Saturday, February 9, 2013

Econoboxes: Then and Now

I don’t know who coined the term econobox, but I remember when they first started appearing on the roads of America. For those who don’t recognize it, the word refers to a small, boxy car that gets good gas mileage, you know, the kind that can go from zero to sixty in just under half an hour.

Here is a modern example of one, the Honda Fit:

It all started when gasoline suddenly became hard to find in the 1970s, just as I was old enough to drive. The Arab oil cartel decided the US didn’t need so much oil, so there were shortages of gasoline, and fuel economy became a selling point for cars. Up to that time, gas mileage was measured in gallons per mile, rather than miles per gallon.

American car makers were way behind the Germans and Japanese, which spelled the berginning of the demise of Detroit as the car capitol of the world. Volkswagen, Toyota, Datsun (later Nissan) and Honda got a huge share of the American market by selling cars that got 30 or more mpg. GM, Ford and Chrysler couldn't get their small cars produced fast enough, being used to the large cars they made. So along came such long-term big sellers as the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Chevette, and the Chevy Vega. Oh, you’ve never heard of those? That’s because they were ugly, badly made and as safe as riding a bicycle on ice in heavy traffic. Here are what they looked like:
Ford Pinto
Chevy Vega

Chevy Chevette

As you can see, they didn’t really amount to much more than a 4 cylinder engine surrounded by some steal, with a cabin big enough for two adults or four children. And they had little sound proofing, so one heard a lot of wind as one tried to drive at highway speeds. One strong wind and these babies might get up to 50mph. No problem, though. Uncle Sam thought we could save fuel by lowering speed limits to 55mph. I guess it was so those drivers who wanted to save money on gasoline could keep up with those of us who wanted to get where we were going without feeling like we were in a noisy wind tunnel. And they felt like a big car, with terrible stearing. I remember an ad for one of the foreign cars that mocked these by saying “Look, America, we made a big car small and a small car big!” I think they were also referring to the Mustang II, the downsized version of the muscle car. The one that caused everyone to go away from the mustang and made the Chevy Camaro a more popular car.

Anyway, now that President Obama and the environmentalists want us togo back in time, more and more people are buying small cars with high gas mileage. So, a short comparison:

  • Modern versions are safer than the 1970s’ models;
  • They get even better mileage with hybrid technology;
  • They can actually drive at highway speeds! 
  • They are much more comfortable and quiet;
  • They offer many of the extras that bigger cars do, like entertainment options;
  • Four adults can actually fit in them.
But there are still a couple of things that haven’t changed:
  • They still get crushed in an accident by bigger vehicles (it seems the smaller the cars are getting the bigger the pickup trucks are getting);
  • And they still are ugly.  
But then, most cars are uglier now than in the 70s.

One last thing. Does anyone else remember the first tiny car Honda brought to America? I present you with the car my brother said would get blown off the road by a VW Beetle:

The Honda 600 Sedan

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