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If Only They Had Asked Me...

After writing a few posts on heavy-duty subjects like Ukraine and Putin, I need a nonsense break. So over the next couple of days, I’m going to gripe about a few trivial things that irk me, no doubt revealing in the process how pathetically a grown man can waste his mind (or what’s left of it). You’ll know pretty quickly whether you’ll want to waste your own mind reading any of them. For starters, here’s today’s long-suppressed wondering about the persistence of…


As a teenager in the 1950s I was fortunate to be among the earliest drivers of an “MG” roadster (that’s me on the back, with the flattop buzz cut hair). My best friend Greg (right below me) owned this one, among the very first in the San Joaquin Valley, and I wasn’t too far behind.

The MG had a puny engine that would generate only 58 horsepower when maxxed out at 5,500 RPM. It was a tender little engine, and if you spun it much beyond 5,500 RPM it would punish you by blowing out a gasket or breaking a cylinder rod or some such. And since MGs (like almost every car in the 1950s) had a stick shift, that meant you had to temper the RPMs as you revved it up through the gears in a vain effort to pretend you were going very fast. (The only real thrills for a sporting driver came from flinging your MG recklessly around corners and road bends at dangerously irresponsible speeds.)

That’s why the dashboard of this seemingly-exotic sports car had two big dials like this:

A speedometer like the dial on the left was also on every American car everywhere, of course. But that equally big dial on the right was truly unique—a “tachometer” that told you how many RPMs the engine was spinning. The tachometer was something brand new to Americans and lent an air of special sportiness to the MG and all the other imported sports cars that came in its wake like the Jaguar and the Triumph. And if you wanted that little MG engine to survive your testosterone impulses, it provided you with very, very important information lest you literally blow a gasket.

In the “muscle-car” era that followed the 50s, American manufacturers added tachometers to the dashboards of stick-shift cars with massive horsepower, again to guide against over-revving and busting their sturdier-but-not-indestructible engines. The tachometer added valuable information and a touch of panache to these monsters.

But in the years that followed, stick-shift transmissions all but disappeared from American cars. The technology embedded in the automobile itself now decides when the RPMs are running too high and automatically shifts the gears to lower those RPMs. Or, at the top end, this technology will actually defeat the accelerator and refuse to add more RPMs that might damage the engine.

So…why…do…most…cars…today…still…have…a…tachometer…on…the…dashboard? Here’s Patti's current Honda CR-V, with the tachometer (co-equal size with the speedometer, just like my 1952 MG-TD of seventy years ago) unhelpfully suggesting that RPMs above 7,000 are in the red-zone should she be seized by a mad desire to push her CR-V beyond its top speed of 112 MPH--at which point the car's computers would shut her down anyhow.

Along with their irrelevance at delivering useful information, tachometers have long since lost any marketing panache. But the automakers persist nevertheless. Back in the farming country in the San Joaquin Valley where I grew up, there was a phrase that pretty much sums up today’s tachometers: “as useless as teats on a bull.” I guess it’ll take the ascendancy of the electric car to finally push the “delete” button on this $394.42 decoration.

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