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Jack Zaleski, Published November 16 2013

Zaleski: That nice new car won’t get the love

My car was at the dealership a few days ago for routine service. It’s a new model that has all the bells and whistles that are standard on most of today’s cars. I like it a lot, although if I were ever called on to do the simplest of repairs, I’d be lost in the new auto technology world of modern engines and vehicle systems.

Not long ago I opened the hood and looked at the efficient and powerful engine that effortlessly propels the car. It was like gazing into a NASA engineering lab. Mini-computers make it run like an expensive Swiss watch. Not at all what an engine compartment looked like back in the day.

I learned to drive on my mother’s 1953 Plymouth. It was a basic four-door sedan, two-tone green, AM radio, no air conditioning, three-speed manual stick on the column, crank windows, and a big flat, crank-with-your-arms steering wheel that would have looked at home on a schooner.

The motor was an in-line six-cylinder with a simple two-throat carburetor and easy-access spark plugs and oil filter. By the time I learned to drive the ol’ Plymouth, I could change oil, gap plugs, adjust ignition points and even replace the single-loop fan belt in less than an hour’s time. She ran smooth and quiet, until she didn’t. Then I did the easy fixes all over again.

When the Plymouth gave it up, Mom bought a ’63 Chevy Impala with that wondrous 327 eight under the hood. I loved it. When accelerating, it made a lovely growl. It was a metallic green four-door hard top, bench seats, AM-FM radio, power steering, automatic transmission and wide General tires. Talk about cool. I covered a lot of miles in that beautiful machine.

But still, I could work on the engine – plugs, filters, oil changes and the rest of the basic stuff. It was the only way to really get to know the car.

It’s just not possible with the high-tech systems in 21st-century cars. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The new models are marvelous triumphs of automotive science and engineering. They run better. They use lubricants that keep high-performance engines thrumming at top efficiency for 100,000 miles or more. They are safer. Coated and double-walled bodies don’t rust away. Everything about new cars is, objectively, better than the models I drove in the 1950s and ’60s.

But now a car is merely a means to an end. Get from here to there comfortably and safely. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the intimacy that came with working on an engine – and actually getting it done with your own greasy hands – is history and nostalgia for most of us. No matter how much I like my ultra-modern, does-it-all, safe-as-can-be, all-wheel-drive car, it will never get the love. There ain’t no way it can stir the emotional connection I had with that elegant ’63 Impala. Now there was a car …

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521.