I’m a long-time subscriber to Car and Driver magazine. I don’t recall exactly how long but the Editor-In-Chief when I subscribed was that lion of automotive journalism, David E. Davis, Jr. who was in his second stint as editor at the time. By the way, one of Davis’ early successors is a Jackson native, Madison County resident and sometimes contributor in this space, William Jeanes. As with many paper and ink publications, the current iteration of C&D is a pale imitation of what it was under the leadership of Davis, Jeanes, and others.
Car and Driver road tests vehicles (earlier mostly cars now mostly SUVs and trucks) and reports vehicle’s specifications, factual road results and testers’ subjective evaluations. Every issue also includes feature articles and columns from the editor and other contributors of note, though there are fewer of those now.
My main problem with C&D is that it now devotes most of its more extensive road tests to vehicles with prices out of the reach for the average person. Many feature road tests are done as side-by-side comparisons of comparable vehicles as is the case with the current issue. I’ll call it the current issue and not this month’s issue because they only publish ten issues a year now. The three cars are: a BMW M5, an Audi RS7, and a Cadillac CT5-V, all of which are high-performance sedans. The average base and as tested prices of those modern day hot rods are $105,077 and $127,885 respectively. The Caddy’s price pulled down the average because it is $30 to $35K less expensive than the other two. The least powerful of the three is the Audi with a paltry 591 horsepower. The Caddy wins the horsepower contest with 668.
There were three other road tests of more than one page in length of vehicles with an average base price of a bit more reasonable $72,330. To be fair, there is a less than one page test of a new Toyota Corolla model costing less than $25,000. But there is also a test of the $4+ million Pagani Huayra. The price of both the Toyota and Pagani I left out of the calculations below.
In 1966, if C&D had done a comparison test of three muscle cars, they might have chosen the Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396, the Pontiac GTO, and the Ford Fairlane GTA. Each of those inaugural members of the muscle car class claimed about 375 horsepower and cost around $3,000.
In the 60s, the sine qua non for street cred was the time it took the car to travel a quarter mile from a standing start. The three 60s cars did well to go under 14 seconds. Of the three modern cars, the slowest, the Caddy, did the quarter mile in 11.4 seconds. All three modern hot cars are perfectly happy in daily driving and handle twisty roads with aplomb as well, tasks for which 60s performance cars were not very well suited. Factory-built hot cars in the 60s were rarely even tested for their handling characteristics. Had they been, they probably would have been in the weeds several times. As for fuel efficiency, the three current models get nearly twice the mileage as did the older rides.
In order to make a meaningful comparison between the prices of the three latter day super cars and their forebears, we have to take into account three things that have happened over time; the changing value of a dollar (inflation), the changing level of incomes, and qualitative improvement in automobiles, which has been astounding to be sure. Then there is the gadgetry that even current base models have that didn’t exist in the ‘60s. The question is are prices of the new hot rods really higher when adjusted for inflation and is the improvement in quality worth the price difference.
About inflation, if the Chevelle, GTO, and GTA were sold today they would cost approximately $25,000, about one-fourth the price of the three current muscle cars. To say that the other way around, if the three modern cars had been available in 1966, they would have cost about $12,000; the four-fold gap again. That the current cars are four times more expensive could be attributed to quality and safety improvements since 1966. There can be no doubt modern vehicles are vastly superior to 1960s cars. But four times better?
Perhaps the most troubling matter is those current aspirational cars, aspirational to car enthusiasts at least, is that they have become much less attainable for the typical car nut. The median family’s monthly income in 1966 was about $616 and about $5,625 in 2020 (the most recently available data). That means in 1966 the median family’s wage earner(s) had to work five months in order to earn enough to buy one of the day’s cream of the of high-performance car crop. The current median family wage earner(s) have to work nearly 19 months in order to cover the average price of one of today’s hot rides. If you consider the as tested prices of the three current cars, it takes about twenty months’ income for the median income earner to earn the price of admission. There’s that 4x gap again.
The approximately four-fold gap crops up regardless of how the analysis is done. If modern vehicles are in fact about four times better than they were in 1966, then all is right with the world. One way, but not the only way to be sure, to test that is to compare the highway accident death rate per million miles driven. In 1966 there were 5.5 deaths per million miles and only 1.1 per million in 2019 (the mostly recently available data again). So maybe modern cars really are four times better than they were in 1966.
Patrick Taylor is a Ridgeland resident