Chrysler ad via Hemmings

If you were a time traveler trying to determine, for some reason, what car culture was like in America in any given year, you could pretty much use the contemporaneous Indy 500 pace car as your one data point and come to some pretty reasonable conclusions.

There are few things so hyped in this world as the Indianapolis 500. It is the one race everyone can name and the one everyone wants to win. This makes it the perfect place to advertise a new car and the choice reveals everything you need to know about the era in which it was built, from xenophobia to EPA-induced malaise Buicks.

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As enthusiasts, we’re now in a golden age of cars. It is entirely possible that the vehicles we’ll be driving the next year or two will be the apotheosis of gas-powered cars operated entirely under the control of human beings.

This year’s Chevrolet Camaro SS is an excellent example of this. It’s a modern American performance car, which offers more power than anyone needs in a package that’s both engaging to drive and not bad to look at. The same could be said for last year’s Z28 and the Corvettes before that. A post-bankruptcy General Motors has corrected some of the company’s worst habits and while you might not love the C6 Corvette or previous generation Camaro, they’re both good cars.

You don’t have to go that far back to find some truly fucked cars from truly fucked times, though.

A Very Factual Maliase Ad

Buick ad via StreetLegalTV

I love this ad for the 1976 Buick Century V6 pace car replicas, which reveals how bad the Malaise Era had been for cars. “This is the Buick that looks like the car that’s pacing the race.” Yep, this is a factual ad. If you were to buy a Buick Century pace car replica it would look like the car that’s pacing the race. That is correct.

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Damn, it was awful though. Buick would eventually build a great turbo V6, but this engine, with 165 horsepower, wasn’t it. America’s bicentennial was largely celebrated by people who could rightly feel like they’d squandered a lot of the foundational vision of this country. I mean, they couldn’t buy a Detroit-built car with some real god damn horsepower. Gerald Ford. Disco music. It was a bad time. (Also, is there any ad copy more depressing than than “350-2 V-8 not available in California”?)

Just a few years prior, Oldsmobile had paced the race with an Oldsmobile 4-4-2 with a beastly 370 horsepower V8. America, clearly, was going backwards.

The Car That Wasn’t

Photo: Wikipedia

My favorite example of this is the 1991 Dodge Viper, which wasn’t actually supposed to be the pace car that year. Chrysler had intended to use the Japanese-built Dodge Stealth (a Mitsubishi in a cowboy hat, basically). That didn’t happen.

The New York Times put the blame on a mix of anti-Japanese race fans, the United Auto Workers union, and the “patriotic fervor coinciding with the Persian Gulf war.” While the Viper was legitimately awesome and a great pace car, there’s nothing that makes the Stealth a bad choice. It’s much better than the experimental Chevy Beretta droptop that paced the year before, which was so bad it never went into production.

In fact, the key takeaway from automotive history is that the best sports cars of the early ‘90s were actually Japanese and the resistance of the American public to this reality is extremely telling. I also can’t help but notice that while Americans were furious at the idea of seeing a Japanese-built Dodge, they had no problem with a Dodge that required the help of an Italian company to make.

No Bravado

Oldsmobile via NetCarShow

If the new Camaro pace car is an example of everything that a “New GM” can produce, the Oldsmobile Bravada was probably the most egregious example of everything Old GM did wrong. Say what you will about the Chevy SSR, which is the other non-car pace car, at least that was interesting.

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Was the Bravado badge-engineered? Yep. Was it part of a brand that had no obvious reason for existing? Absolutely. Was it a mediocre, gas chugging SUV with no redeemable qualities? I mean, Bravada is kind of a good name.

The only slightly redeeming thing about the car is it was driven by Elaine Irwin, who became the first woman to drive the pace car. I wish we’d have done better for her, though.

What are your favorites? What do those cars say about history?