Saturday, July 25, 2015

Fourth Saturday's Loneliest Liberal

What’s an American car?

By James Knudsen

Many years ago, when the American automobile industry was in trouble, I found myself thinking about what constituted an “American” car and, more importantly, did anyone still want to buy one? I’m still pondering that question.
    Growing up in the seventies, it was easy to spot an American car. For one thing, they were everywhere. Market share in the U.S. for the Big Three in 1970 was well above 50%. And American cars shared many of the same, hallmark characteristics. They were big, front-engined, rear-drive automobiles, employing big, pushrod, V-8 engines. Their soft, floaty suspensions gave them handling qualities similar to modern container ships, which are almost as big. Inside you would find a big, spacious interior or a small, cramped interior, but either way the car weighed over two tons and consumed slightly more fuel than the nation of Burundi. This was the American car of post-war U.S.A., and for most people it worked. Gas was cheap, wages were high, and with GM employing over 500,000 Americans, chances were good that you helped build the thing.
This basic architecture defined American automobiles for much of the 20th Century
    Things started going bad in the 1980’s. Things had started going wrong in the 1970’s, but GM, Ford, and Chrysler had so much capital and so little competition that it would be some time before anyone really noticed. By the 1980’s, people with power and responsibility to do something about the declining fortunes of the industry began to make changes. Unfortunately, the people with the power and responsibility had arrived at their lofty positions, in their lofty offices, not because they actually knew anything about cars, but because...well, I have no understanding of the corporate machinations that result in the promotion of unqualified people, except for what I read in Dilbert. It’s enough to say that trying to make a Buick Electra “sporty” was a stupid idea and it didn’t reverse the downward slide of GM.
The Buick Electra T-Type
    By 1992, America had invaded...sorry, liberated a Middle Eastern country for the first time, rock stars didn’t want to be rock stars, and I was working at a GM dealership. It was also the year that the Ford Taurus was the best-selling passenger car in the U.S. That would sound like good news, but it was the first time since 1988 that an American name-plate had claimed the top spot. From 1989 to ’91 the Honda Accord had claimed the number-one ranking, and since 1982, Honda had been building many of them in Marysville, Ohio. I was selling Buicks assembled at the Ramos Arizpe plant in Coahuila, Mexico. It was also around this time that the sport utility vehicle (SUV) began its ascent to widespread popularity in the automotive world. These passenger vehicles – truck-based station-wagons – would allow Detroit to ignore the underlying problems in its business model for another 15 years.

Oldsmobile BravadaDodge DurangoFord Explorer
No, they’re not the same vehicle...okay, they are.
    The collapse of the American economy in 2007-08 forced the auto industry to finally look at what it had been doing and make changes. In the years since, Ford, GM, and Chrysler have introduced cars – real cars – that are better, so much better that they’re even considered good. And not good for an American car, good by any standard – more efficient, more environmentally responsible. When did those qualities become American?

2015 Chevrolet
Copyright © 2015 by James Knudsen

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