MEMORY LANE

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 21st, 2008 by Ed

All this bailout talk has me nostalgic as hell about the American car. No, this isn't going to be a handjob essay about the glorious 1960s muscle cars or the Model T. Instead let's discuss amazing moments in the same way that Battlefield: Earth is amazing. I strongly encourage you to share your own American car experiences, as mine are dominated by GM. I grew up in a GM family so I have little direct experience with how shitty Ford and Chrysler products are. My favorite from personal experience is the $32,000 Bonneville that needed a new tranny at 8,000 miles and then another at about 30,000…..no, the Grand Prix that needed a new starter motor every 90 days was better.

GM vehicles had a great way of making you feel right at home the moment you got into a new one. This is largely because their interiors were updated once in 1960, once more in 1981, and then never again. Rest assured the same upholstery, Delco electronics, etc that adorned our 1987 Buick Skylark were found in the 1992 Grand Prix, the 1995 Grand Am, and so on. The corporate "parts bin" philosophy made sure that whether you bought a $10,000 econo-box or an "upscale" $55,000 Cadillac you were essentially getting the same product between the Roger Smith years and ~2002. Then, as is still largely true now, GM's only market is among people who have never tried driving a non-GM car. As one reviewer put it, the Cadillac STS is undoubtedly the finest luxury car you will ever drive so long as you have only driven Cadillacs and never been in a Lexus, Mercedes, Audi, or BMW. True, GM products have been getting a little better of (too little, too) late. But it's hard to escape the feeling at any price point that you are in a rental car, a path-of-least-resistance on four wheels and substandard Firestones.

Here are my personal favorite moments:

1. The Carter-era Oldsmobile diesel passenger car experiment. GM pitched this as a brilliant response to the Arab Oil Embargo. Unfortunately they were too goddamn cheap to design an actual diesel engine so they just (poorly, improperly) modified a 350 V8. These vehicles have the distinction of being so fucking bad that American consumers recoiled in horror at the mere mention of diesel powertrains in anything but trucks for 30 years. That would be like Subway releasing a menu item so bad that Americans stopped eating sandwiches for decades.

2. The Cimarron. Roger Smith glues some fake wood veneer on a Chevy Cavalier and doubles the price. Almost single-handedly killed Cadillac. OK, it had a lot of help from the contemporaneous V8-6-4, the overwhelming majority of which literally melted before hitting 60,000 miles.

3. The Dustbuster Minivans. Here is a 1990-1996 Pontiac Trans Sport. Here is a Dustbuster. In its typically brilliant manner, GM sold three versions of this exact same vehicle (the Trans Sport, the Olds Silhouette, and the Chevy Lumina MPV). But we can do better than three, right?

4. The six-headed SUV monster. Having allegedly renounced its earlier sinful ways, just a few years ago GM was simultaneously selling six versions of the same vehicle: Chevy Trailblazer / GMC Envoy / Buick Rainier / Oldsmobile Bravada / Isuzu Ascender / Saab 9-7x. All identical except for badges and a few clip-on plastic exterior panels. Just think of the redundant marketing costs. Apparently they live in fear of buyers who would look at the Trailblazer and think "Gee, I'd buy that if only it had a Buick badge on it…"

Good times. Good times. Yours? I have to imagine that I missed a wealth of American automotive crapulence on account of my age – I have no direct experience with pre-Carter cars. Surely some of you do.

Oh. And in fairness, one of the GM cars that went through my family – the Oldsmobile Aurora – was pretty damn solid. So GM did the logical thing and immediately stopped producing it.