Sunday, July 14, 2013

Vintage Chevy Bombs...The Atomic Kind

A 1949 Chevrolet Styline DeLuxe sedan, aka Operation Doorstep Test Car #3.
Today, an antique car with some flair and a period low-slung look is commonly referred to as a "bomb". Many enthusiasts prefer a lowered, mid 1930's to early 1950's Chevrolet to customize into their "bomb" of choice, and generally they retain the original features of the cars such as paint color and interiors while lowering and adding modest personal touches. This post isn't about those cars. This post is about vintage Chevrolets that actually had atomic bombs detonated above them in March of 1953. 

March of 1953 was a simpler time, right? Patti Page's "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" was climbing up the record charts. The Cold War was gearing up, and the US was playing with thermonuclear weapons in the Nevada desert while military and civilians roamed around the area. Sounds like the good old days.

As part of the series of U.S. atomic weapons tests carried out that month nicknamed Upshot-Knothole, there was a test called "Annie" that involved atmospheric detonation of a 16 kiloton atomic bomb from a 300 foot tower. This test was part of 11 tests at the Nevada Test Site executed between March and June of 1953, and shot "Annie" was unique. It would mark the first time that civilians would be allowed to witness such a test in person, and on television.

In conjunction with the Federal Civil Defense Administration, a related study called "Operation Doorstep" used the "Annie" test to evaluate the effects of atomic blasts and radiation on common items Americans used in their daily lives. Power lines, electrical and phone substations, houses and even automobiles. We've all seen the iconic image of the house exploding during this test...

Its been part of rock & roll music videos, pop art, and Indiana Jones even made reference to this test in his last film, but that movie was so terrible I won't mention it anymore.
Insert Your Favorite Nuclear Family Joke Here.

In addition to the houses and mannequin families, there were 50 new and used cars and trucks that made it onto the Yucca Flats site to get a nuclear make-over. I hadn't learned about the automobiles until recently, when images started surfacing on classic car websites. I recognized some of the landscape and knew exactly what had happened to them. Below are a few of the Chevrolets that died in the name of science. Its sad to note than most of them are 1947 models, which pulls on my heartstrings a wee bit.

That's the history behind the strange car photos from the desert. As far as I know, the debris from these tests was analyzed and buried out in the Nevada test site. Atmospheric tests were banned after 1963 and now we probably do something equally as scarey without anyone knowing about it.

If you'll excuse me, I need to run out to the garage & give my old Chevy a few pats for good measure, and run the Geiger counter over it to make sure it doesn't click. You never know where some of those rust-free eBay auto parts came from...


Friday, July 5, 2013

10 Reasons Why American "Car Culture" Will Never Die

Dad and Uncle Brian at the MSRA's Back To The 50's Show in 2007
 In an era of social media hashtags and rapid online turnaround of ideas, its hard to take stock of what we have in the moment. I grabbed a soapbox yesterday and posted about the New York Times article that claimed "Car Culture" was dying out. There's a few good points in there about environmental responsibility, and it provided thoughtful analysis of why Americans don't necessarily need a car as much as we think we do. You folks know me, though. I can't just give it up that easily. Neither can you. Or you. We're all still addicted to the automobile in America, and here's my list of ten reasons why even though ZipCars and rideshares and riding your mountain bike to work...just won't work for everyone.

1. Cars are Still a Status Symbol. 
Nelly is right, writing songs about Porsches and shooting videos with Ferraris sells music. Everyone else appreciates demonstrating to the world that they've 'made it' by driving something new and flashy. We're still a vain creature, and that will never change. Check out my rims... 

2. We Enjoy Watching TV Shows About Cars
While many of us can't fire up a MIG welder and create something magical, a few people on TV can. We usually get a kick out of other people's creations like Jesse James (now on his 3rd TV series), or those guys from Overhaulin' where they steal a car and chop it up. We also seem to like the bearded guys from Texas who like to spray clear coat over rust and drop crate motors into desert tin and auction them off. But we keep coming back each week, don't we?

3. There's A Modern Resurgence in Traditional DIY Culture.
Look at places like DIY Network, Pintrest, and the HAMB forum threads like this. People are tired of buying third-world garbage. They want to make things themselves. Over the last ten years we've suddenly realized that we can repair things, customize them to our taste, or restore them to like-new condition. I couldn't be happier about this trend. Our automobile is a blank canvas just crying out for our touch. 

 4. Our Current Way of Life Requires Travel by Automobile.
 My wife has to commute several times a month to places that are 100 + miles away. How is she going to do that in a Nissan Leaf or CityLink bus? Ain't gonna happen. We still live in a spread-out world and the jobs demand that we be mobile at a moment's notice. Most of us don't live in 1910 New York City.

5. Trucks & Cars Help Stimulate the Economy.
In the words of the great Robb Mariani "Try to imagine this country without trucks. You can't!" Until pallets of corn-syrupy soda and cheap beef magically ship themselves to the local box store, you're using a truck to get it to you. Our vehicles also prop up a multi-billion dollar service station industry, fast food, insurance, and oil industry. The latter could be addressed I'm sure. Where's that Hydrogen car at, Honda?

6. Tuner Cars Are "In".
 In the old days it was a jalopy. Then it was a muscle car. Now its a turbocharged 4 cylinder that puts out as much power as a stock small-block Chevelle did in 1968. Kids still like fast, loud cars.

7. Kids Enjoy Cool Cars. 
 Go to any car show and you'll see families enjoying the scenery. Hot rods are still neat for a youngster to gawk at. Fire trucks are still crowd-pleasers for the family. Kids will always like to see something that they don't see every day...fins and chrome. If you're showing off your pride and joy, make time for the young ones who like your stuff. They won't break anything...just let 'em sit in the car and tell them about it. They'll want to get into the hobby someday when they can drive.

8. Preserving the Past is More Important Than Ever.
We have short attention spans. (text message beeps) Wait, what was I saying? I remember now.  This 101 year-old woman, named Barbara Dunning,  still drives her first car. Its a 1930 Packard and its in better shape than my '98 Cobra is. Why is this important? Because both are still running around and able to tell a story. We need to preserve our motoring history because its integral to the history of our nation. These machines helped us live, and allowed us to advance over the years. Wikipedia will probably make a note of this somewhere down the road, but why not get out and actually take in some of the live history that still exists while we can?

9. Recreational Travel Shouldn't Be "Scheduled".
All aboard! Your scheduled pickup for vacation is 10:43 am.
This is America, and we make our own rules. Trips by car, truck, or RV can be so much more relaxing than cramming into a train or airplane. Plus you don't have to get a rectal exam before boarding your car and you can carry as much gels and liquids as you'd like. No wonder AAA reports 76% of Americans prefer to travel by automobile when it comes to leisure trips.

 10. Cars Allow Us to Remain Independent. 
That's what we're all about today, and what we'll always be about.
Let Freedom Ring...with a Jetsons car sound effect.

Time to go for a drive. Thanks as always for reading!


Thursday, July 4, 2013

The End of Car Culture? Not Exactly.

Happy Independence Day everybody! Its fitting that over the weekend, I happened to catch an article on the New York Times website written by their environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal that dealt with independence. The article, titled "The End of Car Culture", was a eulogy for American driver. The story implies that they're dying off in droves. (Figuratively, of course). You see, today's motorists, especially the younger ones,  are driving less -or- they're not getting a driver's license. As a result, that means they're not purchasing a car to use for work, school, or to drive to the local Dog 'N Suds. Today's American citizen, Rosenthal says, simply doesn't find a car as much of a necessity as the previous generations did. They're making accommodations and their families are functioning in a different way than the past, and that allows them to carry on without the horseless carriage.

What are the reasons for this massive cultural shift, you ask? I have a few ideas of my own, but I'll save those for later on. First, let's get back to the NYTimes story. 

Rosenthal does a good job of pointing out that Americans are driving an average of 9% less in 2013 than they were back in 1995. Our country's economic health could have played a role in this reduction of miles traveled. I'd agree with that assessment. But a little further reading uncovers a little more factual Mc Nuggets for us to consider. According to the University of Michigan's Michael Sivak, the number of cars per household actually started to decline before the "economic downturn" officially happened. This suggests, according to Rosenthal, that a larger sociological pattern has changed. We just don't need a car as much as we used to.

Get a J-O-B and Stop Looking at Facebook!

We also aren't raising children to need a car to get to work or school. Rosenthal cites several cases where teens of driving age are not taking driver's education and getting a license. Today, 46% of 17 year-olds have a license compared to 69% in 1983. Instead of a car, today's teens are using technology more and more to achieve what they need. No more runs to Sam Goody to get that new Weezer CD when you can just download it on iTunes. Why run out to get pizza with your pals when you can use your Domino's smartphone app? Fewer teens are working part-time jobs these days, so there's also a falling demand for travel to and from work.

Its not all about the Millennials...its a much larger issue. The country itself  has changed.

Every New Urbanist's Dream: The Walkable Community
No longer are Americans living in isolated communities that require an automobile to carry out their daily lives. New developments in this country are promoting "green living", "walkable communities' and "New-Urbanism", which attempts to roll back the clock and change our tendencies for suburban sprawl and bring back the Main Street residential / commercial life balance. Many new or redeveloped town squares don't require 4 lanes of cement to get to or 600 tons of asphalt set aside for parking. This larger city planning process will eventually ween Americans from their fuel-injected saddle & horse over the next several decades...and perhaps clean our air and water up a bit.

Most of Our Cities Are Built Around the Automobile.
Should We Change This? How?

That's great. But what do we do in the meantime between the promises of tomorrow (Walkable communities, improved public transportation, hybrids, alternative fuel.) and the needs of today? Do we keep doing what we're doing and hope that the oil keeps flowing and the roads are maintained? Or do we make huge adjustments to our lives? I don't have an answer for those questions, but I do have a few thoughts as to why our dependency on cars isn't what it used to be.

Reasons Why "Car Culture" Is Dying

1. People Ain't Got No Money. 
The average age of a person's car in the US is 10.8 years. Americans are driving cars and trucks longer and putting more miles on them because they can't afford new ones. (Think of the Grapes of Wrath Hudson flatbed truck. That's what we're trying to cross the desert in.) Everything has become more expensive yet our wages haven't increased to match. In an age where a Ford Focus  costs $24,000 and a new truck costs as much as the house Sarah & I live in, who can afford a car that doesn't need a lot of work? Speaking of work, read #2.

2.  People Don't Know How to Do Anything Anymore.
In years past you could pick up a sweet ride for not a lot of just meant that you'd be breaking out the Craftsman toolbox and doing some work before you tooled on over to the drive-in. Or more likely, it meant you had to fix your heap before your girlfriend would even ride in it. Families could get a used station wagon so long as Dad could keep it running. Nowadays the complexity of the modern automobile hinders some of that. Mostly, we're just not that into working on things. We also don't sew, cook, do home repairs, or mechanics because we stopped offering shop class and told everyone to go to college. Thanks, everyone. Now I pay the plumbers $170 an hour and I make somewhere wayyyyyy south of that. At least I can change out a spark plug.

3. Kids Aren't Into Stuff Like They Used to Be.
If you grew up in the country or in the suburbs, you probably had a bicycle when you were little. If you did, you probably rode the wheels off that thing because it was your ticket to adventure. New places, new friends, and new trouble to get into. Today's kids can get all of that (they think) with an internet search and a flash video. I'm not a parent, but I think society's become so engrossed with protecting our offspring that we have built a safety cage around them and won't let them see what life outside is like. A bicycle may not seem like much, but its one of the first investments a young person has an opportunity to maintain. My 1985 Schwinn Predator was the first piece of hardware that I oiled, replaced brake pads and changed tires on. It taught me how to keep something up and take pride in it because it was such a key part of my adolescent life. Those life lessons followed with my cars, and now our home. You can bet I take care of things better because my Dad let me use his tools and his oil can to make that Schwinn roll down the road safely. 

 4. We Don't Ask Much of Adolescents Today. 
There's no question that the demands of a young adult now are harder than they've ever been. Oh wait, I'm totally kidding. They don't have to work, they don't have to come up with spending money, and they don't have to run errands. Mom & Dad take care of all of that. Its only when it benefits the parents do they finally break down and purchase a safe Camry or Corolla for junior to drive. The days of "if you want money, get a job" are over. In all honesty, the money young adults used to make at a part-time job usually went to pay for their car...that they used to get to & from their job. The vicious cycle didn't make much sense. I forgot my point here. I just really wanted to throw in a cheap shot at today's youth. There it is.

 5. We're OK With Making Sacrifices to Save Money.
If the collapse of the US economy has taught us anything, its that we can often do without the extras. We don't need a 7 bedroom house. We don't need an SUV and a '66 Mustang and a Miata in the garage. Many of us gearheads have had to thin the herd and sell off a few toys to make ends meet in the last 5 or 6 years. Its understandable that we're finding alternative ways to get to work or shuttle the kids around. Many of us also started to give a rip about the environment and started limiting our carbon footprint. This should be commended, but this die-hard car guy still has a hard time swallowing this bitter pill.

Don't loose faith, car culture isn't 100% dead yet. We maybe have 20-25 good years left before the party's over. We can rack up a lot of miles and deplete plenty of petroleum reserves between now and then! In all honesty, what do you think about our changing automotive landscape? I'd love to get a little discussion going and see how people view the future. Just hit up the POST COMMENT button below and start a flame war.

We Love Our Cars, and We Love Our Garages. But Will We Still Love Them in 25 Years?

That's about all the soap-box ranting I can do for now. Be sure to tune in next time when I'll tackle my 10 Reasons Why "Car Culture" Will Never Die...