Why bigger, more powerful, cars?

When Henry Ford was asked about the Model T, one of the first things he spoke of was how far it drove on a tank of gas: up to 500 miles at 31 miles per gallon! It was small, light, go-anywhere, carried 1000 pounds and, most of all, was affordable. How far we’ve come. In the search for a faster, bigger, more bulletproof car, it’s a case of “Beat the Joneses,” especially America’s love affair with trucks. Some of these so-called personal vehicles have exceeded the axle limit for trucks in the ‘50s. I remember the size and weight of some of the cars back then, when gas was 35 cents a gallon: Big fins, big engines (always a V8 under the long hood), exemplified by the Cadillac of 1959 with the pop-up taillights to reveal the gas cap.

Have we come very far since then? In fact, gas is cheaper, if you compare the dollar value and the price of bread and meat, then and now. The big car makers, especially in the USA, know this, that’s why they make engines that, just 35+ years ago in the last energy crisis, were unthinkable: 6.9 liters and up! New huge SUVs make a ‘60s Corvette seem to accelerate like a pedal car. I watched an Expedition SUV the other day alongside a Dodge Ram truck, revving up and then squealing tires off the line. Two three-ton behemoths, drag racing, in town!

And what do they do with all this power? They set the cruise control at 65 on the highway and turn on the in-car DVD for the kids, complete with headsets. The front seats have their own stereo with more buttons than a Jumbo Jet. Note that more gadgets means more buttons which means more distraction crashes. When that 3-ton personal vehicle crashes, whoever is in the way in a smaller car is toast.

The environment is toast too; it’s not just the gas they guzzle but the cost of making a 3-ton vehicle of plastic and steel instead of two smaller SUVs for the same weight of material. This is short-term thinking. The profit in making these huge SUVs and flatbeds (without actual car safety regulations except light truck rules which date, mostly, from 1948) is actually higher per pound than your average sedan. Yes, higher. So why do they cost so much? It looks bigger, feels bigger, and if you believe the marketing, you are getting more too. Yeah, non-monocoque safety, more steel, less engineering, less drive-ability, less handling safety. But don’t check those things out, check out the big, fat, manly tires!

Today we’re faced with concerns, fiscal and civic, directly related to these road hogs.

Drivers have no training in driving a 3-ton moving lump of steel (as opposed to semi truck drivers, who do). The price of gas is edging up and the more gas we buy at the pump, the more vulnerable we become to foreign pressure. And not least, our accident, health and car insurance rates will be going up continually, in part because of the severity of the damage done by these road warriors when they hit something or someone.

In this race to beat the Jones, we’re now committed to roadways jammed with huge, gas-guzzling, less safe (for everyone) road tanks. Someday, hopefully, common sense will prevail.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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