6 Things Cars Don't Have Any More (Good and Bad)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 13, 2015

Did you ever wonder why old cars have those cool-looking double sidemount tires? Well, they needed at least two spares (and sometimes had more) because the roads were terrible, as was the build quality of tires at the time.

A journey that wasn’t accompanied by a puncture was cause for celebration. The tubeless tires announced in 1947 were a big leap forward.

This 1939 Packard has sidemounted tires because, well, they had a lot of blowouts back then. (David Berry./Flickr)That got me thinking about all the other things that cars had once and no longer do, for better or worse. Here are a few, with my verdicts:

Do these things ever work properly? Not in my experience. (AAA photo)Flat Lining.

Speaking of tires, the trunk-mounted spare has been doing a long goodbye, first replaced by “space saver” mini tires, then by cans of tire sealer and a mini compressor. Blame the fuel economy race—tires are heavy, and giving the spare a heave-ho eliminates 30 pounds or so. AAA reported this week that tire inflators and run-flat kits have replaced spare tires on 29 million cars and trucks in the last decade. Such solutions were on five percent of cars in 2006, and they’re on more than one-in-three now.

I appreciate the fuel savings, but I’ve had terrible luck with those inflator kits. Puncture the sidewall, and you’re stuck, buddy. Overall, thumbs down on this one.

 This six-speed manual is an Audi A5. (Maria Palmer/Flickr)Shiftless.

Even Corvettes and Ferraris have automatics these days. Millennials don’t even want to drive, let alone how to use a clutch. According to an IHS Automotive survey last year, the “take rate” for manuals in the U.S. is five percent. Five percent! Only 10 percent of nameplates even offer manuals here, which is a drop from 35 percent in 1980.

Even Europe, which was holding out on the manual, is giving in. It’s sad, because I love to drive shift—and still own two cars with four- and five-speeds. I even converted one of my Volvos from auto to manual. There’s no longer a debate about this—it’s happening, like it or not. I don’t, so thumbs down.

The beautiful bench in my 1963 Dodge Dart ragtop.The flag is left over from the Memorial Day Parade. (Jim Motavalli photo)Back Benchers.

My ’63 Dart convertible, identical to Tom Magliozzi’s old ride, has a bench seat—a big comfy sofa that can seat three in a pinch. You really sink into it. It also folds forward for easy access to the back seat—I’ve never had anyone complain. Sure, it offers not a shred of side support. Power slide into a corner, and you’re butt’s going to power slide, too. But my 170-cubic-inch Slant Six doesn’t allow power sliding, and the seatbelts I added keep me in place.

Toyota tried to bring back the bench seat with the Avalon, but it didn’t work. Other models that offered bench options are long-gone grand-pop vehicles like the Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car. The Chevy Impala offered one in 2013, but no more. Buick was a holdout, for a while. You can get a front bench in a 2016 Tahoe! Call me a nostalgist, but I’m voting thumbs down here.

 With a tiny 200-cc engine, the Penguin Amphicar was probably fine with six-volt electrics. More modern cars? Not so much.Generating Trouble.

One of the best things auto companies did was switch, around 1955 or so, to alternators (from generators) and to 12-volt electric systems (from six). I remember one old bomb I drove around had headlights that achieved their full brightness only when the engine was revving. People at stoplights thought I wanted to drag race with them. Generators were always giving up the ghost, and giving about as much light as a luminescent Mickey Mouse watch.

Emphatic thumbs up on this one. By the way, we were supposed to switch to 42-volt systems a decade or more ago, but there were big technical problems with it. So we’re stuck with good ‘ol 12 volts.

The vent windows are gone, and the outside mirrors are next. (GmanViz/Flickr photo)Venting About Vent Windows.

Before more 90 percent of new cars came with air conditioning, cars had a triangular ventilation device called the “vent window” that was supposed to direct air towards the driver (and passenger) while the car was moving. In theory, it did, but the air pressure tended to push those vent windows closed at the most inopportune moments. Plus, forcing their flimsy latches was an easy way for thieves to get into your car. Does anyone miss the vent window? No, me neither.

The Dart has wind-up windows, too. Power locks? Are you kidding? (Jim Motavalli photo)Do it Yourself: Manual Windows and Locks.

Do you remember reaching across the entire length of your car to either roll the passenger window down or let someone in? Or having to lock both sides of a car, with the key? Oddly, my ’99 Mazda Miata has a transitional device between manual locks and the handy key fob. Lock the driver’s door and you also lock the passenger’s, but there’s no provision for any kind of remote. Big thumbs up with these mod cons. I love power windows, power locks, and keyless start, too.
Other things I’m grateful for:
  • LED headlights (especially with self-dimming features)
  • Airbags
  • Traction control
  • ABS brakes
  • Catalytic converters (shame on you if you take them off your early 70s classic!)
  • Back-up cameras and sensors that keep me in my lane

If my Dart has even one safety feature, I’m scratching my head as to what it is. Oh, and speaking of the spare tire--maybe it wouldn't have disappeared if we'd "put it to work." Take a look at this crazy 1951 video. Too bad "fifth-wheel driving" didn't catch on:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter