Heaven, Hell and a Volkswagen Bus

I got a respite from reading the 1970s Road & Tracks in my pile, because I discovered that I had the January 1963 edition sitting there, so I grabbed that one for reference.

Road & Track January 1963

Wow, what a difference a mere 8 years makes.  In 1963, the regulatory madness of the 1970s, the conviction that automobiles were somehow responsible for all of society’s ills were not even in the radar.  Even the cover is gloriously devoid of emissions-controlled subcompacts and features a close up of the Great Pedro Rodriguez on a three-wide starting line (remember when everyone’s front row was three wide?  Me neither, the safety campaigners killed it before I was born, leaving only Indy to hold the torch).

The prevailing attitude in this era was sensible and had  a recent world war to put things in perspective: Storming the beaches of Normandy was dangerous, driving Ferrari sports cars wearing an open-faced helmet was fun.

The 1963 issue, edited by the immortal Dean Batchelor (the Hot Rodder, hero at Bonneville and El Mirage) was reflective of that joyful era (I hear the 1960s were famous for things other than cars, but let’s concentrate on the important stuff for now).  Racing coverage, auto show articles and even an analysis of the entire Formula 1 grid.  Only one article was about a small car, and that one, the Austin 1100 was about a car with a very novel suspension system, a technical first which, though not adopted by everyone, worked very well.

Of course, the world, sadly, moved on from the sixties and, as dictators say when facing the war crimes tribunal, mistakes were made.  In the US, those mistakes apparently included siring an entire generation of people whose sole concern was… concern.

Deeply concerned individuals wanted to make certain that everyone was safe enough to satisfy them, and that anything unregulated should be subject to government oversight forthwith.  Remember that this was the middle of the Cold War and that Americans had an excellent example of how to regulate the joy out of life in the Soviet Union.  People like Ralph Nader and many, many others, led the assault on Capitol Hill.

They were probably still angry that prohibition, the greatest experiment in adults imposing their opinions on other adults ever attempted, got repealed, so they were looking for new ways to tell everyone what to do.

We dealt with bumpers (the law passed), emissions (the law destroyed many livelihoods and American Motors, and caused the current global warming problem) and the second most hated law ever passed in the US, the 55 mph speed limit.

But the forces of darkness never rest and even more evil was being plotted.

Road & Track July 1971

The July 1971 issue of Road & Track opened with the appalling news that a group called Youth Organization Toward Highway Safety (probably a bunch of people who got beat up a lot at school and were out for revenge by destroying any fun on the planet) advised that the following laws should be put into effect.

  1.  Cars should, by law, be limited to 95 miles per hour.  No manufacturer could build a faster car than this for sale to the public.  At all.
  2. Cars should be made 100% crashworthy at speeds up to 30 mph, meaning that the occupants–even without seat belts–should be uninjured in all 30 mph accidents.
  3. each year, maximum speeds should be lowered and crash-worthiness increased until glorious success would be reached when automobiles could go exactly as fast as the speed that guaranteed absolute safety of the occupants.
  4. (this one is an assumption) Much obligatory rejoicing and thanking the party for keeping adults from themselves.  All hail!

Now, a single look out the nearest window confirms that this insanity failed.  How?  I don’t actually know, but I suspect that someone intelligent with a little power heard about this and had the leading members of the group quietly shot.

(Seriously, I know these avenues were pursued, but in the end, the cost of meeting them and the public outcry against yet another attack on their liberty was considered too high a political cost, so common sense, unusually for automotive regulation in the 70s won out).

Of course, it wasn’t all gloom and doom.  The racing scene in 1971 was wonderful, particularly because it was the day of the Porsche 917, one of the most glorious objects ever devised by man.  The January 1971 issue even had a profile on that car’s not-quite-as-successful rival, the Ferrari 512.  So not a total loss, but definitely not a golden age for road cars.

Best article in either of these two magazines, however, was a love poem in prose form dedicated, of all things, to the Volkswagen Bus.  Written by Dick O’Kane, entitled “O’Kane & the People’s Bus”, it is a wonderful, whimsical paean to that most versatile beatnik vehicle, and it really, really brings the “civilian” (as opposed to racing) side of the 1971 mag to life.  After all, not everything can be small, imported cars that struggle with future emissions laws.

And if anyone is keeping score at home, the mad clipper had removed the classifieds and an article about the newest Mercedes SL launch from the 1971 edition.  The ’63 is uncut.

I know you can sleep better knowing that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is a monster book set in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, the Darien Gap.  It’s called Jungle Lab Terror, and if you want a thrilling ride, you can buy it here.

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