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The Cars They Drove

February 2024
4min read

Of all the marketing departments that helped raise the postwar generation, none were as cunning in the art of manipulation as those of the automaking companies. Any vehicle of the era could, after all, transport a person from one place to another. But then there were cars that evidently made the owner younger. Stronger, richer, or smarter. More fun at the beach.

In the matter of cars and practically everything else, baby boomers were left with the unpuritanical idea that desire is at least as important as reality. And so an accurate memoir of a baby boomer has to include an equal accounting of each. The two should rightly be relabeled, though, in deference to that third parent of the baby boomer….

What You Wanted to Buy What You Ended Up Buying

Shelby AC Cobra 427 (1964–67) An utterly practical sports car … for the nearest Grand Prix. Consisting largely of a Ford V-8 engine in a lightweight English chassis, the Cobra was so fast it hurt. Accelerating from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds, it left your head behind. Meanwhile, your stomach was flung somewhere on the side of the road when the car was going through turns at twice the posted limit. The Cobra was a sensation. For drivers coming of age in the 1960s, it has never quite been topped for performance in its purist form.

MGB (1962–80) About one-fourth as expensive as the Cobra and one-third as quick, the MGB was a docile sports car that racked up more sales than any other foreign sports car (104,603 to, for example, the Cobra’s 1,011). As a result, many a baby boomer owned a used MGB, if not a new one, somewhere along the way. It was relatively safe, handsome, and reliable (at least until the floor rusted away). But a docile sports car? In daydreams, that’s a contradiction in terms.

What You Wanted to Buy What You Ended Up Buying

Plymouth Road Runner (1968–74) Back-yard mechanics in the postwar years coaxed extra power out of family cars by stoking the engines, widening the wheels, and bolting on as many parts as possible from the Edelbrock or J. C. Whitney catalogues. In response, Detroit started to offer souped-up “muscle cars” straight from the factory. The Plymouth Road Runner was admirable as one muscle car that always remained within reach, a fairly inexpensive car that couldn’t be embarrassed by much when the light turned green. In honor of the Road Runner of cartoon fame, the car offered an optional horn that went “beep-beep.”

Honda Civic (1973– ) To be a young hothead in the early 1970s, when practically anyone could afford a potent car like a Road Runner, new or used, what could be better? Almost anything. No sooner did the price of fast cars come down to a commodity level in the form of muscle cars than insurance companies soured the fun by raising rates on high-performance cars. Then the oil shortages of 1973 and ’74 hit, the price of gas soared toward a dollar per gallon, and the fun was evidently all over. Compact cars rushed in to fill the void. Among them was the Honda Civic, an intelligently planned, solid little car that offered a kind of dignity amid the chaos.

What You Wanted to Buy What You Ended Up Buying

Porsche 911 (1964– ) The Porsche 911 is like no other car, particularly in two respects that matter most to the slightly rapacious type of baby boomer. First, the limits of the car are all but impossible to find. No matter how well one drives it, with whatever degree of bodacious precision, the Porsche is still the teacher. Less important, or more, the 911 is a badge that pronounces the success of the owner to everyone (except those relatives and space aliens who ask if it is a Volkswagen). Bill Gates bought a Porsche 911 with his first big paycheck. So did many another boomer, poorer possibly, but just as impatient as he.

BMW 2002 (1968–76) Known in German as die Flüstern Bombe (the whispering bomb), the 2002 coupe established the BMW with the incurably ambitious. The key was that its boxy styling was dapper but indifferent, like a button-down shirt. For that reason, it did not arouse suspicion among bosses, in-laws, and others who might construe ownership of a sports car as imprudent or worse, as … flashy. Mechanically, the 2002 was taut and balanced; it made good drivers great and let them leave clunky cars behind—forever.

What You Wanted to Buy What You Ended Up Buying

Volvo 240 Station Wagon (1974–93) The struggle in the hearts of baby boomers as they became parents lay in the fact that they suddenly seemed so much like their own parents. After instigating or at least surviving the counterculture revolution, baby boomers turned out to be just as conformist and materialistic as ever were their moms and dads. But in one respect, they did take a stand. They wouldn’t be caught dead in that symbol of 1960s family life, a station wagon. The only model that was acceptable (and even de rigueur for baby-toting baby boomers in the upper classes) was the Volvo, a veritable celebration of frumpy chic.

Chrysler Minivan (1984– ) In 1984 Chrysler introduced a new type of vehicle in the form of the Dodge Caravan and its cousin, the Plymouth Voyager. They were compact versions of cargo vans, but with seats in the back. Without any type of chic at all, parents could haul their own particular cargo around. Best of all, the minivan separated the parents from the kids in a way that a station wagon, with its enclosed space, never did. Worst of all: well, ditto.

What You Wanted to Buy What You Ended Up Buying

Jeep (1945– ) As a production vehicle, the Jeep was a postwar phenomenon, liberating people from the idea that cars had to be predictable or that roads had to be on maps. The postwar generation grew up with the Jeep in mind, an escape vehicle in more than one sense. From the 1940s to the early 1980s it remained admirably true to its rugged charm. More recently it has become almost comfortable, in some vinyl sense of the word. Still, the Jeep has retained its ability to make people of all ages look 23 and just a little wild.

Ford Explorer (1990– ) Despite being a fountain of youth, the Jeep is hard-riding, cramped, and only barely watertight. The Ford Explorer arrived to lead a pack of SUVs offering smoother, roomier, and more sedanlike four-wheeling. Sadly, the surge in popularity of the Explorer and its brethren had little to do with adventuring. Quite the opposite, it fed into fear. “They feel very safe and secure in it,” said an auto company executive of the customers for his SUV, “they sit higher, have a terrific view of the road, and with four-wheel-drive they know it will get them through rain, snow, anything.” That’s what aging baby boomers wanted, or so they were told.

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