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The Golden Age Of Axle Ratios And Other Car Options

Once upon a time, you could order a vehicle with almost anything you wanted. I recall that a General Motors statistician once calculated there were so many options available that it was theoretically possible that no two 1965 Chevrolets would be exactly alike. That's amazing when you consider that Chevy sold 2,272,900 units in the 1965 model year.

Postwar foreign car manufacturers set the tone of limited options because inventory management was a potential nightmare for these automakers. Volkswagen, the largest imported brand in the U.S. during the 1960s, offered only their Deluxe models for export to the U.S., with upgraded interiors, more chrome trim and export bumpers with overriders and guards. Beetles of that era were offered in about a half-dozen exterior colors. Leatherette interiors came in three colors and which color you received was determined by the exterior color you selected. There were no engine, transmission or axle ratio options. Even a night-dimming mirror was only available as a dealer-installed accessory (for a cost of $4.50 in 1967).

It took the Japanese auto invasion of the 1970s and '80s with their limited choices (Would you like a gray or beige interior?), to wake Detroit up to the fact that they could reduce their cost by limiting options and that few buyers cared anyway.

There was a certain irony to this. In the 19th Century locomotive industry, the chief engineer of each railroad had his own idea of how a steam loco should be made. And wrote his personal specifications for every purchase. This drove locomotive manufacturers nuts (or loco?) because it was impossible to offer a stock line of locomotives or build for inventory during slow times. (A very good book, 'The Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1831-1915: A Study in American Industrial Practice' by John K. Brown, offers details.) Baldwin, the largest builder of steam locos, made over 25% of its sales outside the U.S., because foreign railroads didn't have such egotistical engineers and were willing to purchase standardized, more-profitable products.

Then, in the mid-1930s, General Motors began selling E and F series diesel-electric powered locomotives for freight and passenger use. The chief engineers harrumphed, demanding modifications to their custom specifications - just like they did with steam locos. General Motors - accustomed to building standard products - refused, limiting customization to minor items like marker light location and paint schemes. The diesels were so superior in performance and cost of operation compared with steam that railroad managements ignored their engineers' advice and purchased off-the-shelf diesel-electrics from GM. Standardization ruled.

The Electromotive Division of General Motors became a successful, profitable venture and added to The General's coffers. Electro-Motive produced many of the famous diesel 'streamliner' diesels for railroads across America. Famous passenger trains like the California Zephyr, Super Chief, Trail Blazer, Capitol Limited, Empire Builder, North Coast Limited, Southern Crescent, City of New Orleans and Texas Special were at some time or other headed by an Electro-Motive E or F-Series diesel.

It took more than 40 years before GM's auto divisions picked up the Electro-Motive Division's idea.

During a January 1987 trip to Arizona, we met some of my wife's uncles and aunts who were snowbirding from places like North Dakota, Montana and Colorado. When we pulled up in my white '87 Ford Thunderbird rental car, the uncles came running out ... to look over the car. "What's it got in it?" "Stick or automatic?" "How many speeds?" "What's the axle ratio?" I knew the T-Bird was a V-6 with a four-speed automatic and that the popular rental companies didn't even offer manual transmissions anymore but I didn't expect to be quizzed about the rear axle ratio.

We quickly headed to a local cafe for 'second breakfast'. The portions were huge. The women sat at one table; the men another. At our table, the breakfast conversation was mostly about cars. And axle ratios. Everybody at the table knew theirs - to two decimal places - except me.

They were disappointed by that but were happy to learn that my personal car at home had a V-8. "That 302's a sweet motor," said one. "Got pretty decent git-up-n-scoot," opined another. They had less to say about my wife's brand new Honda Accord. "Don't know much about that Jap stuff," one muttered. They teased one of the group, whose daughter had a Fiat X1/9: "How's her tin can of Spaghetti-Os runnin' these days?"

These men drove full-size GM and Ford products. All were custom-ordered from their local small town dealer. They sat next to the salesman and checked the option boxes together - one by one. No "bundled option packages" for them. They enjoyed their new cars and traded them every few years for another new one. And they kept track of who bought their old one. "You know ol' Barney, he's still drivin' my '77 Caprice. She still looks nice, too. He keeps her up purty good."

Thirty-two years later, all of these men of the Greatest Generation are dead. A new generation of car buyers has emerged, who know nothing about axle ratios, engine sizes or anything else. Challenge them on it and they'll respond, "Do you know the horsepower of the electric motor on your washer? Or dryer?" A logical question from people who see cars as appliances.

The vast majority of the car-buying public no longer cares about engines. As long as a vehicle gets good mileage and has vaguely-defined 'pep', they have no interest in what's under the hood. Pep seems to be neither acceleration nor speed but rather the low-end sensitivity of the accelerator pedal. "I just lightly touch it with my foot and it goes!"

With today's dress-up covers, all engines look like something under the hood of a 1970s Fisher-Price toy. The terms 283 small block, 351 Windsor, big-block W-series 409, 413 wedge-head, Buick nail-head, Blue Flame Six and 427 Hemi mean nothing to most buyers. I blame some of this on the metric system. 7.2-liters sounds much less exciting/intimidating than a 440 six-pack.

Options are bundled into two or three trim levels these days. If you sit tall and don't want a sunroof to interfere with headroom, you'll probably have to settle for a base model.

I'm hard-pressed to argue for a return to the hyper-choice days of yore. I honestly admit that I don't know the axle ratios of any of the cars I now own. And no one has brought up the subject since 1987. (posted 11/15/18)

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The facts presented on this website are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

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