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They Don't Build Them Like They Used To

by Malcolm Gunn

They sure don't build them like they used to. And if you're talking about the straight-up comparison between a 1975 Corvette and a new model, that's probably a very good thing.

Why are we talking about two seemingly related cars that are separated by 30-plus years of technology?

A friend called the other day to say that he had found an absolutely immaculate 1975 Corvette and was in the process of negotiating the purchase. When he called, I was in the middle of writing a story about the current Chevrolet lineup. As he was describing his find, I just happened to be looking at a spec sheet that read 6.2 liters, 430 horsepower, 3,180 pounds and 29 mpg for a new Corvette.

My friend and I agreed that 1975 wasn't the proudest moment in the history of "America's sports car" what with the advent of bumper and emission regulations, but he was happy with his catch.

But a quick check of the specs for the 1975 Corvette showed just how far we have come in the intervening trio of decades. Back then, the Corvette was a portly 3,569 pounds and had a 5.7-liter engine producing a paltry 205 horsepower (that was the high-output model... standard 'Vettes were rated at a weak 165).

Not only does today's equivalent car produce almost exactly twice the power, it weighs 500 pounds less, goes more than double the distance on the same gallon of gas while producing exhaust emissions that are a mere trace of those from the 1975 model year.

A comparison of braking and handling is just as shocking. The standard street tire on the new car is far stickier than a full-fledged racing tire from 1975, dry or wet. It will also last two to three time longer and provide a much smoother and quieter ride. The added grip from modern tires means brakes generate, and have to dissipate, monstrous amounts of heat and energy. Yet, today's Corvette will stop in about half the distance and do so all day long without fade or even close to the same wear.

Put a stock new Corvette on a race track alongside the old and the combination of more power, stronger brakes, reduced weight and suspension advances become even more evident.

But progress doesn't just apply to an expensive big-performance two-seater such as the Corvette. At the height of the musclecar era of the late 1960s and (very) early 1970s, it was common for these 7.0-liter beasts to get down the quarter mile in about 15 seconds. The truly strong ones got into the 14s and a select few with the right gearing (and driver) dipped into the high 13s. A quick glance at what's available today reveals some pretty eye-opening comparisons.

Before we had gone beyond the letter C in the current new-vehicle roster, we had discovered a pair of four-cylinder front-drivers in the 15s, two more in the 14s and one in the 12s. These are more than a half dozen six-cylinder cars in the 14-second bracket.

When it comes to V8 motivation, the current crop really blows the old into the weeds. Heck, box-stock six-cylinder family cars are as quick as some of the slower musclecars, while today's high-performance cars are so far ahead it isn't even funny: 200 mph... for real.

In addition to clearly superior performance, modern high-output engines - in fact all modern engines - require practically zero maintenance, instantly fire up on the first twist of the key, in all conditions, and run as smooth as silk for hundreds of thousands of miles and are quieter and far more efficient.

This is the reason there are few gas-station mechanics these days: tuneups are a thing of the past.

Heck, a modern "mechanic" probably hasn't even seen a carburetor, set of points or distributor. Exhaust systems and tires that had to be replaced every 10,000 miles will now outlast the initial owner... and even the fillup comes about half as often. Highway mileage is commonly in the 20s and most will get into the 30s.

We don't need to get into the whole exhaust-emission picture, do we?

Whether an inexpensive four-cylinder econobox or a luxo-laden cruiser, virtually every passenger vehicle today will turn and stop better than anything of the old era, and that's with full air, cruise, anti-lock brakes, leather, etc.

How about the whole issue of protecting occupants in a crash? The old cars weighed considerably more, which on the surface would appear to be a benefit, but instead of absorbing the tremendous forces of a crash, they passed them along to occupants.

Yup, they sure don't build 'em like they used to. Thank goodness.

courtesy of Wheelbase Communications

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