Why are the ages of cars always mentioned in Parker novels?
November 21, 2014 1:32 AM   Subscribe

I've started reading the the entirety of Richard Stark's Parker series, and I can't help noticing that the ages of cars are always mentioned. It's never just a Pontiac, it's a "two year old Pontiac." Or, "The Cadillac was four years old." Did cars in the '60s have ridiculously short life spans? What's the deal?
posted by cthuljew to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It was part of "conspicuous consumption", or the way that clothing fashion changed rapidly. A four year old car worked just fine, but it looked unfashionably out of date.

The Big-3 auto makers had finally reached the point of satisfying the customer backlog from WWII (when all those companies had stopped making cars and worked on war goods instead), and were facing the dismal prospect of their sales dropping way off. So they made significant changes in body styling every year in hopes of inspiring sales to people who already had perfectly good cars which were a little bit old.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:22 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

While it is true there were dramatic, if not radical, styling changes during that period I can assure you that cars simply were not nearly as reliable as those manufactured now--cars were not nearly as meticulously manufactured, tolerance for errors was greater, dependence on mechanical rather than electrical systems was much greater and body construction/design encouraged rust/corrosion. The difference between owning/maintaining a car manufactured then and now is the difference between Windows 95 and Windows 7/OSX--or something like that. With impeccable maintenance and loving care cars manufactured then could have long and healthy lives but the notion of them running into the 100,000(s) of miles was almost unheard. Have to stay, I still have fond memories of my 55 Chevy (V-8), and 67 Mustang--I also remember the frequent servicing, tire replacements, difficulty starting in the cold, carburetor repairs and inevitable rust (even with undercoating).
posted by rmhsinc at 2:37 AM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Ah, so you wouldn't want a brand new car, which would be really, really obvious, right? Or one that's too old because it might look like a junker you picked up cheap? So one that's a couple years old would look like a legitimate person's car?
posted by cthuljew at 2:38 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's a question of not wanting a new car, more that the age of the car suggests something about economic status and personality. Brands, too, back then I think were more clearly value-delineated than they are now; people might decide certain things about you based on you having a Buick instead of a Pontiac, even if both were four-door sedans. That certainly exists to some extent today --- sport utility vehicle vs a pickup vs a minivan, Cadillacs are seen as old people cars, etc. --- but Hyundai vs. Toyota seems pretty much like a distinction without a difference, as least when it comes to indicating character.

Also, this might just be a writerly tick for Stark --- every writer has certain unconscious habits of mind they fall into, that reflect their way of seeing the world. Genre writers, who may be explicitly obeying a formula and will in any case have to write the same sorts of scenes over and over again (the body is discovered, the spy is assigned his mission) may be especially prone to it. I think it's entirely possible that Stark just liked cars and tended to note their ages when he glanced at them, and so his characters do, too, the way smoker's protagonists often smoke themselves.
posted by Diablevert at 3:09 AM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: American cars in the '60's and '70's were shit. They rusted easily, they were rattle-trap, crap-boxes. My grandfather replaced his car every three years. Living in Pittsburgh, with that weather, he needed to.

People in the middle-class anticipated the need to replace their cars frequently.

That is why we're so delighted that we can keep our Japanese cars so long. Imagine, a car that still works after 5 years!

I got my first car in 1979, a 1963 Buick Electra 225. It was a heap. It got 8 miles to the gallon, I needed to put a can of oil into it at every stop-light, it only had AM radio. But, I could put the entire cheerleading squad, plus the mascot in it, and have room leftover for my little sister. The only reason I could do this is because we lived in Arizona, where rust wasn't a problem. Overheating was, so I carried gallons of water in the trunk and allowed an hour to get anywhere, in case I had to pull over and let the damn thing cool off. It finally threw a rod, at the worst possible time.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:26 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

It was a thing, at one time, for people in the upper middle classes to "turn in" their car for a newer model every year. And the models were so different from year to year that you could tell who was doing this. It was a status symbol to always have a new car but it also showed that you were managing your life in a way that reflected onto your ability to move up the career ladder. Because your boss was watching everything you did. I think that's what he means. When he says "the two year old Pontiac" that says to me that the subject was falling behind in his life. He should have taken the time to update his car. I wouldn't promote him if I were his boss and if he is self-employed I wouldn't use his services because he is obviously not doing well or keeping up with the times.
posted by cda at 6:21 AM on November 21, 2014

I run a Facebook group for sharing and discussing old photos of D.C., and am regularly astonished by the ease and accuracy with which men in their 60s-80s can identify the make and model of the cars of their youths. Young American men of Westlake / Stark's era - he was born in 1933 - or at least a significant subset of them, appear to have been much more focused on cars generally than is common now, specifically much more conscious about new models, and to have had pretty fervent brand loyalty. I'm guessing these passages are at least in part a reflection of this.

The fact that they were poorly engineered and rusted out easily, as others have noted, is likely also a factor. I'm in my 40s, and in most of the photos I have of my paternal grandfather, he's standing over the open hood of a huge American car.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:40 AM on November 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Richard Stark is a pen name for Donald Westlake, who rarely wrote an unintentional or accidental word, especially in the Parker books which were his exercise in spare prose. So I think we can count out the idea that the ages of cars are included just because he liked cars!

Before fuel efficiency and aerodynamics became the driving force in car design, car models changed much more from year to year and a brand-new car stood out more. Most of the cars mentioned in the Parker books are stolen getaway cars, so pointing out that they are a few years old indicates that Parker and his accomplices deliberately pick cars that won't be noticed; it's one more detail that adds verisimilitude to their depiction as careful professional thieves.
posted by nicwolff at 6:52 AM on November 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

To add to what rmhsinc said, it wasn't until the mid-80s that manufacturers bothered including a sixth digit on the odometer.
posted by Hatashran at 7:18 AM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

so pointing out that they are a few years old indicates that Parker and his accomplices deliberately pick cars that won't be noticed

... which is I think something that Richard Kadrey kinda plays off of in his Sandman Slim books (in which the main character is named Stark): Kadrey's character always steals the most expensive, flashy car he can find; he figures it's less of a hassle for a wealthy, insured person to have their vehicle stolen.
posted by doctor tough love at 7:20 AM on November 21, 2014

... which is I think something that Richard Kadrey kinda plays off of in his Sandman Slim books (in which the main character is named Stark): Kadrey's character always steals the most expensive, flashy car he can find; he figures it's less of a hassle for a wealthy, insured person to have their vehicle stolen.

I only got a few books into the series but Westlake seems to have taken that approach with the Dortmunder books. There's a character who always tries to steal cars with MD plates, partially because they're easier to park in illegal places (cops assume it's a medical emergency) and partially because he figures the doctors can easily afford to replace them.
posted by fuse theorem at 7:31 AM on November 21, 2014

Car have aged a lot more gracefully since they stopped making the bumpers with chrome plating. Bumpers generally looked like shit pretty fast.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:47 AM on November 21, 2014

Best answer: Yeah, seconding Diablevert, ryanshepard, nicwolff, and your own reply for why this happens in the Parker novels - a two to four year old car was essentially invisible.

Between U.S. auto-making being a really major industry (including all the ancillary industries that fed off it, like shipping and steel manufacturing and machine shops and marketing and advertisements & etc etc etc), plus fewer manufacturers than today (so it was easier to keep track of info & details about models), and fewer older cars being on the road (because they broke down), and the common cultural idea (at the time) that middle-class respectable people would trade in their car every 2-4 years, a sort of "car culture" was a more mainstream & common thing (for men especially) than I think it is now.

So, drive a new car, and random people would want to chit-chat about what you thought of the car and how it handled and details about the motor and what kind of price you paid and so on and so forth. Drive something older than about 5 or 6 years, and people would want to chit-chat about how you kept it running, plus if you're a criminal you don't want the thing actually breaking down at a crucial moment.

A car a few years old was totally unremarkable, so Parker & his compatriots could drive around in the thing without attracting any attention.

P.S.: Kudos on your good taste in reading material. Some of my absolute favorite books.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:49 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've come across a few lines so far that have completely blown my mind.

"The doctor was surprised at how much money there was in the wallet, and it made him curious as to what this man had been doing to get so run-down and have so much money, but he kept his curiosity to himself. He was a doctor with a small practice in a poor neighbourhood, plus work at a clinic, plus being house doctor for this hotel and two others very much like it. He had the constant feeling that violence and evil were all around him, kept just out of sight because these people needed him as a doctor, but if he were ever to turn his head fast and see the evil they would have to kill him, whether they needed him or not. Because of this, he had trained his curiosity to be a small and private thing."

Also, this one, which is obviously misogynistic but absolutely breathtaking (and slightly NSFW, I guess?):

"She reached out for the cigarettes on the night table. She was nude and, when she leaned to reach for the cigarettes, her breasts hung heavy for a moment. As she sat back again, they became firm again. She was a good animal."

His eye for details and absolutely emaciated prose make for some of the best books I've ever read.
posted by cthuljew at 7:58 AM on November 21, 2014

Best answer: I think Westlake is explaining something about Parker's methods. By stating that the car is two to five years old, he is reinforcing Parker's need to never stand out, never be flashy, never take any action that would be memorable to any witnesses.
You can always tell when a crew member will be trouble based on how flashy, loud or irritating he is in the first few pages of his introduction.
posted by exparrot at 8:01 AM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

There is a MST3k short from the 50s about car salesmen, where the manager of a dealership says to a client, "I hope you'll stick with us for your next ten cars." Joel says, "TEN CARS?!?!?!!!" But that seems to say something about car purchasing habits in the 50s.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:14 AM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

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