So this all started when I read Jalopnik’s recent review of the Trabant. That car, a little East German two-stroke literally made of pressed rags, has fascinated me for some time, and I’m only just starting to figure out why. The Trabant was a humble car, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that some of my favorite cars fall into this category. But can you even get a humble car anymore?
I once almost bought a Ford Festiva. I had been in contact with the seller. Cash in my pocket, I stayed up far too late the night before scrounging crusty corners of the internet looking for ways to modify the little hatch. Racing seats, Mazda swaps, lowering kits. Buying day came and I just needed the seller’s address. But he wasn’t picking up the phone. He responded to none of my texts. To save you some tears, I’ll just come out and say that I never found that car, and I ended up with something else. I’ve never forgiven him.
But why had I been so excited about it? Why do I still search Craigslist for Ford Festivas, knowing I have neither the money nor space to buy one? Why did that old communist Trabant remind me so much of it? They’re crappy little things, Festivas, Trabants, old Civics and Datsuns, slow and rusting, rife with electrical issues, their single barrel carburetors clogged and confused with age, their mufflers removing themselves.
I love humble cars, though, so I’ll use my degree from the University of Vague Car Theories (UVCT Alternators, GO FIGHT WIN!) to figure out why. But first, what defines a humble car? Humble cars are efficient, utilitarian, usually slow, and always cheap. And above all, they’re honest about it in design.
The Trabant, for example, is basically three boxes on wheels. There are no weird little curves or scoops or trim pieces to distract you from the fact that you’re driving three boxes made of cotton fiber. The same is true of the Festiva. Aside from a set of slim little box flares, it’s a pair of file cabinets and doesn’t apologize for it. One of the best cars I’ve ever owned, my 1990 Accord Coupe, had the same spirit.
Humble cars don’t have to be boxy, but they tend to be. The VW Beetle, despite its “people’s car” callsign, isn’t what I would call humble. It’s too pretty, too design-focused. It looks fast, even if it isn’t. Maybe I’m subjectively painting it with images of Herbie winning rallies, or Mighty Car Mods stuffing theirs with a turbocharged Subaru engine, but it was penned to be memorable and attractive, even cute. Humble cars are not. When you look at a humble car, you know that very little of its budget went to design. Someone with a t-square and a pencil spent an afternoon drawing the very best thing they could to encase a project already in process, and what they had at the deadline went to the clay. There were no risks. Humble cars are designed to be afforded, not swooned over. The Beetle’s contemporary Squareback wagon is a much better example.
Yet these designs end up being some of the most beautiful to me. I think it’s because they’re so minimalist. A Datsun 510 is a place to rest the eye. There’s something about the proportions, like the brain just appreciates clean lines and simple boundaries without distraction.
But humble cars aren’t just about design, either. They must be mechanically simple and relatively reliable. Determining desirability with this one is easy. I enjoy modifying cars, so if I can take something apart more easily, I’ll have more fun. Humble cars are almost always slow, too. And modifying a slow car can be more fun than modifying a fast one. A fast car must be fast already in stock form, so tuning it can call for more expensive and extraordinary measures. A slow car might just need a muffler delete and a cold air intake to make an extra 7 hp. And when the whole car only makes 80 hp, that’s a huge improvement.
Slowness isn’t the goal, of course. It’s a side-effect of efficiency. No one willing to buy a humble car wants to put up with gas guzzling, so humble cars must sip fuel. This also leads to a humble car’s lightness. As with any vehicle, the lighter the weight, the more fun you’ll have. Utility is another attractive feature of the humble car. That favored Festiva with the seats folded down packed 52 cubic feet of cargo room, probably enough for a small pony. Think about an old Subaru wagon, with the spare tire under the hood to make more space for cargo in the back. Or the aforementioned VW squareback, with a trunk up front and more cargo room through the hatch.
Finally, they’re cheap. Cheap to buy, cheap to own, cheap to fix and fuel. Even cheap to insure. They’re loud, uncomfortable, and free of the burden of amenities, but you only pay for what you get. Usually they’re the cheapest cars you can buy brand new.
But I took a look at some of America’s current cheapest cars, and I’m not sure you can buy a humble car anymore.
The cheapest, the Nissan Versa sedan, has a base price of $11,990. It’s fairly efficient, covering 40 mpg highway; and light, weighing under 2,400 lbs. But it doesn’t have nearly the cargo room to be considered a utilitarian humble car, with just 14.9 cubic feet. Crank your price up by almost $3,000 and you can get the Versa Note hatchback with an impressive 38.3 cubic feet, but that’s not so cheap anymore. Still, the Versa’s greatest failure of the humble test is its design. It’s not forgettable, and it certainly isn’t simple. It’s just ugly. The needless chrome, the pinched face, the weird swoops and complications on the flanks… It’s a mess. It’s embarrassingly trying to look like a more expensive car, and this immediately disqualifies it.
Next up is the Mitsubishi Mirage, which used to be the cheapest, but can now be had for $12,995. This is almost a winner. It boasts an impressive 47 cubic feet of cargo space and a mostly clean, straightforward design. It’s efficient and pleasantly slow, with the 78 hp 3-cyl managing 43 mpg on the highway. But the needless chrome trim hurts its score, as well as Mitsubishi’s questionable reliability record. Close, Mitsubishi. Very close.
Finally, you can get a Chevy Spark for just $5 more. The $13k hatch gets 41 mpg, and only makes 98 hp. And Chevy even killed the shocking, open wound headlights from the Spark’s troubled first generation. Some chrome trim still remains, but the design is almost free of useless creases and character lines. Do we have a humble car? No. Even with the seats folded down, the spark only has 27.2 feet of cargo room. So much for utility.
Of the three, I think the Mirage is the closest to a true humble car, something someone with a very small budget can shrug at, tell the dealer, “It is what it is,” and buy. Yet it isn’t the Festiva of old. Crash safety standards have pretty much done away with cars like the Festiva in America, but I wonder if the absence of these regulations would make much of a difference.
While many in our nation claim that they don’t care about cars, no one really wants a humble car. A person’s car is zip-tied to his or her personal image. Budgets might be low, but admitting it with the purchase of a boxy little hatchback is tough for someone trying to promote his or her #brand on Snapchat. Everything has to carry the pretense of style, of modernity and technology and the beginnings of opulence. The start of a wealthy life.
Just the other day, I read about a friend of mine, a young mom, who bought an SUV because she refused to give in to the call of the minivan. Never mind that minivans are more practical, spacious, and stable. She couldn’t handle the perceived stigma of the minivan mom. The irony is that SUVs now carry the same stigma. Non-parents look at SUV drivers and chuckle at the lack of glaciers they’re traversing.
Today’s minivan, with its integrated vacuum cleaners and personal IMAX theaters, is not a humble car, but the principle carries. So many SUVs are chosen over minivans strictly for the sake of image. So many cars in general are chosen over humble cars because their owners are afraid of appearing poor. That’s a personal problem, but meanwhile, the rest of us can’t get humble cars anymore because of it.
Time to go look for Festivas on Craigslist again. Let me know if you find a Trabant.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.