On the Subject of Automotive Legacy
Photography by Josh Clason for Petrolicious
I drive a car that was first produced, in original form, in 1964. Over a decade before I was born. This means that it was conceived by engineers and bean counters even earlier, in 1961. To put this in context: this car was being noodled-on the same year the first American was launched into space, the Bay of Pigs was invaded, John Coltrane’s Jazz was “new wave”, cigarettes were still awesome and To Kill A Mockingbird was published in book form. In short, a very long time ago.
…and in truth, the car I drive hasn’t changed all that much in those intervening fifty years.
Sure, it’s gotten bigger and more powerful but the recipe is the same: a sporty, powerful, V8 engined, rear-wheel drive coupe. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m talking about the Mustang. But I could easily be discussing one of a handful of cars that have transcended the status of icon and come to represent something even bigger: time itself. The Corvette, 911, Mustang, Beetle, Camaro, Jeep… the list of specific car models still in production for about half-a-century is a short one. And it got me thinking, are cars of this type, cars that have been refined, but not changed, over many generations fundamentally better than cars with a shorter pedigree?
I would argue that yes, they are.
The reasons are many but in the most basic terms they just work better. They work better because the kinks have had fifty plus years to be smoothed out, they operate as a whole, not just a summary of parts. Sure, every generation brings a host of new engineering ideas and solutions (airbags explode in your face? What?) but the basic vehicle architecture is so well defined that the cars become something else entirely, an ideology, a benchmark.
When I sit in my fifth-generation Mustang I don’t think it’s just “cheap fun”, or that it’s, “low-cost, high power”, or that Brock Yates raced one in the 1970s… it just feels reliable to its bones. Now, I realize this may be a complete fallacy and I’m sure many readers can point to any number of terrible Ford Mustangs they’ve owned. But the simple fact remains, when I sit down in the seat of a 911, or a Mustang, or any of the above mentioned cars, I’m also settling my rear into fifty years of legacy.
This means something to me and to a great many others. Legacy, is a refutation of boring. Legacy means that enough people collectively enjoyed something that it never went out of style. It changed, it morphed, it developed… but the fundamentals still carry the weight of its own history. A legacy car channels decades of time and distills them into a singular experience.
Now, to be fair, there are many people who don’t care. Lets just get that out of the way. A great many people purchase these types of cars and give little or no thought to the idea they may represent something greater than the whole. They buy a 911 because someone told them it was “the best.” They lease a Ford Mustang because Ford’s brilliant marketing team convinced them it was inexpensive, fast, and fun. In fact, I often see Mustang drivers on the road (there are many of them on the road) and very few offer any acknowledgement. And I try, trust me. But for a select few of us, the ones that care about design elements, brand values, even inherent flaws… legacy matters. We are the owners that celebrate the unique experience of a rear-engine, rear-drive platform, or the chatter of a live-rear axle set-up.
In fact, it’s owners like us that have effectively created these legacy models. Enthusiasts. We’re the ones who keep the icons driving, and celebrating, pushing them to the front of people’s consciousness by reflecting on their value and selling them to our friends, joining owner groups, and getting them in movies and television. Enthusiasts are responsible for creating the legacy.
And I feel that. Every time I start my Mustang the rumble of the engine comforts me. I know that teams of people have been working on this engine for fifty years. I know that it won’t break on me, that it will do what it’s supposed to do because the weight of time matters. Cars are transportation, commodities… they are things. But to me, and a great many of you, they are often something more.
Image Sources: tocmp.org