Has it really been three decades? Wow. When I started in this business as an auto writer, I actually composed my first stories on a typewriter (if you don’t know what that is, visit the Smithsonian Institution; it has a few in a hall next to the cotton gin and operating tables without anesthesia). Web sites were places where flies would gather to serve lunch. A cellphone was the size of a car battery, cost $4000, and could only call Roger Moore.
The cars were far worse. I mean, being an auto journalist in the 1980s — the tail end of the Dark Ages — was like being a food critic allowed to review only the Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and Long John Silver’s (“Mmmm, the tartar sauce is a sublime accompaniment to the fructose glaze of the Buffalo wings”). It’s a wonder I didn’t quit from the apocalyptic horror of it all. Back then, an assignment might actually be “Yugo GV Road Test.” Yeah, we “road-tested” nasty little Serbian-built Fiats that cost $10 less than a contemporary cell phone. And what did one say after driving a communist box less impressive than Marshal Tito’s coffin? Well, what could you say — at least without sounding like a typical capitalistic jackass? “The GV’s headliner showcases the auto industry’s most creative use of papier-mâché.” Or maybe: “Eventually you get used to the, um, aroma. Our editorial nose wouldn’t call it ‘new-car smell’ exactly — it’s more like stale Turkish cigarettes and cabbage mixed with a soupçon of totalitarian angst — but after an hour or two at the wheel, one pleasantly surmounts the overwhelming urge to vomit.”
Like a swarm of zombies, the four-wheeled atrocities just kept coming. The Chevy Citation — almost sued for defamation of character by a dead racehorse. An endless shell game of Chrysler K-cars, culminating in that transcontinental hybrid, the TC by Maserati — which married la dolce vita of Benito Mussolini with the American breeding of Archie Bunker. The Cadillac Cimarron, a brilliant foray into four-cylinder extravagance that lured an equal number of traditional Caddy buyers, previous fans of lithe European models, and the permanently blind. Or the Ford EXP, a “sporty” two-seater based on the racy Escort econobox and so visually disagreeable, it’s still used today by the National Institute of Standards and Technology as the official “ugly stick.”
OK, it wasn’t all bad. We went nuts in 1984 when Chevrolet unveiled the all-new C4 Corvette. Man, with 205 horsepower, that thing would easily blow off a VFW parade. But, oh, how I remember my first Lamborghini Countach. When the exotic car of my dreams one day showed up, I promptly signed it out and started circling my old high school, hoping one of my classmates would see me (unfortunately, they’d all graduated nine years earlier). Eventually, a gym teacher chased me away, shouting, “No skateboarding on school property!” Later, I took the Lambo out for an impromptu blast to 166 mph. Suddenly, all memories of Applebee’s Cimarrons and Long John TCs were purged by a single V-12 at full shriek.
By the dawn of the 1990s, though, the darkness truly began to lift. I road-tested the very first Mazda Miata, writing, “If this car were any more talented and tempting, buying one would be illegal.” The 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 prompted all four gentlemen on Mount Rushmore to grin. The Acura NSX made every one of us who drove it weep with joy. Apocalypse was not now. Ours was not to be a future of Corinthian leather and KITT, a Pontiac more annoying than its driver.
Life sure is grand these days, no? Why, the driver of a “plain vanilla” V-6 Camry family sedan would humiliate a C4 ’Vette pilot in a drag race. The average Hyundai of today exudes a level of quality and sophistication that makes most 1980s rides seem like oxcarts. Now we’re almost reduced to picking nits: the Turbo Babe Magnet “needs” a whopping 4.6 seconds to hit 60 mph; the Megatron Excelsior delivers “just” 485 horsepower, merely average for its class; the Izetti 217 corners at a “mere” 0.99 g — it is to yawn.
Here’s to the coming day when we laugh at the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport that hit “only” 268 mph.