[The First Curbside Classic]
Rambling along the streets of Eugene, I encounter cars that unleash memories and musings. Today’s nostalgia comes courtesy of the 1971 Cadillac Coupe DeVille.
1971 was a very BIG year for Cadillac, as well as for US workers and me. And in a number of ways, things haven’t been quite the same for any of us since. When this 1971 Coupe DeVille first rolled off the assembly line, it was the biggest ever, a full nineteen feet long and almost seven feet wide. And it remains the high-water mark for American cars. The ’71 Caddy was the quintessential land barge. It floated along serenely and optimistically across America on the still youthful and un-crowded interstate system, its 7.7-liter V8 slurping a gallon of 39-cent gas every 12 blissfully isolated miles.
In 1971, right after I turned eighteen, I left home and hitchhiked west, with thirty-five dollars in my pocket. One of my first rides could have been in this very Coupe DeVille. It was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, in the western, mountainous part of the state. The driver was a teenage kid, even younger than me. He and his girlfriend had borrowed Dad’s new Caddy for a trip to visit a relative. Dad worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh.
It was the scariest ride of my trip; the freshly-minted driver was utterly unable to keep the yank tank in its lane on the winding mountainous stretches. In between attacks of anxiety as the Caddy rolled and wallowed, I pondered why his steelworker father drove a brand new DeVille, while my father, a neurologist, drove a stripper 1968 Dodge Dart?
It’s a question that I’ve wrestled with over the years. Once I got over lambasting my father for his cheapness, the bigger picture answer eventually revealed itself; and the current economic crisis has brought it into greater clarity and focus.
By several measures, 1971 also represented a high water economic mark for American workers. Average wages ($34K inflation adjusted) hit a an all-time peak. And things were cheap (prices inflation-adjusted): the median new house: $128K; college tuition: $1900 per year; healthcare: dirt cheap; pensions: rock-solid designated benefit pensions were the norm; and that new big 1971 Caddy? $29K—exactly one half the sticker price of a 2009 STS V8 sedan.
We’ve covered Cadillac’s demographic downward slide before, but along with the house, college, health care, and the size of new Caddies, 1971 marked the peak year of affordability for the average worker. For about a 25% premium over a similarly equipped Chevy Caprice, the “Standard of the World” could be sitting in your driveway. And the emergence of four-year auto loans suddenly made it possible with almost the same monthly payment as a Chevy on the traditional three-year loan. That vaunted Cadillac “premium” was now “almost free,” thanks to the magic of credit.
Of course, the “Standard of the World” wasn’t eponymous anymore. Quality was now at a low water mark (bathtub ring?). Plastic extensively replaced metal on the exterior and interior of the ’71. In fact, the Caddy just wasn’t all that special anymore and had become precariously similar to the Caprice. No wonder profit margins on the ’71 Caddies were outsized too. More than ever, the two were alike, and the markup of the Caddy over the Chevy was almost pure profit.
1945 to 1971 marks America’s “exceptional period,” when income and purchasing power grew relentlessly, and our standard of living (and cars) was the envy of the world. But since 1971, the small gains in average wages ($34K to $40K in 2007, adjusted) have been far outstripped by the costs of housing, college, health care, and new Caddies. America has been hard pressed to keep up the American Dream.
America’s first solution was to get wifey back in the workforce. That helped, for those that were ready, willing and able (and had a wife). But it only went so far. So our nation’s Best and Brightest came up with the grand solution: cheap and readily available credit. From the creation of junk bonds, deregulation of the S&L’s and huge government deficits in the eighties, to subprime mortgages and 84-month car loans in the aughts, America would borrow and deficit spend its way to continued prosperity. Or not.
Cadillac sales peaked in the seventies. Eventually, downsizing, declining quality and reliability, chintzy styling, and rising costs killed the golden goose. Now, the whole American financial system and automobile industry is about as torn and tattered as the vinyl roof on this once proud Coupe DeVille.
I eventually figured out why my father drove a slant-six Dart. And those particular genes have come to full expression in me. My new cars keep getting cheaper. There’s nothing quite like writing a check for the full price of a car to make you appreciate its real cost. And the true cost of credit.