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World's greatest cars: Is yours on the list?

Posted: 16 Feb 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:car? automobile? Chevrolet? Nissan? Ford?

Much has changed ever since the first ever motor vehicle started rolling the streets. From a variety of steam-powered road vehicles, we now have a range of cars that do so much more than carry us from point A to point B. I bet not even the inventors of cars ever thought that vehicles could be able to park by themselves, let alone talk.

Over the past few months, I've been conducting an informal survey, asking friends and strangers this question: "What's the best car ever made?"

My dad's choice was a '55 Chevrolet Bel Air in which he used to kick up gravel and raise hell in Tomah. Mine was also a Chevy, the '57 Bel Air driven by Dick Albright, my best friend in high school. Other selections I gathered along the way included, of course, the '65 Mustang, the '73 slant-six Plymouth Duster, the '63 Citroen DS, the '56 Chrysler New Yorker, the '64 Olds Toronado, the '66 Alfa Romeo Spider, the '64 Lincoln Continental, the '78 Pontiac Trans Am, the '64 Jaguar XKE, the '83 Mercedes-Benz turbo-diesel, the '69 Beetle and the '71 Dodge Charger. A homeless guy on the Strip in Las Vegas just said to me, "Studebaker. Any Studebaker. They were made of steel."

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

Notably common to all these choices is that none of them even remotely reflects 21st-century automotive genius. The closest was the '95 Hummer, which a post-Boomer regarded as kind of nifty.

I'm not a car guy. I wasn't curious about this question until the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas was invaded by every auto manufacturer on earth, each promoting what they call the "centre stack," that blinking, beeping multimedia tumour that has swollen up between the driver and passenger seats. Your typical "centre-stack," which has nothing to do with transportation, has an eerie resemblance to a Roswell alien and includes controls for communications, emergency services and global positioning. But its main purpose is what the industry calls "infotainment" (a term that rivals "webinar" as the ugliest biz-lingo coinage ever conceived).

In Dick's beautiful '57 Bel Air, the "centre stack" consisted of an AM radio with five buttons to pre-set favourite stations. Closer to the steering wheel, there were buttons (or "touch-pads") to control the heater, the fan and a windshield defroster that took five minutes to melt an area the size of a quarter. There was also a cigarette lighter. This wasn't much but the result was a dashboard with an elegant simplicity and a space-age aesthetic that stands the test of time. That old dash still looks way cool after 58 years.

Dick's Bel Air, bless its heart, had broad sprawlable bench seats, front and back. It was built before the unfortunate advent of the bucket seat, a pernicious Puritan regression that ended the era of front-seat sex, even the head-on-shoulder snuggling depicted in countless Fifties lithographs and car ads in Look, Life and The Saturday EveningPost.

No mass-production vehicle since 1957 has improved significantly on the Bel Air's roominess, sturdiness, mechanical integrity, power, comfort, design or ability to pick up girls. In many respects, cars were pretty much perfect by 1960. Nothing more needed to be done.

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