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?

Boomers Learned a New Definition for “Fob”

Fifty years ago, if someone told us our car would unlock itself as we approached it, and could start itself up at the same time, we would have thought we were living in an episode of The Jetsons. Cars were a marvel of engineering to us in our boomer years, and the key to harnessing its power was just that — a key.

Most boomers recall the elation of getting their first car; the thrill of personal freedom rang out the second you were handed the keys. In the 1950s and ’60s, cars had two keys: one that unlocked the doors, and that also fit the ignition switch to start the vehicle; and another to open the trunk. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, cars began to feature a pull switch installed in the interior of the car to pop open the trunk, which precipitated the shift to a single key for all locks on the car.

Mister Boomer remembers a car key story that happened when he was walking home from school one day. He was all of eight or nine years old when he saw a 1955 Chevy parked in a driveway with it its trunk wide open, keys dangling from the slot in the middle. He knew the car model because his uncle had one just like it. Thinking the owner forgot the keys, Mister B pulled them from the trunk as he closed it, and walked up to the front door of the house. He knocked and a man quickly answered. Mister B held out the keys and said, “You forgot your keys in the trunk lock.” The man was perturbed and responded that he did not forget them at all, and admonished Mister B to mind his own business and put them back where he found them. He walked down the steps to the car and, slipping the keys back in the lock, he unlocked the trunk. Once it swung up to its maximum height, he could hear the house door slam shut. Mister B resumed his walk home, a little dumbfounded at the exchange. Mister B thought he was being a good Samaritan. The man thought this kid should have kept walking. There was certainly an attitude about keys — especially car keys — that existed in our day. Many people left their cars and houses unlocked. By the mid-60s, boomer households became less trusting.

Fast forward fifty years, and Mister B found himself renting a car while visiting his home state. He was handed what he learned was a “key fob,” a palm-sized device that actually held no keys at all. It is also referred to as a car remote, echoing the name of another invention boomers learned about in their early years, the TV remote. He had heard of a watch fob (a chain that secured the watch to a pocket or belt loop), because his grandfather had one attached to the pocket watch that he carried with him. But a key fob, while not entirely new, seemed to advance in the intervening time between Mister B’s car rentals. If you don’t own a current model vehicle, and rent a car while on vacation, then you know what he means.

Once upon a time not so long ago, people had a small plastic case attached to their car keychain. It usually held two or three buttons to unlock the car, open the trunk, and activate the car alarm. Some had the ability to start the car, a welcome addition for colder climates. These days, however, the key fob is an electronic brick. It sends a signal to the vehicle as you approach it, automatically deactivating the alarm system and unlocking the doors. Some even start the car when you open the door. There is no longer any need for inserting a key into an ignition switch! If the car didn’t start on its own, you’ll find a start button on the steering wheel column where the ignition switch used to be located. We have achieved the push-button world envisioned in 1950s and ’60s futuristic prognostications.

Mister Boomer had to admit, sitting behind the wheel of one of those new models, he was panic-stricken. Ultimately, he swallowed his pride and went back to the car rental counter for some help. One advantage to being older is people don’t expect us to understand new technology, though Mister Boomer has used a computer at work every day since 1986. Nonetheless, as the rental assistant walked him back to the car, the key fob in Mister B’s hand unlocked the doors when they approached. As the agent swung open the door, a perplexed Mister B pointed to the digital dashboard and asked, “How the hell do I turn on the headlights? How do I turn on the windshield wipers if I need them?” The man didn’t even chuckle. He just patiently showed Mister B what to do, as if this were a regular occurrence. Feeling ancient, Mister B imagined the agent saw a blinking 12 o’clock reflected in Mister Boomer’s eyes. Easy to operate switches, dials and hand-crank windows were all Mister B ever had in the cars he has owned. It’s a brave new world, boomers.

How about you? Have you embraced car technology or long for the days when turning a key started a car and “programming” a car radio meant pulling out a button and pushing it back in?