In the past forty-eight hours, we’ve seen one thing for certain. The hour-glass clock is ticking. It’s ticking for the original American automakers. And I’m afraid no one’s going to be there to turn the hour-glass over this time around. Ford will likely be the only one of the remaining Big Two-and-a-Half to survive through the spring.
From the time I was three years old, I could look at an American car and tell someone its make and model. It was the only game that I played with both my mother and my father Jimme. I knew the difference between a ’68 Camaro and a ’70 Charger. I could watch cars drive down Adams Street in Mount Vernon and go, a Chevy Monte Carlo, a Chevy Impala, an Plymouth Dart, a Ford Pinto, a Buick Electra 500 or 520, and so on. Drunk or not, it made my father smile when I could pull the details of an American car out of a hat.
Of course, these were the days when American cars represented the standard car around the world. A two-door car, about as long as today’s minivans, with enough trunk space to fit two or three dead adult males, getting between six and ten miles a gallon. Those were the days when a gallon of gas cost about 35 cents. That was the fall of ’73. Then the OPEC oil crisis hit, and the long downhill roll of American automakers began. I remember the car lines in Mount Vernon, but only vaguely. We didn’t own a car. But many of my mother and father’s friends did. When the cost of gas went over $1 a gallon, I remember my parents’ friends complaining bitterly about the expense.
The only person I don’t remember complaining all that much was my mother’s friend Billie. They worked together at Mount Vernon Hospital. Billie just happened to buy herself a ’73 Kelly green Toyota Corolla. I rode in that car enough times to complain about how small it was. But I also remember how much Billie seemed to love her car. Millions of other Americans ended up doing what Billie did, most of them after the price of gas began its inevitable climb.
Even though the price of gas eventually fell and stabilized between 85 cents and a $1.05 a gallon, it was just too much for the dinosaur-like American automakers. They weren’t ready for the demand for fuel-efficient and safer cars, not really. They took a bunch of half-hearted measures, with the Chevy Citation and Chevette, the smaller Ford Thunderbird and Ford Escort, with new alloys and new paints that would chip and fade after three or four years. My favorite car by ’80 was the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, but they were shrinking the body for that car as well, but not bringing fuel standards anywhere near the Renault LeCar, much less a Corolla or Honda Civic.
By ’79, the writing was on the wall for AMC, American Motor Corporation. I used to joke that the company was conducting a geometry experiment. They wanted to see which of their cars could be the least inefficient, so they built an oval (Matador), a triangle (Gremlin) a semi-circle (Pacer). AMC would’ve likely tried a rectangle, but the Lincoln Town Car already cornered the market. They were a joke, and so was Chrysler. They were making soup cans with wheels by ’80. It explained the skepticism so many had when Lee Iaccoca went to Congress with hat in hand for a $1.5 billion loan to keep the company afloat in ’80 and ’81. That’s when they launched the whole K-car campaign, which helped, but didn’t exactly guarantee the company’s long-term future.
Something interesting happened in the mid-1980s. Chrysler came out with its Caravan minivan, giving them the bounce-back they need to buy the remnants of AMC. In particular, they got their hands on their American Eagle line, including Jeep. By the end of the ’80s, Iaccoca was a genius and Chrysler was comeback corporation of the decade. They inadvertently kicked off the last great boom in American automaking — the minivan and the sports utility vehicle. Not that other companies weren’t working in this area, particularly Subaru, Honda and Toyota. Or certainly, the Land Rover, Ford Bronco or Chevy Blazer. But Chrysler had taken two forty-year-old ideas and built on them to repackage the American car to American consumers who were dreading a future of smaller cars and Toyotas in every garage.
From ’87 until ’05, we entered a new age of the American automobile. Where one out of every four cars were SUVs, and at least half as many were minivans. Both built after the CAFE standards for fuel efficiency had been last updated in ’81, it meant that these cars could slip under the radar of government regulations. It meant that though a ’88 Chevy Monte Carlo (they were back in production by then) had to get at least ten miles a gallon, a Chrysler Grand Caravan or a Chevy Trail Blazer could be built without meeting any reasonable fuel efficiency or emissions standards.
By this time, I didn’t have any favorite cars. I briefly liked the Audi 5000 and the Nissan Sentra in the mid-’80s. But I’d fallen out of love with most American cars by the time gas was $1.30 a gallon. For most of the ’90s that was the price of a gallon of gas. Sometimes it dropped below $1.20, sometimes it rose to about $1.70. Meantime, American carmakers raked in the profits, forgetting that it would all have to end. I mean, people have been talking about oil running out my entire life, and it the business of automakers to pay attention to these things, right?
Wrong, especially about the makers located in Detroit, and the autoworkers located all over the US, Canada and Mexico. I remember having classmates in Humanities in seventh and eighth grade who worried about their dads losing their jobs at the GM plant in Tarrytown, New York. Their fathers made an average salary of $50,000 a year at those jobs. In ’82! That’s about $87,000 in today’s inflated dollars. It was so much money back then that in many cases — not every case, but many — their mother’s didn’t work outside of the home. One salary at GM and a high school diploma was all one needed back in the ’60s to get a job like this. But from the ’81-’83 recession on, there were constant rumors that GM was about to close the plant. They finally did, in ’98, as part of GM’s ongoing effort to restructure and make more money.
By that time, I only looked at Japanese and European carmakers. It was between a Honda Accord and a Nissan Pathfinder for me by then. As the luxury SUV era reached its height, it struck me how wasteful and unsustainable the whole thing was. Between the Hummer and the H2 alone, our M-1A Abrams tanks might get better gas mileage than GM’s gaudiest SUVs. That’s the greatest mistake of GM, Chrysler and Ford. That this was going to last forever. They allowed themselves for the second time in my lifetime to not read the writing on the wall.
So here it is. Never has finally arrived in ’09. The impeding bankruptcy of GM and selloff of Chrysler is days or weeks away. It makes me think of two things. One, a Subaru commercial from ’05 that was introducing its crossover SUV, the Tribeca. The commercial shows its competition, other, gas-guzzling, luxury American SUVs fading from the road as the Tribeca drives by. The narrator essentially predicted the end of the SUV “as we know it” by ’09. How right he was. The other is of a Atlantic Monthly article from ’07 that predicts the decade-long decline of the American economy. James Fallows wrote that by 2012, GM would be bought out by Toyota, and Ford by Honda. Chrysler would be a distant memory.
We finally bought our and my first car in September ’04. A Honda Element. The car, with an internal combustion engine designed for the American market, gets as much as 29 miles to the gallon on the highway. The Ford Escape, with a hybrid electric-gas engine, gets between 28 and 34 miles to the gallon. Even now, an American Honda plant in Tennessee makes cars that are generally more fuel efficient, safer and more environmental friendly than the best the American carmakers can come up with. That’s it in a nut shell. I have no idea what my next car will be. I’m hoping to buy Honda’s hydrogen full cell vehicle, the FCV. Otherwise, it would likely be another Honda Element, a Lexus hybrid or a Subaru. It probably won’t matter, because there won’t be any American cars to buy by then.