EGO DEATH

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13th, 2009 by Ed

I drive a 2000 Nissan Sentra which I purchased new. It has 132,000 miles on it. It's gray. The exterior is a topographic maze of dents, streaks of paint from other vehicles, chips, and rust spots. It is, in the truest sense of the term, basic transportation. But it runs like a tank and excepting an alternator which gave up the ghost at 118,000 miles it has had no mechanical failures. I get up every morning and it takes me where I need to go. I win no style or cool points in the process, but cheap, durable, and reliable are all that I need.

Despite my bland choice of conveyance, I like cars. They're neat. I read blogs like AutoBlog, The Truth About Cars, and Motor Trend. But I also like reading about the space program, and that has never made me consider purchasing a space shuttle. Hence I can enjoy reading about exotic sports cars and new technology without feeling the need to spend. My car will do until it falls apart.

The preceding two paragraphs, assuming that my opinions on this matter are not rare, say everything one needs to know about why the American auto industry has become a joke, a collection of free market ideologues sucking the public teat and utterly unable, after 30 years of being spanked by the Japanese, to make a car anyone wants to buy.

Cars like mine – actually, Japanese cars as a whole – are derisively referred to on automotive blogs as "appliances." Boring, not "fun" to drive, and unlikely to make one's acquaintances green with envy. In contrast, partisans of American autos tout Detroit's proclivity for turning out cars for "enthusiasts," big hey-look-at-me cars with huge engines that go VROOOOOM! This point is not entirely invalid. Companies like Honda and Toyota make cars that blend into the background and last forever without the need for repairs every 5,000 miles. Driving a Toyota Camry is about the farthest one can get from automotive thrills without bringing mopeds into the conversation. Detroit titillates the 12 year-old boy in American males with their go-fast Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, and retro-everything muscle cars. Vroom.

The Big Three and their loyal fans simply don't understand that "appliances" are exactly what most American consumers want. We want a car that starts when it's cold out, doesn't require extraordinary maintenance, and runs for a decade or more. When Detroit monopolized domestic auto sales prior to 1970, the nation was experiencing a period of unparalleled prosperity. Not only did middle class Americans have the means to replace cars frequently but ample 1950s-style social pressures to keep up with (or preferably one-up) the neighbors. GM, Ford, and Chrysler responded accordingly. They made big, garish pieces of shit with V8s and attention-getting bodies. Why spend money on making a durable car? Everyone buys a new one every two years anyway!

New models were never really new. They were the same basic cars, year after year, which the manufacturers "updated" with their familiar bag of cheap gimmicks: chrome strips, tail fins, trunk spoilers, and "pizazz." When the Japanese finally figured things out in the seventies (Japanese imports were few and universally terrible before that) they marketed value, reliability, durability, and attention to detail. And when the American economy stopped growing like gangbusters many consumers realized that buying something that fell apart, rusted out, or exploded at 20,000 miles wasn't very appealing. The proportion of Americans whose self-esteem was tied up in the kind of car they drive was vastly overestimated in corporate boardrooms around Detroit. We happily drove the bland, pizazz-free cars if it kept us away from the repair shop.

Thirty years later and facing (or in the midst of) bankruptcy, Detroit is still trying to sell American cars with tail fins, racing stripes, and silly interior trinkets. If they could have a monopoly over domestic sales once again or if all American car buyers were guided by the impulses of a teenage boy, perhaps the recovery plans would work. Since reality precludes either, the prospect of seeing the American industry picked over and auctioned off to foreign manufacturers appears unavoidable. Of everyone and everything that will be blamed in the post-mortem (unions, unions, the UAW, and unions) the fact that the Big Three are still operating like it's 1957 will conveniently escape mention.

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