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All we needed to know

Posted on: 01.9.2018 at 10:49 a.m.

For just a moment, I was reminded of those times I’ve ridden in a small airplane.

There were lights everywhere, and what seemed like a legion of gauges that demanded attention. I wasn’t sitting in the right seat of a Cessna, but the driver’s seat of my Suburban. Nothing was wrong except that everything was cold.

After a moment or two, the proper fluids began to flow and pressures rose and temperatures stabilized and amps began doing whatever they needed to do and the revolutions per minute rose to the normal levels. The ABS light went off after I rocked the truck loose from the ice of the driveway. The seatbelt light told me there was no one beside me or in the back.

Topping off the radiator – again – had staved off the temperature gauge’s desire to destroy the engine. The four-wheel-drive indicators flashed that the front end was ready for off-road use. The exterior thermometer adjusted itself, then flashed between warning me of ice and reminded me, rather unnecessarily, that the truck was pointing southwest. That dang “Check Engine” light never goes off until I tighten the gas cap.

Everything was normal in what a young friend called a “nice old truck.”

Old? It was built in 2001 or so, but the dash is like something out of Star Wars.

Letting the ‘Burb warm up the other morning, I couldn’t help but think about how nice it is to have a heated, if worn, leather seat. A comfortable rump also reminded me of how the coils in the seat of my first truck stuck up through the misty memory of dry-rotted foam rubber.

It, too, was a Chevrolet (while I am not as fanatical of a brand loyalist as some, I do prefer General Motors products). The Apache 10 was a natural companion to my ’55 Chevy Bel Air, even though the truck was five or six years newer. They were even the same faded dark blue.

My truck had a speedometer that worked when it wasn’t spinning and grinding. That was flanked by a temperature gauge, a generator light, an oil pressure light, and a fuel gauge that was often ignored, since I was a teenager. There was a brake light and a high-beam indicator.

Carmakers had a thing about knobs in those years just before I was born. Below the mechanical gauges were the (left to right) headlight knob, windshield wiper knob, manual choke knob, and a mysterious “T” knob. There was a knob one pulled out to defrost the windshield, pushed in for heat, and turned for the fan. A “slider” gave one the option between blue and red; while this in theory meant one could have heat or fresh air, it was never the case in actual practice.

My ’55 Chevy had a little bit more, but not much. My father-in-law’s new Ford has stuff he hasn’t figured out yet, and he loves technology. How, pray tell, did we manage to survive without knowing if the fuel injection was having problems at home?

I came along at the extreme end of what some call the Golden Era of muscle cars and hot rodding. Quite a few of us invested the princely sum of $18.95 in the fancy new “multi-gauges” that gave you all the information about the engine in a glance. The problem with those contraptions was the number of holes one had to permanently drill in the dashboard. It was a simple matter, however, to bend a piece of sheet metal to make a mount to go below the dash. Then you just had to secure the wires and tubes, somehow.

The grail for everyone was a tachometer. That’s the device many of us take for granted nowadays, although we rarely actually need to know if the engine is approaching critical power. Even now, when either my ragged little Nissan truck or the Burb have cause to go off-road where tires spin and mud flies, I don’t actually need a tachometer.

Back then, however, many was the teenaged boy who absolutely had to have a big, chrome SunTach bolted to the dashboard where everyone could see it through the windshield. If finances prevented one’s investment in a Sun, there were a few off-brand types that could be picked up for the price of mowing a few yards or skipping a Saturday movie.

The truly elite would-be roadrunners amongst us mounted a Sun Tach on one side of the steering column and a manifold pressure gauge on the other. They were occasionally sold in sets, and ran (I think) around $100 back in the early 80s.

A proper young male driver needed these things, for some reason. The embarrassment of having factory standard gauges in your ride was too much for some.

Truth be told, we didn’t need those aftermarket dials any more than I need heated seats today. We liked them. We thought they were cool. The machines were simple and polite enough to let us know when something was going wrong (if we had been so lax as to not look under the hood before leaving home that morning). Well, most of the machines were polite, but my International pickup that was hand-built by Satan is a column for another day.

We didn’t have seatbelts, unless we installed them ourselves, so we didn’t need flashing lights and buzzers. If the oil light came on, you stopped, stabbed a screwdriver in a pasteboard can of whatever was handy, and poured it through the hole in the valve cover. If the temperature light came on, you carefully opened the radiator cap, poured a gallon of water or antifreeze down the hole, and drove on. If both the oil and temperature lights came on, you prayed you would make it to the garage.

I never confirmed what the “T” knob was for. We discovered it didn’t mean “Temperature,” because pulling that knob didn’t increase the heat in the cab, but drew the gas pedal to the floor. I was told by differing reputable sources that it meant “Throttle” or “Takeoff” and was designed to let the operator run things like sawmills and pumps using a belt-and-pulley system. I can testify that it wasn’t a good thing to pull when you’re 17 and driving down a curvy country road in the snow at night on slick tires. Trust me.

Perhaps it’s the passage of time, or perhaps it’s the impact of society, but I am fairly sure I worried a lot less driving that truck (or car) than I do now. It wasn’t that there were not concerns – my truck’s rotten wooden bed had a tendency to let things fall out on the highway, the rings were shot so the engine burned a quart of oil every 30 miles, and the passenger side door came open at inopportune times.

I didn’t have lights and dials and things reminding me of all the things that could go wrong. Instead, I had a truck that could go most anywhere I wanted it to, albeit slowly and uncomfortably. There was no computer to overload the Whatahizzit so the pressure-gradient-Whackadoodle would shut down the truck as a precaution since it couldn’t tell me the Malefactor Chip was reading anomalously.

All in all, vehicles back then dispensed information on a need-to-know basis. There were more important things to do back then, like making sure the dog didn’t fly out of the passenger side window, or making it to the gas station before sunset.

We didn’t need heated seats or warnings about antilock brakes and outside air temperature or even manifold pressure and revolutions per minute. All they did was distract the driver from the joys of the road, even in a truck with springs poking through the seats and a door that wouldn’t stay closed.

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