21 Jan 2014

When Was The Best Time For Cars, And For Us?

Someone recently asked on Twitter, "If you had the power to wake up in a different decade tomorrow which would it be and why?"

My answer was the 1970s because it was the last decade before the introduction of the internet, personal computers and smartphones.  Life back then was freer and simpler.  People didn't always know where you were and what you were up to.

Without knowing it the individual was liberated by not being electronically tracked by corporations, the state and by any other individual with the requisite technology and savvy.

Cars were simpler too, and arguably more fun.  My own car, the Porsche 924 was introduced in 1976.  It features an engine, a manual gearbox, 50/50 weight distribution and is unburdened by modern safety and emissions tech.  As such it weighs a shade over 1,000 kg and is a simple, delightful drive that's cheap to run and easy to maintain.

The 70s also gave us the Lamborghini Miura, Jaguar XJ Series II, Lotus Esprit, Dodge Challenger R/T,  Ford Capri, Porsche 911 Turbo, the first BMW 3-Series and of course the Volkswagen Golf.
1974 Porsche 911 Turbo

Whether you were a rock star, a bank manager or a milkman there was a car for you, and it was good looking, good fun and simply made.  

It is arguable that we have lost some of those delights with the advent of eco and crash test regulations and technology.  Cars nowadays are complex, their designs are blunted by various regulations and the cost of running a used example will increase as independent garages and home mechanics are increasingly unable to work on them.

But, my answer to the original question had a second part.  I said that the law, institutions and authority in general was corrupt, and without technology we were unable to do anything about it.  The individual's freedom was limited by those in power precisely because society in general believed in and adhered to the principle that national institutions were right whereas the individual was wrong.  And the press was complicit in that corruption.

From the children molested by BBC personalities or priests to the innocents who were abused by the police and ignored by a press who colluded with the institutions (Stefan Kiszco, the Hillsborough families etc) the public at large were told what was happening, and what to do, by 'the system'.

So perhaps the 70s weren't so great.  But the cars still were, weren't they.

I worked in telecoms through the 90s and 2000s.  I was involved in building the first 3G networks.  We  were all allocated 3G enabled phones but neither we, nor the public, quite knew what to do with them.  There was no 'killer app'.

Then, in 2007, Apple launched the iPhone.  It didn't take long for the mobile phone to make the leap from a simple liberation of the individual (by their ability to send text messages and make calls on the move) to become an all encompassing internet-anywhere device.

The smartphone was with us.  And with that our lives slowly changed, as had it with the introduction and popularisation of personal computers and the internet in the 80s and 90s.

Not necessarily for the worse or better.  Just changed.  We could now be tracked and our lives analysed in detail so Facebook, Google and other corporate giants could target us with specific adverts.  But social media, particularly Twitter, gave the individual the power to become more than just a part of an amorphous mass.

Corrupt and self serving institutions have been unmasked and the individuals who benefited from institutionalised protection have been brought to justice.  

Whistleblowers can blow their whistles easily and anonymously if they wish.  Even something so seemingly insignificant as dreadful and unsanitary hospital food can be highlighted by a patient blogging a photo of it every day, to the extent the hospital is forced to improve the meals it dishes up.  In the 70s this would have been impossible.

Modern cars by definition are packed with the latest in technology.  They can be tracked wherever they are, they show us how to get where we want to go, we can integrate smartphones with them, they emit tiny amounts of pollutants, they can park themselves, they can prevent crashes, they can protect pedestrians who don't observe the simple rules of the highway, they can stop short of dimwitted cyclists, they allow us to see in the dark and they can protect us if we crash them.

But also, many new cars are brilliant to drive and look beautiful.

Sure the Mk7 Golf looks supremely bland and bloated when placed next to its 1976 predecessor but it drives better, goes faster and we are less likely to die in it.

The Jaguar F-Type Coupe has been revealed and will be available to buy in 2014.  It is also one of the most beautiful cars ever made.
2014 Jaguar F-Type Coupe

My own Porsche 924S might be superb to drive but I am far more likely to be injured or killed in a crash in it than I would in its modern equivalent, the Cayman - which is a better car in every single way.

In reality the decade I would like to live in is this, the 2010s.  Technology has liberated the individual both in terms of personal freedom and in personal transportation.  

There is a saying that you have to take the rough with the smooth.  The rough in this case is a loss of innocence, of simplicity, of finding out what life has to offer in small steps.

Nowadays we can find out everything via our smartphone.  Which is great because when I'm working on one of my cars I can find out how to replace or service any component via my iPhone, in an instant.  In the 1970s that level of knowledge was available only to those who had the requisite training and technical manuals.

In the 2010s we have great cars and more individual liberty than ever.  I wouldn't want to live in any other decade.

Article by Matt Hubbard