Are today’s cars 20 times better?


A long about 1940 or 1941, a brand new family-size Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth could be bought for about $700 or less. Mrs. McNeese’s brand new Ford cost her $641.

Are today’s cars 20 times better than those cars?

No. Not even close. But they are better. Check out visibility: Cars in those days came with just an inside rearview mirror. If you wanted outside ones, you paid extra, and not many people did. Anyway, the back windows were so small that a driver couldn’t see much of what was happening behind him.

Tail lights were tiny. A car ahead could easily be mistaken for a bicycle.

Turn signals hadn’t come into use yet. To warn the driver behind that you were going to stop or slow down or turn left or right, you stuck your arm out the window – in any kind of weather – and signaled with your arm. Down to stop, straight out for a left turn, up for a right turn.

Windshield wipers on most cars (Chrysler cars were the exception) were vacuum operated, which meant that whenever you really needed them, like stomping down to pass, or climbing a hill, they’d cut out on you, and there you were, looking through a mass of water.

By 1935, Chevys and Plymouths had hydraulic brakes. Ford held out until the ‘39 models. Before that, you had to think a while about stopping – plan ahead. Let’s see, we’ll need to stop at that gas station a quarter-mile away; better put on the brakes.

Cars weren’t as powerful then. Yet, they seemed to have plenty. The standard Ford engine from 1934-1952 was the old flat-head V8. It produced 85 horsepower. Its competitors’ sixes produced about the same – and that was enough. A body could cruise all day at 60 miles per hour. No problem.

Now, even basic models put out 200 or so horses, and T.V. ads proclaim that some models have 300, 400 and up horsepower.

As one of the mechanics on PBS, when told that a certain model was rated at 350 horsepower, said, “Who the hell needs 350 horsepower??”

Things changed. Studebaker was the first to come out with a big rear window. “Tee hee, is that the front or the back,” people said, when the 1947 model came out.

Tail lights are huge now. You don’t have to stick your arm out the window to signal a turn. The windshield wipers work when you accelerate. Original equipment tires last forever – 50-60,000 miles on a set is not unusual.

Brakes are computerized so you don’t skid when you slam on the brakes, outside mirrors are standard, etc., etc.

And little lights on the dashboard remind you that a tire is low, that your purge valve is not purging or that your cam sensor is not sensing.

They are wonderful machines, these modern cars. We’re told they’ll soon be driving themselves. I wonder how Frosty will be able to backseat drive when computers are behind the wheel.

It’s interesting to follow the history of cars. I reckon I’m still the only person alive who remembers when the Ford Company made its own tires. A vanishing breed.

Are cars better today? You better believe it.  But 20 times as good? Hmmm.

Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note. He can be reached at


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