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Car Homogenization: What Have Regulations Wrought?

“Some 30 years ago, futurists imagined that cars of the future would be stunning and beautiful and would bring total joy to driving. …  That future has been entirely wrecked, a dashed dream that had to die to make way for the weird, homogenized stuff we are permitted to buy today.”

The antique car, specially ordered for the occasion, was waiting for the bride and groom to take them to the reception. I was among the wedding guests who found myself more enraptured by the car than by the main event.

The stunning car was a Studebaker. At best I can tell, it was a 1940 Commander convertible. I had to look it up: This company was born in 1852 and died in 1967, and produced some of the most visually gorgeous cars in its day. It even made an electric car in 1902! Wartime controls shrunk its margins and led to an industry consolidation from which the company never recovered.

This Saturday afternoon, after all these years, this car was still fabulous. We stood in a parking lot packed with new models of the guests, but no one cared about them. We were all obsessing about this old Studebaker. It is rightly named: It commands attention. The shape makes it a work of art. The hood looks like nothing made today. The red leather interior luxurious.

Amid our admiration, we wondered about the gas mileage. It can’t be more than today’s gigantic “light trucks,” but we all agreed that paying more to drive something that cool would be worth it.

Yet it’s not a choice. No manufacturer can make a car like this anymore. Step back from the situation and think about it. In the 1930s, phones were awful, and you were lucky to have one at all. No one today would give up a smartphone for one of those old things. Same with shoes, computers, televisions, ovens, and so much more. No one wants to go back.

With cars, it’s a different matter. Our sense of nostalgia is growing, not receding. But we don’t even have the choice to go back. There will be no more pretty cars. The government and its tens of thousands of micromanaging regulations on motor vehicles will not allow it.

The day before the wedding, I was at the grocery store and saw another amazing car, this one a tiny sports model with roll bars. It just took my breath away, and I’m not even much of a car person. I usually don’t care what I drive. But this one was just too great not to elicit a sense of awe.

I asked the owner where he bought it, what model, what make, etc. This car challenged my impression that all new cars look the same. He said that he built it in his garage. He got the kit from Factory Five Racing.

“You have to build your own car in a garage because no maker is able to sell something like that?”

“You got it.”

These car kits are a way of “breaking bad” in an era of total government control of the physical world. They are a workaround. The law permits hobbyists and antique collectors and used car owners to drive these pretty cars around. But it doesn’t allow carmakers to sell road-legal cars that look just like these.

The old expression goes “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” There’s only one problem: It should not be true in a developed economy. We should be able to take advantage of the division of labor. We shouldn’t have to build our own cars any more than we should have to weave our own clothes. But that is exactly where the regulations have taken us.

Did you ever wonder how car companies can make stunningly great cars that they call “concept cars,” but these cars are somehow never available to you and me? I’ve always been puzzled about this. I figured it was just because the concept cars were too expensive to make. That’s not it. It’s that the regs don’t allow them to exist as retail items.

It hasn’t happened all at once. It’s been a bit at a time, taking place over four decades in the name of safety and the environment. The whole thing began in 1966 with creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, followed by the Environmental Protection Agency and dozens of others. Every regulator wanted a piece of the car.

Each new regulation seems like it makes sense in some way. Who doesn’t want to be safer and who doesn’t want to save gas? But these mandates are imposed without any real sense of the cost and benefits, and they come about without a thought as to what they do to the design of a car. And once the regs appear on the books, they never go away. They are stickier than code on a patented piece of software.

Sameness: Five Reasons

Now the endgame has arrived. Try as they might, manufacturers have a terrible time distinguishing their cars from each other’s. Car homogenization has become something of an Internet meme. It turns out that all new cars more or less look alike. I had begun to notice this over the last 12 months and I thought I was just imagining things. But people playing with Photoshop have found that you can mix and match car grills and make a BMW look just like a Kia and a Hyundai look just like a Honda. It’s all one car.

Truly, this cries out for explanation. So I was happy to see a video made by CNET that gives five reasons: mandates for big fronts to protect pedestrians, mandates that require low tops for fuel economy, a big rear to balance out the big fronts, tiny windows resulting from safety regulations that end up actually making the car less safe, and high belt lines due to the other regs. In other words, hysterical concern for safety and the environment has wrecked the entire car aesthetic.

Never mind that safety and the environment create contradictory results. The more gas you save, the lighter the car and the more likely it is to kill you in a crash. Corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regs have certainly killed many people. Similarly, the more safe it is, the more gas it uses, as a general principle. Meanwhile, the gas itself is being ruined with corn additives that shorten the life of the engine.

These regulations are responsible for the disappearance of the station wagon and the domination of the car market by huge vehicles that can be classified as trucks, which are regulated according to a different standard. That’s right: Regulations designed to encourage fuel economy have done exactly the opposite by pushing people out of cars and into SUVs — which just so happens to be exactly what the big three manufacturers want. It is not surprising that the most consistent voices against CAFE standards have come from abroad, not from Detroit.

No one set out to wreck the diversity, functioning, and beauty of our cars. But that is precisely what has happened, as the political and bureaucratic elites have asserted their own value systems over the values of both producers and consumers. They are the masters and we are the slaves, and we are to accept our lot in life.

Consider the point about pedestrians. How many lives has a high front end really saved? No one knows. But the regulation itself seems to rule out the possibility that drivers and pedestrians can work out problems for themselves, without regulatory intervention. In other words, we are being treated like children. Wait, not even that. We are being treated as if we have no brains at all.

Lost Future

The situation is very serious. Some 30 years ago, futurists imagined that cars of the future would be stunning and beautiful and would bring total joy to driving. Consider, for example, this Triumph that was said to be the “car of the future.” That future has been entirely wrecked.

Regulators made it the car of the past, a dashed dream that had to die to make way for the weird, homogenized stuff we are permitted to buy today.

Americans used to take pride in our cars and laugh at the horrible cars produced under socialism in, for example, East Germany. The Trabant will go down in history as one of the worst cars ever. But as we look back at it, at least you could see out the windows and at least the plan seemed to put the interests of the actual driver above Mother Nature and the nondrivers. The socialist central planners had a bit more sense than the American regulators.

In the end, if the goal is to protect the peds and the Earth, you can do no better than mass transit and the bicycle. We all know that this is what they are after. Last year, the Obama administration announced new fuel economy standards to be obeyed by 2025 that no gas-alone car in existence can comply with. These standards will vastly raise the price of the car and force into existence a world in which cars are all electric or plug-in hybrids. (Read the gory details here.)

Everyone rightly condemns bailouts and cronyism that sustain unsustainable industries. But here is the truth. If the corporate fat cats in the car industry and the unions that dominate them didn’t have political pull, the abolition of the car would probably be an already accomplished fate. As it is, the car is allowed. But it is not allowed to develop, not allowed to take a shape that consumers would like, and not allowed to function like an actual economic good.

The car was the foundation of the second industrial revolution. Encroaching government is robbing it of its rich future. We once dreamed of a flying car. The regulators are putting us in the position of just dreaming about returning to the glory days of the 1970s.

What a shame.

———————

Jeffrey Tucker, a multidisciplinary libertarian scholar, is currently the executive editor of Laissez Faire Books. He is an adjunct scholar of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and a faculty member at Acton University.

10 comments

1 Myron Mesecke { 12.14.12 at 9:50 am }

Hurray! I’m glad someone is saying this.

Back when we had one shape and two sizes of head lights cars looked very different. Now head lights can be any shape and size yet the cars all look the same. I really hate the “coupe like” styling on 4 door sedans. I’ll gladly trade a couple mpg in order to have a 4 door sedan that looks like a 4 door sedan.

I drive a 2001 Jeep Cherokee and even though I would love to have better gas mileage I’m not about to give up all the glass area I have that offers superior visibility compared to any new vehicle on the road. In fact my 2001 is my second Cherokee. I bought my first in 1989. So I have managed to safely daily drive Jeep Cherokee’s for 23 years. With lots of glass, thinner roof pillars, no ABS, no stability control, no traction control, no back up sensors or cameras, no adaptive cruise control (I don’t even use cruise control). No flipping, no rolling, no injuries or deaths. Only accident was getting rear ended at a traffic light. And my head lights are glass so they don’t cloud and haze like cheap plastic head lights.

2 Great Lakes Legal Foundation { 12.14.12 at 10:29 am }

Great blog! We’re sharing this with our readers http://www.gllf-regwatch.org/blog/2012/12/14/car-lovers-lament

3 Max { 12.14.12 at 1:33 pm }

I’ve been thinking of this subject for some time.
Here is a vid that shows some of what we lost.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2D9WgvRzaWw

I often go to a local Coffee and Cars, there are millions of dollars of cars on display. One thing that is very apparent, nearly all of the new exotic cars have very dull styling. Even the Bugatti Veyron isn’t all that exiting to look at. I would consider it forgettable in the styling department.
The kit car world is the only place you can get a truly styled car. Or a reproduction of an old car, even race cars. You have a choice of options, even alter things to your taste.
One other thing a lot of the guys that make kit cars, offer what they call turnkey serves. They will build it for you.

There is a lot shenanigans that go on in that world(which is part of kit cars negative rep). Not long ago one the car manufactures came down on the kit car world. The knock-offs were getting too good.

4 Ed Reid { 12.14.12 at 9:59 pm }

I have always loved cars. I have never been able to fit into the really “cool” cars because I am too big and my trunk is too long. While I would love to be able to own a really “cool” car, I hope that I will at least be able to buy a car that I can sit up straight in and drive comfortably. Such vehicles are already relatively rare; and, are likely to become more so.

5 Ingvar Engelbrecht { 12.15.12 at 12:50 pm }

I love cars. I have had a 1955 Ford Thunderbird. My daily driver is a Pontiac Phoenix 1978. 4 door sedan nice looking with 90000 km on it. Nothing exceptional, just good looking

6 Steve. C. { 12.15.12 at 6:13 pm }

I think the market has changed. If you grew up in the post WWII era, you grew up in the car culture. Some time in the past 25 years, that culture expired. My kids, all adults, think cars are for transportation. Now, is that because modern cars don’t have the same appeal they once did, or just that cars are no longer part of who we are?

Sure, I miss the distinctive cars of my youth but my contemporary 4 door sedan is safer, more comfortable and more reliable than any big iron produced by old Detroit.

7 Ingvar Engelbrecht { 12.16.12 at 3:19 pm }

Steve.
My 1978 Pontiac Phoenix is not a classic. It is actually a sneak “compact” from that time. A standard four door sedan. It has no special features except for an odd looking front. But in some way it has appeal. I get thumbs up from all kind of people in all age categories. From 5 to 75

Now the 55-57 American cars are classics. And some later Cadillacs. But that is different.
I have a hypothesis for why kids like it. It has the same proportions as a toy car :-)

8 Wendy { 12.28.12 at 10:57 am }

posted this on corvetteforum. should bring about some good discussion. Thanks!

9 Walford S { 12.28.12 at 7:39 pm }
10 JimB { 02.14.13 at 12:48 pm }

I drive a 2003 Town Car. And I will continue to drive it until either it dies or I do. The modern motorcar has all the electronic gadgets, but no automotive soul. They all look like turtles with wheels.

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