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Detroit is Burning...Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Money
Somewhere along the line the United States auto industry forgot about innovation and beauty.
In 1908, Cadillac pioneered modern manufacturing by creating the first truly interchangeable parts on an assembly line. By 1927, Cadillac became the first major manufacturing company to design, rather than engineer, products for the consumer. The aesthetic beauty of the form ‘car’ had come to the forefront. In the 1950s, the most expensive cars in the world were plush Cadillacs, owned by the richest and most powerful people in the world.
By the 1990s, Cadillac was a joke. Now, in 2008, Cadillac has a flagship sedan often considered to be the best in its class, the fastest sedan in the world…but they may not exist past 2010. Their CTS and CTS-V are perennial ‘10 Best’ list members, but who cares? A few people really do care…but just not enough.
Somewhere along the line the United States auto industry forgot about innovation and beauty and decided to royally fuck the consumer and, in turn, itself. So what happened? It wasn’t just the auto industry. It was America herself. Americans bought foreign goods and depended on foreign oil. The deficit skyrocketed and we just kept eating fast food and buying cars made in China. And now what?
For many historians 1972 marked the death of the United States automotive industry. Safety features and fuel economy regulations strangled an industry already hurting from foreign imports and consumer tastes. That was the same year we re-elected Richard M. Nixon as president. It was also the last year someone walked on the moon. Coincidence? This was the death of our self-identity and our progress. That was what killed the auto industry, and in turn America. It was a death at the hands of stagnation and a culture that cared less about art and science and more about stuff.
It isn’t so much that safety is bad a thing. No one wants to have a steering wheel go through them. Mr. Nader felt that some Chevrolets had this problem. But Chevrolet fixed it. No one wants to blow up from a rear-end accident a la a Ford Pinto. Safety is a wonderful thing. The problem wasn’t safety regulations and the stifling of performance. The problem was how it was done. Detroit woke up on a Monday and was essentially told by Wednesday that they needed safe, fuel-efficient cars or the Germans (and eventually Japanese) would eat their market alive. Detroit didn’t rest on their laurels but what they had to do was atrocious. Cars just got bigger and heavier with giant, hideous bumpers that stuck two or three feet out front shoved on them. Massive V-8s were still being produced because this was a free market. People really wanted to buy massive V-8s even if gasoline cost more. But they were choked by emission controls so much that by 1980 a Corvette, a beautiful sports car, was getting 100 SAE horsepower out of an engine that could feasibly have three times that.
But it really isn’t that simple. It never is. The 1972 model year cars were out in 1971. They were probably green-lighted years before that. But this was all during the Vietnam ‘Police Action’ and the Cold War. This was all during the death of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. This was all during the death of the American worker and free love. In the mid-1960s some of the most beautiful, fastest, best-selling, and most American cars ever made were produced. Then somewhere along the line came safety regulations. But the funny thing is Detroit regulated itself somewhat. In the era of muscle cars we saw: disc brakes, side marker lights, safety bumpers, power steering, power brakes, seatbelts, and countless other safety measures. By the late 1970s there was the Pinto, rusting Plymouths, good ideas to save fuel that never worked, and shitty economy boxes from the same countries we were bombing a few decades before. In just ten years our country went from giving a shit about itself to not giving a shit about anything.
Part of the problem was oil. The funny thing is that in the early 1900s you could go to your local dealership and get an electric car. Or a steam car. Or a diesel car. Or a gasoline-powered car. The problem was that most of these cars sucked royal ass. At the time the gasoline car was the cleanest and fastest with the greatest travel distance. Diesel cars were probably just as useful but they spewed disgusting black fuels. Anyone who has sat behind a truck in traffic knows this. The technology was not there. For most Americans, they would be worthless.
The oil crisis began in 1973 when Americans still wanted huge V-8s popularized by muscle cars and Cadillacs. Why buy a 4-cylinder that breaks down and gets maybe 20 mpg when you can have a 500 cubic inch V-8 that gets 10 mpg and lasts forever? In a couple of years that beautiful gasoline that had made cars useful started Detroit’s slow death. When gasoline went from $20 a barrel to $100 a barrel it was rationed. Lines formed around the block for gasoline and people dumped their high-quality GTOs and Torinos for garbage. Low-quality Volkswagen Beetles and crappy 70s Civics were selling fairly well. Why? They sucked. And to make matters worse some of Detroit’s Big Three outsourced their small cars to crappy foreign car companies like Mitsubishi.
Detroit was having problems with making giant, hideous cars. They started making huge, ugly, slow, fuel-efficient cars that rusted apart. And then they began to sell foreign cars as their own. When they did make their own small cars, they cut corners. Detroit made no money on cars everyone at the time thought were throw-away cars.
The last stalwart of a forgotten age soldiered on, fortunately: the Trans Am. Pontiac’s last performance car and America’s last sports car. They were high-quality and usually lasted more than a couple of years. They had high horsepower and handled well. In the late 1970’s, in the face of an oil crisis and a faltering economy, they sold a hell of a lot of them. Everyone had one or wanted one. Mullet jokes aside, they were wonderful cars. Period. When the Corvette was making less than 200 horsepower, the Trans Am rocked. It was a pussy magnet and deservedly so for Burt Reynolds.
There’s another issue at play here. Cars like the Trans Am used to be fun. A consumer could go down to a Chevy, Ford, or Plymouth dealer to get a solid, dependable family car. But they could get that car in a convertible. In the 1950s and 1960s, you could get pretty much any model in any class in a four-door, two-door or convertible. And everyone knows convertibles are fun. They just make you happy. That’s why so many people have motorcycles now. But safety brutalized fun here, too. Safety demanded that convertibles die. Fewer and fewer people bought them and fewer and fewer models had them. By the mid-1970s you had to buy one of GM’s beloved giant full-size models as a convertible or a foreign car, like a Mercedes. Fortunately for GM, Mercedes were expensive and not that reliable.
In 1976, the last Cadillac Eldorado convertible was driven home by someone somewhere who loved American cars and wanted to have a fun convertible. This would be the last real convertible ever in America. Or at least that’s what everyone said. They came back to an ignoble model, the Chrysler Lebaron. It was a lowly front-wheel drive family car sold in the guise of a luxury model with some available faux wood panels. But, by God, it was American and a convertible. If you ignored the available Mitsubishi engines…
But after deaths and wars and lost convertibles and economic crises we soldiered on. There were still Mustangs and Camaros to counter the Civics and Volkswagens. But it just didn’t feel right. They didn’t feel American. Everything slowly got a ‘Euro’ flair. The aforementioned Trans Am from Pontiac, who had made a name for themselves on wide-track and giant displacement, was touting how European their Trans Am had become. The Chrysler Lebaron, the triumphant return of the convertible, was full of ‘Euro’ junk. Then came the Ford Taurus. It was arguably the most important modern design in production history. In an era of boxy things and ugly cars, we had a sleek, modern and really boring car.
Then a decade after Detroit once again revolutionized the automotive world with organic designs and cab forward they were tanking. Again. American industries had some major issues in the 1970’s. Chrysler was bailed out by the government but paid it back. Things went from looking up to being total shit. What was different? Every car was exactly the same.
It was like the end of Animal Farm. Who were pigs? Who were people? Who knew? An American car was a Japanese car was a German car. And this was a generation of Americans who grew up with hard-ons for foreign products and a loathing of unions. Reagan had just spit in the face of the unions across America. So who cared if they made your car or some foreigner did? Who cared if the car was made in Ohio or if it was made in Beijing? A car was a car was a car, right?
It wasn’t just that people didn’t care if it was foreign or not. Many people lamented their beloved cars growing up. The GTO they used to bird-dog chicks in high school. The Chevelle they bought after they returned from war. Their mom’s AMC station wagon. People loved these cars and would surely have bought cars from Detroit if they could love them the same way, right? Why would people spend thousands of dollars to restore these old cars if they weren’t great cars? Detroit forgot about this. They put out more cars that…well, they weren’t garbage. They just weren’t any better than anyone else’s cars.
It was all because these things didn’t feel American. More and more cars were front-wheel drive and, as any driver knows, that just isn’t as fun. That’s right. Someone had taken the fun out of America. At some point between the introduction of the Ford Mustang in the mid-sixties and the Ford Probe (a front-wheel drive car that was almost the new Ford Mustang) someone had taken the fun out of America. People just didn’t enjoy things anymore. Bill Clinton signed away the American worker to foreign imports and doom was on the horizon. People who loved those rear-wheel drive cars either bought Mustangs, German cars, or restored great old cars. Convertibles soldiered on but got the aspect of being chick cars. And the best selling one was the daughter of that old Lebaron, another boring front-wheel drive car, the Sebring. Cadillac’s best car was a foreign made convertible. That’s right. Cadillac’s best car was a car from another country. Cadillac went from high-end Hollywood to Dade County retirement communities and Compton gangs. All because they weren’t really…Cadillacs. They just didn’t feel like it. Or look like it.
Now, in 2008, we’re all fucked. Royally fucked. Both General Motors, the once proud makers of the venerable Cadillac, and Ford, the makers of the Mustang, are on a death slide the likes of which most companies never hope to see. So what? So what if they go under and millions of jobs are lost? If the unemployment rate hits 10, 15, 20% because of it then maybe that’s just a market adjustment, right?
Well, we all did it to ourselves. We decided appliances were better than fun. And that is what we were good at, as a people, for generations. Fun. It wasn’t freedom and culture or something like that. It was the pursuit of happiness. Cadillac knows; it’s their new company motto. When we lost this pursuit of happiness, we lost America. When we, as a people, produced products aimed at the pursuit of happiness, we produced the best products in the world. When we looked to the arts for the pursuit of happiness, we invented short stories, comic books, television, and computers.
Cadillac is at least trying. They made what is probably the best looking car of the last 20 years from any automaker. It’s a car someone could talk about loving 40 years from now. The way it should be.
So what’s the answer? We have life. We have liberty (sometimes). All that’s left is the pursuit of happiness. It will save the auto industry. It will save America’s culture. It will save the American dream. There is a funny idea in the United States that I grew up on: cars are part of the family. Not to everyone, but a lot of people in Middle America knew this when they were children. Maybe if Detroit builds cars that people will love and enjoy instead of appliances like the Asians or over-engineered appliances like the Germans, maybe it will prevent that final riot that burns Detroit to the ground. Just maybe. If it doesn’t work…I’ll bring the marshmallows. I can fit four more into my Dodge for the trip.