The automobile ain’t what it used to be

By Don Hill

Def: Auto. By itself/automatic.

I think the word auto was added to the carriage when they unhitched the horse, thus automobile. Today’s automobile is certainly becoming more and more automatic. It knows when you get near it and who you are and adjusts itself for your comfort. As soon as you sit in the driver’s seat, it starts calculating all sorts of things.

Not so with my ’52 Chevy coupe. When you sat in the driver’s seat, you were in charge. Nothing automatic. It was up to you to put things in motion. For example, the seat. You could pull a lever under the seat and move it forward or backward. That was all. No, it did not heat, cool, move up and down or vibrate, etc. Only the Nash came out with reclining front seats that went all the way back to the back seat, thus making a bed. Fathers wouldn’t let their daughters date a boy who drove a Nash.

The windows went up and down depending on which way you cranked the handle on the door. You had to decide whether to crank clockwise or counterclockwise. Air conditioning? No, just crank open the window. And there was this little triangle window that you push open all the way to catch the air as you drove. It would blow you out of your seat. No need for air conditioning.

The steering wheel was for steering the car. It didn’t have a bunch of buttons to distract you while driving. It just had the horn button, the big one in the center. Of course, you could add a spinner knob (they had all sorts of nicknames), which made it so you could steer with one hand while shifting gears with the other. It wasn’t power steering, either. You didn’t do it with one finger.

Oh, yes, the gear shift. No automatic transmission. First of all, there was another pedal on the floorboard next to the brake pedal. It was known as the clutch. It was necessary to operate when shifting gears. Now you had to have some coordination to go from first to second to drive, etc. If you were one who couldn’t pat your head and rub your belly at the same time, you might have trouble. Anyway, you had control as to when you shifted. You were the man. Well, sure, the girls were just as good shifters. (I put that in just so I wouldn’t get the backlash that I did with grilling).

The brakes were not powered, either. You had to firmly step on the brake pedal to get results.

Yes, you had to adjust the mirrors yourself. The rear-view mirror had only one purpose — to see behind you. When the driver behind you had his bright lights on, you had to adjust the mirror so you weren’t blinded. No, it didn’t do it automatically. Of course, you had to hang your favorite thing on the rear-view mirror.

The dashboard didn’t explode when you hit something. No air bags. You had to devise your own safety measures. The Catholics mounted a St. Christopher on their dashboard. Personally, I had a hula girl on mine. I figured if I was going to get hurt, I would rather have a hula girl at my bedside.

There didn’t seem to be a need for a tachometer, and the radio was AM only. And you didn’t need to worry about getting arrested for driving while texting or talking on the phone. That would have been a sci-fi experience or a very long cord.

There were no seat belts to protect you. The windshield would generally stop you. There were no turn signals except sticking your arm out, straight out for left turn and forearm straight up for right turns. Not nice during the winter.

Bumpers were real bumpers. You could bump into another car’s bumper with no damage. Today, it would be a $3,000 dent.

Little has changed in windshield wipers. Yes, I know. Some come on when a drop of rain hits them. Headlights are brighter and there are more and better taillights. The designers have wisely omitted the cigarette lighter and ashtrays.

Yes, there have been many changes. Mostly for the good, as far as safety. But the thrill of being on your own is missing. Today, everybody knows where you are. The teenager’s parents can have an app to know where their kid is at all times. OnStar knows where your car is. The CIA knows where your car is. Vladimir Putin knows where your car is. Maybe an alien on Mars knows, as well.

The privacy of being alone or with someone special is lost. My little ‘52 Chevy coupe is long gone, but the memories remain.

What’s my Buick beeping about now?

Don Hill is a resident of Seymour and has served as a volunteer at Southern Indiana Center for the Arts for more than a quarter of a century. Send comments to [email protected].