They Don't Make Cars Like They Used To....  

From a Radio operator's perspective.   



Ah, the 1960's and early 70's. A time when nagging little worries like global warming, the Chinese economy, and growing dependency on foreign oil, were still a ways off on the horizon. A time when Americans could enjoy big, bulky, and cavernous automobiles without the slightest pangs of guilt.  Cars like the Buick Electra, the Pontiac Catalina, the Chevy Impala, the Plymouth Fury, and the Ford LTD.  Big, heavy, and V8 powered.  It was also the age of the muscle car.  400+ HP right out of the factory could be yours "if the price is right".   One carb, two carbs, or three, it was your choice, as was the type of transmission, and the rear axle ratio, and whether you wanted single or dual exhaust.  We didn't worry much about fuel economy either in those days.  If a particular engine burned a bit more gas, they would just install a bigger gas tank, since the price of gas back then ranged somewhere between 25 and 40 cents a gallon.  Those cars were fairly simple to work on too, in the days before emission controls, electronic fuel injection, OBD-II engine management, and even electronic ignition made those projects a bit more complicated.  Almost any shade tree mechanic could work on their own car, and practically anyone with a "Y" chromosome knew at least the basics of auto repair.  Of course, some knowledge of automotive technology was helpful to the budding CB or Ham radio operator as well.  I mean, you had to know where to tap the electrical system for that all-mighty juice to power the various assortment of radio gear that one might find in a typical radio op's car. 

Of course you needed all that horsepower to move those big cars.  The upside, of course, is that those big old cars had plenty of room in both the front seat and the back.  Leg room was usually not a problem, and you could fit three adult-sized people across in the front seat fairly comfortably as well as the back seat.  This was helpful when the whole family would pile in the car for the traditional Sunday afternoon drive.   Most full sized cars also had a large dashboard, which still contained a good bit of metal, and it was a fairly simple matter to "hang" a bloated piece of contemporary radio gear from the lower edge of the nearly poker straight dashboard.  It was a good thing that American cars were so big and roomy back then, because radio's were also a bit on the obese side, compared to the micro electronic marvels of today.  I once knew a guy who actually mounted a Yaesu FT-101E under the dash of a big Buick.  And when it was all said and done, even the largest of the typical SSB radios of the time, didn't interfere with either the driver's or the passenger's leg room (as long as there was no one in the middle anyway). It was also easy to see the controls on the radio and read the meter since the radio was usually mounted in a straight, level position and you didn't have to look too far down to see it.  Contrast that to the cars of today.  Most cars have shrunk down considerably in size, and their interiors have been "ergonomically designed" (Translation: giving the occupants the illusion that they're not really being compressed into a sardine can) with wrap around (plastic) dash panels and consoles. In all fairness, today's cars are lighter, more fuel efficient, handle better and, in many ways, are generally more reliable.  But the flip side of this is that there is precious little room to mount "extra goodies" like a nice all mode HF rig or a full sized 1970's vintage SSB CB rig. I doubt that you could mount a radio like a Lafayette Telsat SSB-50 , a Courier Gladiator, or a Realistic TRC-48 in a car like a Toyota Camry or even a Ford Taurus, without seriously marring the interior, or greatly intruding into the passenger seating area.  The car I drive today has two small VHF ham rigs (There's no more room to mount a CB), both hung conspicuously on the passenger side of the center console.  The radios are mounted sideways by necessity, which makes reading and operating them a bit more difficult. The radios also intrude tremendously upon the passenger's leg room.  Fortunately, 90% of the time, I am in the car alone as it is used primarily for daily commuting. But this underscores the problem that many radio op's face today.  Ham Radio makers have tried to make life easier by shrinking the size of many radios, and offering detachable control heads on many models.  But ironically, while a typical multi-band HF ham rig is now a fraction of the size of similar rigs from decades ago, CB radios have not shrunk all that much.  Yea, there are some no-frills AM rigs like the Realistic TRC-479, which are nice and small.  But most of the full featured SSB rigs are still the same basic size as they were 25 years ago.  There were a few half-hearted attempts to market radios designed to be installed in smaller cars.  Most of these tended to be of the "Everything in the Microphone" style.  While you could safely tuck the main part of the radio under a seat, and the mic didn't take up much room, it was cumbersome to operate the radio in many cases, and with all the necessary features contained in the mic, it limited your options for adding an amplified mic, as well as limiting the amount of "bells and whistles", such as an "S" meter, that could be accommodated as part of the hand held unit.

On the other end of the coax is the most important piece of any radio setup, the antenna.  Again, those old cars lent themselves well to various antenna styles and placement schemes.  Bumpers were big, strong, chrome, and open, and it was easy to wrap a strap or dual chain mount around it to clamp a 102" whip to the back of the car. The trunk deck was large too, and even a trunk mounted antenna had plenty of ground plane surface to work with. You could also drill (gasp!) a hole in the roof or in the fender, and the metal was thick enough that the antenna wouldn't bend or kink the car's metal surface when the wind force worked to push it back when you found yourself traveling just shy of Warp 9.  With today's cars, in many cases, you don't even know, without a magnet, just where the metal ends and the plastic begins.  Bumpers are molded into one-piece plastic rear panels, which cannot support a traditional bumper mount.  Many cars have fiberglass or injection molded plastic body panels, which do not lend themselves well to mounting antennas. What metal there is has been thinned to the point of being barely thicker than tin foil, and mounting a large dual air coil or a 102" whip will likely distort the shape of the body when the antenna flexes. Then there is the issue of a good ground plane. Many trunks use insulated hinges, so that even if the trunk lid is metal, it often does not make good contact with the rest of the body resulting in poor performance. And lastly, two words: Rain gutters. You don't see any new cars with them.  So much for the "gutter mount" antennas of olde.

Then, as if all this was not enough, today's modern computer controlled cars are known for being one big RFI generator.  In the "old days", you had two primary sources which created the majority of the noise which impeded a radio's receive performance.  Those areas were spark plug pops and alternator whine.  Filter kits and resistor wire and plugs were available to suppress those noise areas down to a low growl.  Modern cars, ironically, do not seem to be nearly as bad in the spark plug interference area, as many new engine designs have eliminated the distributor and, in some cases, the spark plug wires completely.  Alternator whine seems much less as well, as most modern alternators use internal regulators and have far fewer wires which can radiate. While this is certainly good news, those traditional sources of noise have been drowned out by a whole host of new noise sources which can make one yearn for the days of breaker point ignitions and those troublesome old Champion spark plugs. Modern cars are controlled by a computer, which can radiate all sorts of spurious noise.  You can hear fuel injector pulses, computer clock harmonics, and anyone who owns a late model Ford vehicle has probably had to deal with the infamous electric fuel pump noise.  Most radio noise blankers were designed to reduce or eliminate pulse type noise, like spark plugs, so they are not particularly effective against this "hash" type noise.  Fortunately, some of it can be reduced to some degree. The fuel pump noise, for instance, can be almost eliminated by a capacitor filter placed across the motor leads.  Accessing the pump motor might be a problem though, so it's not always as easy as it sounds.  Some of the noise is virtually impossible to eliminate and with all the wiring in there acting like hundreds of little antennas, it's hard to even locate much of it.  Some vehicles are fairly tame, while others are a nightmare.  You really have no way of knowing until you buy it, so it's a crap shoot.  You might get lucky, or you might not.

All is not lost however.  Up until very recently, most full sized pickup trucks still retained a large open dash board with which one could still mount a few decent sized radios underneath.  But even trucks have started falling under the pop-culture trend that seeks to make a truck more like a car (Then why buy a truck in the first place?), and they have started losing much of that utilitarian interior simplicity and usefulness.  Fortunately, if you don't have a manual transmission and/or a lever actuated four wheel drive, there is still room to pile radios on a transmission hump mount. That's exactly the setup I'm using in my '97 F-150.

But if you are truly an aficionado of vintage radio gear, it makes sense that you find a vintage car to put it in.  Only then will the experience truly become complete.