Better Because: One Upmanship in the era before big grilles

The times may be a-changing but fundamental human needs don’t really alter that much. The urge to reflect our status through the wheels we drive has been a constant ever since Henry Ford looked at his horse and thought “You know what God, I can do better.”

Today we reflect our status in vehicles that are bigger, higher and possessed of the sort of grilles that would make George Foreman’s heart do a little jiggle.  But back in the mists of time – eg 1983 – things were a little different.  And considerably simpler. Here’s how your dad got his driveway kicks.

1. Twin Headlights

Before designers got all fancy with the simple idea of shining light on tarmac, we had square lights or round ones.  Most cars had the conventional two headlights.  But of course, if you were posh or sporty you naturally needed to light your path more brightly.  So you bought a car with four, not two headlights. 

What started as a feature of posh cars and sports cars like the Jensen Interceptor and Rolls Royce Silver Shadow quickly became a feature of posh versions of more prosaic fayre, like the Fiat 131 Mirafiori, Alfasud and Ford Cortina.

And everyone – by which we mean, everyone – knew you’d bought the posh one or the sporty one.  And we respected the natural hierarchy of things.

2. Chrome 

Today design is all about flame surfaces and bigger wheels.  Back then, it wasn’t.  To differentiate posh models from poverty ones, car companies drizzled them in chrome.  Sometimes they hosed them in the stuff.

Chrome has the singular advantage of being cheap and shiny.  We humans are like magpies – we gravitate to shiny; back in the 70s and 80s it parted us from our hard-earned cash on the simple promise of making us that little bit better than everyone else.

Chrome swage lines, chrome bumpers, chrome headlight surrounds and chrome window surrounds were all ridiculously cheap ways for car companies to signal luxury and desirability.  Who cared that those cynical car companies were pressing our subconscious buttons, we all wanted it.

3. RoStyles

Wheels always, it seems, maketh the motor.  Alloy wheels are now ubiquitous, but in the 70s they were the preserve of the race track. Back then there were RoStyles, alloy-esque pressed steel wheels that came with chrome embellishers to announce their upmarket, sporting purpose. Then, at some point in the 80s, someone – probably working for Ford – realised that alloys looked better, so posh versions got those.  And they seemed impossibly luxurious. Those buyers didn’t need fat tyres and vast rims to make the point – 155s and 15 inches sufficed.  How simple – and comfortable – that now seems.

4. Velour

When your pre-teen thighs have spent 7 hrs welded to the vinyl-coated back seat of your dad’s Austin Maxi en route to Devon, your priorities tend to be quite clear.  You don’t want leather, nature’s vinyl.  You want velour.  And so it was in the 70s and 80s that posh meant deep pile.  It meant velour.

Velour came in a multitude of colours, but apparently worked best when everything inside the car was also finished in the same hue. Like the door trims, dashboard and carpets.  British Leyland’s designers took the idea and ran with it.  A long way.

5. Rear Headrests

After posh cars got passenger side wing mirrors and front seat headrests, car makers scratched their heads and wondered where to go next. After all, luxury and convenience-wise, that was pretty much job done.

Then someone, somewhere – again, probably at Ford – chanced on an idea.  How about REAR headrests? Now, 30 years on from that light bulb moment, it’s hard to grasp just how ground-breaking this was.  But the idea that rear seat passengers, whether adults or children, could lie back and rest their heads, just like the people in the front, was a game-changer. And it was one that only people at the top of the company car list could enjoy.

Democracy is a wonderful thing.  But once VW Polos had rear headrests, life was really never quite the same again.

We could carry on.  We could wax lyrical about vinyl roofs, metallic paint and ‘full instrumentation.’ But we’ve made our point.  Nothing really differentiates modern cars. They’re ubiquitous boxes with brands that are nailed on for marketing purposes, rather than reflective of individual character. 

Perhaps it’s nostalgia.  Or perhaps GL really was better than L.


Graham Eason Great Escape Cars 01527 893733

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