When did cars stalling fall off as a movie/TV trope (and in...reality?)
July 29, 2022 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I have a subjective feeling (corroborated in conversation with a friend today, which means it's 100% accurate) that what was once a ready standby in film and TV of cars stalling out while e.g. at a traffic light has fallen by the wayside in the last...bunch of years? Does this feel like a thing, and does it correspond fairly directly to changes in automotive technology over the years?

I'm not sure when I feel like it happened; it feels like over the last 20 years-ish it's fallen off as a cinematic trope?

Cars still won't start or won't turn over at critical times in dramas and horror films and such for sure, but the more casual car-just-dying and needing to be restarted thing as a storytelling beat or detail feels like it was a thing and then it stopped being a thing. Did cars just stop being quite so much of shitboxes in that respect? Was it tied mostly to manual transmissions which have fallen by the wayside? Was it an American vehicle thing? Is it a reflection in a class shift in cinematic protagonists? Is it car product placement deals poisoning the well for cars not behaving perfectly when they're not outright exploding? Is there something more specific that I, as a totally outside car culture person, just wouldn't have picked up on?
posted by cortex to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah I think cars are just a lot more reliable now. I mean when I was a kid my mom's '85 Nissan was always randomly dying. I don't know the last time I was in a car that just up and quit, but it's been many years for sure.
posted by potrzebie at 7:26 PM on July 29 [5 favorites]

This is pure un-fact-checked conjecture, but: possibly after car makers switched to fuel injection, which didn't have the same fuel starvation / flooding issues as engines with carburetors? With fuel injection systems, even if someone is a bit ham-footed with the clutch, restarting the car is never a big deal, and neither is starting a "cold" car.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:28 PM on July 29 [20 favorites]

Yeah I came in to say that I think it's at least partially how completely ubiquitous fuel injection is now. And say whatever you want about the computers that now control and regulate our cars, that probably helps a lot also.
posted by RustyBrooks at 7:32 PM on July 29 [5 favorites]

Yeah. I don't know about media, but the switch to electronic fuel injection over the course of the 80s changes everything. Carburetors are little analog computers made of many moving pieces and working at low pressures. They can be knocked out of whack by wear and dirt. Electronic fuel injection is turns all that complication into some basic code and ramps the pressure up 10x or so for far fewer moving parts that are more likely to fail by dropping your performance than leaving you stranded. At the same time general car quality shot through the roof to where a twenty year old car with 200,000 miles is a much better bet than a ten year old car with 100,000 in 1990.
posted by wotsac at 7:49 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

My '79 VW Rabbit would stall in the most inconvenient places (like the middle of an intersection) and completely fail to restart until it cooled down. People would often tell me, "Must be vapor lock. Not much you can do about it." Haven't had a car simply quit like that since.
posted by jabah at 8:12 PM on July 29 [1 favorite]

I think the technology/reliability angle is probably the main reason — although TV shows and movies rarely worry about realism if they need some way to propel the story. But TV shows and movies also latch on to things for a long time. If you see something unique in one show, it's probably going to show up in others. Growing up in the 70s meant you watched re-runs from the 60s, and watching those reruns made me think that quicksand was EVERYWHERE. And sure enough, according Slate (via wikipedia) 3% of movies in the 60s had a character sinking in quicksand, even though it's not common and you can't sink all the way into it.
posted by jonathanhughes at 8:39 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

I think another aspect of this is car companies being unwilling to have their brands shown as failing/breaking down because it could lead to a bad reputation - and the corollary to this of the increase of branding partnerships to support production (particularly in TV). I remember seeing an article or two about this at some point but I can't currently find it. I do also think that cars break down a lot less frequently now, as noted above, but I don't think that the branding aspect of things played a very small part in car breakdowns being a common move trope, especially as there are fewer and fewer automobile parent companies.

Here's a thinkpiece on the death of this trope.
posted by urbanlenny at 8:41 PM on July 29 [14 favorites]

One thing that comes to mind is that stop-start technology has become commonplace, so the sound of a car's engine dying away at a stop is actually, for many people, what routine operation now sounds like.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:33 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

Manual transmissions stalled out a lot more, cars are so, so much more reliable now. This does still happen, and it's usually a failing fuel pump, as far as I can tell.
posted by theora55 at 9:37 PM on July 29 [3 favorites]

NYM - Not your Mechanic or anybody else's. Cars used to have a choke knob on the dashboard; then it was no longer provided and cars stalled and "vapor locked". Supposedly the choke was automatic. If it was tucked away under the hood or some other unreachable place - too bad. Then either they improved the automatic choke or went in a different direction in manufacturing. Progress?
posted by Cranberry at 1:17 AM on July 30

Oddly enough, the non-starting/stalling car features in a show I just watched, Wisting, a Norwegian series so it's still happening in Norway.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:36 AM on July 30

Same situation with backfires. "Was it a gunshot or just a car backfiring? " I haven't heard a car backfire for years.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:47 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Ha! I just read Mrs. Bridge (1959), which (spoiler) ends with her stuck in a car that has died because the engine is flooded (and the doors are next to other stuff so she can't open them). Perhaps some car people can tell us if flooding the engine isn't a thing anymore. I remember that being a real problem.

My old Golf used to die all the time until I went to a VW-specialist mechanic who told me that it required a less commonly used oil (20/50, I think) and that solved it. And then the oil change people flat out wouldn't believe me (I am female) and said they didn't have it and I should use something else. When I said that I wouldn't, they said they found some of the kind I needed, but I knew they lied because the car started stalling again. But I haven't had a car just die like that in literally decades.
posted by FencingGal at 7:01 AM on July 30

It's crazy how much more reliable cars have gotten in my lifespan. When I was a kid, my parents had a series of jalopies that broke down all the time. My father would work on them in the driveway; on trips they would stop running and need to be pushed or towed to the auto parts store where my father would repair them in the parking lot. Mostly these weren't major problems, just things like "the clutch cable broke" or the spark isn't getting all the way to the sparkplugs because of a distributor issue. Things that a person with a few tools and some knowledge could figure out and temporarily resolve.

Then, over the course of my childhood, their cars slowly became more modern and more reliable. I think the last manual choke we had was in about 1988 and since then things became mostly fuel injected. It's been many years since I had a vehicle where I had to deal with setting the points and timing every 5000 miles or so.

Stalling out in an intersection and either maybe being able to restart the engine (like if it had been flooded) or having helpful people push you to the side of the road used to be quite common. It would happen to my car, it would happen when riding in friend's cars, and I would sometimes jump out to help push a stranger's car. Now, I see it happen very rarely, almost always with a pretty beat-on older car.

So it makes sense to me that this would mostly evaporate as a plot device, since it no longer represents most people's lived experiences.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:04 AM on July 30 [4 favorites]

Manual chokes (and the associated flooding and vapor lock) pretty much disappeared from the market of new cars by the 1990s, as fuel injection took over from carburetors, and then as the computers driving the fuel injection become more sophisticated and reliable.

I remember my parents having a mid-'70s Volvo wagon that mostly worked fairly well, but when we drove down to Long Island to visit my grandparents, the stop-and-go queuing for the bridge tolls and summer heat meant that we'd spend half an hour or so parked at the side of the road waiting for the engine to cool down and sort itself out so we could continue.

And, of course, now fuel injection is reliable enough that cars shut themselves off and start themselves.
posted by straw at 8:10 AM on July 30

( I wasn't thinking that it was a thing, but carbs were driven by low pressure mechanical fuel pumps under the hood where it's hot. So the fuel could vaporize in the line due to heat and the pumps didn't have anything to bite pump. EFI is driven by high pressure pumps in the gas tank, cooled by the gas - basically no worries.

As for chokes - not many manual chokes by the 80s I'd think, but the automatic one is a little mechanical computer that can get confused. And the bit that drives the choke is a rubber diaphragm that wears out and gets stiff or cracks and leaks. )
posted by wotsac at 8:31 AM on July 30

Remember “Vapor lock”?

Going over Loveland Pass, it was a thing you had to worry about.
posted by Windopaene at 8:32 AM on July 30

Driving a manual transmission, it's very easy to have a stall when you begin moving from a stoplight, and this is especially likely when one is in a hurry or nervous. So that alone would explain the cinematic phenomenon you point out.
posted by splitpeasoup at 9:44 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Ubiquitous automatic transmissions is what I was going to suggest. I don't think I've ever stalled an automatic, but back in the day, especially if I was flustered, I might stall a manual. And then it could get worse because stalling it is flustering so you fuck up the clutch-accelerator fandango even more.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:16 PM on July 30

Back in 1960, when I took the driving test for my first license, the top thing on my mind was that I knew I would have to do a k-turn, but the engine would die if the power steering was hard over as far as possible. So its possible to stall an automatic. In the event, the state trooper was fussing with something on the dash that didn't work. Maybe the cigarette lighter which, in itself, says a lot about how the world has changed.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:32 AM on July 31

I have a 2020 F-150 with that automatic engine shutoff at idle. For the first and only time, my car stalled or would not automatically restart. I had to turn the key to off then back on. Took probably 3 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity at the stop light with people behind me. Modern equivalent of stalling?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:35 PM on August 30

Remember “Vapor lock”?

I'm restoring a fuel injected car from the '80s that runs the gas through a "fuel cooler" that's connected to the a/c system to prevent vapor lock.

Ubiquitous automatic transmissions

I still think it's the carb/fuel injection thing. I also have a very old car, with an automatic, that likes to just stop running from time to time. A carburetor is optimized for fuel delivery at driving speed, and idle is just a "we'll do the best we can" kind of thing.

The other thing that went away with fuel injection was flooding. In a panic situation, if you pumped the gas pedal too many times, that engine wasn't going to start until all the raw fuel in the cylinders evaporated.
posted by hwyengr at 3:51 PM on August 30

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