Weird talent is waning

Dar mentions in today’s column four reasons it’s harder nowadays to identify cars. Reason number four is lack of major annual model changes. Car spotting was easier, he asserts, back in the ’50s and ’60s when automakers made dramatic styling changes each year even if the car’s platform and greenhouse remained unchanged. Dar took this photo of a 1959 (on the right) and freshened 1960 Buick to show clearly the noticeable degree of year-to-year changes made to cars of the era, thus making car spotting a snap.

Back in the day, one of my weird talents was to be able to identify every car on the road (year, brand, model). Unfortunately my long-time weird talent is in steep decline.

In recent years there’s not a day when I don’t become frustrated because a dark-colored sedan passes by and I have absolutely no idea what it was. For those readers who also find it more and more difficult to tell one car from another, I have given the subject some thought and I have an explanation. I actually have four:  1) I’m getting older and my brain is full, 2) There are a lot more brands on the road, 3) Blame it on a trend to make cars aerodynamic and 4) Cars aren’t given an annual model-year freshening.

Let me expand on each of these four. Number one is probably a cop-out on my part. I’m sure aging brains do slow down but I’m sure there must be a number of people out there who are over 70 who still can keep track of all the continuous new car introductions and identify any car with a quick glance. They probably are so sharp that they can tell a car at night just from the car’s tail lights like I could when I was 18 and a student in college. I now-days think of my brain as a compact disc. It began to fill with data from the time I opened my eyes on that fall day in 1943. Now, over those years, I assume the reason I can’t seem to remember the names and looks of all the new cars is because my CD is nearly full. Instead of data going into the brain and sticking, the new data kind of falls off into nowhere. So this problem is an age thing.

Number two reason – lots more nameplates – can’t be refuted. Back in the good old days in the middle of the 20th century (that would be the 1950s and 1960s, more or less) a vast majority of the cars purchased in the U.S. were domestic brands (cars and trucks) and using 1955 as a benchmark the major Big Three and Little Two automakers offered 18 brands. Can you name them? My overloaded CD (brain) came up with that number quick because the data is old and still hanging on. There was Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, GMC and Cadillac at GM; Ford, Mercury and Lincoln at Ford Motor and Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial from the Big Three and there was Nash, Hudson and Rambler from AMC and Studebaker and Packard from Studebaker Packard Corporation from the Little Two.

Today in the U.S. market, the number of nameplates now tempting car buyers has gone up a bit. Actually a great big bit. Notice I switched from saying brands for counting 1955’s figures to using nameplates for 2019’s figures. In 1955 a brand – let’s say Buick – was pretty much one platform and sold in four configurations or series: Special, Century, Super and Roadmaster. But when you spoke of Buick back then it was basically the same car. Today we have a brand – say Toyota – but it comes in an astonishing 19 different nameplates, each with their own series and most with their own separate platform: e.g. Avalon, Camry, Corolla, Prius, Supra, 4Runner, Highlander, Sienna ... you get the picture. So when you say the Toyota brand today, there are 19 nameplates and dozens of series that can come to mind.

According to my count (I went to my Auto News and hand counted) there are an astonishing 220 separate car and truck nameplates, both domestic and foreign, presently waiting for us in dealer’s showrooms. That’s compared to those 18 brands from 1955. There is a lot more product on the market today and it is reason number two why I can’t keep track of them like I used to.

Here’s reason number three. I often hear from people who tell me they can’t tell cars apart. I think the biggest reason, and I’ve written about this in the past, is that when fuel standards tightened up and the government wanted cars to go farther on a gallon of gas to save oil, the designers all turned to the same Holy Grail of design solutions and built a wind tunnel to help them create vehicle shapes that would slice through the air with greater ease, thus reducing drag and improving fuel mileage. When you turn to science and mother nature to design your car, they tend to all come out looking quite alike. They all look like a smooth, flat-sided jellybean with four tires. This all-the-same-look issue is why automakers work hard to give their vehicles a unique face (grille) so at least some of us can identify them with a quick glance as they pass by.

Reason number four: Major annual styling “freshenings” are things of the past. I could show you hundreds of examples of autos from the past (going back to the 1930s and sooner) where significant yearly model changes or freshenings made spotting and identifying cars easy. Today I’m showing photos of just one brand from a two year period in the late 1950s as a good example of these annual changes. Back in those days, automakers routinely introduced an all new car, then did a major freshening each successive year. The changes, especially to front end, would be dramatic and make it easy to tell the difference at a glance. The example I use is a favorite brand of mine back in the day – I even drive the brand today – and it is Buick. I tell people I’m a Mopar guy but I’m also a Buick guy because I grew up near Flint.

The all-new finned 1959 Buick was dramatically new compared to the 1958 chrome-mobile model it replaced. With its canted headlights, soaring fins and bejeweled grille, the 1959 Buick was a knockout and you could spot it coming from 10 blocks away. In 1960 with the same platform, greenhouse and underbody, Buick designers changed all the exterior sheet metal and gave the car a different look but it was still unmistakably a Buick – and it was a snap to tell the two years apart. The point being that it was changed so those who follow car design could easily tell one from the other AND it is why to this day I can spot a 1959 from a 1960 Buick from a long distance. Can’t say that about any 2019 vs. 2020 vehicle unless it is an all-new entry. Today many cars remain in production for several years with little or slim model year changes. Can readers tell a 2012 Tesla Model S from a 2019 Model S? If you can, you are a bona fide car nut and I congratulate you. And I bet you are aren’t a senior citizen.

• Trivia answer: 58 (1959) and 160 (1958)

Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at drd43@sbcglobal.net.