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Road Closed


I’ve dreamed of starting a car company. Around the turn of the millenium I needed a new ride, and wasn’t pleased with what my modest wealth would afford. For my budgeted $15K, I could choose something nicer than a pure econobox, but only the base model. Or I could pick the econobox in the highest trim level—chrome on a pig. I was looking for something in between. An efficient and reliable car, that could carry three friends around town, with a few luxury features like cruise control and a moon roof. Nobody offered one.

I realized what I wanted was a late-80s Honda Accord. That was before the Accord had ballooned into a full-size “family sedan”. It was still a legitimate compact, efficient, satisfying to drive, safe, and mechanically bulletproof. But I didn’t want a used car. I wanted that Accord’s sweet balance with some of the latest technological details, like modern headlights and better rust-proofing.

The Y2K equivalent was around $20,000. More money than I wanted to spend, and in some ways, just too much car. Since nobody was selling what I wanted, I thought, “Why not build my own?” Surely I was not the only one with this set of desires. My design base, the Accord, was a top seller, and a legend in the industry. Why couldn’t I sell a million of them?

Since most of the engineering was already done and paid for, my development cost should be small. If I was a good negotiator, maybe Honda would let me have the plans for only a license fee and no up-front money. I might even find much of the old tooling in various factories and warehouses. And, since Korea was at that time emerging as a serious autobuilder, I could build my NewCord there and keep production costs low. Although Korean quality was not yet proven, I figured that my proven design would help overcome that challenge. The 2000 model NewCord dealers could offer them for about the same price as a Hyundai Elantra, around $12K.

Why couldn’t I sell a million of them?


The 1988 Accord would not meet 2000 US safety standards. It would be a safe car by buyer’s standards, but not according to NHTSA. All the sheet metal would need adjustment, and my cost would rise by a thousand or two. The ’88 Accord got good mileage, and didn’t pollute much. But the standards had tightened. I would need to design a new engine, or need to buy the latest from someone else. Costs rise another grand or more. The mandated complex of airbags add a couple more thousand. And now I’m offering 1988 styling at a 1998 price. How could I sell a hundred of them?

The American Spectator has a short article on the hidden costs of government-mandated safety standards:

Over the past 25 years, our friends in Washington -- who are always looking out for us, of course -- have demanded, under penalty of law, that new cars be made ever "safer," both in terms their ability to withstand a crash and also in terms of their ability to protect the occupants in every conceivable type of crash -- frontal, side, offset. You name it.

Thus the weight of the average "economy" car has increased by 500-800 pounds (heavier, more reinforced bodies provide better crashworthiness) while on the inside, at least two and more typically four air bags have been fitted.

Thus modern cars are a lot safer. But they're also much less economical.

Given a quarter-century of technological improvement (everything from five and six-speed transmissions to very sophisticated engine management systems that were not around in the early '80s), it would be simple -- and cheap -- to build a 50 mpg economy car today.

That’s what I realized nine or ten years ago. I was hoping to offer a slightly different balance, a little less efficiency for a noticeably lower sticker price. But it doesn’t matter. Our bureaucratic overlords do not permit us to choose how much safety or efficiency we want to pay for. If we want a car, we have to buy all NHTSA’s options.

And how much safety you think the government should be forcing people to buy. The '70s and '80s -- an era of genuinely economical cars -- were not a time of mass carnage. True, if you wrecked an '82 Omni your chances of being hurt -- or even killed -- would be greater than would be the case if you'd been driving a 2009 (and federally approved) Toyota Yaris. If you wrecked. But maybe -- probably -- you'll never have a serious accident. Most people don't. Some of us -- many of us -- stand a good chance of never being involved in more than a minor fender-bender.

Perhaps the very real everyday fuel savings (and up-front savings on the car itself) are worth more to you than the theoretical "what if?" safety advantages of the modern, government-approved car?

The key phrase in the last sentence being "worth more to you." Shouldn't it be your decision, not Uncle Sam's? Why can't we -- like the eggheads running the government -- weigh the pros and cons of something and come to a conclusion that best meets our particular needs?

My dream of building cars died. I had to pick from what the law allowed. So, I took on some extra debt and spent $20,000. I have no regrets. I like the car—700-mile range on the highway, with a moonroof—and I’m still driving it nine years later. But I’ll never know how satisfying it would have been to drive down the road not taken.

H/T: Newmark’s Door