By on January 16, 2011

On the road, behind the wheel, there is no such thing as an accident. There is only a swelling potential of mistakes, building towards an event that happens or does not. You are drunk but the road is empty and you know the way; not enough potential. You are tired, the phone is ringing, and your left front tire is underinflated; now we’re talking. Then you swerve to avoid a pothole and the oscillation chain begins. Potential fulfilled. You are about to have an “accident”.

I say this because I do not remember the “accident” that put me on my back for nearly a month in a disinfectant-stinking hospital room, my eyes taped from the airbag burn, my arms broken, pumped-up on a cocktail of things I cannot even pronounce. They say my Town Car hit the edge of a line of Jersey barriers and flipped forward, landing on the top edge in a ballet of megaton kinetic energy that shattered the windshield and creased the roof down into the bench seats. Single car. I don’t remember. But I remember what happened afterwards.

“You’re finally ready to go home,” the doctor smiled, unwrapping the Egyptian-style bandages from my face and regarding me with satisfaction. “If you ask me, you’re lucky to have survived. Lincolns. I don’t believe in them. I’m a Cadillac man myself. New one every two years. Going to the dealership next week for the 2011. Can’t wait.”

“CTS-V?” I inquired, dazed, blinking.

“Calais, you said? Oh, no, ha ha… I did start with a Calais, but I drove de Villes for two decades and once the practice took off I switched to a Fleetwood. They keep telling me I should get an Eldorado now the kids are gone, but the wife and I like to double-date. Not going to cram people in the back like sardines. I say to Bob, the salesman, I suppose your wife doesn’t wear a skirt, you see.”

“Fleetwood, you said. You said Fleetwood.” He looked at me with an expression that perfectly merged professional concern and personal annoyance.

“Yes, I never saw a need to look at the Continental. Nothing against your choice, but really… those black-and-chrome leather interiors… how can a fellow be cheerful in one of those? If you want my advice, you’ll do two things. First, you won’t be in any hurry to get back behind the wheel. And second, you’ll take a look at a nice long-wheelbase d’Elegance.”

The drive home saw me stretched out in the fully-reclined seat of Vodka McBigBra’s Mercury Bobcat. For some reason, I was certain it used to be a Hyundai Accent. There wasn’t much to see from my prone position but I noticed something odd nevertheless: the sky around us at intersections was mostly clear. Sure, I saw tractor-trailers and a few pickup trucks, but unless I’d lost my mind in that hospital, the vehicles around us were cars. Cars. Not SUVs, not CUVs, not crossovers. “The nice man from Ford, the tennis player, sent you a car to drive this week once you feel better,” Vodka noted. “It’s in the driveway. He said it was from the galaxy.”

“No. Not from the galaxy. It’s a Galaxie. Eye. Eee. It’s a Galaxie. I need to see it, I think.”

“That’s where we are going, silly. Honestly, I thought you used to crash cars all the time in racing. It’s like the brain got knocked out of you. Here’s the key. I brought it with me for safekeeping.” A perfectly normal Ford key, just like the ones from the Edge preview a few months ago. When we came to a halt in my driveway, I gingerly crawled out of the Bobcat and, shielding my pain-pounding eyeballs with both hands, took a cautious glimpse at something that shouldn’t exist.

It didn’t seem real, to be honest; it shimmered. I estimated its length at two hundred and twenty inches. Long, low, and wide. Flush glass all ’round, big alloy wheels, wide-octagon LED taillights connected by a reflective trim panel in a style clearly meant to evoke a Seventies full-sizer. The B-pillar was tucked behind frameless windows in the faux-hardtop style I associated with early Nineties Japanese domestic-market sedans. Through those windows, I could see cloth seats.

The driver’s door unlocked with a touch and I took a seat, still covering my eyes, still wincing with every movement of my arms. In the dash, an analog center speedometer flanked by blank screens. I found the start button and heard the unmistakable sound of a “mod motor” as the myFordTouch displays came to life. There was an envelope in the passenger seat with my name. I opened it. The window sticker.

This was a 2011 Ford Galaxie “500″ Sport. Includes: five-liter modular V-8 at three hundred and eighty horsepower. Cylinder deactivation. Electro-hydraulic steering. The myFordTouch system. Thirty-nine thousand dollars, give or take a few. The interior was mostly familiar from what I dimly remembered as the 2011 Ford Taurus, but there was more room everywhere and, of course, the emphasis was on sitting low, not high.

Oh, what the hell. I moved a BMW-style electric column shifter into “R” and was out of the driveway in a flash, pretending not to notice the furious woman receding in the rearview. I wasn’t in enough pain to wait for answers.

Out onto the main road and I was surrounded by… cars just like me. Fords. Buicks. Mercurys. Big cars, but with all the modern stuff. What I didn’t see: sport-utility vehicles. Instead, there were mid-sizers all over the place, Oldsmobiles sharing the road with Accords, flashy Thunderbirds cutting through traffic as Solaras mimicked them in the oncoming lanes. The Ford dealer had dozens of Galaxies and smaller variants that just had to be Granadas in the front lot. The Lexus dealer was gone. In its place, a stand-alone Lincoln dealer. I saw a gorgeous modern Continental on a rotating turntable inside. Black. Chrome knife-edges down the flanks. Low. Wide.

My vision started to fuzz. I needed sunglasses. I needed something. A Bronco cut across my path and the driver waved his fist. It was an F-150 with a cap on it. Crude. I noticed that it didn’t seem all that large. I took the next available turn-off and wound up in the parking lot of a Cadillac dealer. The man who greeted me and led me by my aching arm into the showroom was bouncy, cheerful.

“We’ll get you out of that Ford. It looks new — you have to understand, we’ll need to work some magic in the finance department — Fords don’t hold their value like those new Plymouth Furies, even — but at your age, Sir, you should be in a Calais.” The Calais stretched out before me like an American wet dream. Nineteen feet long. Metallic green. Discreet fins. An imperious grille flanked by quad HID lamps. He ushered me into the spacious driver’s seat and I saw real wood, polished chrome, metal trim. “This is where the Cadillac story starts, Sir,” he said, “and with our new high-power V-6, it’s good for twenty-four miles per gallon. Fuel efficiency is important. Perhaps you came to see the de Ville Hybrid? Some people are just going crazy about it. When gas went up, you know, we responded. We have all the technologies. You don’t have to drive a Toyota to get decent mileage.”

I stepped out of the car and looked at the sticker. There was no EPA chart, no fuel-pump icon. Nothing about the government, nothing about… CAFE. This is a world, I realized, where the government never got around to mandating fuel economy. Which means no EPA ratings. No CAFE. No light-truck exemption. Of course. When the oil crisis passed, the domestics would have taken all the effort they put into trucks and… put it into cars. Full-sized cars. And when the price of fuel went up again, it would have been a simple thing to just cut weight out of the cars and put technology into them. There was no Lexus or Infiniti, because the Germans never really gained full-sized supremacy in the marketplace and therefore making knockoff S-Classes would have been a small-volume proposition.

Even as my helpful Cadillac man demonstrated the wonders of fin-mounted 3-D backup camera imaging, I saw the white haze filling my vision. My eyes. I needed to rest them. I pushed out of the car and past the surprised salesman, making what I hoped was a polite excuse. Into the Galaxie and down the road. I was going blind. Had to hurry. On Route 315. I couldn’t see the road anymore. I guessed at a white line. When I saw the edge of the barrier coming my way, I knew I’d chosen poorly. The last thing I saw was a red neon flash on the dashboard as the big Ford tried to warn me that I was in trouble. Then it was up and over, somersaulting out of this world and into the next.

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106 Comments on “Fiction: “The CAFE Continuum”...”


  • avatar
    Philosophil

    That’s a fun piece of revisionary history. It is one possible scenario alright, and would fit in with my own speculations about the ‘Big 3′s’ focus on trucks and SUV’s as ‘family’ vehicles (instead of just work or off-road vehicles) being a function, at least in part, of the “light-truck exemption” to the regulations placed on cars. It’s interesting that you paint such a rosy, almost romanticized alternative future, but fun nonetheless.

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      Does it occur to you that Americans get to choose what they buy? The market moved from large cars to trucks and SUV’s precisely because the large cars were no longer available due to the CAFE law. There is no “exemption” except trucks have had lower gas mileage requirements. That is not true, going forward. The CAFE law puts car makers at odds with what their customers want. Sure, folks say they care about mileage, but only after size, comfort, capability and performance demands are met. Buyers freely choose trucks and SUVs because, even today, gas mileage is just not that important.
      The CAFE law with its UAW favoring provision for separate import and domestic fleet averages combined with UAW monopolist labor costs uniquely damaged the U.S. industry, forcing them to build loss making small cars while discontinuing the large, profitable cars American’s want.
      The fact is that Trucks capture over 1/2 of the market here. High efficiency small cars capture 5%. With a 40 year career in GM beginning with the skyrocketing success at Oldsmobile in the ’70′s and early ’80′s I watched the steady decline of the whole industry and the death my division at the hands of these forces and global competition.  

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Dr. Olds… as a former Oldsmobile customer, born to an Olds loving father… allow me to simply say, thank you. 

    • 0 avatar
      nicholas chesrown sr

      Oh what could’ve been

  • avatar
    dougjp

    I think that’s your best piece of writing yet. Good stuff.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Put a system into place, and almost everyone will try to game it.

    Excellent short-short: an ethereal, shimmering look at what might have been.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I have seen the promised land.  (With apologise made to Dr. King.) 

    Actually Jack I had a similar dream serveral years ago involving a modernized version of the 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, electronic fuel injected 350 with an improved TH350 adding a dash mounted electronic overdrive switch for highway use.  Sigh… what might have been. 

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      “Actually Jack I had a similar dream serveral years ago involving a modernized version of the 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, electronic fuel injected 350 with an improved TH350 adding a dash mounted electronic overdrive switch for highway use. “you’re talking about the ’77 ~ ’81 TH350C ~ it had a lockup torque converter and worked just as you describe….

      I’m putting one into my ’69 Chevrolet C/10 pickup so the tiny I6 engine will be able to break 20 MPG’s .

      Jack , this is terrific writing ! it’s now 7/2013 and I just found this .

      I really enjoy the insight from the various posters , I was a Generous Motors Corp. employee in ’76 / ’77 during the Oldsobubble diesel fiacso .

      I’m a GM fan to my toes , all those various FoMoCo products I had were nice but , GM is the shyte, always ha been and always will be to me .

      I’m a ” Bowtie Guy ” to my shoes in spite of my Chevrolet Shop Truck being my only American Made vehicle .

      Even my Nash Metropolitan ,parked outside the Coffee Shop right now , was made in Jolley Olde Englande for the American market and no , it wan’t popular and didn’t sell very many in spite of being to this day , the cutest ar ever built . no one wanted a two seater with good performance and handling that got 40 MPG’s .

      It’s over 50 years old and still gets 35 MPG’s , handles like a Sports Car and I love it , most Americans only love the cute part .

      I loved and enjoyed my 1961 Chevrolet Corvair 700 Coupe too ~ another fun to drive , economical little car the in truth was a niche market carfrom the jump , Nader didn’t kill it , GM did because it was indeed very unsafe fo the average American driver , they spun out and flipped over in droves , you had to have been alive back then to remember this salient fact .

      All else being equal , Americans will always buy the biggest car they can , that’s the fact jack .

      GM hate ? why ? yes they managed to run the best car company into the ground , dissapointment yes , hate , no .

      IMO , YMMV Etc. , Etc. .

      -Nate

      • 0 avatar
        afflo

        I read and loved “Unsafe at Any Speed.” I’m surprised at the number of car buffs who whine about Nader (and yeah, he is kind of a tool), but have never actually read the book.

        One chapter on the Corvair. And he called out GM for cost-cutting on the rear suspension, with data to back it up.

        THe rest was much more of a walk through history. Weak cruciform frames on 50′s chevrolets. Poor ergonomic design. Steering columns that don’t absorb energy. The most interesting part to me, as a 30-something who wasn’t around for the Corvair age, was seeing how many of his complaints have been addressed in the years since.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    What a great piece, but in this CAFE-free alternate world, did they have a modern successor to the 2002tii at the local BMW dealership?

  • avatar
    vent-L-8

    in this alternate reality would build quality remain at the 70s (read abysmal) level?

  • avatar
    RGS920

    This reminds me (in a good way) of “The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism” by Russ Roberts. 

  • avatar
    Joss

    1972 – The American dream runs on oil. CAFE gives it a rude awakening.
    1972 – President’s week – Nixon in China – but that wasn’t about oil.

    2011 – The American & Chinese dream runs on oil.
    2011 – Nixon in China is an opera. The dreaming rolls on.

  • avatar

    !

  • avatar
    jimbowski

    Just as long as Jack’s real Lincoln was not injured in the making of this story.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    During the early 70′s, Detroit left cold me with their gangsterleens and small cars that handled well as long you had a straight freeway ahead of you.  My Volvo 145 wasn’t exactly sporty, but it was solid.
     
    Late 70′s, rather than CAFE standards, it was emission controls that resulted in a precipitous decline in reliability and horsepower for the Big 3.  Toyota and Honda came to the rescue on the reliability front.
     
    Jack must be too young to have lived through the two energy crunches of the 1970′s, but car buyers panicked big time and Detroit was forced show something that resembled a downsize car versus the early 70′s.
     
    Had the Big 3 built nothing but behemoths into the early 80′s, they would gone belly up for sure.

    • 0 avatar
      Bluliner

      I think what Jack was getting at is that instead of the Big 3 focusing so much on trucks and SUVs in order to circumvent CAFE rules, they would have invested in manufacturing better full-size cars.
       

    • 0 avatar
      OldandSlow

      Bluliner – I remember coming home for Christmas of 73, to find my 68 Dad’s Fury III gone and an ugly, 4 door, Toyota Corona with a dog slow automatic transmission in its place.
       
      I was in the service at the time, returning from Europe and it was a painful sight for me to see.  He kept it for another seven years and replaced with another Corona.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I was born in 1971 and I remember waiting in fuel lines around Washington, DC, some time after my mother took delivery of her 1977 Cutlass Supreme with a 403. Of course, that’s not the same as using my own money to pay at the pump, and it’s not the same as having to negotiate my own way through what were very troubled times.

      • 0 avatar
        dolorean

        As a child of the 70s living in Maryland, I remember my Mothe r’s thrill at owning a metallic green, white vinyl, 1976 Mustang II. It was by far my favorite car. My stepfather only drove Pontiacs, the bigger the better. We owned every successive Bonneville made until the late 80s. The first car I bought for myself was a 1977 Pontiac Catalina that for some reason had two huge bench seats with 8 seatbelts, a little small block V8, and a trunk that homeless people envied. Loved driving it, like a floating dream in my crushed blue velvet heaven. It wsa the last car I remember to have Opera Ligths in the rear and a fan to blow cold air on the back window. The whole summer of ’91, I drove that pig to the beach with 7 of my friends with all their gear and a huge cooler of beer in the trunk in blocky A/C nervana.

        That being said, it thought fossil fuels were uber-yummy, barely eeking 8 mpg in the city or the highway. It also ate tires at a fantastic rate. The 3 spd automatic was a clunker and parking the red whale was like manuevering an M1 Abrams into a two-tier fighting position. It listed lazily-to-the-left on the highway, had no cruise control or power windows, and the passenger door was prone to leak in water when it rained.

        Still…I loved it. It was a true American. Fat, bloated, festooned with chromy bling, with crude manners and swagger it started every time, never left me stranded anywhere, could drive the sands of the beach like a Willy’s Jeep, and was everyone’s favorite when you wanted to get everyone there in one-safe piece.

  • avatar
    chaparral

    Chrysler pretty much did exactly that – they needed outside loans to develop the K-cars.

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      “I think what Jack was getting at is that instead of the Big 3 focusing so much on trucks and SUVs in order to circumvent CAFE rules, they would have invested in manufacturing better full-size cars.”

      Yes indeed, but anyone who drove a full-size mid-1970s car knows that they were getting to be simply too wide, and not just by today’s standards – especially the GMs with their hypercurved side windows and doors that didn’t even provide extra passenger seating space but did make them more difficult to fit in one’s garage. What I’m trying to say is that full-size cars might have gotten somewhat smaller and lighter even without CAFE. People were unhappy paying 52 cents a gallon for premium (a figure I remember from spring 1975, perhaps 60% more than the price before fall ’73) to fuel a car that got no better than 12 mpg and maneuvered like a barge. Already companies such as Volvo were promoting their greater space efficiency versus the typical American sedan.

      At the time I myself was a devotee of the large fast car (1966 Bonneville convertible) and remained one until long after premium leaded gas became unavailable, finally selling it in 1991. By then I had finally learned that agility was more fun than brute force, with the side benefit of much improved accident avoidance.

    • 0 avatar
      OldandSlow

      Yes, though whole narrative is fantasy. even if the big three had invested in building better full-size cars. The hey-day of the big American sedan were numbered by the early 1970′s.  The big uptick at the end of the 1960′s ran into a wall of higher fuel prices.
       
      They simply didn’t appeal to a large enough percentage of car buyers to dominate the market once fuel prices rose, CAFE or no CAFE.
       
      The allure of 1993 Buick Roadmaster in 2011 is that it was probably owned by geriatrics, has less than 60,000 miles on it, it has nostalgia bred all through it and can be scooped for a couple of thousand dollars. It may get the fuel mileage of a Ford King Ranch edition, but at least it’s paid for.
       

    • 0 avatar
      texan01

      gottacook;
      I agree, my very 1970s GM, ’77 Malibu Classic sedan would be about a foot narrower if it didn’t have so much side curvature. It’s not a terribly large car even by today’s standards as it’s two feet longer than a new Accord.
       
      You could do that without even impinging on interior volume even, or trunk space.
       
      People always ask me how heavy that car is, I tell them it’s like a cheeto, all fluff and no substance, and lighter than SUVs

  • avatar

    3-D backup camera
    Jack, the convention seems to be “3D” with no dash, though in Japan I believe that “stereo” is the preferred form. While shooting @ the NAIAS on Mon & Tues I heard the word “stereo” in a Japanese accent many times as people passed me.
    Actually, a 3D backup camera is a great idea and the technology is available right now. Ambarella’s introduced a very inexpensive 3D camera setup and DTI, Dimension Technologies, sells standalone autostereo displays (they use a very clever double mask on the screen that makes sure your two eyes see two different images). The DTI displays are expensive, about $3600 for a 19″ diagonal screen, but if you think about the fact that a dashboard LCD screen is about 1/4th that size, they could probably manufacture and sell a 3D backup camera system that could be priced low enough to offer as an option, certainly on luxury cars. Frankly, I’d be surprised if more than one car company or supplier isn’t working on this idea already.
    Ambarella, Inc., a leader in low-power, high-definition video compression and image-processing semiconductors, today announces the availability of a complete 3D camera solution that includes the new S3D™, a 3D video pre-processor. This introduction further extends the Company’s product portfolio for the fast-growing market of advanced hybrid still and video cameras. The S3D works with Ambarella’s industry-leading A5s and A7 camera system on chips (SoC) to enable full HD 1080p 3D video recording and high-resolution 3D photography with exceptional image quality. It connects to two standard CMOS image sensors and processes the image data to create a single video stream for the A5s or A7 camera SoCs. It also supports the display of 3D video and still images on the cameras 3D LCD display.

    • 0 avatar
      vvk

      Stereo is the right term. 3D is a marketing term that has, unfortunately, caught on with the general public. 3D implies a hologram, which is not what you get, so it is misleading and untrue.
       
      I always say stereo TV, stereo cartoon, stereo photo. People usually respond with a blank stare and then finally some say: “oh, you mean 3D?” No, 3D is something else, this is STEREO.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    Okay Jack, tell me did this world of big cars with baby fins also include women who wore garters and stockings?
     
    Just askin’ Broh.

  • avatar
    bevo

    “Vodka McBigBra” LMAO
    An early candidate for best line on the Internet for 2011.
    Did you call her Tonic or Martini for short?
     

  • avatar
    twotone

    Can I have some of what you’re having?

  • avatar
    NulloModo

    Neat article Jack, I’ve thought along those lines myself in the past.
     
    One of my ‘If I ever win the lottery’ ideas is to take one of the classic huge Lincolns (’60 or ’70-something Continental, Mark VI, or ’80s Town Car) and completely retrofit it to modern standards – LED brake lights, HID headlights, EcoBoost 3.5L in F-150 tune under the hood, magnaride shocks at all four wheels, plush crushed velvet and velour seating, and all of the modern navigation/bluetooth/cameras installed.

    • 0 avatar
      OldandSlow

      I don’t know about the crushed velvet and velour, but BMW still has the Rolls, Mercedes a Maybach and VW its Bentley.   At the prices they sell for, they’d better have all the modern bells and whistles.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      But Rolls, Maybach and Bentley are all modern designs — the Maybach has the oldest platform of any of the cars of the three luxury brands, and it only dates back to 2002.  At that time even the Panther was already a teenager.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    Which means no EPA ratings. No CAFE. No light-truck exemption. Of course. When the oil crisis passed, the domestics would have taken all the effort they put into trucks and… put it into cars. Full-sized cars.

     
    I don’t know – the SUV/Truck boom had something to do with the deep, subconscious desire of poor drivers to sit on top of everyone else. THAT was an untapped market – although CAFE degeneracy undoubtedly provided most of the hot air to the SUV bubble.

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Can you imagine a Connie Mk III with all the mod cons built like it was made today? Oh to dream! Talk about personal luxury. A good car back then would do 200k without too many problems. We take that for granted now. If Detroit had been on the ball, they would’ve blown everyone else into dust. Sad.

  • avatar
    carguy

    “You are drunk but the road is empty and you know the way; not enough potential”
    With so many single vehicle accidents by drivers with a high BAC, you may be understating the risks.
     
    You are, however, right about CAFE – at a time where $5/gal gas is on the horizon, it seems the market is finally doing what CAFE couldn’t (and shouldn’t): and that is get car buyers to think seriously about economy.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I know it’s your hypothetical situation, but without CAFE or Lexus, why would there be a Deville Hybrid? Screw that noise. Hell, why would there even be V6 Cadillacs in general? That’s Acura talk.
     
    Anyway, this is the brave new future for Cadillac.  Enjoy the dreams though.
    __________
    I also certainly hope that the 2011 Galaxie offers the 6.2L V8 in addition to the 5.0L.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      I can’t comment on their relative strengths in cars, but the 5.0 feels almost as quick, and the 3.5 EcoBoost feels quicker in the F-150 compared to the 6.2.  The 6.2 is a great motor for those who need to do a lot of near-the-limit towing, but for anyone whose needs are under 10,000 lbs, or for a car, the other two engines are better alternatives.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      @Nullo:

      It’s a make believe 221-inch long 70s-styled American car; I’m going to be a displacement whore in that case.  I want my Kona Blue 2011 Galaxie LTD to wear a “379″ badge, make over 400lb-ft of torque, be naturally aspirated, sound like Armageddon, and redline at 5800.

    • 0 avatar
      FromaBuick6

      As the owner of a 5.0 Mustang, trust me, you couldn’t ask for a better engine.  Because it’s such a high-rever, it’s worderfully docile and quiet at low RPM, but pulls very hard and fast above 4,000.  It’s equally good at loafing around town and screaming up to 80 mph on an onramp in 3rd gear.
       
      A 6.2 in a modern Galaxie?  That sounds more appealing on paper than in reality.  Which, come to think of it, is just like the old 390 Galaxies and Mustangs in the late ’60s.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      In an alternate reality in which the Germans never penetrated in volume and the Japanese were held off, you wouldn’t have a “6.2L” or a “5.0L”. You’d be talkin’ cubic inches, man. I never had a 5.0L myself, but I had a 302 4-bbl. The Euro-Metternichs haven’t taken away our horsepower or ft.-lbs. (yet), but we really need to push back on displacement, or we’ll lose them too.

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      @Lorenzo- The Germans never have penetrated in volume! Total market share of all of European vehicles combined was 7.7% in 2010, their peak share to date.  Chrysler capture 9.3% and largest Euro brand, VW had 3.1%.
      The Asians are another story!

  • avatar
    MarcKyle64

    How about this?  A 65 Mustang Fastback with a modern 302 and 6 speed transmission, current ECU and emission controls, 4 wheel disc brakes, modern ignition and so forth.  Better suspension so it won’t ride so trucklike,  We’d be routinely seeing 30 mpg from a 302 with the light weight of the Mustang body.  Don’t the Crown Vics get 25-26 mpg?
    Baruth, you should have included what should have been in FM radio while writing your piece.  No Clear Channel, no cookie cutter rotation playlists, actual DJ patter and not a bit of rap anywhere to be heard.   The clincher:  The Beatles got back together and are still recording…

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      Right now if you don’t want to pay the money for SiriusXM you can pair up a smartphone with the Pandora app to any bluetooth audio capable vehicle audio system and get music custom tailored to your preferences without having to deal with commercials or DJs.

    • 0 avatar
      FromaBuick6

      You’re basically describing the 2011 Mustang.
       
      Or if you really want the same body as the ’65, just buy one and swap in the drivetrain and suspension from a new one.  That’d be a fun project.
       
      Also, be glad that the Beatles didn’t get back together.  I, for one, think its fortunate they did not end up like the Stones and become sad caricatures of themselves.

  • avatar
    slow kills

    And when the price of fuel went up again, it would have been a simple thing to just cut weight out of the cars and put technology into them.

    So there is some anti-gravity technology? Cutting weight is very hard, and doing so with additional complexity is harder still.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Good point, but… A mid-Eighties Panther barely tips the scale at 4000 pounds. Now make all the tech and effort available to it that went into the trucks of the era, and see if you can’t stay around that two-ton mark while meeting all the current crash requirements. Mass-production aluminum unit bodies all by themselves would do the trick.
      Modern cars are tall, and they are dense. A 220-inch Galaxie might not be that much heavier than a 200-inch Taurus that displaces six inches more vertically throughout the car.

    • 0 avatar
      slow kills

      The incentive to allocate fuel economy technology to profitable large cars makes sense, but I’m still very skeptical about what absurdly high gas price and high demand (to spur this whopping economy of scale) somehow prevents smaller cars from making more sense.

  • avatar
    Crosley

    What’s funny is if you look at the mpg average on a per vehicle basis over the years, there’s very little difference between pre Cafe and post CAFE (oversized SUVs just took up the slack of larger sedans)  IMO, CAFE was a main driver for the SUV boom, so you could even make a case it really just made things worse.  CAFE didn’t put Americans in smaller cars, only MUCH bigger ones.  The increases in mpg would have easily come about on their own just through technology (overdrive transmissions, computer-controlled fuel injection, etc)
     
    No other country has such a crazy system, it’s ridiculous that manufacturers are forced to make cars they practically have to give away just to comply with a government rule that really seems to have been completely ineffective anyway.
     
    I’m not an anarchist, I understand that we need minimum standards of safety and emissions, but I really think that within reason, car companies should be able to make what people want, and people can decide on their own what car suits their lifestyle.  If Dodge or Ford doesn’t want to build Neons and Escorts and instead focus on trucks and SUVs, so be it, Honda can take up the slack and sell small cars.  We really don’t need bureaucrats figuring all this out for us, they have a nasty habit of only making things worse.

    • 0 avatar
      FuzzyPlushroom

      Interesting thoughts – I’m inclined to believe that you’re correct as far as efficiency is concerned, especially given that a sedan or station wagon inherently has less frontal area than a sport utility vehicle. I’m all for SUVs being an option for those who need them and/or are willing to pay the premium, but it smarts that they’ve all but killed off the wagon. (Full-size sedans are alive and well, just in a more efficient, externally compact form – the current Accord, for instance, is classified as a ‘large car’.)
       
      What bothers me most isn’t the basic requirement for greater efficiency, but rather the oft-abused loophole within CAFE that defines what constitutes a ‘truck’ as opposed to a ‘car’ – with that limited explicitly to a certain class of vehicle (say, applying the same standards as are used for the ‘chicken tax’, i.e., a ‘truck’ has either an open bed, a cab/chassis configuration, or is a van with no rear seats) the market could sort itself out, and manufacturers would have their hands untied and then guided to a logical conclusion rather than being forced into building less-efficient vehicles in order to stay profitable. (Yes, I know that’s rather oversimplified, but it’s an unfortunate result.)

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Interesting “what if?” game. I too had a dream recently about coming across my old 1964 Chevy as represented above. I cleaned the dirt off it, got in, inserted the key, it actually started and my wife and I happily drove off into the sunset. Then I woke up with a smile. Sniff. Very moving. Back to reality. Sniff, sniff.

  • avatar

    Being too young to have lived through the Era Of The Big Cars (I do recall seeing a few seventies stragglers on the roads when I was growing up), I’ve been held in the spell of the full-sizers for a while now. Last summer, I wrote a little piece (http://studentwheels.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/1977lincoln/) about a well-preserved Continental Town Car, the last of the biggest cars. They had their flaws…but gee, they had some things going for them too. Jack’s fiction is superb.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I gave you five stars, although I was tempted to delete half a star for calling her “Katie” Perry. Come on! The best rack in pop and you can’t give her that courtesy? :)

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      The best rack in pop and you can’t give her that courtesy?

      So you saw her screen time with Elmo?  (BTW I think that was blown out of proportion, Sesame Street’s audience was looking at her and thinking… “lunch.”) 

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry! The correction will be made! :)

    • 0 avatar
      DaveDFW

      Your Town Car may have been built in 1977, but it is a model year 1978. 1978 was the first year for the Mercury-sourced dash shown in your photos.
      A 1977 would have had the Lincoln-specific dash with a ribbon speedometer.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      amripley: The “Era Of The Big Cars” really never ended – they just turned into trucks and SUVs, they are no where near as pretty unless it’s a Buick Enclave. One thing I do remember about those large four-door hardtops, though, the center pillar the back doors were mounted on were notoriously weak – you could open the doors and move the rear door up and down and the entire pillar would move. I’d hate to get T-boned in one! And this is coming from a guy who laments the passing of the pillarless hardtop, too!

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    The picture takes me back to 1972.  I was 13 and my mom was buying her first new car since 1964.  She was looking at a Cutlass Supreme 2 door.  Yes, the last good one.  It was the end of the model year and the pickings were getting slim.  I tried to get her into the Viking Blue convertible on the showroom floor, but she was too practical for that.  She wanted one in Baroque Gold with black vinyl roof and interior, but settled for one in Pinehurst Green (about my least favorite color of all) with power windows and air.
    I knew it was completely out of her budget, but I was a big car guy even then and was smitten with the 98 Regency.  There was a gold one on the showroom floor that was the twin to the car shown above.  I really wanted that car.  Even now, while one side of my brain tells me that they were loose juddering pieces of crap, the other side of my brain still wants that Oldsmobile 98 because it was so good looking.  That Olds 455 sounded so good.  And yes, those things were HUGE.  8 mpg was not uncommon out of those monsters around town.
    By the way, I agree with Jack’s point that without CAFE, there would have been no system to game.  Cars would have gotten smaller and then larger again.  It is a stupid system that should be abolished.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    As flawed as CAFE may be, without it both cars and trucks would collectively get worse mileage then they do now.  Manufacturers used every trick to game the system at every turn.  Anybody who thinks that if efficiency was left up to carmakers we would have a more efficient fleet than we have now, well, i want some of what you are smoking.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, carmakers have been touting efficiency since the very early days of the auto industry. Fuel economy has always been a selling point.
      There are plenty of myths about the auto industry. Some of them veer into Fish carburetor conspiracy theories. Another myth is that the Detroit automakers propagated the meme that “safety doesn’t sell” or “you can’t sell safety”. I’m not saying that it’s a comprehensive search, but I’ve tried, in vain, to find anything like those quotes attributed to someone within the domestic auto industry. Yes, critics of the auto industry attribute that attitude to their targets but the reality is that the domestic auto industry has used safety as a selling point, like fuel economy, since the early days.
      I’m currently reading David Temple’s book on the GM Motorama cars and many of the Motorama show cars highlighted “advanced” safety features like padded dashes and retractable seatbelts. If you look at the Jam Handy archive of promotional films from GM, you’ll see films from the 1930s with cars being crash tested. In a promotional film on the 1960 Corvair, they do a rollover and show that the doors still open. Ironic in light of how due to Ralph Nader the Corvair was later stigmatized as unsafe.
      The truth is that car companies, domestic and foreign, have used just about everything to sell their cars. In a competitive market, you look for any advantage you can use. The historical record is clear: the domestics have been promoting their vehicles’ safety and efficiency for nearly a century. The promotion might have been more hype than reality, but the fact remains that economy and safety have indeed been used as selling points by the Detroit automakers.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Yes, critics of the auto industry attribute that attitude to their targets but the reality is that the domestic auto industry has used safety as a selling point, like fuel economy, since the early days.

      Yes and no.  The perception of safety (or relative economy) is a selling point.  Having to meet regulations for safety, fuel economy or emissions isn’t.  If it were, you wouldn’t have had those few memorable instances of one automaker (GM) pressuring others to drop safety features.

      It’s more accurate to say that the automakers push safety and economy as long as it doesn’t cost them significantly to do so and/or provides them with a boost in sales and margins.  However, the cost/benefit ratio for an automaker is not the same as for the general public, which is why they’ve had to be dragged, kicking and screaming on occasion, to bless the general public with their innovations instead of cloistering them.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Lest we forget: towing. In that time, it was both acceptable and common for the family sedan to tow the family Airstream.
    Then came CAFE. Even the “big” sedans of today aren’t rated to tow more than 1000lb. You wanna tow, you get a big van or pickup/suv. Period.
     
    Also… even if CAFE had never come into play, I think the government would have stepped in to validate MPG claims. Or we could go back to the days of the Mobilgas Economy run, if you’re old enough to remember those!

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I would be totally ok with the Mobilgas Economy run making a comeback. 

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      How many of those big family sedans did any towing?  If we look at the SUV as family haulers today, we find that very few ever see a tow load of any kind.  So the need to tow had a very minor effect.  Lets be honest.  The large majority of SUVs were bought because of the negative image of minivans.  The minivan slaughtered the wagon, and the generation that grew up in a Caravan wouldn’t be caught dead buying one.  That, plus cheap gas, four wheel drive, and the cool outdoorsy life style image gave birth to the boom in SUVs.  To say that it was CAFE driven is nonsense.  Well, maybe one exception.  CAFE gave carmakers the opportunity to classify their vehicles as trucks instead of cars (Subaru did this with the Outback) so the can get worse mileage.  But that loophole could have been closed, but that was not going to happen, not when Congress had prohibited the Clinton administration from even studying fuel mileage issues…

  • avatar
    kkt

    I enjoyed the writing.
    I have to say, though, that I really don’t think CAFE was responsible for the import invasion.  By the 1973 oil crisis, Japan and Europe had good small cars that they could bring to the US as soon as they were needed, while the domestic three had terrible small cars.  The imports had much better build quality, in both small cars (Japan) and large cars (Germany).  Then there were people who wanted something fun to drive.  It’s really hard to make a 5,000 pound, 20-foot-long canyon carver.

    • 0 avatar
      CamaroKid

      I completely agree, while an interesting piece of “what if” fiction…. It misses the impact that bubbles in gas prices have… and it also misses the fact that car companies who came to market with cars that BEAT CAFE year after year seemed to be the ones who made the most money.  To any outsider it would appear that CAFE did not drive the market,  in many ways it LAGGED the market, and only served to drag uncompetitive laggards into the 20th and 21st centuries.  CAFE did not kill Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Plymouth or Mercury… Piss poor product and even worse marketing killed Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Plymouth and Mercury.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I also would not argue that CAFE caused the import invasion.

      Consider for a moment, however, the year 1990. Fuel is cheap again and full-sized cars are in demand. The time was right for new full-sized cars from GM and Ford… but because of CAFE the effort was spent instead on developing SUVs which could serve the family-car market without counting towards CAFE.

      Any new full-sized car developed in 1990 would have been more fuel-efficient, safer, and all-around *better* than an Expedition… but CAFE prevented those cars from being built.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Exactaly Jack.  Anyone who doesn’t realize that doesn’t get the point of your writing.  I look at a mid-late 90s Suburban and think what the Caprice/Roadmaster/Fleetwood could have been if that development money was spent on those cars vs a ground up truck platform. 

    • 0 avatar
      CamaroKid

      Considering 1990… We’ll just ignore for a second that 1991 was the year of the “all new” Chevy Caprice and a host of other Full sizers from the General… So the Car makers did bring new full-sized cars to market, in-spite of Cafe… Many of them with 300ishHP V8 engines direct from the Vette.  Again… the problem was not CAFE… it was piss poor product… These cars failed not because of mileage issues, but because they had god awful styling and interiors that fell apart on the show room floor. And by the time the next “blip” in gas prices came along in 1997…  We were back to wondering why the big three were no building a competitive small car.  The focus on SUV’s had little to do with CAFE, it had everything to do with the Big Three’s inability to comprehend and compete int the small car market.  To the big three small car were option-less penalty boxes that only people with bad credit bought.  They did not understand that the vast majority of American motorists wanted a reliable boring appliance to get them to and from work… This is still true…  How exciting is a Corolla? a Civic?  Why do they sell?  Because it aways starts, rarely breaks down and is cheaper to use then riding public transit.  The big 1.8 have never understood this, and until VERY recently have never built this. 

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Camaro Kid: What other country has a CAFE style law? None. With the capital that is wasted because domestic car companies are forced to produce cars they can’t sell, they can’t produce cars they can sell. Since the light truck and SUV have become the cars we were used to, the development dollars aren’t going into those cars, they eventually canceled them altogether. Meanwhile, they still had to develop and sell cars that they were only selling due to a law.
       

    • 0 avatar
      CamaroKid

      Actually if you look, you will find that just about EVERY modern country in the world has its version of CAFE, they come in the form of gas taxes,  displacement surcharges, or gas guzzler levies.    You would be hard pressed to find a country who DOESN’T do this… 

      Again, CAFE did not force anyone to buy or build anything… OK, actually that isn’t accurate either…

      If anything CAFE “forced” the big three to build Cavaliers, Escorts, and Neon’s.   The fact that ALL of them were uncompetitive crap again had nothing to do with CAFE, it had everything to do with the big three failing to understand the American Car market. All CAFE did was prolong the existence of the big three… without it they would have been dead by either the 1990 recession or the 2001/2 recession. Interesting that building the very cars (and trucks) that you point that they were not allowed to build ultimately caused the Chapter 11 event at two of them.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @CamaroKid: The tax and insurance structure in Europe and other countries has a CAFE-like effect, but is not implemented the same way. CAFE is a corporate average. Across all products. Taxing (and insuring) a certain segment of product is a whole different beast. If we (collectively) would have had the guts to do so, a fuel tax would be the best way to ensure some kind of hedge against spot fuel price increases. Inadvertently, the insurance companies in the US did spur a change in car buying habits in the early 1970′s when they made almost all of the muscle cars too expensive to insure. However, that did not last and fuel economy had little to do with it anyway.

      Imagine if Mercedes had to comply with such a law, particularly if the European tax structure did not exist. If they did not already have cars economical enough to meet the number, they would have to develop one on their own or purchase one from another company. Depending upon lead times, it could take quite a while to fully develop a suitable car. There’s a finite amount of money (and time) in any company, only so much can be allocated to R&D.  In the meantime, if you’re not in compliance with the CAFE law, you get fined. Either way, you’re spending money. This only gets worse as the CAFE law gets changed occasionally, leaving you with a moving target. That affects development timelines, also.

      I will agree with the statement that the domestics failed to understand the market, but that started before CAFE was implemented (1978).  Also, when the D3 were raking it in in the 90′s with the SUV profits, was there no one who did strategic planning?

      My point is that no other country mandates it the way we do, and if the company is already financially fragile, the distraction away from things that will allow them to be profitable only makes things worse.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    Nice, reminds me of Philip Dick – yes that’s a huge complement.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    I have been saying this for years. KILL CAFE.
     
    Otherwise, great story Jack.

  • avatar
    Jedchev

    I wish I could wake up in a world that never tried to outlaw big cars through ridiculous CAFE standards. A world with no CUV’s or crossovers would be equally delightful.
    What about a world without Ralph Nader? Just think of all the cool technology that was coming out of GM before Nader made it OK to sue for nonstandard design. The Corvair, the rope-drive Tempest, the 1962 Buick Special, which came with either the groundbreaking 231 V6, the groundbreaking 215 Aluminum V8 or a pretty cool four cylinder with the power of a six. After Nader got his way, American technology was set back to 1955 for nearly 20 years.
    So, if I was a time traveler, watch out young Nader.

  • avatar
    Mike66Chryslers

    Wow, whatever they put you on in that hospital, I want some.  Nice work!

  • avatar
    M 1

    Since you guys seem to have latched on to this weird idea that older trucks and SUVs were somehow dainty little things that didn’t offend… well, something, I haven’t quite figured out what, yet… I recommend you review the Suburban. It has always been relatively gigantic. Even back when Americans weren’t such pansies by default.

    • 0 avatar
      Mike66Chryslers

      This morning on my way to work, I drove most of the way next to an old Chevy pickup, I’d say a 63-66 vintage.  It was certainly small in comparison to my 1994 RAM2500, and my truck seems small when a brand new F150 pulls up next to me.  Pickups have evolved to be taller, have bigger cabs, bigger wheels and higher towing capacity over time.  Also, vehicles like the Suburban were not used as family cars til the demise of fullsize RWD cars, so they were big but not prevalent on the road.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    yah, a mid 60′s Suburban was a 1/2 ton panel  truck  with  windows.  I dunno  when a  4 door  model  came  out  but  it was  in  the  mid 70s.  I am  glad to see what  foreign  competition  has  done  for  US  build  quality.  When  my  88 528es die, I will prolly  buy  a domestic, assuming they  offer a RWD.

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    Great story! I love the Oldsmobile 98 image! “There is a special feel in an Oldsmobile.” That was the jingle in the day. Year after year, everybody wanted a Cutlass, premium priced Olds had 3 of the top 10 selling cars and sold more vehicles per outlet than any other nameplate. Capacity constrained to 1,250,000 Olds V8s we even had to use 70 or 80 thousand Chevy V8s to meet demand in 1977. We actually overwhelmed the Quadrajet 4 barrel carburetor Plant’s capacity eventually having to fill orders with 2 barrel carb Chevy engines! 
    Life was great, we built and sold what our customers wanted. Regulations changed the focus to satisfying regulators instead and some put huge financial burdens that eventually brought all three American car makers to their knees.
    I can tell you from first hand experience in the industry that we would have some incredible cars available to us if not for fuel economy laws that have driven 50% of the American buying public to choose trucks(including SUVs) over cars.

    • 0 avatar
      vurtok

      Ah, yes!  I do remember the controversy surrounding 350 Chevys in ’77 Olds Cutlasses.  That resulted in a few lawsuits by unhappy Olds owners!  I was working in a Chevy dealership in Oklahoma City at the time, on the heavy line, and we (other mechanics and myself) were completely at a loss to explain the appearance of “Corporate Blue” on the ’77 Chevy engines.  Of course it was happening at all the engine plants, not just Chevy.  I guess GM thought that a blue engine is a blue engine, never really seriously understanding that their customers bought a particular brand of GM automobile as much for the powertrain as the shell around it.  I still believe that GM corporate management was so incredibly out of touch with their customer base, even that long ago, that it directly precipitated the death of Oldsmobile some 25 years afterward.  In spite of what the current thinking may be, Oldsmobiles were great cars, especially in the 50′s and 60′s.  Lots of innovative engineering and styling took place during that period.  As 1969 442/ 4-speed was a very serious threat in a street race well into the late 70′s to the best of my recollection.  And lastly, how can anyone call themselves a car guy, gearhead, or whatever term you choose to go by; and not love the pure essence of automobile perfection that is a 1966 Toronado?  Fabulous automobiles, may they long outlive their parent.

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      @Vurtok- The Chevy 350 V8s were used in ’77 Oldsmobile 88s (‘B’cars). The total was around 77,000 out of well over 1,000,000 Oldsmobiles produced that model year. Oldsmobile had one V8 engine plant that ran round the clock to build about 1,250,000 engines a year. Olds was the lead division for emissions control technology and had the only 350 V8 that met California emissions requirements. Thus, all Chevrolet, Pontiac & Buick, as well as Olds ‘B’ cars sold in California were equipped with the Olds V8.

      The practice of using other Division engines was actually common, but usually in pretty low volumes. Olds station wagons used Pontiac 400s and Chevy and Buick 6′s had been used over the years. They did not get the attention of the Chevy V8, which the press grabbed on to, misrepresenting the action as an attempt to put a cheaper engine in place of the Olds. The engine was actually no cheaper and the substitution was most certainly not done to save costs!

      The new “down-sized” Olds 88 & 98 were so popular, the demand exceeded production capacity. Those 77,000 Olds sales would have simply been lost. Management agonized over using the Chevy engines. Olds did have a history of promoting the “Rocket V8″ as a product advantage. In the end, the decision was made to fill demand with the most similar engine in the GM lineup. I recall the Chevy weighed within 5 pounds of the Olds, produced 5 more HP and 5 less ft-lbs of torque. Its warranty performance was almost as good as the Olds. The demand was so great, Rochester products could not produce enough Quadrajet (4 bbl) carburetors, eventually forcing substitution of Chevy V8s with 2bbl carburetors, too!

      Our experience at Olds was that virtually no one complained about the Chevy engine itself, but some used it as an excuse to get out of the car for other reasons. Olds eventually set aside several thousand 88s with Rocket V8s to settle any suits. Around 10 years later they sold the remaining “brand new” ’77s to employees  to get rid of them. 

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Dr. Olds: Since we are not able to private message each other on this board, I wanted to say that it’s extremely interesting to hear from someone who WAS ACTUALLY IN THE BUSINESS as opposed to many who are just observers, like me. I’ve always had an intrinsic interest in automobiles, and through my adult life have gained some experience in the retail end and the supplier end of the business of automobiles.

      Your postings are a window on the inside workings of GM are interesting to me, and I’m hoping you continue to post on this board with information on how things actually happened. There had been other current GM employees on this board who could have provided pertinent information on what was going on at the new GM, but it appears they have elected not to share with us any longer. Of course, it could be that they may be banned from posting on sites like this, whether as part of a social media policy or confidentiality or non compete clause.

      It’s a shame, as it ends up a loss of good insights.

    • 0 avatar
      mikey

      @ geozinger I agree with you 100%…Doctor Olds  is a great asset here. Us former GM hourly people don’t have near the knowlege of a former engineer.

       I don’t know what GM’s policy is anymore, regarding the social network.

      But I can tell you, that this is not the most friendly place for those that may have positive views on GM. After a while you begin to feel like a fish swimming upstream. Just look at today. TTAC bought the old Chevette back for the second time. Now theres a good GM bash for you.

      I find myself reading, more and commenting less. Though I do get a few laughs from those commenters that have never set foot inside of a auto manufactoring opperation. They spew away with crap, and they havn’t got a clue what there talking about.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Dr. Olds, you really need to get over to curbsideclassic.com.  They’re doing the Cutlass Chronicles and I’m sure you could make some good contributions. 

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      Thanks Dan- I’ll check it out!

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      thanks for the kind words geozinger and mikey! i enjoy expressing my perspective, and i have been paying close attention to the business from the inside for 40+ years.  my first time here was a little intense! i can see why others have moved on.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @Dr. Olds and mikey: yes I’m well aware at how GM fans are received on this board. Search for my comments about the loans to GM on Jan 27 of this year on this board and see what happened. It’s help me to grow a tougher skin. And mikey, I’ve been on this board almost as long as you, I can remember when you were the ONLY person defending GM in any capacity. You took a lot of guff for that. On top of it all, you were a line worker, which was even more remarkable to me. Cheers!

      Like I mentioned before, I have some experience in retailing (selling) cars, and working for suppliers to the major automakers, so a lot of the content here is interesting. And it’s nice to get info from the folks who have actually been there, done that. But it is a shame that some of the other people who were on here have left, it would be great to get the story in ‘real time’ so to speak.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    I’ll take a brand new 2012 Chevy Caprice with the std 3.6 SIDI V6, blue leather heated/cooled bucket seats, 21 cu. ft trunk, pop up removeable NAV screen, power everything, lots of exterior chrome and that awesome Panaramic roof. If only!

    Cafe and the two big oil crisis situations forever changed the American auto industry for the worse. The fiasco in 2008 was only the icing on the cake. Pretty soon we will all be driving around bland look alike gray appliances that are electrically powered…oh wait!

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    The latest CAFE proposals- 60MPG fleet average.The Auto makers push back.
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/15/us-autos-fuel-idUSTRE71E67A20110215?feedType=RSS&feedName=GCA-GreenBusiness&rpc=43

  • avatar

    I grew up with big cars from Detroit. I learned how to drive in a 1973 Cadillac and 1972 Lincoln Mk IV. I later acquired a couple of mid-70′s Grand Prix’s. Push-rods, carburetors, bulbous bodies, iron blocks and heads, and questionable quality and relatively short lives were not going to cut it in the long term. Detroit clung to these way too long.
    CAFE is not the sole reason for the “demise” or change in the American automotive scene. CAFE is merely a response to changing reality. That reality is dwindling crude oil for which there is more competition than ever due to huge emerging Asian economies and vastly increased global trade and competition. There may be plenty of oil left but it no longer boils out of the ground. It will become ever increasingly more difficult to find it and more difficult and expensive to extract it.
    For those of you who claim that Americans buy what they want because of choice, you’re not entirely correct. We have not been able to buy a small or full-sized half ton diesel powered pickup for decades in this country. Thank the EPA for that. Nearly every mid and “full-sized” car is FWD unless you want to buy a Mercedes, BMW or another expensive import. Not so much in other countries.
    Then there is the apparent need for horsepower. Minimum HP on cars nowadays exceeds max HP on cars 20 years ago. We got by with less HP then. Guess what? HP and weight are the two chief culprits of fuel consumption. You can throw in all of the technology you want but if you keep jacking up power and weight it will be for naught. This is another reason why CAFE is becoming more troublesome for automakers. Most people use cars for commuting to and from work. You don’t need gobs of HP for that.
    Detroit has fallen behind like many other sectors of what makes up America. We rank at the top in overall technology, post-secondary education, weapons, environmental management, agriculture, etc but consistently lag behind in the automotive arena, primary education and fiscal management. Not good things to be lagging in. The Big 3 or 2 (One cannot really count Chrysler as a major player much anymore) have engaged in too much cloning of the same type of car and have ignored change and only responded to short term trends. Some of the stats being thrown around here are without basis. At one time in the 70′s GM produced four different 5.7 liter V-8′s from Chevy, Pontiac, Olds and Buick. Along with that, were four different B-bodies and 3 different C-bodies. Prolonged redundance is detrimental.
    I also notice lots of gushing over the now defunct Oldsmobile line, a brand that brought a slightly gussied up Pontiac and a slightly downgraded Buick. By the 70′s it became the “middle kid” with little to make it stand out except for the hot selling Cutlass Supreme for a few years and the miserable attempt at a high tech 4 banger in the Quad 4. It quickly developed an image as a mediocre stodgy car that was little more than a re-skinned Chevy or Pontiac. These reasons are why it went first.
    Detroit needs to start selling small and mid sized diesel cars and pickups like they do in Europe and stop with the SUV glut. No, not everyone likes, wants or needs an SUV but considering the limited choices among sedans people don’t bother with them. It boils down to lack of effort.

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      I wonder if you realize that  Lexus/Toyota, Nissan/Infiniti, Honda/Acura, VW/Audi, Hyundai/Kia…
      are all little more than re-skinned versions of each other?

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Reskinned with different levels of sound proofing and standard equipment…

    • 0 avatar
      vurtok

      I’m guessing that you don’t remember when GM was truly composed of 5 different corporations (divisions).  There was a time (but don’t hold me to it) when GM was said to be the largest corporation in the world, and Chevrolet Division was said to be the second.  Sounds impressive even if it can’t be proven.  Anyway, hotrodders (of which I was one, and still am) were very loyal to their particular auto make and engine, and this was especially true of the GM crowd.  Yes, there were 4 different 350 engines offered in the GM cars for several years, but they were individually engineered and produced in their own plants, and were not clones of each other.  There were also 3 different 455 engines offered along with the Chevy 454, again all decidedly different powerplants built in different factories (I’m definitely thinking Tonawanda here).  Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs were bought as much for their powertrains as they were for their styling.  No self-respecting Pontiac owner wanted an Olds, Chevy, or Buick engine in his ride, and competed rather fiercly with the other makes in the street races of the 60′s and 70′s.  And, of course, nothing could take a hot Chevy in a highway quarter mile.  It truly was the demise of the 5 separate divisions of GM and the attempt to produce the “GM Corporate Automobile” that led to the sorry state of redundancy that GM degenerated into during the 80′s, 90′s, and double oughts.  In late ’76, GM sought to develop a “big car company” by merging all 5 divisions into a hodgepodge of offerings that suited no one and alienated many.  They also began the development of the “small car company” that was to primarily address the failings of the Vega and Monza in the economy market.  The end result of the small car company development became Saturn, and you know the outcome of that miserable decision.  I like to believe that had GM left their 5 divisions somewhat independent of each other within the corporate structure, they would have fared much better with respect to product design and placement, and the sorely overlooked problem of quality control that eventually ruined the whole scheme during the 80′s and 90′s.  Now that these old, individually engineered behemoths are no longer available to those of us who remember owning, pampering, abusing, and eventually ridding ourselves of them; we must, as this article has done, re-live our youth with these silly daydreams.  It’s really all that we have left of them.  

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      @vurtok- GM, even post bankruptcy,  is still the largest manufacturing company in American history. In its heyday, annual $sales surpassed the GDP of all but the largest countries in the world and GM alone contributed 4% of U.S. GDP.

      In the 50′s, Chevrolet held 25% of the market, more than second place Ford, including Lincoln and Mercury. With the other divisions, GM owned half the market. Of course, then there was virtually no foreign competition, which now takes 55% of the market. If you look at GM’s share of the big three “pie”, it is still nearly half, 46% of the domestic share.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      CAFE is a leftover of the 70′s regulation mania and should be discarded. I work in the printing industry now, and to oversimplify for comparison’s sake, there are two types of printers: Long run, and short run. I work for a long run company, if you need 50,000 or more of something, come see us. We also have short run capacity of 500-5,000 pieces, but it’s not our forte. We compete all day long in the long run category, however, there is no government agency forcing us to compete in the short run field. If that happened, we’d be out of business. I feel this is what happened to the domestic automobile companies.

      EPA, NHTSA and other governmental agencies all have their say and overlapping areas, too. I think it’s a very unfriendly business environment. I’m not discounting the worldwide demand for oil, and other externalities, but many here favor market forces determining the fates of companies, but this is bad regulation. Set standards for mileage for classes of vehicles, not for the whole company.

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    There is a common delusion that what one believes are desirable products are what the market would demand if only the stupid automakers would offer them.

    If that were true, how do you explain the market failure of the Euro brands, who combined, capture much less market share than Chrysler?

    No doubt, U.S. emissions law makes diesels more expensive, but they are not banned. They are just not appealing to the people who really buy new vehicles. Currently, Americans are demanding Trucks and SUV’s at a rate of 52%. If they could get large cars, they would be buying lots of them, too. Even as gas approaches $4 again, attributes other than fuel economy are just more appealing. If you rationally evaluate the U.S. market, skewed by CAFE, you would be proud of American success in dominating the most profitable segment of the market- Trucks and SUVs. 

  • avatar

    Not often a short story in a car blog leaves me misty-eyed! Good job. I do think that in your alternate future, full-sized cars would be even more economical and powerful, though. We didn’t need CAFE to force economy on us; market forces would have done that naturally. Technological prowess can easily give us chromed, befinned, sleek dream machines with 0-60 times in the five-second range with 50+ mpg. The answer isn’t always in cubic inches.

  • avatar
    waveformblue

    Wow.

    The only bit of fiction I see here is that CAFE prevented lower-mileage cars.  The Japanese were smart enough to adapt…why not the Big Three ?

    All we needed to do was remove the SUV loophole.

    BTW…If you think that US automakers would have built more fuel-efficient cars without regulation, I want some of the meds the hospital gave you.

    I’ve lived in Asia..where there is no “CAFE”.  However, many Asian countries tax automobile registration progressively according to engine size and vehicle weight.  Taxes are lower for high-mileage vehicles.  Japan and Korea do this.  It’s no coincidence then that they also make the best small cars.

    In Singapore, there are very few American cars (other than Aussie-made taxis).  American cars simply can’t compete.  Japanese cars dominate most of Asia partly because they build them to meet US CAFE standards.  This translates to lower vehicle tax rates outside of the CAFE zone.

    Simply put…laws that penalize poor efficiency result in better fuel efficiency.

    It’s unfortunate that CAFE empowered the Japanese – and later Koreans – to sell a lot of cars at the expense of the US automakers.  It’s even more unfortunate that these same automakers used CAFE as a springboard to sell worldwide.

    To sum it up…

    Automakers that have embraced CAFE have by-and-large prospered.  That’s because building a product line to meet that US mandate nearly assures a worldwide market.

    Automakers that used the SUV loophole grew themselves out of many foreign markets.  Instead, they were left with a diminishing US market.

    If there was no CAFE…

    Automakers would have continued to build inefficient cars that would put themselves out of many foreign markets.  Instead, they would be left with a diminishing US market.  The fuel-efficient large car in your fantasy WOULD NOT EXIST.

    If CAFE applied to ALL vehicles…

    Large cars AND SUVs would be more efficient.  They would still not match a smaller car’s efficiency, yet they would be better that what we have now.

    • 0 avatar
      Les

      You just don’t Get it.

      SUVs are not ‘SUVs’, not by CAFE regulation. by CAFE regulation SUVs are ‘Light Trucks’. If you eliminate the Light Truck exemption to spite the yuppies in their urban assault vehicles then you take everyone with a legitimate need for a Pickup-Truck, all the Farmers, the Ranchers, the Contractors etc.. and throw them under a bus.

      And fuel efficiency regulations do NOT make Fuel Efficient cars!

      Reducing Weight makes Fuel Efficient cars.

      Increasing Aerodynamics makes Fuel Efficient cars.

      More/Higher gear ratios make Fuel Efficient cars.

      Properly Inflating your own [Expletive-Deleted] tires makes Fuel Efficient cars.

      Fuel Efficiency regulation just makes gimmicky ‘features’ like Stop-Start and Skip-Gear.

  • avatar
    afflo

    I have a few reservations about some of the points brought up above…

    1. Cities have become more crowded, and parking spaces smaller, while far-flung suburbs and exurbs have grown more numerous. SUVs offer smaller footprints than the traditional Yank-Tank, and while driving a RWD car in icy conditions wouldn’t have seemed a chore compared to other RWD cars, they did (prior to widespread adoption of traction control) pale in comparison to FWD. Longer commutes into cities means more roads that must be plowed.

    2. Wanting the feel of RWD hardly explains SUVs and pickups. Who gushes at the terrific driving feel of a Tahoe or an Explorer? Drivers who enjoy driving typically don’t buy poop-haulers, or station-wagons built out of poop-haulers.

    3. Manufacturers did not invest their engineering efforts into trucks and SUVs. They used aging technology, and wrung as much profit out of it as possible.

    4. Yes, cars were downsized. So were trucks. look at the SUVs and pickups that were popular in the 80′s. XJ Cherokees and Comanches. Ford Explorers (built on Ford Ranger chassis). Nissan Pathfinders. Chevrolet Blazers. Into the 90′s, the Bronco was still a toy for rednecks – it wasn’t until late in the 90′s, when gasoline prices hit rock bottom and the economy was booming that the conspicuous consumption of extravegantly large SUVs became fashionable. Look around now… how many Suburbans do you see on the road?

    5. Didn’t the Ford Pinto not only predate CAFE, but also predate the Arab oil embargo? How about AMC with the Pacer? The Maverick? It’s not as if they hadn’t put any thought into small cars before CAFE came into effect.

    6. A fuel tax would have been a better method to bring fuel economy up overall, but it would have to be a very slow, progressive increase, otherwise it would have unfairly penalized those least able to afford to replace aging cars.

    7. Even better: a gas-guzzler tax in place of CAFE, with a specific, progressive tax based on the fuel economy of the vehicle. List this tax as a separate line item on the Monroney sticker. Allow exemptions for commercial vehicle purchases*. This would make the tax clearly visible, get rid of the light truck loop-hole, and not penalize commercial buyers, nor require mathematical gymnastics by the automakers.

    * This would assume some clairvoyance on the part of the powers in the mid 70′s to know that trucks would become trendy, and that Chrysler would start selling tall, unibody wagons with slidey-doors and labelling them as work trucks a decade later.

    I didn’t grow up in that era, and to me, the aging tanks of the 70′s have always been that: rust covered cars driven by my great aunts and uncles, later turned into ghetto hoopties and belching out clouds of blue smoke. As a child of the 80′s, the Panther-platform Crown Vic was always a big honkin’ car… my parents didn’t really like large cars, so they always had smaller vehicles (Buick Century wagon, XJ cherokee, Accords, Civics, etc.) I can’t say that I got any nostalgic excitement out of the story, but kudos for it being well written.

  • avatar
    Speedzzter

    The premise of the story is mostly correct — government regulations destroyed the RWD American car market.

    CAFE has other market-distorting effects. For example, because it forces artificial (non-market-based) limits on vehicles with engines larger than 250 cubic inches, the prices on “big cube” vehicles are much higher (Does it really cost GM and Ford almost a third more to add two cylinders to a Camaro or a Mustang? Did a Mercury Marauder or an RWD V8 Impala SS really cost $10,000 more to make than a V8 pickup truck?)

    That being said, excessive regulation wasn’t the only problem that lead to where we are today. Detroit’s decay arguably began when it became hostage to 1930s labor laws (that the transplants have mostly avoided). Then the 1958 steel crisis and recession, combined with an inflationary cycle lasting for decades placed huge cost pressures on Detroit. Factor in the blizzard of regulations in the 1970s and poor quality rust-buckets such as the Chevrolet Vega were likely inevitable (note that the Big 3 all produced better and more conventional small cars overseas at higher prices back then).

    Detroit engineers managed to more than double fuel efficiency, dramatically improve safety, and virtually eliminate “real” emissions (excluding the fakery of “greenhouse gas” hysteria) in less than a generation. And they did during times of double-digit inflation, labor unrest, and increasing “globalization” (read: competition from markets with much lower labor and manufacturing overhead)

    Whether such technological progress would have happened as quickly without CAFE is a debatable question.

    But there is no doubt that CAFE has deprived motorists of the modern cars of their choice. It has led to the soulless uniformity of smallish, look-a-like FWDs. And it has definitely resulted in increased truck/SUV/CUV sales.

    Attend virtually any gathering of automobile enthusiasts . . . The numbers of “unregulated” vehicles on display typically outnumbers “regulated” ones by a large margin. Vehicles from the “dark ages” of late 1970 and early 1980s regulation tend to be the most scarce. While the complexity of “regulated” cars is certainly a factor, “unregulated” automoibles are more popular because they’re emblematic of a level of freedom lost in the omnipresent “nanny state.”

    And that’s part of what “The CAFE Conundrum” brilliantly captures in a nutshell.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      You may not appreciate FWD cars but CAFE is not responsible for the loads of boring little FWD sedans. Visit Europe some time. They have LOADS of FWD cars and FWD people movers and FWD trucks and FWD CUVs that are ALL loads more interesting than the typical FWD sedans we get here AND can be more efficient still.

      The big, heavy VW Eurovan that VW sold here in the 1990s and early 2000s could get 30-32 mpg with a turbo diesel in Europe, but not here. We got the 18-20 mpg 5 cylinder gasoline/automatic version.

      We have very few “hot hatches” and when they do reach market here they are ignored until Detroit quits them.

      Meanwhile Europe & Asia keeps sending them here b/c it is easy to market them here and in Asia. Detroit thinks the US market needs a unique hot hatch so they don’t get that efficiency that comes from building one vehicle for the entire world. Furthermore what we get here usually has all the interesting bits left in Europe. What we get here is marketed to the young (poor) and the poor (adults with budget problems). Look at the Astra. Nice car but very, very little attention from the press and at least in my corner of the US – no promotion at all. Our local Saturn ads left out the Astra. I saw the back bumper once…

      No, CAFE is not the only reason we get boring FWD sedans. We’ve got a nation of people buying appliances rather than cars with passion. We also seem to get one version of “passion” here – the “in your face” intimadator version. The Harley-Davidson cold stare, loud pipes, tough guy passion. Thanks – don’t need all that B.S. – just sell me a lean, sporty car that is fun to drive on curvy roads… Back to the imports I go…


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