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.

22 thoughts on “EGO DEATH”

  • Well, to be fair, even though I'm a fairly pro-union person I'm pretty raged at the Jobs Bank program.

    That said? The funny thing is that nobody ever forced GM et. al. to sign those union contracts. There is no law saying they have to hire union workers. There is no reason that they couldn't, as the Japanese have done, use a non-union or mostly non-union workforce.

    So why have GM and the rest subjected themselves to these horrible, terrible, treasonous union thugs?

    Might have something to do with the fact that somebody's gotta build the cars. And as much as wingnuts like to pretend they're irreplaceable captains of industry that hold up the entire free world on their shoulders, they always seem to forget that a company made entirely of CEOs fails, hard. Somewhere along the line, they have to have grunts. And somewhere along the line, GM and the rest realized that they couldn't treat their workers like dogshit and still get their cars built.

    The right keeps saying that unions destroyed Detriot, but they conveniently forget that without those unions, there would be no Detroit to destroy.

  • I have to quibble with the argument that American cars from before the mid-1970s (when, as you say, when the Japanese came onto the scene) weren't made to last. Those older cars were too big and too heavy to be a reasonable choice in light of the oil crisis and a bit of sanity about mileage, but they were certainly made to last. I still see a good number of them on the road now (and not as collector's show pieces), since I'm fortunate enough to live in a place where car bodies don't rust out like mad. I think it was really the American car companies' boneheaded approach to competing with the Japanese "appliances" that really set the stage for today's troubles. They figured out they had to make a low-price alternative, and they went with cheap and unreliable. Their high-end models were still winning and holding consumer favor, but they killed a generation of good will by offering such crappy low-end models.

  • Lest anybody forget, NUMI, the plant that Toyota and GM jointly run in Fremont, is unionized — and has no problem making quality cars competitively priced. In fact, Toyota exports Toyota Corollas made there to *JAPAN*. Don't blame unions for the poor management decisions made by U.S. auto makers, GM nickeled and dimed themselves to death, and Chrysler sold themselves to the Germans (who raped them) without any help at all from the unions.

    And yeah, GM and Chrysler's small cars sold for roughly $2K less than the equivalent Toyota. The problem is that it was worth maybe half that, because that $2K sucked all the quality and comfort out of it and turned it into an unreliable rattlebox. That wasn't the union's fault. That was management's fault, thinking the only people who wanted to buy small cars were cheapskates and pricing their small cars to that market, which precluded any sort of quality of comfort. I literally had a Dodge dealer refuse to order a small car for me because he felt he couldn't make enough profit from it to make it worth his while… so the dealer network certainly didn't help either and the dealer network of course is not controlled by the unions either. Gah, the stupid, it burns, it burns!

  • I drive around a grey slightly dented '98 Honda Civic and I love it. It gets good gas mileage (even compared with most GM made cars today) and doesn't look too shabby. All I've ever done with it is change the tires once and the brakes once and then just regular oil and air filter changes. I am thinking about getting a new car in the next year or so. It's probably going to be another Honda, but I have been hearing good things about the Chevy Cobalt too.

    You hit the nail on the head, Ed. :)

  • On the money, Ed! I have had my 2002 Civic for 3 years, and I have put nearly 100,000 miles on it in that time… no major problems (knock on wood) have plagued me and it has been very dependable.

    I will continue to buy Hondas as long as they keep up the good work!


  • I always seem to latch on to one detail and comment tangentially…

    I am not sure your assertion that Americans want cars that are appliances is wholly true. Americans *want* cars that get them admired. And in boom times, that's what they get—frickin' everyone was driving a monstrous SUV, here in CA, for the last few years. And really, what about an H2 says 'appliance'? The H2 says "I have more money than I know how to properly spend or save. Sure, this is ugly and impractical, but you looked, didn't you?"

    When times are tight, Americans resign themselves to utility.

    Maybe what's killing their automakers is the fact that Joseph never told them about the seven lean cows that would devour the seven fat ones…

    P.S. '66 Ghia. '92 Civic. Only when I had a kid, did I buy the used Toyota Avalon—for safety. But I actually do admire some of the recent GM & Ford compacts I've driven…seem like good cars, actually.

  • The Cobalt is an unspeakable piece of shit. The only reason to buy one would be if you literally can't afford anythng else, which is silly since it's far from the cheapest car in its class.

  • DB, it's true that the quality of many American cars has improved dramatically since 1992. Unfortunately it is too little too late. Nobody who drove one of those godforsaken Oldsmobile diesels or a Chevy Vega (if you were really quiet, you could actually hear it rusting) is going to give those manufacturers another chance.

    The vast popularity of boring japanese cars supports the appliances theory. Keep in mind that the sales figures for American cars are badly inflated by the fact that they sell hundreds of thousands of them – at a loss, mind you – to rental car agencies and state/fed/local governments.

  • For the most part, I agree with this post. However, I currently drive around a 10 year old Ford Ranger. It's pretty bland, but has a nice blue paint job that has held up surprisingly well for me never washing it. It has the dents and scuffs and paint chips just like the author's bland Japanese car. It also has only had one major mechanical failure in its 110,000 miles.

    So what's my point? Ah, yes. The American pickups are a bit like the Japanese family sedans. No, you can't include pieces of crap like the Explorer "SportTrac" or gimmics like the Cadillac truck in this equation. I'm talking about the bland F-150s, Rangers, S10s, and Chevies. They are good vehicles if you need a "working car" so-to-speak. SUVs are exluded. Especially Hummers, which break down more often than Bill O'Reilly loses his cool.

    And guess what? They freaking sell! So why doesn't Detroit see the success of their own bland run-of-mill small pickup and the bland run-of-the-mill Japanese sedan and think… Gosh.. maybe we need to do this elsewhere?

    And there we are. Back at the point of the author's article!

    (I just had to defend my bland pickup heheh)

  • That's a good basic summary, but there are so many other factors that it's hard to know where to begin. I think one of the primary ones was (and probably still is) the absolute disdain that the auto industry heads had for the people who would buy their cars. By the mid-1970s, the combination of poor design, poor manufacturing and (especially) poor-to-nonexistant customer support laid it out for anyone to see who wanted to look. Why do you think Chrysler went belly-up in the first place? It seemed like their whole budget went on ads to tell us that roadapples made a great sandwich. Volares – shoot, the entire 'K-car' line – could have been made by AMC. At least AMC produced innovative designs. Even today – what's the reaction when yet another Ford model turns out to be more inflammable than a Molotov cocktail? Sweep it under the rug, and grudgingly throw a few crumbs to the affected purchasers. If at all possible, deny any responsibility as well. The Japanese cars get recalls, too, but I've never had a problem with any of mine that wasn't quickly (if expensively) taken care of at my convenience. And I never had to go to court to get them to do it.

  • I sold my last car when I moved to Manhattan in 2001. It was a '97 Taurus SHO. It was the most reliable car I've ever owned, and I've owned two Toyotas, a Honda CRX Si, two Mercedes, a Volvo, and, to my eternal shame, an Oldsmobile. Reasonable mileage if you didn't drive like an idiot, comfortable, and fun to drive. The SHO had only one major problem – the trunk-mounted CD changer. It went through five of them (all replaced under warranty). And the CD changer was made in … Japan.

  • Fulcanelli says:

    From the country that gave us planned obsolescence, now they're no good when you buy 'em!

    – From a twenty six year veteran of the automotive industry, both new car dealerships and the aftermarket, domestic and import. Parts division.

  • Detroit has made small cars for decades. In the sixties there was the Ford Falcon/Mercury Comet, Plymouth Valiant/Dodge Dart which were good economical cars. GM had the Chevy II and Pontiac Tempest and then there was the Corvair. I had a '64 Corvair which was fun to drive and at times scary as hell. Of course Chyrsler screwed up by replacing the Valiant with the Volare. When Detroit figured out they could sell station wagons by building them on a truck chassis and calling it a SUVs, that was the being of their downhill slide. And who the hell needs a four door pickup with a box so small you can't haul a lawnmower in it??

    I had a '94 Escort wagon that I bought used with 100k on the clock and put another 160k on it before I got rid of it. I kept track of the mileage and gas and it averaged over 30mpg the entire time I owned it. That included a couple of times when I pulled a trailer (once was about 1500 miles from Cape Cod to Upper Michigan thru snow and ice in winter) and the mileage dropped into the teens. The maintenance was basically routine and replacing parts that wore out like an alternator and water pump and struts and rear springs because of pulling a trailer.

    Last week we bought a Ford Focus and hopefully will have similar results. At this time I don't plan on pulling a trailer with it as I have a pickup for that.

  • Kulkuri, I had an 85 escort. I had to get rid of it in 2002 with 125k miles because the brake master cylinder failed, and cost more than the car was worth. The waterpump went at 75k. Clutch at 105k, Head gasket failure at 110k, and The CV boots went at about 115k. The manual transmission leaked through every possible seal. Oh yeah, and the starter went at about 90k, and the ignition module went , and the signal/wiper module went. The car drove great for a small car. Felt more like a mid size car. But If I was not mechanically inclined, I would have a much more negative cash flow problem than I already have now. Total crap. I did get on average 30 mile per gallon up until the end.
    I now drive a 98 Civic with 250k. I do regular maintenance. I replaced the muffler, and Ignition Coil and Tires. It gets 35 highway.
    My wife drives a 2004 Civic. Regular maintenance only. No problems.
    Pay a little extra for the Civic, you'll get more than twice the life and a 20th of the headaches you'll get with an American car.

  • My father, the quintessential travelling salesman, drove Fords and Plymouths up until about the mid-70's. I never understood why he made the switch to Honda/Accura at that time, so I asked him about it recently.

    He said it was simply a matter of economics, that he couldn't afford to have a car that was in the shop all the time costing him money when he needed to be on the road making that money.

    The Hondas and Accuras allowed him to stay on the road and keep working, it doesn't seem that hard for these Harvard MBA's to figure out, does it?

  • My sophomore year in college I had the funds to purchase the first car of my choice, so with all the wisdom of youth I bought a used 1997 Chrysler Sebring convertible purely for the cool factor and then met my husband who at the time was driving a 1984 Jeep Scrambler with jacked up tires that while almost indestructible got an amazing 7 miles per gallon. After replacing the fuel pump in my Sebring twice in the first 18 months I traded it in on a 2001 Toyota Echo. It is our only car today. It regularly gets 40 mpg and has over 130,000 miles on it. We haven't made a single major repair (although this week we lost our first hubcap).
    If only people never matured the American car companies might be on to something.
    We both admit though that there are days we long for the ability to still take the top off, guess will just have to wait for the first electric convertible that comfortably seats five.

  • A tough post for me to quibble about too much Ed. I have a 2003 Mazda Protege (now the 3) that I have 110,000 miles on. I bought it in 04 and only just had to do a tune-up – at about $1200. It now runs as well as the day I bought it, there's no rust on the body and it always starts. The mechanic who did the work told me I could easily get another 100K on it. 10 years of transportation for $13,000 plus minimal up-keep.

    I also previously owned a 1969 Corvette (an inheritance). It had a 427/390 and when it ran it was tons of fun to drive. And that's a key phrase. For some people, myself included occasionally, a lot of pleasure can be derived from driving a car with enough power to throw me out of the driver's seat into the trunk. Is it extravegant, probably, but so are $100 dinners, 500 tv channels and wireless internet.

    Alas, an electrical gremlin forced me to sell it, with the part of the proceeds becoming an 04 Harley Sportster. After some upgrades the thing can buck me off the seat while still getting close to 50 mpg. I use it in the summer as a commuter and as a hobby.

    And that's where Detroit gets it wrong, and the foreign producers get it right (let's not forget VW, Saab, Mb and BMW). The big three can't seem to be able to produce vehicles that can perform nicely, handle well, and be comfortable, and if driven responsibly till get great gas mileage and last forever. I had a mid-80's VW Golf that feel apart before the engine died sometime in 2000. It was quick, handled great and got 40 mpg.

  • Ed –
    You make a lot of good points, (frex: U.S. cars in the 70's were shitty rust buckets; management has been teh suxxor for freaking decades*) but didn't hit it out of the park.

    Chrysler did not sell itself to the Germans. Bob Eaton, a GM refugee, who didn't give a rat's ass about Chrysler, sold it to the Germans, and walked off with something like $150 million in the process. The whole misbegotten adventure was a monument to Juergen Schrepp's (explitive deleted) ego. In 1997 Chrysler was a great, highly profitable company with good products that Americans wanted to buy.

    Read the Detroit Free Press and you'll see them singing the praises of Japanese cars, pretty much all the time.

    Japanese to American quality differences are now incremental rather than large, and have been for many years.

    In the last 2 years, Chrysler, under the grotesque mismanagement of Nardelli and his cronies, has been ruined. But recently, even Honda and Toyota have needed bailouts form their governments. Part of the demise of the U.S. auto industry is due to the financial collapse and world-wide recession.
    * Most particularly – the Krauts had ZERO concern for the success of Chrysler. Cerberus got them basically for free, than put in charge the guy who ruined the hardware store. The demise of Chrysler is a great American tragedy, and did not have to happen.

  • We've had both foreign-made and U.S. brands over the years, and haven't ntoiced a significant difference in quality. I had a '73 Plymouth Scamp that I bought for $300 back in 1988. Think it had right around 100,000 miles on it when I got it, and I put another 130,000 on the beast before retiring it. Did many round trips from VaTech to Upper Michigan during my grad school years and never spent much money on maintenance. It had that classic Mopar slant six engine that was just unbelievably reliable. I'd still be driving that car if the body hadn't succumbed to rust.

  • Detroit's problems are many and multi-faceted, but I think the current problem goes back to SUVs. In the mid 1990s, cheap gas and cheap credit led Americans to start buying SUVs, which was great for Detroit, because they're high-margin vehicles. So did they treat their windfall for what it was, a heaven-sent breathing space to retool for the 21st century? Nah, of course not – they starved R&D, ceded things like "hybrid engines" to the Japanese, and kept cranking out SUVs like the economy would never falter and that gas would remain cheap forever. Oops. Now they have whole zipcodes full of unsellable battleships, and plants full of old designs and obsolete technologies. The big 3 almost died in the 1980s, and they didn't learn a damn thing from the experience. Incredible.

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