Thursday, July 16, 2009

GM, Mark of Failure

My first car was a 1968 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Rocket-455 V-8 engine (bigger than the one in a Hummer H3). 10 MPG city, 15 highway. (Cost of a gallon of gasoline when I had the car – about US$0.89). The car has a special place in my memory not only for that reason, but because it was my grandmother's car. Shortly after she'd bought it, she took me on its maiden voyage. We took a road trip, just her and I, to Quebec City. I was in charge of reading maps. I sucked at it. Instead of hitting the brand-new, high-speed four-laner, I mistakenly guided us to slower but much more scenic back roads, some of which ran parallel to the new highway. We stayed at the historic Chateau Frontenac. We walked around the charming old section of the town. I tasted Veal Cordon Bleu (the real deal) for the first time. I watched an episode of Lost In Space which had been dubbed in French. Nothing like watching Dr. Smith cower before an alien-possessed Will Robinson and grovel for his life in a language which I would not study until I began high school that fall.

My grandmother kept the car until the late 70's when my parents drove it up from Florida. My younger brother got it a few years later. He drove it until the mid-1980's, when it was handed down to me. It had its issues, as you would expect with a four-owner car, everything from occasional funny noises at certain speeds to refusing to start on winter mornings without radical intervention when the temperature went below freezing (read:squirting starting fluid into its carburetor and begging jump starts from passers-by). Nonetheless, for a car its age, it delivered stellar performance. Despite worn springs it had the rock-steady ride of the massive cars of that era. It got worse mileage than a modern SUV, but it had the kind of styling and grace that today's butt-ugly iron-box-on-wheels monstrosities don't. It was easy to fix, which was a good thing because it needed a lot of fixing. Its cracked and crazed paint looked like soil after a long drought but the body was thick steel; fender rot didn't set in until very late in the game. It looked beat-up on the inside, bit it was comfortable. Decrepit though it was, it accelerated on a nanosecond's notice. Passing cars was a piece of cake. It laughed at steep uphill grades. It met an untimely demise in 1991 when, while parked on the street, it was crashed into by someone driving another Oldsmobile - same model, same color, and exactly 10 years newer than my car (cue music: theme from Twilight Zone).

They definitely don't make 'em like they used to.

They can't make 'em like they used to. Economic realities, technological advances, safety requirements and fuel-efficiency laws long ago sent the classic 1960's road-whale the way of the rumble seat and the 8-track tape player. They won't make 'em like they used to. The taken-for-granted reliability of American cars started going downhill in the 1970's. “Buy American” has a nice ring to it. Expensive monthly repairs and frequent product recalls don't. Outsourcing to slave-wage nations and further aggravated the situation.

So now, the company which symbolized American industry for so many years - no, decades - which built my first car, which powered an economy and changed peoples' travel habits forever, is in bankruptcy.

So who's to blame? The Japanese? Well yes, but not for the reasons you might think. They simply made cars with far better reliability than Detroit. Detroit lobbied congress to have tariffs placed on import vehicles. This, they thought, would cement their place in the U.S. Car market. Except that people continued to prefer the Japanese and European cars, even with the stiff tariffs. That should have been a wake up call for GM, Chrysler and Ford, but they apparently chose to ignore it. The imperious, egotistical and stunningly ignorant businessmen who ran the American auto industry into the ditch brought this situation upon not only themselves but all Americans.

Now our government is in the car business whether we like it or not. And I don't think I do. Trouble is, if we need tanks, troop carriers and engines for aircraft carriers, we can't exactly outsource that. The reason we won the second world war so handily is because our industries were up to the task. So the too-big-to-fail GM gets bailed out and Chrysler gets bailed out, for a second time, with taxpayer dollars. This despite years of both firms exporting American jobs to Mexico, China or anyplace else where people work for a daily wage that would get you an order of fast-food French fries here (doubtlessly served up by former autoworkers). The smaller businesses which have gone under or have laid off thousands of family breadwinners never get that kind of treatment. The poor slobs who have been watching their unemployment benefits or lifetime welfare benefit quota get used up don't get that kind of treatment.

To president Obama's credit, he didn't just unconditionally toss cash at these corporate behemoths as the previous administration had a habit of doing. But it still burns my grits that these few big companies in a few towns get a bailout while small business operators watch their livelihoods dry up and blow away.

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