The disappearing joys of paper catalogs
Printed parts catalogs in the mail are a gearhead institution, and I'm glad some companies still send them out
Raise your hand if you still remember what it was like to order car parts before the internet.
OK, for the rest of you, here's how it worked: you needed a new carb, or a set of replacement window rubber seals, or wanted to upgrade your brakes. The guy behind the counter at the local non-chain-owned auto parts store doesn't have it, but he knows where you can get it. He suggests you call a toll-free number and request a catalog. Or maybe he gives you one of the dozens of postcards that fell out of auto magazines and you fill it out and drop it in the mail.
Regardless, in a few days or maybe a couple of weeks, a phone-book-sized catalog arrived in your mailbox. The cover showed a car way cooler than yours, but hinting at the idea that within these pages lay the wonders that could bring your car up to snuff. The first 20 pages or so were in color, and listed all the expensive optional go-fast parts and accessories. The rest of the catalog was printed in black and white, on cheap thin paper, and had very few photos but lots of assembly diagrams with the parts numbered, and a corresponding list of prices for those parts.
To order, you either called the toll-free number again, or filled out the form on the back page of the catalog and sent it in. You could mail in a check, or select COD and pay the delivery driver when the order arrived, in cash. (Can you imagine such a thing now?) The order would arrive with the next catalog, and the cycle would repeat the next time you needed something. "Don't see what you need?" the catalog asked, "Call us!"
Online ordering is much faster, to be sure. And because web pages are quicker and cheaper to make than printed pages, online catalogs can be much more comprehensive; generally, if you don't see it on the website, they don't have it. It's an easier way to achieve the same end goal, which is the whole point of technological advance. But we've lost something, too.
Now raise your hand if the name J.C. Whitney & Co. means anything to you.
My dad used J.C. Whitney for car parts a lot when I was young. I even recall going in to the store in Chicago once or twice to pick up orders that were too large or heavy to ship cheaply. We had a fleet of Volkswagens, as well as a couple of Dodge sedans and the 1979 Fiat I have written about in the past. It seems like in those days you could build an entire Beetle (or Jeep, for that matter) from the J.C. Whitney catalog, as long as you had a bare frame to build on. And I imagine large chunks of my dad's beige '69 Beetle did come from them. I know that the water pump and timing belt kit for my first car, a VW Scirocco, did. I remember ordering them.
I'm pretty sure we had this exact catalog. (photo: eBay)
I'm pretty sure you can still get a paper catalog from J.C. Whitney, but they don't give them out like candy like they used to. I am on a couple of catalog mailing lists: Moss Motors sends me both their catalog and their "magazine" (basically a catalog with a few owner's stories and photos in it), and the LMC Truck, the place I got my upholstery kit for the truck, still sends me a catalog every few months. Their selection of aftermarket doodads is pleasingly J.C. Whitney-like in that it's a lot of stuff I would never buy, but it's fun to look at. And of course, the mighty Summit Racing Equipment is still good for paper catalogs, and they're in full color.
The one that really surprised me recently, however, wasn't a car company at all: it was Grainger Industrial Supply. I had to order some stuff at work from them, and they sent me a catalog. It's three inches thick, and looks just like their catalogs looked 20 years ago. I opened a page at random and found a wider assortment of linear ball bearings than I knew existed. Wonderful stuff.
Look at the size of this monster. It practically needs its own bookshelf.
The internet is a great way to find and buy what you need. But it can't hold a candle to good old fashioned paper catalogs for sheer enjoyment, and looking at all the stuff you don't need. Sitting down at the kitchen table (or, let's be honest, on the toilet) and leafing through a paper catalog just for the hell of it is a time-honored pleasure, and I hope it never quite goes away completely.