The Best of Andy Rooney

The automobile industry always makes changes in its new models, but it isn't until 10 years later that you realize cars have gradually become different. The tail fins of the 1960s didn't disappear overnight.

I can't remember how many cars I've owned. A lot. My memory of cars goes back to the '30s before I was in high school. I don't believe the first car my parents owned had a heater because there was a bar across the back of the front seat with a blanket on it for people sitting in back. Maybe the car had heat in front but not in back. Air conditioning was unknown.

The windshield wipers were not automatic and if you wanted to clear rain from the windshield, you twisted the wipers by hand.

When you climbed into a car in those days, you first stepped on the running board. If you've seen some of those old Chicago gangster movies, you've seen running boards. Someone was always standing on the running board of one car, shooting at a car careening down the street ahead.

Radiator caps have disappeared. For many years, the most distinguishing characteristic of a car was the radiator cap on the front of the hood. They made ornaments of them and each make had its own. The temperature gauge for the water in the radiator was built into the hood ornament on my parents' 1935 Packard.

Every car came with a crank. It was frequently necessary to stick one end of the crank into a hole behind the front bumper and turn over the car's engine by hand until it started.

Cars weren't any bigger then, but there was more room for passengers and less room in the trunk for junk. On many early models, "the trunk" of a car was literally that -- a boxlike appendage attached to the rear of the car.

Most cars had small, fold-down seats in back and you could squeeze five people in back and three up front. The most fun of all was a rumble seat. Why did they abandon something that was such a joy?

The spare tire was carried on the running board in front of the driver's door and sank into an indentation in the fender. They were called "fenders" after the word "mudguard" was phased out. The best thing about fenders was, if you dented one, you could replace it. Now the metal part that covers the front wheels is so elaborate and so integrated into the whole body of the car that you have to buy a new car if you dent one.

In spite of all the cosmetic changes, the speed a car can travel has changed less than most other features. In 1938, I clearly recall driving a Chevrolet we owned 80 mph. I've seldom driven a car faster in the 50 odd years since then.

The first car I ever bought was right after World War II. Discharged as a sergeant, I sold a book to MGM in Hollywood, and with some of the money I bought one of the last cars built before the war, a 1942 Chrysler New Yorker. It was a long, sleek, black beauty with blue velvet upholstery that had been owned by a funeral director who'd never driven it more than 17 mph.

I should have put it in mothballs and brought it out now.

This classic Andy Rooney column was , originally published March 1, 1993.)

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