Exploring the history of Phoenix, Arizona, just for fun. Advertising-free, supported by my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

Driving a car in old-time Phoenix

As someone who has always loved old cars, and going to car shows, I often wonder what it would have been like to drive a car in old-time Phoenix. What I know of old-time cars comes from movies like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", so pondering the reality of them makes me cringe a little bit. Because from our modern viewpoint, early cars were just awful in so many ways.

This is about all I know about old cars. From the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

First of all, they were LOUD. Yes, the engines were tiny compared to the cars of today, but you just have to image the sound of a lawn mower going down the street. No muffling of the sound, and very frequent backfiring. If you've never heard a car backfire, it's an extremely loud "bang" (that's where the "Bang" in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang comes from, backfiring). Having just a few vehicles going down the street with engines as loud as lawnmowers and backfiring all along must have been horrendous. Luckily, most of them were driven during the day, but even then the noise must have been terrible.

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And they also belched out a LOT of pollution. Pollution controls on cars really didn't happen until the 1970s. Until then, every car that went by sent out an enormous amount of pollution, even when it was functioning properly. No catalytic converters then! Of course, it was like the smoke from fires, or from steam locomotives, people were used to it. And the assumption that a couple of windy days or some rain would make it all go away. It really didn't start to accumulate enough for people to complain about it in Phoenix until the 1960s. And even after pollution controls were put in place, Phoenix had some of the worst air quality in the country, through the 1980s.

Air pollution in Phoenix, caused mostly by cars before pollution controls.

On the other hand, they must have been wonderful. From the point of view of the era, it must have been amazing to have that much personal freedom, and no need for a horse, or for pedal power.

Speaking for myself, I've always had a love-hate relationship with cars. I've owned a lot of cool cars in my day, and always enjoy going to car shows. Like everyone else, I hate traffic, and since I'm I like blue skies and clean air, I dislike seeing a car pumping pollution into the air I breathe. I also like peace and quiet, and if you've ever been to a car show and heard an old car start up, you know what I mean. The noise and the smell is overwhelming. It's a quiet Saturday morning as I write this, and if someone started up a noisy and smelly car right now in my neighborhood I'd hate it.

It's my belief that future generations will hardly be able to believe how much people of the current era loved their cars. But maybe they won't see the drawbacks, they'll just be looking at old photos, like we do today, and romancing about how great it must have been.

Image at the top of this post: Parked in front of Apache Drugs in the 1920s, northwest corner of 1st Avenue and Adams, Phoenix, Arizona.

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