innovative methods of entry, from cockpit domes and gull-wing doors that opened upwards to automatic doors that popped up from a smooth surface and slid silently along the side of the car. Mister Boomer felt he was looking at the future, and the future looked pretty cool.

Little did he know at the time that auto companies had pretty much abandoned the aerodynamic shaping of cars at the very onset of the Boomer Generation. The exploration of aerodynamics began in the 1800s. Shaping an object in an effort to control the surrounding air flow as it moved could reduce friction and thereby increase fuel and performance efficiency. However, most historians point to the 1920s and ’30s as the heyday of the aerodynamic car. In the 1930s, dozens of streamlined vehicles were touted as the next logical step up from centuries of the horse and wagon. The vehicles were as sleek as can be, so different from the Model T’s and A’s that preceded them as to be a solid glimpse of the future. Yet, they were expensive, and the average American did not flock to purchase them.

After World War II, European auto makers picked up where world automakers had left off, producing dozens of aerodynamic models. In the U.S., however, the largest and most popular auto companies were more interested in making and selling as many cars to new families as they possibly could. They had learned a lesson immediately after the War, when their sleekest models did not sell well. Gas was plentiful and cheap, so the automakers had little incentive to keep engineering cars that would perform more efficiently and use less fuel. It had also become obvious that the parents of the Boomer Generation wanted larger cars to accommodate growing families.

To counter what was happening across the Atlantic, U.S. automakers introduced larger cars with more horsepower, and tail fins. The 1948 Cadillac is generally credited as the first U.S. car with fins; they were more about style than aerodynamic function. By the mid-50’s, tail fins grew in size to be reminiscent of aircraft wings, and aerodynamics had all but disappeared from auto design.

In Mister B’s estimation, one of the last of the U.S. production cars made with an aerodynamic design for the average buyer was the Hudson Hornet in the early 1950s. Like many streamlined vehicles before it, the shape of the car looked more like a bug, with its rounded shape sitting low to the ground. The car boasted many aerodynamic features, like a curved top and short, sloped tail, covered rear wheel wells and a step-down entry. The floor of the car was nestled between the chassis and undercarriage functions. That created a flat bottom under the car, altering its center of gravity while producing less drag while driving. There were a few others, mostly from automakers outside of the Big 3 (Ford, Chrysler and General Motors); Studebaker comes to mind. One by one, the companies were dissolved or absorbed by the Big 3. The Hudson Motor Car Company merged with Nash-Kelvinator in 1954, to form American Motors.

Mister Boomer has a particular soft spot for the Hudson Hornet because his neighbor owned a 1951 model. Though it was a strange looking two-toned thing, it was one the roomiest and smoothest rides Mister B has ever experienced in a car to this day.

When the Oil Embargo hit the country in 1973, there was a brief flirtation with some aerodynamic features for cars in order to increase fuel economy. Ultimately, lowering weight by replacing steel, first with alloys, then various types of plastics, produced similar fuel economy at a less expensive manufacturing cost. After the embargo, the race was on for minivans and ultimately, SUVs. Fuel economy is still not the top factor for most Americans looking to buy or lease a new car.

Will electric and alternative-fuel vehicles return to aerodynamic design, not only for efficiency but as a way to capture our imaginations with a cool factor of what the future might look like? Only time will tell.

Did you envision driving streamlined vehicles down the superhighways of the future in your day, boomers?