Sounds, Gone but not Forgotten

As the automobile strives to become a more perfect
personal transportation device, we may not have noticed
the subtle changes that have occurred regarding the various
sounds that emanate from our cars. There are a lot of
different sounds that aren’t part of our driving experiences
anymore.  It seems the focus is on all the new technologies
and how much better cars have become, but we’ve overlooked
some of the characteristic squeaks and squawks that made
the car such a unique part of our daily commutes.  And some
of those sounds are not just gone, but gone forever.

Take for instance, the sound of an automotive horn. Years ago, each manufacturer had a unique sound all to their own, from a growling “grrr” sound, to the startling sound of an “Aoo-gah” horn. In today’s cars the horn tone is held to a perfect pitch; it’s practically the same tone in every car.

Not too long ago it was common place to hear the sound of a 4 barrel kicking in as somebody tromped the gas pedal to the floor. Today, all you hear is the sound of the engine speeding up because the transmission dropped to a lower gear. But, it’s not the same gut wrenching roar of a big 4 barrel carburetor opening up.

There are of course those various exhaust tones,too.  For the most part, those are manufactured sounds from somebody modifying the exhaust systems. People still modify the exhaust these days, although the sound isn’t anything like it used to be.  Unless we’re talking about spaghetti cars or some of the euro cars, or a few of our home grown muscle cars, they all have a different type of rumble from the tail end straight from the factory.

What about the different sounds of the starter motors?  For years a lot of cars had a unique sound to their starter.  A good mechanic back then could tell you exactly what kind of car it was just by the sound of the starter motor.  One in particular was on Mopar products. They had a distinct whirring over spin sound just as the engine started. 

Who remembers the sound of a 6 volt flat head engine cranking up?  Especially the early foot operated starters. As you mashed the starter button a slow methodic Rrr, rrr,rrr sound beckoned from the engine bay as the engine would lumbar to life. These days it’s a high torque, high spin rate starter that does its job to perfection. It’s a highlight of my day when I get the chance stomp on the starter button from one of those old cars and hear a sound from automotive history.

From the engine bay to body parts, seems everything had some peculiar rattle or noise that made them not so perfect. Even some of the door handles had a peculiar clunk to them as you would open the door, while closing the door added even more unique clicks or ‘ka-chunks’. If you listen to today’s cars, there’s hardly a difference between them anymore. They all have a perfect “click” and close with about the same sound as every other car.

Let’s not forget the column shift, the “three on the tree” with the non-synchronized first gear.  They had an unmistakable grind as you slowly pulled it down into first gear, especially if you were backing out of the driveway and were in a hurry.   There were even a few models that had an early form of a “key in the ignition” warning system.  If you opened the driver’s door on one of these cars a loud obnoxious buzz could be heard from the engine compartment. 

There are so many sounds, creaks, clanks, and pops on yesterday's cars. At the time, nobody made a big deal out of them.  Like the ‘thunk’ of the heater door as you moved the cable from hot to cold, or the sound the license plate bracket made as you lowered it down to fill up the gas tank.  (For those too young to remember, yes that’s right, the filler neck was behind the license plate on some cars, and they made an eerie creaking sound when you opened it.) When the designs and styles changed nobody seemed to notice those creaks and groans had disappeared as well. It’s a shame in a way; I kind of liked all those little nuances.

Who remembers the sound of the tail gate chains thrashing against the bed of the truck as you went over bumps? I do. And you know, I don’t remember anybody ever complaining about the paint getting scraped off because of it either. There’s the sound of sliding across a bucket seat covered in vinyl, the sound of a hood or trunk spring when you opened it. Where did all these sounds go? 

Most of those old sounds we associated with our cars have been replaced with soft, quiet, and non-intrusive noises.  Cars are quiet now, and some are so quiet the manufacturers are actually adding sounds back into them. Nowadays, the soft ding you hear from leaving the key in the ignition is a perfect tone that doesn’t have that obnoxious buzzing like the older models.  And, again, the tone is basically the same from car to car. It’s as if they’ve manufactured out the personality of the individual car these days. 

There for a while, I thought the talking car was going to be the next big trend.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve laughed myself silly over hearing, “Your door is ajar”. I think it’s hilarious.  I’m sorry, but a door is a door, and a jar is a jar. I’ve even run across one that spoke in Japanese. The message always started out with an annoying loud “Ding”, and then this soft spoken Japanese woman’s voice came on and she would repeat the message over and over. I don’t speak Japanese, but I’m pretty sure it was something about a door… being … a jar.   It could get mind numbing if you’re working on the car with the door open. Soon, you’d start to believe a door was a jar after all.  

Maybe we just want things too perfect anymore. Could it be we are taking ourselves too seriously these days?  I don’t think a few rattles or the unmistakable “thud” of the glove box door when it opened to sit your drinks on it while at the drive-in was all that bad.  (Come to think of it, those were about the only cup holders back then, too!) I guess it’s just the way things are these days. We live in a time when a squeaky seat spring isn’t acceptable. 

A lot of these old sounds have gone into the history books and will never return to the automotive world. For me, those sounds may be long gone, but they’re definitely not forgotten.  Sounds like perfection is what the manufacturers are striving for, conformative, acceptable, and quiet cars. Maybe, what we really need these days is a few squeaks or clunks to remind us … everything doesn’t need to be perfect after all.

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