I don’t consider myself a car guy. I’m not like my brother, who can strip a car down to its frame and rebuild it without any help from owner’s manuals, repair guides, or videos. But I can still hold my own in discussions about the basics. Still, there is one thing I am losing my touch on: identifying cars by sight and sound. Could it be that the years are catching up with me?
My recent automotive pondering was inspired by a California company known as CarFastCash. I recently ran across their website while doing some online research.
Now, I don’t live in San Bernardino County, and I have no intention of selling my used car. But poking around their website got me thinking about how intact my brain’s database of car knowledge really is. I am left with the following question: have cars really changed that much, or am I just getting old?
Engines Sound the Same
I am a product of the 1960s and 70s. When I was growing up, fuel injection wasn’t a thing. Neither were computers. My parents’ 1965 VW Bus was completely mechanical. And you know what? I learned at a very early age that VW motors had a very distinct sound.
Being a stickler for detail, I paid attention to engine sounds as I grew older. By the time I was a teenager, I could tell you the make of almost any car just by listening to the sound the engine made when it started. And in some cases, I could even tell you the model. For example, a Plymouth Reliant K car had a very distinct engine sound compared to the Plymouth Voyager passenger van.
These days, engines are starting to sound the same to me. My wife and I drive a Kia. Its engine doesn’t sound any different than my sister-in-law’s Honda. Why is that? It could be due to the consistent nature of electronic ignition. It could be the fact that engine parts are no longer made by a single manufacturer. Or it could just be that age has affected my hearing.
Body Styles Aren’t So Unique
Another thing I have noticed is that I’m starting to have trouble identifying cars based on their body styles. It used to be that I could identify make and model of any American car at half a mile. If you have ever seen a Plymouth Duster, you know it looks nothing like a Ford Pinto or a Chevy Chevette.
It used to be that car manufacturers went out of their way to make body styles somewhat unique. And because of that, each manufacturer had its own little design features that made them easy to identify. I mean, take the Cadillac Eldorado. It was produced from 1952 until 2002. Each generation had a distinct rear end that was easy to pick out in a crowd. No other car looked like the Eldorado from the back end.
These days, it seems like every car looks like the next. I find myself especially disturbed by modern SUVs. I can stand in a parking lot populated by Kia, Hyundai, Mazda, Ford, and Chevy SUVs. They all look the same to me. Not only are their body styles annoyingly similar, but almost nobody plays with color anymore. Everything is silver, black, white, or maroon.
Headlights, Taillights, and Wheel Wells
Back in the day, you might not be able to tell the difference between makes and models just by body style and engine sound. A good case in point is identifying a Chevy Impala as opposed to a Chevy Malibu. The cars have looked very similar throughout their entire production lives.
At a distance, their bodies look almost the same. Close-up, their engines sound about the same. But I could still tell them apart by looking at their taillights. There were subtle differences in the taillight lenses that stood out if you knew what to look for. I demonstrated that to my wife recently.
We were driving on I-95 somewhere in the Carolinas when we spotted a wrecker about a half mile ahead with a car on its back. For some unexplained reason, I blurted out that the car was a Chevy Impala. I could tell from the combination of the back end and the taillights.
Needless to say, my wife didn’t believe me. She said the car was too far away to identify. Well, it didn’t take long to catch up to the wrecker and overtake it. I was gleefully happy to point out the Impala nameplate on the side of the car as we drove by.
There are all sorts of things you can look at. For example, Chevy trucks have rectangular wheel wells while Fords and Dodges have rounded wheel wells. Even headlights differ between makes and models. Or at least they used to. As the years go by, I am finding that all these other unique features I used to be able to spot are fading away.
Converging into a Single Design
It could be just my imagination, but it seems like modern cars are all converging into a single design. They all look the same. Every sedan has that low riding, sleek profile that makes it look like a teardrop on wheels. SUVs all have the same rounded roofs, the same sloping hatches, and the same obnoxious hoods.
What I’m really left with these days is looking at hood ornaments. That is all well and good when I am standing within 10 or 15 yards, but it doesn’t help me at a distance. I can still identify a 1972 Ford Mustang at half a mile. You can blindfold me, and I can still identify 1980s Chevy and Chrysler engines just by listening. As for modern cars, forget about it.
Am I just old, or have cars really changed that much? My kids will tell you I’m old. As for me, I blame the cars. But that’s the way it should be.