Dec. 6th, 2013

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For a couple of miserable years I lived in the suburbs of Detritus, Michigan. It was the Motor City with a vengeance. The Ford kids beat up the Chevy kids. Both of these gangs beat up the few miserable Chrysler kids in the school. My father didn't work for any of the car companies, so everyone beat me up.

I have often said I'm glad I have forgotten the names of everyone I knew at that school. It means I don't feel guilty for failing to make the world a better place by hunting them all down and killing them. Did I mention that these were not happy times for me?

Be that as it may, being shackled to the Auto Industry had some interesting side effects too. For example, our games of marbles involved a lot of "steelies." These were large ball bearings that shop rats had brought home as toys for their kids. I never did find out whether the name came from what they were made of or from how they were obtained.

We also had some balls, in varying marble-like sizes, made of some brown-streaked material that looked more or less like limestone. I forget what we called them. Someone told me his dad got them for him out of one of the tumbler vats at the shop, where they were used to clean materials before assembly or something like that. I shudder now wondering what they might have been made of.

We heard all the shop legends too, of how bored shop rats might hide ball bearings inside the door panel of a Cadillac going down the line, along with a note that said "you finally found the rattle, you rich bastard." Or how if one of the assembly line workers ordered a new car, in a basic version, by the time it got to the end of the assembly line it would have every deluxe option in the book. Or how, on the other hand, some poor schmuck once ordered a Chevrolet bone stock, with no options at all- and crashed the inventory computer system for the entire plant. Nobody EVER ordered a car with no options at all. Nobody had thought to program the computers to allow such a possibility.

Option-buying couldn't have been any more different from today. Today even the most basic version of most cars will have a good radio, power windows, air conditioning, and a dozen other things which were expensive options or not available at all back in the day. The auto industry has twigged that it is cheap and easy to equip base models well, as long as they're all equipped the same way, and to offer upgrades as packages. When I bought my most recent car I could have had any number of individual appearance gadgets added at the dealership, but for individual items offered as factory options I think the only two available were a moonroof and a navigation package.

Back then options were individual items, except perhaps for a "power package" which might be power steering and brakes, or other such basic packages. And you really couldn't have a decent car without buying at least a few options. An engine big enough to actually move the car, an automatic transmission, a radio (AM only), power steering, power brakes, hubcaps, all were optional. At first, even the OIL FILTER was an optional extra on Chevrolets.

Air conditioning in cars was almost unheard-of. When I saw it, it was an after market add-on unit that occupied most of the space under the dashboard. When I first became aware of power windows they were an item of disgust, since who would be so lazy they couldn't be bothered to crank down a window?

In this era where you can hardly buy a toaster or a flashlight that doesn't have a clock built in, it may seem incredible that a car clock was a very expensive optional extra. Nobody I knew got them. There was always a flat plate in the dash, surrounded by a bezel of some kind, where the clock should go, but not a clock in there. Car clocks had a bad reputation, and well they might. They would have been a battery-driven mechanical clock, and you can only imagine the reliability problems of a mechanical clock subject to the heat, cold, shock, vibration, and dust inherent in an automotive installation. All the more so because the clocks were, supposedly, more complicated than most. Mechanical clocks are inaccurate, so you had to keep resetting the one in your car. Supposedly, if you set it ahead, that would make the clock run a little faster; if you set it back, a little slower, until you zeroed in on the right speed. Clever, but crazy complicated.

By the time I was driving myself a lot of this nonsense had gone away. The only really stripped down cars on the road were Government Specials. For a while, after certain luxuries became standard equipment, the State sent their cars to a special shop to have radios and such removed. Because the generous Taxpayers would get bent out of shape thinking of state employees driving around in their AMC Hornets with air conditioning and a tinny single-speaker AM-FM radio. We had to be denied such luxuries, even if they cost nothing more; even, in fact, if the State had to pay extra to have them removed.

These days it's hard to buy a car that doesn't have a pretty good suite of luxury and comfort features as standard. These days, if the car comes standard with power windows, air conditioning, and a radio, even we public employees are allowed to use them. That's one way today is better than the Good Old Days.

January 2015

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