Sam Mitani made a point in his May Road & Track column that resonated through me like a temple gong. I’ll get to that but first you’ll welcome some background. Trust me.
In the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 Ray Haroun strapped a mirror in his race car instead of toting the usual swivel-necked riding-mechanic to keep him informed on conditions to the rear. That rear-view mirror found its way into road cars and was about the only thing we could cite as argument that “racing improves the breed”. This was in those mid-century days when our carmakers turned vehemently anti-racing, pulling official participation from NASCAR and forbidding any performance numbers like horsepower to appear in ads. Only comfy-ness and, ooh, rich textures on seats and smiley smiley children with tightly-coifed mothers.
The manufacturers those days were quaking in their white-walls lest a suddenly safety–obsessed government would start decreeing all sorts of standards. Government standards were hive-producing in carmakers. (But then Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook – even before Nader’s ego swelled to its most egregious proportions – might have caused at least minor allergic reactions to anyone fond of wheeled objects.)
Not that improvement of the breed wasn’t something to be wished at that time, particularly by those few of us who had embraced driving as a sport. We were the ones who plastered numbers cut from sticky shelf paper on the sides on our perky little mounts from England, pulled on our knit-back gloves and on weekends cheerfully sped amidst hay bales stacked meanfully on old airports. In post-war years American cars had grown ever more yacht-like, lumbered about on bedspring suspensions and favored interiors upholstered with mouse fur. “Detroit iron” was our disdainful name for these monsters.
We favored jolting about in much smaller cars, cars that you donned rather than were swallowed by. Ah yes, many had asthmatic heaters, or none, and sidecurtains that were downright hospitable to rain. But these cars actually stopped within memory of the first application of the brake pedal. They turned corners within then breathtaking inches of where a quick-response steering wheel – the size of a large pizza — bade the skinny tall tires to go. The home-grown puffed-cheek beasts wallowed in the general direction of a chosen course, the steering wheel having required several full turns to influence that choice. The less connection with a road’s surface the more these cars represented Detroit’s intention. The anti-car carmaker ruled.
When did all this change? I would say when Detroit lightened up on trying to anticipate what Washington might want of them and began noticing customers in important numbers were being enticed off the farm by foreign cars. And vaguely wondered why.