The family car has always played an important role in our lives, and the ways in which it has evolved since we were kids are fascinating.
Life Parenting

The Evolution of the Family Car

The family car has always played an important role in our lives, and the ways in which it has evolved since we were kids are fascinating.

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Cars have always been a big part of family life. Parents shuffled kids to friends’ houses, school and practices. Families loaded up for road trips. But cars have evolved over the decades. The family cars we recall from childhood have given way to a new batch of vehicles—the SUVs, wagons and minivans—we now drive as parents to our own children.

Here are just a few ways family cars have changed:

When we were growing up everything was manual; rolling windows down took a herculean effort. In the summer, moms advised us to roll our damn windows down if we were hot, because there was no air-conditioning or automatic anything. Today our kids press a button or recline and enjoy the central air like Rockefellers.

We actually had to close our own doors, and they were heavy and dangerous because they didn’t stop automatically. If your hand was there, it got slammed and you sported purple knuckles or several taped fingers for days. Our kids are never in danger because cars have motion sensors to detect wayward limbs. Their doors slide closed. Look, Mom, it’s magic.

Seat belts were rarely used — those metal contraptions which burned flesh within moments when accidentally touched during the summer months. The cars of our youth were filled to max capacity with the head and arms of neighborhood kids hanging out of the way-back. Today, cars are decked out with automatic seat belts so our kids have to do as little work as possible.

Cars broke down often, and a good part of our parents’ lives and paychecks were spent repairing them. Who doesn’t remember seeing some poor mom stranded with a gaggle of kids, walking down the middle of the road in search of a pay phone? Today everything is computerized, and if you do minimal upkeep, your car will run fine forever. And if by some odd coincidence you do break down, you won’t have to schlep to a pay phone. Odds are you wouldn’t be able to find one anyway. You can use your cell.

Our parents drove the family car until it simply stopped working and became irreparable, often falling apart in the street. If they wanted something new at the 10 year or 75,000 mile mark, they often passed the truckster along to us, knowing we were driving on borrowed time. As we drove away in our new ride, the soft sound of taps could be heard off in the distance. In 2015, we are fickle and drive our cars until we lose interest, decide we want something new or see something better in our neighbor’s driveway.

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The cars we grew up with weren’t traded in every three years. Our parents didn’t lease; they owned. They saved until they could afford a car, and many times it was a used one. When they bought new, the smell was often so overpowering we had to roll our windows down to get some fresh air—vinyl stinks. That smell must have been toxic. Today we lease because we don’t want the commitment of being tied down to the same old car for any length of time.

The car radio was archaic. Often you either had a turn dial or a few buttons. When you pushed one in, the others all popped out. The stations were mainly static with only two or three offering clear reception. Technology stepped in, first with the eight-track deck and then the cassette, both of which would get stuck and ruin the tape. Today our children can choose from a million stations, especially if you have satellite.

Aside from being a reliable mode of transportation during our childhood, cars were also a great and highly unsafe place to play. We often emulated our own parents by jiggling the steering wheel back and forth, dreaming of the day when we would have the chance to hit the open road. If you accidentally hit the gearshift, you were sent into the street where parents fast-walked after you. Today, parents don’t let kids play in cars. Cars are dangerous and hot.

Every car came equipped with a glowing-hot red lighter and an overflowing ashtray because it was impossible to empty. Once you took it out, you couldn’t get it back in. Our parents often smoked with every window rolled up, which meant when they smoked, you did too. Today, the lighter has been replaced with a charger for cell phones and the ashtray can’t be found anywhere.

There were no automatic starters. You actually had to load up into a freezing cold car and wait for the heat to kick on and crank up. This usually took longer than it did to drive to your destination. Today our kids don’t know what it feels like to be cold. They run from the warm house into the pre-heated car.

Yes, the family car has changed in many ways. We have seen vast improvements, and driving our own children around is a much easier task for us than it was for our parents.  And it is a much simpler and safer drive for our kids.


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