The Car Of Today?

We can all agree that the first car to be truly relevant to the Average Man was the Model T, created to provide mechanised personal mobility to the masses, the very definition of a growth market. The Model T was definitely the right car for the time and could be ordered in a great number of different configurations,
It’s important to note, too, that the modern road network was in its infancy when the first of the Model T’s rolled from the Piquette Avenue production line. Just as well, then, that the car could cope with farm tracks, packed gravel lanes and pretty much any surface the early motorist would be likely to encounter.
So, what happened?

Generally, the road networks have developed in parallel with the car. By the 1960s North America was criss-crossed with a matrix of gleaming highways, many of which were brand new and as smooth as the materials and methods of the day would allow. And it was those highways that the cars of the time were designed to use. Wheels became smaller, ride heights became lower, the ability to deal with rutted paths became a far lower priority.
This hand in hand development between Car and Concrete has continued. The cars of today are more highway-biased than ever before; low-profile tyres have become the norm and large-diameter alloy wheels are a must-check box even when ordering relatively “entry level” cars.
It gets crazier when you look at the near-mandatory fitment of 22″ alloy wheels with 30-profile tyres to any SUV you care to mention, thus totally depriving a car with off-road capability of the ability to cope with even moderately corrugated roads. Even the most stereotypically generic cars on the market, the Camrys and Focuses of this world, are popularly ordered with colossal, eye-pleasing wheels with track-ready tyres, optimised for maximum performance on glassy smooth pavement.
Now look at the roads. The infrastructure is enormous with an unimaginable number of routes between point A and point B to choose from. The problem is, with that many square miles of bitumen, nobody can afford to maintain them.
Our roads are scarred by cracks and potholes with the non-arterial routes being most badly affected. Last year I must have met three dozen people who have encountered a pothole which has caused their low-profile tyre sidewall to bulge and their stylish alloy wheel to buckle or crack.
So, over the last hundred or so years, we’ve gone from the average car being able to deal with any half-sensible surface your route might present, to the average car not actually being able to properly deal with the highways that should be its home without constant risk of a crippling injury.
With no sign of car companies reverting exclusively to sensible wheel and tyre combinations I’m pretty sure a design and fashion shark is being jumped somewhere.
If we take the Model T as being a car designed to suit most of the people, most of the time, what car would you say genuinely does the same thing today? We can answer this from a global or a personal standpoint. My local roads are varied in the extreme, there are fast, smooth sections and lengths of tarmac that feels like they’ve been ploughed. My own cars feel like they’re being torn apart during some journeys, but glide in serenity during some others.
I never need to go properly off-highway, but I often encounter non-adopted roads with poor surfaces. Potholes, though, are a constant hazard. I need a car capable of carrying stuff and folk. I want driving to be enjoyable, having as I do a healthy appreciation of speed. Looking at those deliverables, I’d be a pretty strong candidate for ownership of an Audi Allroad, preferably with the most sensible wheel package and the most powerful engine.
Hmm, a practical yet non-specialist vehicle capable of providing mobility even on dubious surfaces. Sounds rather like the Model T. Even in terms of price- in 1908 not everybody could afford a Model T, today not everybody can afford an Audi.
It may not be what I want, but it would appear that the Audi Allroad is what I need. It has become my Definition Of Car. Or would if I could afford it. Assuming I’m not too far from the average Joe, and putting the cost argument aside, could it be that the Allroad, or vehicles of that type, might actually be the closest there is out there to a continuation of the Model T concept?
Is the Soft Roader, genuinely, if we’re honest, the One True Car?
(First image from, all others the result of Googling “1950’s highway, cracked rim, pothole and Audi Allroad.)

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  1. mdharrell Avatar

    That interchange is nearly unrecognizable, in that it now involves I-5, I-84, and I-405 these days in addition to Highway 26. The Portland Public Market building, at that time home to “The Oregon Journal” and to a former incarnation of KPOJ AM, is gone, too. At least the Steel Bridge, just visible beyond the Ford billboard, is still there. That’s a nice ’59 Ford wagon as well.
    Sorry, what was the question?

    1. dukeisduke Avatar

      I think I remember that carspotting pic from the Hemmings Daily blog.

    2. Inliner Avatar

      Also, the pic is from at least 1960, judging by the 1960 Chevrolet on the right, and 1960 Ford on the left.

      1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

        And that there’s an advertising hoarding for ’62 Ford at top centre.

    3. salguod Avatar

      And 3, count ’em, 3 Squarebirds – 2 on the ramp and the fender of a 3rd at the far left.

    4. Vairship Avatar

      The Renault Dauphine isn’t more your style?

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        To recycle my comment from last week:
        “Since June of 1986 not a single day has passed in which I haven’t owned
        at least one 1959 Ford. Trust me, I am not a reasonable person.”

  2. Alan Cesar Avatar
    Alan Cesar

    Most base-model B-segment cars are plenty of fun and come with reasonable 15-inch wheels. Get one of those with a manual transmission and you’ll do fine. My choice would be a Ford Fiesta or Fiat 500. Slap on snow tires for the winter. Throw it hard into every corner. Give zero farts.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      B-segment cars also don’t have the excessively long front overhangs that many larger cars have. I scrape the front bumper most days on a driveway, parking wheel stop or sometimes even just the road surface, most days. One factor behind the popularity of CUVs.
      I agree with TexNIdaho, a compact/medium CUV is a good compromise. If you need more robustness, then go for a crew cab pickup and use light-truck construction tyres rather than passenger.

    1. TexNIdaho Avatar

      Just because it’s antiquated doesn’t make it a good all around choice. I moved on from panther love over a decade ago.

  3. TexNIdaho Avatar

    I would venture to say the modern midsize crossover is the equivalent. More specifically with decent sidewall, sturdy interior, somewhat robust suspension with ground clearance to handle most surfaces, upright cabin, can be basic or loaded up. A vehicle than can do many things but not necessarily do them well. FWD is fine. Previous generation Escape, new Cherokee, Chevy Equinox, etc…

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      This is pretty much what I was thinking. I just chose Audi for reasons of aspiration.

      1. Vairship Avatar

        I just chose Audi for reasons of aspiration reliability inferior to a Rover.

        1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

          I resemble that comment!

  4. P161911 Avatar

    Same thing it has been for the last almost 60 years, an American RWD, V-8, body on frame vehicle. Today the best choice would probably be the Chevy Tahoe. Just get the newest one that fits your budget. Tough, long lasting, and relatively cheap to repair.

    1. Marto Avatar

      I take it you’re not answering from the global standpoint. 🙂

  5. Maymar Avatar
    The Model T was a cheap, utilitarian people’s car. The Dacia Duster is the closest analogue I can think of.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      See, I’m not looking at price particularly, more road-suitability. But then again, despite its cheapness the Duster is actually such a capable all-round car it’s probably the right answer.

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      Came here to answer this ^ and to dig into this:
      …in 1908 not everybody could afford a Model T, today not everybody can afford an Audi.
      The 800$ the Model T might have cost back then would be about 20k$ today, the 360$ it cost in 1927 would only be about 5k$ today – according to several inflation calculators.
      So I guess “aspirational” has changed, too. Many Europeans and even more Americans take for granted to be able to afford some sort of car, a used vehicle in the theoretical price range of the Inflat-o-T or the superpopular Dacia – which has sparked a trend of affordable cars on its own.
      But when it comes to a combination of bad roads and a need for style (“everybody” can afford a car, so how to stick out?), you don’t need more explaining to do to find why Breshnev’s hunting vehicle has become übercool again over the last decade or so:

      1. dukeisduke Avatar


    3. Krautwursten Avatar

      Good car, good reply.

  6. fede Avatar

    I don’t think the ground clearence of the soft roader is really needed. Where I live roads are quite bad, but the badness is not height related. To me the answer would be any compact car with sensible wheels… a 15 inch fiesta, or 14 inch fiat uno, etc.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      You’re right there, the ride height of the “T” was more happy coincidence of design than through any great foresight.

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