Physics and a bigger car

When Henry Ford was asked about the Model T, one of the first things he spoke of was how far it drove on a tank of gas: up to 500 miles at 31 miles per gallon! It was small, light, go-anywhere, carried 1,000 pounds and, most of all, was affordable. How far we’ve come. In the search for a faster, bigger, more bulletproof car, for all the car manufacturers it’s now a case of “Beat the Joneses” or “Mine’s Bigger Than Yours.” Some of these so-called personal vehicles have exceeded the axle limit for trucks in the  ’50s. I remember the size and weight of some of the cars then, when gas was 35 cents a gallon: Big fins, big engines (everyone wanted a V8 under the long hood), exemplified by the Cadillac of 1959 with the pop–up taillights to reveal the gas cap.

Have we come very far since then? In fact, gas is cheaper, if you compare the price of bread and milk then and now. Ford, GM, Toyota, Fiat, Honda and Daimler know this, that’s why they make engines that, just 25 years ago in the energy crisis, were unthinkable: 5.7 liters and up! Makes a 357 cubic inch Pontiac GTO look like a family sedan. I watched an Expedition the other day alongside a Dodge Ram, revving up and squealing tires off the line. A three-ton behemoth drag racing! How much power does a 3-ton personal recreational vehicle need to be able to spin tires?

And what do they do with all this power? They set the cruise control at 65 and turn on the in-car video for the kids, complete with headsets. The front seats have their own stereo with more buttons than a Jumbo Jet. Note that for car buyers more buttons equals cool gadgets, more bang for the buck, but that for car safety experts more buttons mean more crashes. When that 3-ton personal vehicle crashes whoever is in the way is going to get hurt.

The environment is toast too. It’s not just the gas they guzzle, 8-12 miles per gallon on average, but the cost of making a 3–ton vehicle of plastic and steel instead of two cars for the same weight (two Camry’s for example, or two VWs). Everyone who buys one of those big cars who doesn’t need a truck for work is making a statement: I don’t give a damn about the environment and I’ve got the money to prove it. What they’re also saying is: In a crash I’m all right, you’re toast.”

This is uncivilized and short-term thinking. If we get into another oil shortage or if your insurance company ever gets to count the damage those truck SUVs, oops sorry, personal vehicles cause, the expense may prove too overwhelming. And it’s un-American too. A few years ago, in an effort to reduce the pressure of foreign countries (OPEC and others) to hold this gas-consuming country to ransom, a luxury engine–size tax was empowered. The big car makers quickly spent tens of millions of dollars buying your Congress-people, oops sorry again, lobbying, to rescind this penalty tax. They were successful.

The cost of making these tanks, without any car safety regulations whatsoever except light truck rules which date, mostly, from 1948, is lower than your average sedan. So why do they cost so much? Because the big three are sitting there, rubbing their hands, tears running down their cheeks, laughing so hard at people’s egos that they can afford to double the manufacturing cost. After all, isn’t bigger worth more? It looks bigger, feels bigger, and if you believe them, you are getting more too. Yeah, more steel, less engineering, less refinement, less welding, less drive-ability, less handling safety. But don’t check those things out, check out the big fat manly tires!

Reinstating the luxury/big engine road tax for non work vehicles would benefit society as a whole, not least because it might perhaps sway a fence sitter from allowing his or her ego to buy such a large tank. Such a tax might also encourage the smaller cars to be more profitable by leveraging new fuel-efficient engines. Sitting in a Cadillac not long ago in LA, with the 20+ inch tire of a Suburban towering over the windowsill, I was amazed at how little one can feel in the ancestor of that ’59 tail fin beauty!


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.