The Good Old Days Give Way to Better Days
By Stephen Golub, May 1, 2023
Versions of this article have also appeared in Stephen Golub’s weekly Benicia Herald Column, “Benicia and Beyond,” and in his national and international affairs blog, A Promised Land: America as a Developing Country.
My new hometown of Benicia, CA hosted its 28th Annual Classic Car Show late last month.
I suppose I could start discussing the event, as well as the global car market’s electrifying trends, by lamenting America’s historic love for gas guzzlers and their legacy of overconsumption and pollution.
More on the future later. But for now…
Having wandered around the show, I must confess to being wowed. It’s the first such gathering I’ve ever been to. I have no idea how many autos were on display…400? 600?
I didn’t come away from it a classic car aficionado. But, even given the old autos’ fuel-consuming excesses, this blast from the past and slice of Americana was a lot of fun.
Most of the vehicles dated from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s. They ranged from vintage Fords and Packards to comparatively new behemoths and muscle cars.
Restoring and preserving these beauties seemed like an act of love. Proud owners stood by to answer questions, discuss the engines’ intricacies and otherwise bask in both the sunshine and the perfect shines of their prized possessions – which in most instances are kept more for show than for driving these days.
Overhearing a few of the conversations, I was struck by how little I understood. But you didn’t have to be any kind of expert to enjoy the event.
The owners were mainly male. As a friend joked, strolling amidst so many hundreds-of-horsepower stallions made him feel a surge of testosterone.
It was tough to pick out favorites from the array of gleaming humdingers. But those that especially caught my eye included a cherry-red ‘31 Model A, a gorgeously detailed Caprice and my neighbor’s dazzling ’65 Mustang, which I’ve glimpsed when he occasionally takes it out for a spin around town.
Another ’65 model, an Impala, brought a flashback to my now-distant past. An Impala was the first car I ever drove, though it wasn’t quite as old or huge as this one. My memory of those good old days was also triggered by the scent of the fragrant combustibles wafting my way from behind the car.
The gathering was fun in other ways as well. It was a family affair, with a fair number of kids and dogs. There were also loads of great food trucks. I indulged in a delicious Louisiana hot link, smothered in onions, BBQ sauce and mustard, and washed down by some freshly made lemonade. The small “beer garden” enclosure was tempting, but at 11 am I wasn’t quite ready for that.
It was the kind of classic Benicia festival that the town is known for.
In sum, a good time was had by all, whether you were a classic car junkie or just an auto layperson like me, wandering around in wonderment.
Driving With Bruce
Bruce Springsteen fan that I am, I couldn’t help but recall the countless songs in which he references cars: Pink Cadillac, Cadillac Ranch, Born to Run, Thunder Road, Fire, Stolen Car, Used Cars, Ramrod, My Hometown and many more.
And then there are these lyrics from Racing in the Streets:
I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a three-ninety-six
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor
I have no idea what he’s talking about.
But you don’t have to understand those words to know that cars are a part of our culture, our history and our evolution as a country and society.
The Future is (Almost) Now
Which brings me to electric vehicles (EVs) – or, for the sake of statistics discussed here: all-electric, plug-in, light vehicles (excluding hybrids).
While still only a small share of the global market, annual sales are surging exponentially, from one million in 2015 to 20 million as of a year ago.
I won’t delve into the massive and well-recognized environmental benefits of shifting to EVs. Suffice to say that they are a very good thing for combating climate change, improving our air quality and enhancing our health and well-being.
Before we get too charged up about the promise of EVs, though, a few additional considerations need to intrude. There’s the challenge of installing rapid charging stations across the country, though recent federal legislation funds a substantial increase in such facilities. Then there is also the matter of sourcing the materials crucial to for the cars’ batteries, including social and economic justice challenges that the process imposes.
In addition, it takes about 17,500 miles before American EVs reach the “break-even point,” where their cumulative carbon emissions start to compare favorably with those of their internal combustion engine counterparts. (The EVs pose a greater initial environmental cost due to carbon dispersals from their manufacture and related processes.)
But that initial emission burden is a relative drop in the bucket, in view of the average car’s lifespan (including for EVs) of well over 100,000 miles. And the break-even point is gradually decreasing, due to improved production practices and the shift toward power plants that source sun, wind, hydroelectric and other sustainable energy to power EV batteries.
In Norway, for example, where autos rely mostly on hydroelectric sources (and which boasts the highest EV per capita rate in the world), the environmental balance for EVs becomes preferable after barely 8,000 miles of use.
None of this is to deny that many Americans are still wedded to SUVs and pickup trucks. But there’s great progress in this regard as well, as more of them go electric. In addition, by virtue of their especially large batteries, the Ford F-150 Lightning and other electric pickups can become virtual power plants for homes, construction equipment and myriad other uses.
This change for the better is racing down the road pretty quickly. A poll of over 1,000 automobile executives yielded an average forecast that over half of U.S car sales will be EVs by 2030, consistent with President Biden’s sales goal. The survey produced similar predictions for the Japanese and huge China markets. Whether or not we meet that target, the evolution of our automobile industry is well underway.
The Market Speaks
Will consumers actually fulfill the automobile executives’ predictions? This is where the rubber hits the road. For many buyers, this will quite justifiably hinge on environmental considerations, in terms of cutting emissions of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution.
For many others, it will come down to price. But with expensive gasoline, increased competition and government incentives accelerating the transition to EVs, the days of trendy Teslas dominating the field seem doomed. Lower EV maintenance costs will also help move the market away from internal combustion engines.
Speaking of price, China and India have EVs on their domestic markets that respectively cost $4,600 and $5,800. To be sure, their batteries are small, they are just runabouts for driving locally and they probably wouldn’t pass U.S. regulatory muster. But the point is that a burgeoning, global investment in EVs is producing a variety of cars for a variety of uses and societies.
Beyond the Pink Cadillac
Which brings me back to the vintage vehicles, muscle cars, Springsteen’s Pink Cadillacs and so many more of today’s collectors’ items. The past is past. We can admire the old while embracing the benefits of the new for our environment, our health, our pocketbooks and our planet.
I welcome such changes. I eagerly anticipate more yet to come. But I’m also looking forward to next year’s Classic Car Show.
(Hat tip: HL, CS)
Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.
To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.