NPF: NOT QUITE HISTORY

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 6th, 2017 by Ed

The Telegraph recently ran an update of a story that works its way through the auto journalism community once or twice per year: the "endangered cars of the UK" report. Don't stop reading if you don't care about UK family sedans. There is a larger point here.

Long story short: nationwide auto registration databases are used to track how many of a particular year and model of car are still on the road. And some of the numbers are pretty astonishing. Cars that used to be so common that it seemed like everyone owned one are often down to just a few remaining examples. The once ubiquitous Austin Metro, for example, saw 643,000 built between 1973 and 1981. Today 186 are still on the road – a survival rate of 0.03%.

One culprit, of course, is the legendarily terrible quality of the British Leyland years, which is a story for another time. Many of these cars were not only small, cheap, and spartan, but also put together with extreme indifference or even malice (labor strife led to stories of assembly workers welding glass soda bottles inside doors for shits and giggles). So, many of these cars that ended up at the crusher earned the trip there. At the same time, though, the "classic car" industry proves that people are willing to spend large amounts of money to keep shoddily built crap from the 1970s running. The compact sedans of the "malaise" era simply aren't sexy enough or remembered with enough sentimentality to earn that special treatment, though.

This is a phenomenon I notice a lot in architecture. There is always an outcry to protect "old" buildings (generally anything made before 1970 in the U.S. context). Meanwhile, when the concrete brutalism of the late 1970s and 1980s is slated for the wrecking ball, nobody cares. It isn't old enough to be Historic, new enough to be Modern, or far enough removed from our consciousness to be Nostalgic or Retro. There is a bubble, then between being too new to destroy and not old enough to save. And that's where we lose a lot of history, I suppose. In 30 years collectors will probably pay big bucks for those bland econo-cars now numbering only a few dozen, and architecture fans will be admiring the surviving architecture of the Carter years will be subject to some kind of revival and update.

The cycle moves more quickly with some things – music, for example. Take what is popular today and in five years nobody will have any interest in listening to it. In 20 years it will be Classic and ready to be enjoyed again. Fashion is much the same. You'd instantly recognize a Vintage item from the 50s as valuable while throwing something from the early 00s in the donation bin. If any of us are still alive in 2050, people will be clamoring for those ultra-rare original vintage Jorts or whatever nightmare costuming you thought was a good idea in 2002.

No real resolution here; it's just an interesting pattern I have noticed a lot lately. Things become rare in that interval between being New and being venerable. Why do we value the more distant past so much more than the medium term?