Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Classic Car Era

The Classic Car Era came after World War II, when men and machines were once again available and technology was at an all time high. Classic cars are generally thought of as vehicles built before 1970, when pollution control, economy and safety regulations had yet to become design and production issues. The Cold War, the Communist threat in Cuba, civil rights and Vietnam brought new strife to the American people in the 1960's, and new concerns for Detroit. As foreign automakers imported a new breed of compact, more efficient cars American automakers responded by dropping their trademark fins. Consumers eagerly accepted GMs' all new Corvair, Fords' Falcon and Chryslers' Valiant. The smaller cars went faster and the introduction of the Big Block V-8's assured Americans that the horsepower war was still on.

1955 Chevrolet Nomad

1955 Chevrolet Nomad

The American automobile industry began about 1900 and drove the US into the Industrial Revolution in the 1920's with replaceable parts and the assembly line. The first fifty years was an unruly time with an "anything goes" attitude by manufacturers and consumers alike. These were the years of The Great Depression, two World Wars, and the birth of labor unions. There were no government regulations and little regard for pollution or vehicle safety and today we think of it as the Antique Car Era.

As the American people recovered from World War I they embraced the assembly line techniques of Henry Ford and the Industrial Revolution was born. And for the next ten years, until the Great Depression in 1929, a new breed of pioneers like Ford, Daimler, Chrysler, DeSoto, Dodge, Studebaker, Olds and Hudson led the way in a winner-take-all frenzy that created hundreds of limited production and one-of-a-kind vehicles, without standards or regulations, during the Vintage Car Era.

By 1964 the Big Three had stuffed V-8 engines into their mid-size cars and the Muscle Car was born with names like Camero, Firebird and Barracuda. Throughout this new profusion of speed and visual marketing AMC managed to hold on to a distant fourth place but in 1966 Studebaker closed its doors.

The American automobile industry was knocked to its knees in the 1970's by two significant events. First, the Clean Air Act of 1970 practically killed the use of high performance engines over the next few years. And then the oil embargo in the winter of 1973 encouraged consumers to conserve gasoline. By 1978 Congress had passed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rule and Detroit was scrambling to comply. The gas-guzzlers of the past were replaced by smaller, more efficient vehicles modeled after the ever-present imports and an all new race for fuel economy supremacy began - marking the end of the Classic Car Era.