The End of an Era

Larry Jewett - December 20, 2012 10:00 AM


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First, they took the spare tire away. Now, this. What is the automotive world coming to?

Change can be a good thing, but there is always a danger when something is taken away. Still, the automakers have to make their decisions based on what is going to sell cars. According to General Motors, having a front bench seat isn’t selling cars.

As the owner of a 2003 Buick Century with a front bench seat, I find myself having a bit of difficulty imagining the alternative. The car is not a sporty car and taking the bench seat and replacing it with buckets is not going to make it a sporty car.

There was a day when three people could ride in the front seat. Even though it is still possible, it’s not likely to happen, what with the fattening of America and the obesity problem. There goes one argument for the front bench.

Simply put, it just doesn’t hold the attraction any more. That’s why the bench seat is an endangered species. In its press release announcing the change, General Motors conceded the historic nature. “When the 2014 Chevrolet Impala arrives next year, it will put to rest a fixture of automobiles since the days of the horseless carriage. The outgoing Impala is the last passenger car in production in North America to offer three-across seating, an option that ends with the introduction of Chevy’s redesigned flagship sedan.”

Their figures showed only one in 10 was interested in the $195 option of a front bench seat. “A lot of people prefer bucket seats because they’re sporty, even in models that aren’t sports cars,” said Clay Dean, GM director of design. “Our customers also appreciate having the center console as a convenient place to store their phone and other personal items.”

That argument doesn’t wash with me. My car has a fold-down console, so it has the same amenities. Maybe it’s the $195 upcharge for a bench seat with a center console that makes the bench seat irrelevant. Does it cost less to make two seats as opposed to one?

“There’s a certain nostalgia for bench seats, like being able to snuggle up with your date at a drive-in movie and some customers still like them,” Dean conceded. “You never know, we might see bench seats re-emerge someday, possibly in very small cars.” Following that logic means very small benches and I’m not sure that’s an answer.

If anyone remembers courting with a bench seat, you knew it was going to be a good night when the one you were with came to the center seat. I always found it funny that, once you put a ring on them, it didn’t happen as often, thinking there was some kind of diamond magnet in the passenger door panel (that also worked with cubic zirconium). By the time you said “I do”, bucket seats would likely have been equally as attractive. Maybe it’s just me.

When it comes to practicality, the decision probably just makes sense, but you never really miss something until it is gone. Using the drive-in (which isn’t gone, but isn’t necessarily as much a part of the popular culture as it once was) as an example just opens the floodgates to what else is missing from our lives. A lot of it has to do with how we look at it and how we view our cars. Dean said the need for six-passenger sedans is largely met by SUVs or crossovers and no one can argue with that. Where’s the romance in that? Have we become so entrenched in the practical need for the vehicle that we’re starting to leave the fun out of it?

Let’s hope not. There’s still a lot about cars to enjoy, but if you feel like getting close to that special someone, make sure you don’t sit on the seat belt receptacle in one of these bucket seat cars. Don’t ask me how I know.