Monday, May 11, 2009

Cars, Baseball, and the Possible Demise of the American Automobile Industry

Pontiac Grand Am GT coupe

Ensconced in their peppy silver Honda, I explained to my son and his wife on the way to see Star Trek yesterday afternoon (my requested Mother’s Day outing), my interest in the current upheaval in the auto industry springs from reading Motor Trend magazine during my childhood. The tenth of eleven children, three of my six older sisters still lived at home while I was growing up. When one of their boyfriends came to call, I felt obligated to converse with him while he waited for his date to appear.

Not that entertaining my sisters’ parade of boring suitors was my sole reason for reading the car magazines and stacks of comic books they frequently left behind. As a junior high school student I was fascinated by cars and professional baseball – pressed I can still identify an Edsel, Studebaker, Chevy, Pontiac, or a merry Oldsmobile from the 50s. And I’ve always taken pride in being able to recite the entire Cleveland Indians lineup from that era. I mean who could forget the likes of Larry Doby, Dale Mitchell, Luke Easter, Al Rosen, Bobby Avila, Jim Egan, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, etc., or GM Hank Greenberg?

But back to cars, “Well, see,” I said to my son, yesterday, “There’s a Pontiac Grand Am parked next to my Mercury Topaz in the garage at my apartment building, and I feel kind of sad that GM has decided to dump that model. And I also mourn the loss of the Oldsmobile a few years ago.”

Showing little mercy for these relics of the past, my son pointed out the obvious: American car manufacturers never quite learned the lesson from the makers of Toyotas and Hondas; sensible people prefer quality when they buy a car.

Stanley Fish’s op-ed in the NY Times titled Car Nuts has evoked further reflections on cars. I don’t quite qualify as a car nut, but still I recall how elated I felt when I first learned to drive a car with a manual transmission - a white Ford Escort station wagon.

Professor Fish gets around to paying tribute to the manual transmission:

The name Pontiac strikes an elegiac and forlorn note (“Forlorn: the very word is like a bell”). The Pontiac is gone and the entire parent company may follow it. And then there’s all that talk about hybrids and plug-ins and the prediction, once more, of the demise of the internal combustion engine. I guess it’s all over.

Well, maybe not, for if you read the auto magazines, which I do religiously, especially in barber shops where you don’t have to pay for them, it’s still morning in America and, indeed, it’s still 1970. In the June issue of Road & Track, Douglas Kott celebrates the new Solstice: “Pontiac brings us a stunner.” (Is it a going-away present?) A longish piece in the June issue of Car and Driver lingers over the virtues and limitations of Chrysler’s Grand Caravan minivan. (Isn’t that the kind of car we want to get rid of?) And gracing the cover of Motor Trend are three “pony” cars (muscle cars to you): the Chevrolet Camaro, the Ford Mustang and the Dodge Challenger. The line above the pictures reads “The Showdown We’ve Waited 35 Years For.”

Who exactly are “we”? I guess “we” are those for whom consternation about bailouts and fears that there may soon be no American auto industry barely register except as background noise that doesn’t begin to drown out (or even divert) the story we want to hear, the story the magazines keep telling no matter what is happening on the outside. That is a story internal to the history of the development of the automobile and the investment by fans (car nuts) in the stages of that development. From a purely technical point of view those stages have only a disposable interest; once there was this or that mechanical limitation; now it has been overcome. But if you experience automobiles as an art form, periods in its history can be valued and savored for their own sake.

The letters section of Motor Trend features a lively debate between those who view the manual transmission as an imperfect precursor of the automatic transmission most of our cars now have and those for whom the manual transmission is its own finished accomplishment, one that merits celebration and study. “I’ve got half a century to go before I gain octogenarian status,” declares one reader, who hastens to tell us that “all the cars I’ve ever owned have three pedals (as God intended).” People who make such statements will be excited by questions like, “in what ways are the new pony cars like and unlike the predecessors they at once pay homage to and claim to surpass?” But when someone tells them that pretty soon there may not be any pony cars or any American cars at all, they are likely to tune out, for that is news from a universe they decline to live in.

Whatever. I have to agree with my son on this matter of quality. I’ve owned my Mercury Topaz for several years, and I’d hate to total the money I’ve spent to keep it running. I recall the feeling during the final years of my full-time employment that I was on a wearisome treadmill - working over forty hours a week to support my car so that I could get back and forth to work.

All sentiment aside, here’s hoping that America’s car makers will soon get the message their customers have been trying to get across to them for at least the past 30 years. We’d like an inexpensive, reliable car that gets good gas mileage – what’s so hard about that?


Star Trek and dinner at Culvers followed by a Scrabble game in my kitchen made for a perfect Mother’s Day.

Cross-posted at the Widdershins

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