October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated Perhaps they didn’t have enough Tonkas in their childhoods. Perhaps they had too many. But the craze among current car buyers for fourwheel drive in general and SUVs in particular must be compensating them for something very deep and dark. If someone had told Henry Leland, the perfectionist engineer who founded Cadillac, that his successors would line a truck in leather and then call it a Cadillac (the Escalade), he’d have spit nickels. P. T. Barnum would have winked.
Apparently, a whole generation in America longs for a vehicle with less space than a minivan (but more sex appeal), worse handling than a Yugo (but more status), and gas mileage that puts a twinkle in the eyes of oil sheiks. All of that might be chalked up to some kind of personal preference, but four-wheel-drive vehicles, including SUVs, are overrated in terms of safety. In winter, for example, a front-wheel-drive car like a Taurus, equipped with snow tires, is a better choice. However, it doesn’t touch the lumberjack within.
Underrated One of the things that everyone knows about the Model T Ford is that it was the first automobile to make motoring affordable. Except that it wasn’t. The Curved-Dash Oldsmobile was the first car for “even/man” in America. Light like a sleigh, the Olds was an inexpensive car specifically directed at those restless masses who couldn’t afford a Packard, a Benz, or even a PanhardLevassor. And it sold by the thousands in the earliest years of the 190Os, when autos produced in the dozens were considered ubiquitous. “In My Merry Oldsmobile” was not only the title of a hit song, it was where a lot of people were or wanted to be. While no one ever complained that the CurvedDash Olds was over-powered, it was one of the few cars before about 1962 that you could steer with one finger. It was also hardier than it looked (but then, it looked like a Christmas-tree ornament). The little Olds was at its best on city macadam and in good weather—and along flat terrain at that. The Model T, on the other hand, would make its mark starting in 1908 as the first everywhere everyman’s car, a contented mudhog and a glutton for abuse. It’s impossible to overrate the Model T, which was stupendous on the road and as a social force, but it was not the first American car to eive the chauffeur a wav to set home from work.