Low Tech, No Tech

Stephan Wilkinson
by Stephan Wilkinson

One afternoon, while watching a radar-controlled German ubersedan drive itself, the fading sun struck my eyes. Surrounded by microprocessors, solenoids, relays, pumps, controllers, fans, sensors, circuit boards and endlessly coursing electrons, I did what every driver must do: I reached up for a vinyl-covered board and pivoted it down to cover a small patch of windshield through which I now could no longer see. Excuse me? The $105k four-door was crowded with technology, all of it entertaining, much of it only occasionally useful. Yet no one had thought to correct, improve, replace, redesign or reconceptualize a device as primitive as the Budweiser Clydesdales’ blinders. What’s that all about?

In an era when even ordinary sunglasses readily change their opacity, and upmarket carmakers play pointless electroluminescent tricks with sunroofs, we still lower plastic panels in front of our face to block the sun on the windshield. You can't see through sunvisors. They cover only limited areas of the windshield. And because they pivot on a mechanical device as sophisticated as a drawer-pull, you can move them through, at best, two axes. In short, the sunvisor is a low-tech nightmare that needs immediate attention. In this it is not alone.

My first car was a 1936 Ford Phaeton. The vehicle had rubber strips on metal sticks that flapped back and forth to sort of clear the water off the windshield. The aforementioned 2007 supersedan has rubber strips on metal sticks that flap back and forth to sort of clear the water off the windshield glass. I've piloted Learjets that didn't have windshield wipers; they use artfully directed hot air. On final approach in the rain– the only time you're bothering to clear the windshield in a jet– the Lear wasn't going any faster than any big Mercedes, BMW or Audi.

How about jacks? Aren’t they the work of a genius? Actually they are. If you have to change a tire, you use a mechanical screw device invented during the Renaissance by Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, only da Vinci would still bother trying to use one. The rest of us call Roadside Assistance, since tires and wheels are too heavy to lift anyway. No, don’t bother telling me how much you and Pat Robertson can bench-press. The point is that the whole tire-changing ritual– jack, lug wrench, multiple nuts and studs– is still performed exactly as it was for a 1932 DeSoto.

Fuelling our cars also hasn’t changed since the Hoover administration. You unscrew a cap and stick a crude spigot into a filler pipe. Of course, this assumes you can find the artfully hidden switch that unlocks the little door covering the cap. I almost abandoned [an owner’s manual-less] Ferrari when it proved virtually impossible to locate the damn gas-flap toggle. The only part of refueling that’s improved since World War I is the gas pump itself, which now requires credit card activation.

True, there are ancient devices on/in cars that work wonderfully. A $1.29 hardware-store ignition key springs to mind. So how is it that car keys have grown in both complexity and size– to the point where I keep expecting the women in my life to ask, “Is that a luxury car key fob transponder in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Heaven help you if you lose your lump in Mae’s couch; a new key now sets you back $400.

Consider hood latches. How many times have you fished around in that damn one-inch gap between hood and fan shroud, tearing gouges in your knuckles in the fruitless search for a latch release designed by a moron hewing to 100 years of tradition established by idiots? Who wrote the law that hood latches have to be accessible only by the flattened fingers of a concert pianist? Why do we need to go through the same hood-latch exercise our grandfathers did when everything else in the world can be made to answer to a remote? (The key!)

Understand that it’s the latch that pisses me off, not the opening system. To wit: Porsche has long since abandoned its perfectly good mechanical-cable hood-popping system for an electric release. So when you run the battery dead in a Porsche Boxster– easy enough to do when you raise the roof and forget to turn the ignition off– there’s no way to reach the battery. It sits quite happily underneath the electrically operated, now-immobile front hood. You have to get on your knees outside the driver's door, reach under the dashboard and use jumper cables to pop the switch that opens the front hood. Needless to say, you then have to repeat the exercise to jump the battery.

I guess we should be careful what we wish for.

Stephan Wilkinson
Stephan Wilkinson

I'm the automotive editor of Conde Nast Traveler and a freelancer for a variety of other magazines as well. Go to amazon.com and read more about me than you ever wanted to know if you do a search for either of my current books, "The Gold-Plated Porsche" and "Man and Machine." Been a pilot since 1967 (single- and multi-engine land, single-engine sea, glider, instrument, Cessna Citation 500 type rating all on a commercial license) and I use the gold-plated Porsche, a much-modified and -lightened '83 911SC, as a track car.

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  • Bob Elton Bob Elton on Jun 20, 2006

    The reason that hoods pop open only an inch is the federal regulation about secondary hood latches. The reason windshields are not self dimming is, again, the federal regyulations about the light transmissability of glass. Ditto for the sizeof the sunvisors. This essay should have been targeted to your congressman. Incidetnally, the heated washer fluid inthe Lucerne is about 140 deg F. That's sucha neat feature that it almost swayed my wife from the Mustang GT, butnot quite.

  • Stephan Wilkinson Stephan Wilkinson on Jun 21, 2006

    That's as useful as saying, "The reason that cars have incandescent sealed-beam headlights is the Federal regulation about..." Stephan Wilkinson

  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys i was only here for torchinsky
  • Tane94 Workhorse probably will be added to the heap of failed EV companies.
  • Freddie Instead of taking the day off, how about an article on the connection between Black Americans and the auto industry and car culture? Having done zero research, two topics pop into my head: Chrysler designer/executive Ralph Gilles, and the famous (infamous?) "Green Book".
  • Tane94 Either Elio Motors or Aptera Motors.
  • Billccm I think we will see history repeat itself. The French acquired AMC in the 1980s, discovered they couldn't make easy money, sold AMC off to Chrysler. Jeep is all that remained. This time the French acquired FCA, and they are discovering no easy profits. Assume an Asian manufacturer will acquire what remains of Chrysler, but this time Jeep and RAM are the only survivors.