I grew up in a working-class town where “Buy American” ranked just above “Go to church.” Chrysler cured me of my automotive illusions. One day, the engine fell out of my first new car, a ’79 Plymouth Horizon. At 30k miles. The local dealer, the zone office, and then the factory solemnly informed me that my 12/12 warranty was over, so Up Mine. And yet I have family and friends who’ve kept the faith to this day. As The Big 2.8’s fuselage prepares for its final meeting with terra firma, I know it’s wrong to snigger at Detroit’s woes. But I’m laughing to keep from crying.
I’ve got a friend who’s more cerebral than most pickup-truck patriots. He was looking to buy a cute-ute for his bride. I talked up the bulletproof Honda CR-V (then made in Japan), but he opted for a Ford Escape. He didn’t deny my point: the CR-V was by far the better-built vehicle of the two. He just didn’t care.
“To me, it’s the social contract,” he explained. “Joe lives here and he builds cars. I buy Joe’s stuff, Joe buys my stuff, and we both make a decent living.
“This Japanese quality you worship so much doesn’t require any great genius. I lived and worked in Japan for years. We’re talking about people who obsess so much over little details that they work 90 hour weeks opening and closing a door 10,000 times to make sure it never breaks.”
“But isn’t that the American way?” I countered. “Hard work, competition, all that? Aren’t they winning fair and square?” Without hesitation he replied, “I suppose, but would you wanna live that way? Is it so important that our body panels have smaller gaps?”
He understood that our system is based on rewarding excellence, not subsidizing mediocrity. But he also understood the looks his neighbors gave “foreign” cars.
Once upon a time, I bought a new ’92 Maxima. Today, the Max’s body remains tight, the handling responsive. As I navigate the cratered streets of a formerly thriving industrial area, a space that now looks like an “after” portrait of Beirut, I know I’ll hang onto it. I’ll have to– now that the decay of our industrial base has eroded the median national income so badly that my service employer’s clients are ruthlessly squeezing our revenues. Fortunately, my car has plenty of life left in it. But does my country?
Never mind what my Maxima tells you about the Japan mindset and work ethic. What does the failure of American cars to step up to the plate tell you about America? It tells me that we should be indignant. That we should be angry at the men who stole our automotive heritage.
I’m angry at every smug, myopic, greedy Detroit executive and Harvard MBA prof who helped destroy one of the — if not the — world’s best run businesses. I’m angry at all the suits that grabbed for immediate profit, or couldn’t take a risk, or had no vision beyond counting beans, or were just flat-out stupid.
These idiots didn’t just take down their own companies. They’ve grievously wounded their whole country and its future. Why do all these misbegotten car execs-– the so-called leaders who feathered their nests and packed their parachutes while destroying the chicken that laid their golden eggs-– get to enjoy everything our country has to offer while ruining it for hundreds of thousands of working men and women? “Buy American,” they said. No question what was in it for them.
But what if we had? For many of us who dodged that bullet, the prospect is almost unthinkable. Buy that crap? With my money? As mediocre as Detroit iron is today, it was unspeakably worse before the pressure of foreign competition. Can we imagine ourselves still floating off the road on porpoising, rusting, cheesily filigreed 19-foot Impalas? And yet the question still nags me, mute yet immutable. Though we’d have had infinitely crummier automobiles today, would we have had a healthier society?
Whatever. Stick a fork in it. It’s all over bar the shouting.
I recently read an article that said as the Chinese and Indian automobile industries overtake America’s, car design will be inclined more and more to these developing nations’ needs. This makes perfect sense; I doubt we’d like it much if today’s car designers still catered to British tastes.
But it's a bilious irony nonetheless. Our single-minded insistence on buying the best automotive consumer goods available helped lead us to a point where our automotive selections may be limited by our choices. And history suggests we've only begun paying the price. Cheap-labor countries are perfectly capable of handling every stage in the creation of the products we all buy and use.
So this is how it ends. Mahindra and Chery sweep in, while Cerberus and Nardelli pick at our industry's carcass on its way out. I feel just smarmy enough to smirk at the authors of this Armageddon – and just guilty enough to wonder about my role in it.