By on March 6, 2007

vega22434.jpgThose of us who lived through the 1970’s have thrown out, remodeled or psycho-analyzed away any lingering echoes of those economically, socially and politically divisive years. But the decade of pet rocks, big hair, anti-war protests, moon landings, presidential pardons, drug-addled introspection, Middle Eastern war and convulsive oil shocks left the Big Three’s collective psyche permanently altered. In some ways, they never recovered.

The Big Three entered the bushy-sideburns decade with the super-size-me version of the formula they’d been frying up for decades. Mega-full-size cars (longer than today’s Suburban), double-pattie mid-sizers, and quarter-pounder “compacts” were deemed the ideal diet for “real Americans”. And for those financially challenged unpatriotic import lovers: a barely-edible gruel of half-baked Pintos, Vegas, and Crickets.

If you had to pick a moment when The Big Three’s hegemony ended, it’s October 17, 1973. On that day, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) initiated an embargo that effectively doubled the cost of crude oil. And the resulting price shock tipped the U.S. economy into recession. Even worse, Americans experienced massive gas shortages.

Overnight, the American gas guzzler ceased to be an unassailable statement of personal prosperity. For many, it became a symbol of individual and national vulnerability, irresponsibility and weakness. Without warning, The Big Three’s big car dreams had become a nightmare.

As big car sales plunged, the federal government began tightening safety and emissions regulations. CAFE regulations were born. The rules uglified bumpers and choked the life out of Detroit’s V8’s. Imports, especially Japanese, flooded into the U.S. And this time the cars were well-built, durable, efficient, and backed by nationwide dealers. There was no getting around it: Detroit’s way of thinking was under serious attack.

The General launched a wave of Vegas and badge-engineered clones, and derivatives: Pontiac Astre and Sunfire; Buick Skyhawk, Chevy Monza and Oldsmobile Starfire. The engine choices were an abomination: Vega’s shake, rattle and blow four, Buick’s “odd-firing” V6, and a small-block Chevy V8 sleeved, de-stroked and strangled to 110 hp. All these H-Bodies came with a 24 month “will-rust-through” guarantee (36 months in CA) and a crow bar to pry out rear-seat passengers.

GM’s answer to the Toyota Corona and Datsun 510, for buyers looking for an economical 4-door compact? The not-so-small Nova and its clones the Pontiac Ventura, Buick Apollo, and Olds Omega. Just the ticket, especially with the 5.7 V8 and 16 EPA-optimistic miles per gallon. A practical wagon version? No such luck.

Ford (predictably) imitated GM’s genetic-engineering experiments. Unfortunately, their stem-cell line was no more distinguished than GM’s. The Pinto was cloned (Mercury Bobcat) and genetically-modified (Mustang II) with unpalatable results.

Chrysler’s Omni-present daydreams about a small, modern FWD car were still on the far Horizon. In the meantime, their desperation-driven hook-up with Mitsubishi set a pattern for the Big Three’s “if you can’t fight them, hop into bed with them” anti-Japanese import strategy.

Or was it a reverse Trojan horse deal? While the arrangement put Japanese-made Colts into Dodge showrooms, Mitsubishi eventually hung out their own shingle. Ditto for Suzuki, Isuzu and Mazda. These tenuous trans-pacific affairs wouldn’t be resolved for decades, but it’s pretty obvious who walked away smiling from the inevitable divorce.

Nineteen seventy-six saw two significant car introductions: Honda’s Accord and Chevrolet’s Chevette. They weren’t direct price-range competitors, but they were prescient examples of their respective manufacturer’s best shots in the small-car arena.

The Chevette arrived in celebratory red, white and blue bi-centennial bunting. Its only claim to fame: it single-handedly created (and dominated) a new category– pizza delivery vehicle. Chevette-amnesia became a national phenomena in the 1980’s.

The Accord threw down a gauntlet that literally shocked everyone– including Toyota– with its sophistication, refinement and poise. The Accord set the enduring template for the modern American car.

Suffering from rapid-onset ADD, GM was distracted by its big-car problems. In the largest US industrial investment since WW II, GM and Ford retooled their factories to “downsize” their range of cars. Chrysler, the perpetual poor relation, couldn’t match the spending spree.

Their solution: kill the big cars, and transfer their names unto the mid-size range. This shell-game strategy landed them on the Capitol steps with hands outstretched.

GM’s first round of downsizing was relatively successful, especially with its full-size models. Case in point: the new 1977 Impala was within inches and 200 lbs. of the classic ’55 – ’57 Chevy. The Impala looked clean and handled well. And it became an evergreen– until the 1991 “blob-mobile” Caprice reverted to old habits.

The economic recovery of the late 70’s and GM’s enormous downsizing investment paid off (for a few short years). In 1978, GM reached its all time US market share high of almost 50%, and the Feds were seriously talking about splitting up the company. Once again, cigars were passed. Kool-Aid drunk. This time Chrysler abstained.

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76 Comments on “Detroit Deathwatch – The Prequel (Part 2)...”


  • avatar
    starlightmica

    Ah, nostalgia.

    I was too young to remember the oil crisis and lines of 1973, but for some reason I remember the Mustang II and Pinto pretty well. Our family owned as our first car a Ford Torino Brougham Hardtop Sedan (eggplant-colored lemon, my father called it) which carted us around, up to 7 of us thanks to no mandated car seats. For some reason we had got new car brochures regularly, and I knew all the different trim levels and configurations, although it was a while before I learned what Ghia really was before Ford bought them out.

    Being the Ford fans that we were at the time, one of the trips took us up to Detroit where we took the Mustang II factory tour, waving to the guys on the line all along the way. One of our family friends already owned a light blue Mustang II Ghia coupe, and it was my favorite car at the time. (The Pinto Cruising Wagon with the 3-stripe package and porthole window was #2.)

    At the end of the tour, we wandered among the lot of newly assembled cars, and my mother was looking inside the trunk of one of the coupes and couldn’t slam the trunk lid shut. A stranger came along, and he had difficulty too. Uh-oh. A harbinger of things to come.

  • avatar
    210delray

    I had one of those downsized ’77 Impalas. I bought it used, when it was 8 years old and had about 104K miles. Good-looking car. It served me well for the 3 1/2 years that I owned it — great for carpooling with 4 other people. Gas mileage with the 5.0 V8 – not so hot, typically in the upper teens.

  • avatar
    210delray

    Remember too what was called the “invisible option barrier” of Big 3 cars? That is, in order to get the coolest gadgets of the day, like auto a/c and power seats, or even more mundane items like power windows and locks, you were forced to buy the larger cars?

  • avatar
    dean rune

    Another good article, Paul, but I’m not sure people bake gruel.

  • avatar
    gerhard trombley

    The late seventies impalas were nice. Hard to believe that Caprice monster followed it, although I’ve noticed it’s become a hit with high school kids.

  • avatar
    Jimbo

    I was around 5 – 6 when the first oil crisis came. I can remember the odd/even license plate gasoline rationing system here in NY.

    My mother purchased a new Honda Civic with the CVCC engine. There was a 6 month wait for a new Civic. Put down a deposit and wait. The interesting thing was you couldn’t even pick what color Honda you would be getting. You got whatever showed up on the truck in the order of deposits. We got a gold colored Civic.

    Ford and GM better get with the small car program. History tends to repeat.

  • avatar

    I recall 1973… that was the year I turned 10. My parents went car shopping, because my dad’s 1965 Mustang had literally vanished in a puff of oxide. I rode along, with my eyes lingering over option brochures and my ears attuned to the adult conversation like radar. I recall well-dressed (to my young eyes) salesmen touting features and making comparisons. I distinctly remember test drives, sitting with my mom in the back seat, imagining where the frontier between myself and my older sister would be.

    Two test drives stand out in my memory. A Ford Maverick was the first. It was the same color blue as the vaporized Mustang. Unlike the Mustang, the rear seat was ridiculously small, and the head room, or lack therof, even for my diminutive nine-year old self was crushing. Needless to say, my claustrophobic mother ended the test drive early and we fled from the Ford dealer post in fear for our spines.

    The last car we drove, was purchased, and stayed in my family until my sister wrecked it one year before I got my license. I had REALLY wanted that car because it to me was a symbol of everything that Ford Maverick wasn’t. It was red, it was small outside but roomy inside. It was a practical family sedan that drove like a sports car. It was stylish, even within the box-on-a-box sedan outline. The interior, though finished in grey cloth and black plastics, still had a look of refinement and design that no domestic could rival. It was obvious that the engineers that created this machine spent hours and hours ACTUALLY SITTING IN IT and making sure that controls were located properly, felt like they should, and worked as expected. This car was clearly engineered and CRAFTED as opposed to just manufactured. It also achieved fuel economy around 30 MPG.

    I’m still driving a derivative of that car today in the form of my VW Jetta.

    It was a 1974 Audi Fox.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    chuckgoolsbee: Yes, the first Audi Fox really stood out in 1974. It is what I most coveted then. What a contrast to Detroit’s blobs.

  • avatar
    jaje

    My first car was a hand me down Olds Omega (40k on it). With the 2.5 liter iron duke engine (whatever), loose body panels that like to float out while the car was driving, new brakes every 20k miles due to no engine braking, am radio that got reception only when driving directly under the tower, 1 mm thick vinyl seats, and of course the falling interior ceiling liner that was also 1/2 mm thick and a nice parachute when the windows were open and you were moving (this car stunted my love life). 2nd car was a Dodge 600 (80k on it) – k car nightmare as nothing worked on it and was always having some problem. Although to it’s defense the interior was actually pretty nice with cloth seats and when it wasn’t broken down it had some power and handled pretty well.

    3rd car was a Honda Prelude (had 105k on the odometer) and my dad almost disowned me (had to pay for it all by myself but I needed something reliable and fun to drive – had to get to school and activities). 275k on that Honda with only a failed alternator over the course of its life. This lasted me from high school all the way through grad school – all the while I started to autox it too.

    Meanwhile my dad’s dodges and gm cars were getting routine garage visits and he started carrying a change purse (for phones as we didn’t have cell phones yet) with the tow truck driver’s card in it. When I went off to college and had to leave my Prelude at home he took to driving it exclusively as his New Yorker was in the shop at least on a monthly basis (funny thing was just after warranty expired so did the car). That Prelude (and his 2 Accords & Odyssey) set a staunch Buy American proponent into an exclusive Honda owner (did it to me too). He won’t consider another make and definitely not Detroit. He now relishes in the fact that his cars are now built in North America and the most reliable cars he’s owned. We’ve since owned 7 200K+ Hondas.

  • avatar
    Cliff

    1973: Ah yes, I was in college and owned a FIAT 850, 35 mpg, I would walk across the street and fill my one gallon gas can a couple times a week. No waiting…

    1977 Accord: We went down to the Honda dealership and put $500 down unseen and undriven, 3 months later my wife’s new car showed up, a blue Accord. You have no idea what a revelation that car was, screwed together magnificently and flawless. The ’77s blew headgaskets like popcorn (cured with the ’78s), but even with that, it set off a timeline of events that has always kept at least one Honda in our garage ever since. 2 years later my dad bought a 79 Buick LeSabre, and has never bought a domestic vehicle since………

  • avatar
    Maxwelton

    My parents has a new Accord in 1979. This was to replace their Dodge Omni, which was an odious car if there ever was one–you have no idea how much I laugh when I see them badged as Sunbeams in England (I assume their origin was on that continent but frankly don’t want to know too much). The Accord was an astonishing car.

    My brother had a Fox, chocolate brown, and it was a nice car to drive–as was his chocolate brown Rabbit and his chocolate brown Dasher wagon. My father had one of the new style Civics in 1985 or 1986, which was a nice car to drive for what it was.

    That my mother replaced her Accord with a Buick Century in 1983 was in retrospect a terrible decision. That car was, relative to the Accord, a huge step backwards.

  • avatar
    JohnAtwood

    Another important breakthrough car of the 1970s – the VW Rabbit. My father bought one in the first year, 1975, and although plagued with problems, it really was the first economical fun-to-drive FWD car. The Omni and Horizon, which shared components with the VW, shortly followed. My first new car was a 1978 Rabbit. It was more reliable than the 1975 model (no carburetor!) but still had to be towed out of my driveway twice. It was with hesitation that I bought a Pennsylvania-built 1983 Rabbit GTI, but that turned out to be the most reliable car I’ve ever owned, plus the most fun. I traded it in at 110K miles for a Acura Integra, which, in retrospect, was a mistake. I really miss the GTI.

  • avatar
    Drew

    Those who do not learn from history…

    The perpetual incompetence of Detroit is astounding. Not just in level, but in duration! The good times in Detroit weren’t due to any foresight, planning, execution, and follow through on the automakers’ part, but really just good luck and the fact that the rest of the economy was doing well and they got to ride on the coattails.

    Thirty years later – it’s STILL the same story. The economy is jittery, gas prices are high. Oh, and what’s this:

    2007 oil Production Estimate

    It’s looking quite possible that 2007 will see global oil production be flat compared to 2006. This, in the face, of steeply rising worldwide demand and rising prices. Couldn’t this be due to OPEC cutbacks? Well, let’s explore that possibility with the OPEC member Saudi Arabia:

    Saudi Production Declines 8% in 2006 – but is it Voluntary?

    It looks like they’re pumping as best they can – or awfully close to it. It’s a good thing that the nascent middle class in China and India don’t want cars, and plastic gadgets, and synthetic fibers…oh wait. They do. At least there’s only 2 billion of them. Oh wait.

    I love cars. I’m hip deep in a restoration of a 1973 BMW 2002tii (speaking of imports that whipped what Detroit offered) BUT we have to keep an eye on the future.

    Or county has been as successful for as long as we have been for two reasons:
    1. We’re fairly isolated and have gotten into and out of wars mostly on our own terms. But more importantly…
    2. We’ve always been technological leaders. Looking ahead of the curve. Creating the future, rather and shaping it rather than just arriving there and responding to it. We’re dangerously close to abandoning this way of thinking. We do so at our own peril.

    We’ll always have cars. I’m pretty young – I look forward to my capacitor powered, plugin, electric roadster that can carve up the twisties just as well as anything ever made. Make no mistake – this car (or something in this vein) is coming. It has to. It’s inevitable. There will come a time when we will have NO choice. Do we want to prepare for that future, or simply arrive there?

    As an American, I’d like it if Detroit would be the ones to build these cars. But, with both my career and my pocketbook I’m betting that they won’t be. All empires fall, and in the end, we’re all better off or it. It just sucks when it’s yours.

  • avatar
    starlightmica

    Drew:

    Electric roadster? How about the more likely bamboo-framed hybrid-electric bioethanol-powered moped of doom? Ack!

  • avatar

    starlightmica:
    Electric roadster? How about the more likely bamboo-framed hybrid-electric bioethanol-powered moped of doom? Ack!

    I was part of an electric race car team in college. Don’t knock it til you’ve driven one.

    Drew:
    Those who do not learn from history…

    You mean like all the other times the world was nearly out of oil?

    Oil Innovations Pump New Life Into Old Wells

    We’ve still got some time, hopefully we’ll already be into the hydrogen economy by the time oil gets scarce.

  • avatar
    Steve-O

    I remember having so much fun going from dealer to dealer with my father when it came time to trade in the family wheels.

    My earliest memory was in 1974, when my Dad decided that our family car -the (Euro Ford)Mercury Capri- had to go after only 1 year of ownership. The interior water leaks, a hood and glovebox that wouldn’t open, windshield wipers that wouldn’t work when it actually rained (they did the rest of the time), and the last straw being the passenger-side window FALLING OUT & shattering in the middle of the road when we turned a corner, enough was enough. So we looked at just about everything considered to be a “compact” at the time. After trolling the local VW, Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, Honda, Datsun, and Mercury dealers, and listening to my father tell all the salesmen, “We’re not buying today,” we arrived at the local AMC dealer. We didn’t even plan on stopping. However, we left with a yellow AMC Hornet fastback (a yellow example of the one featured in the then-new 007 movie, “Man with the Golden Gun”.)

    Well, that car turned out to be legendary in my family. After 15 years, 270,000 reliable miles, and plenty of great adventures throughout, excessive rust finally got the best of her.

    No one in my family has owned a better example of an American-brand car since…

  • avatar
    NickR

    ‘it single-handedly created (and dominated) a new category– pizza delivery vehicle.’

    Reminds me of my days at a courier company. Little known fact that GM made a version of the Chevy Citation for fleet use. It was basically a regular Citation with only a drivers seat; the rest of the interior was stripped out. Honestly, I’d be hardpressed to find adjectives to describe this car. What I can say is that it made our Econoline based cubevans seem sublime by comparison.

    Ah yes, the 77 Chevy. I will admit it was a big step forward in many respects, but not in build quality. The heating/ventilation system leaked so badly that a cousin remarked ‘this car has it’s own climate’. Still, it ran forever, which is more than can be said of it’s predecessors. Shortly after that, we got a Malibu wagon with a mighty 267 V8 as a company car. I remember trying to get to a favourite fishing spot with two people, camping gear, and a canoe on top, standing on the gas pedal to reach the lofty speed of 90km/h. As for build quality, I remember falling asleep in that car once, waking up to discover I was being devoured by mosquitos. There panel gaps were so big they flew in and out of the car unhindered.

    I think the greatest revelation for me was the 1974 Capri my dad purchased. It had the 2.8L Cologne V6 and a short ratio 4 speed. The build quality was astonishing compared to what I was accustomed to, the engine, though not powerful by today’s standards, was peppy enough. The gearbox was a wonder compared to the three speed column shifts I was used to. For a few years, I thought that I actually invented four wheel drift. The only problem with the car was the turn signal acuator which we replaced several times (which was quite easy). We kept that car until 1989, it always started and ran strong. I think I’d still probably enjoy driving it now.

    It sure is entertaining reading about the big 3s lemons of yore. There are so many duds to choose from, and everyone has at least one funny story to go with them. One of the more obscure ones (though not a small car) was the Matador X, a ‘sporty’ two door based on the Matador sedan. It still holds a special place for me as everytime I think of it, I still laugh out loud.

    The 70s and 80s…strange days in Detroit, strange days.

  • avatar
    tsofting

    chuckgoolsbee:
    I also drove an Audi Fox at one time, and it was nice for what it was. The one thing that still resides in my memory is the light weight of the doors, they felt like 2 lbs apiece, and literally could not be slammed shut like a “normal” car door, you had to push it shut with your hand on it…

  • avatar
    Steve-O

    NickR,
    It sounds like our parents had opposite experiences with the ’74 Capri!

  • avatar
    NickR

    Steve-O, I was just thinking that too. Honestly, ours was a rock, even in the Winnipeg winter.

    Despite my ruthless mocking of the big 3, one can also laugh at some of Japan and Europe’s poorer efforts. I remember our neighbours had a Datsun B210 (which R&T described accurately as having the appearance of an atomic cockroach and the outward visibility of a bomb shelter). They also had a Renault 17 (?) wagon, a complete shitbox. If you tuned the radio to the right station, it picked up the sound of the engine. So, being kids, we’d tune it to that frequency and crank it up…it almost sounded like a real car.

    I will spare you the comedy that was the Renault 5, but instead will give you this http://mars.superlink.net/~rriegler/sml/

  • avatar
    Syke

    This crowd is both amazing and amusing. I just finished reading a litany of foreign car breakdowns, all remembered either fondly or at least neutrally (face it, nobody built a good car in the 70’s – some were just less worse than the rest).

    These same kind of breakdowns, in an American branded car of the same vintage, have usually been reported with scorn, anger, snideness, and are the reason “why I won’t touch an American car anymore.”

  • avatar

    The Chevette arrived in celebratory red, white and blue bi-centennial bunting. Its only claim to fame: it single-handedly created (and dominated) a new category– pizza delivery vehicle

    And who remembers the Chevette Scooter – a stripper “import fighter” with no rear seat and cardboard door panels built for the sole purpose of being the lowest-priced car sold in America?

  • avatar

    I just finished reading a litany of foreign car breakdowns, all remembered either fondly or at least neutrally (face it, nobody built a good car in the 70’s – some were just less worse than the rest). These same kind of breakdowns, in an American branded car of the same vintage, have usually been reported with scorn, anger, snideness, and are the reason “why I won’t touch an American car anymore.” And is probably the reason the imported brands mentioned (Sunbeam, Renault, et al) crapped out in the US market or had to change their name (Datsun) and reinvent themselves.

  • avatar
    kasumi

    After driving all kinds of American cars, my dad convinced my mom that we needed a brand new 1981 Honda Accord. He had to agree to stop smoking for the new car. I remember the dealer experience of haggling for a car and buying the car sight unseen. He bought a new one every 3 years, only bothering to test drive one of them in 1992. In 1984, we were at the dealer at 7PM, a truck filled with Accords pulled up and he purchased the car immediately. However, my mom suffered through all manner of American cars, the Ford Fiesta and Dodge Omni being the most infamous.

    I remember the Chevette, I drove from Cleveland to Cincinnait once in one where the interior lights didn’t work and it made terrible noises, but it made it. I think that car did more damage to GM than anything else. How many teenagers suffered through those things, although indestructable, so incredibly cheap!

    K.

  • avatar
    starlightmica

    The mid-70’s Monza/Sunfire/Skyhawk/Starfire were originally meant to take GM’s stillborn version of the Wankel. Now that would have been a match made in heaven!

  • avatar
    Windswords

    My memory does not go back further than the late 60’s. Were domestic cars better in the 50’s and 60’s reliabilty wise than in the 70’s or did it just seem that way becuase we didn’t have anything to compare them too?

    Also for discussion: did all the of safety and EPA mandates affect the quality of cars (foreign and domestic), especially corrosion resistance? I seem to remember reading that everyones engineers were working on pollution and safety and almost nothing else. I do remember that everyones cars seemed to rust too quickly (maybe the German/Eorpean makes were better, I don’t know).

  • avatar
    blautens

    Why did Vega coupes have vented trunks? Was it purely a (really odd) styling issue?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    blautens: it was a functional vent for GM’s newish vent(window)less ventilation system. Cabin air exhausted through the vents. Other GM cars had them too, for a couple of yeras, before they were “hidden” (like all cars since).

    starlightmica: yes, wouldn’t that have added to GM’s woes. Good thing the energy crisis made them pull the plug on that.

  • avatar
    Drew

    “Drew:

    Electric roadster? How about the more likely bamboo-framed hybrid-electric bioethanol-powered moped of doom? Ack!”

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea – it just needs to be executed really well. Think about it: tons of torque from 0 RPM, instantaneous throttle response, better (or at least easier) weight distribution.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges, there are a number of them. Some very difficult. I’m sure that at least some of the Japanese companies are working on solving them. If Detroit is trying at all, I doubt that they are as serious.

    If you had told somebody 100 years ago that today we would:
    1. Tether a floating platform in a mile of water
    2. Drill 7 miles below the ocean floor under that mile of water.
    3. Extract thousands of barrels a day of a liquid while keeping most of the seawater out of it
    4. Ship that liquid to land – possibly half a world away
    5. Process that (flammable) liquid in huge thermochemical plants under high heat and pressure to make another liquid
    6. Ship THAT liquid to tens of thousands of distribution points where people will go to fuel up their horseless carriages

    If you said all that, they’d probably ask “why not just keep the horse?”. Well, we did it because we wanted to. And then because we needed to. The first two points on this list would have been unfathomable even 20 years go. But we’re doing it.

    At some point (and I don’t profess to know when), no matter what we do it won’t be enough. And then we’ll have to change. Change is always easier when you can see it coming and when you can prepare. That’s all I’m advocating.

    But many people have a vested interest in the status quo and a long history of not being able to think ahead (somebody should write a series of articles about these companies).

    I’m sure that (privately) they would acknowledge that the types of things that I’m saying are true. But making these changes is hard, it requires a vision that business changes and evolves.

    Besides, if everything really goes downhill, the government will bail them out. Right? That’s what’s happened before, so no need to do all that hard stuff. Just take as much $$ out of the company as you can, pull the cord on your golden parachute, and let the government clean up the mess while you land on your feet somewhere else.

  • avatar
    starlightmica

    Drew:

    The electric roadster is almost here, although the supercapacitor version is probably a bit further away. With luck we’ll see many over the next few years. I’m optimistic that we’ll engineer and conserve ourselves out of any major energy shortages, however…

    The moped idea was something I brainstormed as a worst case scenario alternative to going back to our hoofed friends. A vehicle with few components subject to petroleum shortages as well as some renewable parts, charge your own battery by cranking it, go fast by using the motor. Of course, brew your own ethanol will still be illegal, genetically engineered microbes or not.

  • avatar
    Luther

    All these H-Bodies came with a 24 month “will-rust-through” guarantee….

    This engineering feat acomplished by gluing cardboard to the inside door panels so to hold water… Ziebart to the rescue (for a nominal fee)

  • avatar
    wlsellwood

    Just a brief comment about the history of the primary “alternative” car of this period, the VW Beetle.

    I was surprised to learn that the replacement for the Beetle in the German market – the Type 3, or the notchback sedan, was introduced in the spring of 1961. Basically the Beetle’s chassis with a more compact flat-4 and a roomier body on top. And yet the only sedan sold in the US by VW was the Beetle, with its top-heavy body and high-speed instability, for another ten+ years.

    Why? I think because they saw that Americans were buying a symbol with the Beetle, that it represented a visible protest to American post-war cars and culture. And with sales booming while tooling costs were next to nothing, they were profitable.

    When the long-awaited Rabbit was beaten to market by the Honda Civic, things got muddled for VW. They took a long time to gain back the quality reputation that they earned with the well-built Beetle, but by then they were the largest autobuilder on the European continent.

  • avatar
    Glenn

    Syke, it wasn’t “just” the 1970’s that has turned so many people away from “Detroit Inc”.

    It was the 70’s, the 80’s, the 90’s, the zero’s (?)…. you get the picture

    Glenn A.

  • avatar
    poozinsc

    My first car was a 1965 Corvair I bought from my aunt for $50.00. The car was an absolute blast and I kept it alive by buying bulk oil for 0.25 a quart and constantly pouring it ‘through’ the car, or at least it seemed like it. It finally gave up the ghost when a cylinder froze up.

    I learned to drive in my Dad’s Dynamic 88 — I swear you could have played the Super Bowl on the hood. If you can parallel park that, well…

    My folks bought me a brand new Orange (and I mean Orange) Vega in 1975. Unlike many, I had great luck with the car and drove it 140,000 miles.

    The epiphany came in 1981 when my wife and I bought our first new car. It was a Honda Accord and the difference between it and the domestics was staggering, even then. I’ve driven Mazdas ever since.

    Oh yes, I also had one of the original import Civics. It certainly wasn’t the Civic of today.

    My dad drove strictly GM products until the day he died. My mom (she’s 82) just bought a new Saturn to replace her 10 year old Buick.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    wsellwood: the VW 1500 was not a replacement for the Beetle in Europe; it was a more expensive, powerful step up from the beetle. The fastback and squareback were sold in the US by 1965, and they sold quite well. VW’s hesitation was probably in part because the Beetle sold so much on its low price, and the squareback/fastback were not cheap, the competed against much bigger US cars, price wise.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Windswords:

    Back in the 50’s, American cars were completely superior to anything European, with a few exceptions, primarily Mercedes-Benz. Actually, one of the main reasons the Volkswagen Beetle was successful, and nothing else in it’s price/size class was, was that the Beetle was the only small import that you could drive from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on the PA Turnpike at turnpike speeds and not have the engine blow before you reached Philly. British and French cars couldn’t take the long term, high speed running that was strictly American and German back in the 50’s because they weren’t designed for it. England had a crazy tax capacity system based on cylinder bore that brought about the design of small bore, very long stroke engines. They were horrible at 65 for eight hours running. I believe the French tax system did about the same thing.

    It took the Europeans more than the entirity of the 50’s to come up with cars that were actually good for American driving needs – high speed trips over distances that the average European would automatically take the train.

    The Japanese had it a bit easier, and smarter. They started out with British designs, made them better (if you ever want to see what happens to a car industry when the unions take control, go to http://www.austin-rover.co.uk, a fascinating website), then started modifying them to work in American conditions. Remember that the first Toyopet in 1958 was nothing more than a well-made Austin of well under two liters capacity.

    They learned, the British self-destructed, the French taxed their high end car manufacturers out of existance, the Germans continued to build cars that lived on the autobahn, while the Americans got too used to crap foreign competition – and figured it would stay that way forever.

    Back in say, 1957, the only stuff from outside the US that could hold with a Chevy BelAire (much les a Cadillac) was a Mercedes, Rolls-Royce/Bentley, 507 BMW, Ferrari, etc. Definitely not in the Chevy’s price class.

  • avatar
    powdermonkey

    I remember driving away from the Audi dealership with my mom, dad, and 3 siblings in our brand new (brown) 1978 Audi Fox. God I loved that car. My dad was an Extension Service Vet who drove all over Iowa teaching farmers and put tens of thousands of miles a year on that car, in all kinds of weather, for 11 years before he bought his next car (Mazda 929) When I inherited the “Foxy Box” in 89, it had some rust and a few dents, but with over 120,000 miles ( no one really knows how many miles it had, we replaced the insteroment cluster with a used one at some point, and it ran for at least 6 months without a odometer before that) it ran great. When it finally died 3 years later shedding the transmission all over highway 30 on the way to college, I died a little.

    I drove a Honda Accord, a reliant K wagon, a full sized custom Dodge van, and a Toyota Celica before I bought my first new car, but my current ’01 Jetta was definately bought because it reminded me so much of that old Audi.

    A year or so ago, I saw on an Audi enthusiast website a project car series on a rebuild and modernization of a 70’s Fox and I just about hit the roof. What I wouldn’t do for the money and time to do the same.

    God, I loved that car!

  • avatar
    NickR

    ‘Were domestic cars better in the 50’s and 60’s reliabilty wise than in the 70’s’

    Chrysler’s generally were not. I know many Moparites, many of whom have been supporters since the 50s, and even then they admit that late 50s Chryslers would often rust out in only two winters.

    It must have been a hair raising experience watching a production line back then. A few interesting stories. I remember reading about the restoration of a 71 HemiCuda. When they pulled up the carpet, there was a handful of screws and marr connectors. They’d just laid the carpet down over it. In another case (I think it was a 1970 HemiCuda) they found an empty bag of chips and an empty paper coffee cup, complete with Chrysler logo.

    Another friend is a Chevy man from a way back. GM used to have an option where if you paid $20, when your car came off the end of the production line, two QC would go around your car and ‘tighten everything up’. Imagine having to pay extra to ensure that your car was screwed together right!!!

  • avatar
    Rastus

    Those stories ring true. I recall…Honestly…the “first month” (or more) was a period in which you did nothing but run back and forth to the “dealership” to “work the bugs out”.

    YES!!! The Good Ole Days really DID SUCK!!! Why in the hell do you thing so MANY people HATE Domestics???

    And who hasn’t heard of the occasional prank …in which a line-worker ties a bold to a string..and places it somewhere unreachable inside you car…just to PISS YOU OFF.

    Deliberately!!!

    Ummm, yeah…I want a UAW-built …or should I say, “crafted” automobile..in exchange for 26 weeks salary.

    This ship is going down…mark my work, 2007 is a watermark year :)

  • avatar
    Rastus

    make that “bolt”…ie, anything which will rattle and pester the living hell out of you…

    …the Customer! :)

  • avatar
    John

    In 1972 the two most popular passenger vehicles in the US where the Chevy Impala and Ford LTD (along with their trim-mates). These were V-8 powered, rear wheel drive, body on frame, ~5,000 lb monsters getting 10-14 mpg. In 2002 the top selling passenger vehicle in the US was the Ford F150, which interestingly enough shares all of those characteristics with the popular vehicles of 30 years before.

    IMO this was in part a side effect of the CAFE attempt to improve fuel economy through complicated rules rather than through higher fuel taxes. CAFE was a failure as all it did was to shift the public into trucks. Trucks were given wiggle room under CAFE because in theory they needed to be big to do the work trucks do. Little did anyone realize that trucks would become commuter vehicles.

    Now the market is finally driving up the cost of fuel and pushing consumers to make different choices. Once again the Japanese (and the Koreans this time) are ready to take advantage of the market opportunity while the dimbulbs at the 2.5 are caught with their pants down, and the view is not good! Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

  • avatar
    Rastus

    Don’t worry John, the “EV-2″ (or whatever the hell GM’s NEW EV will be called)…it’s only 3 years away.

    The news is GM will have an EV on the road in 2010!!!

    Ask yourself one question…”how many years will have elapsed since the first Apollo lunar landing?”

    PROGRESS!!!!! I CAN TASTE IT!!!

    (…now give my my Prius while my life passes by).

  • avatar
    dean

    poozinsc said: The epiphany came in 1981 when my wife and I bought our first new car. It was a Honda Accord and the difference between it and the domestics was staggering, even then. I’ve driven Mazdas ever since.

    This has my vote as best non sequitur of the day.

    As for the article: loved the pizza delivery vehicle comment regarding the Chevette (or the Shove-it as it was not so lovingly called by my buddies and I as we “rocketed” around in one belonging to one of said friend’s mother.)

    I’ll say one thing though – you can have fun in a vehicle you don’t give a crap about!

  • avatar
    210delray

    I remember 1973, after the embargo, very well. I was a senior in college. Scary times: everyone was running around with only a few gallons in their cars’ tanks (I didn’t have a car at the time), and someone would always shut off the dorm hallway lights at night so only the “exit” signs provided illumination.

    The US even shifted to daylight savings time year round, starting in early January 1974 and not ending until October 1975.

    People remember the 70s as perhaps Detroit’s darkest hour, but things were going downhill before that. My mother bought a ’67 Chevy Bel Air stripper, and that thing came with numerous dents, A-pillar molding that scraped against the driver’s door when it was opened, a missing dome light bulb, and a “jingle bells” sound from the engine whenever it was lugged (manual tranny). The trunk compartment was totally devoid of any trim or carpeting — just speckle-gray painted steel.

    Rust started bubbling through the quarter panel behind the right rear wheel after just 2 Pittsburgh winters, the automatic choke had a habit of sticking, the inline six would sometimes backfire when ascending grades (this was pre-emissions controls), and the water pump and alternator failed on a cross-country trip in 1971.

    My brother eventually discovered the cause of the “jingle bells.” It was a loose bolt inside the starter motor!

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    The other european car that was truly durable and well built was the Peugeot (called the French Mercedes in Europe). The 403 and 404 were tough as nails, and were the most popular car all over Africa, for good reason.

  • avatar
    skor

    The stories about UAW sabotage are really just that, stories. I had relatives who worked in Ford plants during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. If you think line workers just stood around scratching their asses, you are wrong. It was quite the opposite, those plants were sweatshops where the workers were constantly harassed to increase production irrespective of the effects on quality. American cars were poorly engineered, and assembled in a slipshod manner. Management didn’t care, so why does everyone blame the workers?

  • avatar
    Lt Solo

    Ahhh… the Audi Fox. How I remember thee…..

    Actually, I remember it quite well, since I own one currently. It is a 1978 Audi Fox GTI. It only came in silver with a black courdoroy interior. They had a special tach, and some rally guages.

    I love the little Fox. I took her for $100 out of a New Mexico junkyard, and have spent the last 3 years, and over $6000 in repairs. She now races in SCCA. Despite only having 85bhp, and a 4-speed stick, she really shows what true engineering is all about.

    It still has its original engine, with over 300K on the odometer. It runs without smoking, and has not had a rebuild.

    Despite surviving Hurricane Bonnie, Charlie, and Ivan (where she was submerged in a foot of water…. and dryed out for 12 hours with blow dryers), there is not a single squeak or rattle.

    The doors still clunk shut.

    The engine fires every time, and pulls hard. The transmission was replaced though… because salt water leaked in.

    It handles brilliantly. With no power steering, and a light feel, you can toss the thing into corners like a modern Mini, and the thing just hangs on. Lift off the throttle, and the back-end tucks neatly in, with the rear wheel lifting off the ground slightly, a’la VW Rabbit GTI.

    I love the thing to death, and despite having several modern cars, remains my favorite to date. If only the big 2.5 could build a car to the Fox’s 1973 standards, they might be in good shape.

  • avatar
    Darrencardinal

    I remember my parents had a 1975 Pontiac Catalina, it was red and a total land barge. We also had a Opel Station Wagonv(the Kadet I think) and it was actually pretty cool.

    Man, those cars back then were something else. My friends parents had a Vega that you had to use a screwdriver to start (you had to touch a certain spot on the engine and make it spark.) Of course, this meant starting the thing was a two man job. Good times.

  • avatar
    Rastus

    skor, it may be true, it may not.

    But the end result was the same….ie, it may AS WELL have been purposely sabotaged!!

    Blame it on who you will…the end result was a mass exodus and conscious abandoment of domestic autos…for good!

    Me? I had a soft heart and bought out of “family loyalty”…only to be shafted one last and FINAL time!

    Hyundai…thank you in advance for meeting the challenge. You just may have earned my next purchase!

  • avatar
    Rastus

    abandonment (I like that term…it signifies all that’s RIGHT with America :)

  • avatar
    htn

    Syke said

    “This crowd is both amazing and amusing. I just finished reading a litany of foreign car breakdowns, all remembered either fondly or at least neutrally (face it, nobody built a good car in the 70’s – some were just less worse than the rest).”

    I disagree. BMW and Mercedes built rock solid cars in the 70’s. Too bad MBZ has lost its way the last decade.

    Howard

  • avatar
    beater

    I once had a ’73 Plymouth Scamp, 318 auto. A pretty lively car, but to say it was poorly assembled is an understatement. When the rust holes (this was in salt-encrusted Michigan) ate through the rear wheel wells, I had to take the back seat out to repair it. I pulled the carpeting up, and what did I see? A complete rear window in a million pieces, stuck into the sticky body goo they used for seam sealer. The finishing touch: the factory build sheet was stuck onto the top of this mess, leaving no doubt as to when the window broke. They just slapped another window onto it and shoved ‘er on down the line.

    Great motor, excellent transmission, scary crappy body. At least it was fast.

  • avatar

    Beater, that’s pretty much what Mopars of the 70’s were all about. They ran forever, but the bodies were another story.

    Of the 30+ cars I’ve owned, my absolute favorite was the 1988 Chrysler Fifth Avenue I drove from Feb. 2001 – Oct. 2003. That 318 was an awesome, smooth-running engine (especially after I disabled the lean-burn system in favor of a real electronic ignition), the tranny shifted smooth, and the car just plain had an overall quality feel, probably because they had been building the same basic car since 1960. I got the bug for something newer/nicer and got a gently-used ’99 Chrysler Concorde in Oct. 2003, only to be burned by the Japanese-designed (and American-built) abomination that was the 2.7 liter V6 – yes, it was designed on Mitsubishi’s CAD system. They made a big deal out of the fact that it was the world’s first “paperless” engine. It’s a shame, because I really liked that car – it was stylish, roomy, somewhat powerful for the size of the engine, and very fuel-efficient for a large car. Unfortunately, the engine, designed at least with help from Mitsu, was a six-cylinder turd. Do never buy any Chrysler product with this engine. Just don’t.

    I now drive a 2005 Grand Cherokee, and it’s been a gem for 24,000 miles thus far. I also have a 2002 Chrysler Voyager with the 2.4 engine, and it’s been back to the dealer exactly once in 72,000 miles. Sometimes I wish I had hung onto that ’88 Fifth Avenue – it sat in the garage until I finally sold it to someone I know in the summer of 2006. It’s still on the road and running flawlessly at 140,000 miles. If I had kept it, it would now have 190-200,000 miles, and I have no doubt it would still be serving me well. The gas mileage was no worse than my Jeep, and I wouldn’t have a lease payment.

    Yeah, I’m a domestic loyalist, but I’m also a realist. I know why the big 2.5 are in the situation they’re in, but is there anything I can do besides buy one of their cars every few years and try to convince others to do likewise? Hell, I live in SE Michigan, so it’s not really a tough sell…

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    In response to some earlier questions about American car build quality in the 50’s, I’ll say that generally, Detroit mechanicals were robust and suited to the demands placed on them. Body build was much more variable, and the problem was the too frequent re-designs.

    Back then, cars were literally “built” on the assembly line, whereas nowdays major assembly units come pre-built. This meant that the learning curve was steep, and new models suffered accordingly.

    The real reason the 55-57 Chevy became so desireable was because the 57 Ford and Chryslers were all-new, and absolutely nightmares in build quality. The 57 Chevy was 3 years old, and simple and solid. 55-57 Chevys quickly became desireable as used cars in the 58-60 years, because of the problems with Ford and Plymout/Dodge.

    Some other models that were built for longer runs and had good build quality were 49-52 Plymouth and Dodges (tanks),and 49-52 Chevys. You could still see lots of these in traffic in the midwest in the early 70’s, original cars. The steel was thick, and didn’t rust quickly. The Fords of the early were ok too, if maybe not quite as solid.

    Things really fell apart after the 57’s; everyone was changing bodies so quickly, until about 61 or so. Most of the cars of this era were iffy, at best.

  • avatar

    “The stories about UAW sabotage are really just that, stories.”

    I beg to differ. My parents are retired UAW workers and they have told stories of people deliberately sabotaging car parts (Dad said one guy he worked with said “I’m here to screw things up and make work for other people”.) He said if management tried to do something about it, the union would threaten a shut down and management would back down.

    John

  • avatar

    While most Chevrolet Vegas didn’t survive on the road, past the Eighties, those equipped with the Cosworth-engineered double-overhead camshaft cylinder head, have as collectibles. They don’t bring much money, even when they have low miles. But to those of us who just love to have something different, the Cosworth Vega is that.

    This version of the Vega, made for just the 1975 and ’76 model years, showed that The General could’ve taken that car and made something of it. However, as with most engineering novelties built by GM (and in this case, engineered with someone else), after the novelty has worn off, The General dumps ’em.

    The Seventies were a time of challenge to the American auto industry. It seemed to survive then, despite itself. In Chrysler’s case, government help – loan guarantees and the purchase of lots of K-cars by the U.S. Postal Service and other government entities – ensured survival.

    But it’s a new century and a new era for the automobile. Sadly, it looks as if Detroit’s time as rulers of the roost in America, may be at an end.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    Note to Paul Niedermeyer:

    How come Fords american branch succeded in constructing one of the best european super-minis for decades, and not sell it in the US?

    I’m talking about Project Bobcat, what would become the Ford Fiesta. Since Ford did not have front-wheel drive car in the european compact or even super-mini class, they decided they had to invest heavily to outsmart the competiton or lose that segment for all time. The money and effort went into that project was unequaled until the Focus of 1998. And the Fiesta was successful and soldiered on until just recently. The Ford Ka was built on the old Fiesta-platform.

    And it was constructed in its enirety in the US. So its not that they didn’t have the time, money, or people to construct good products. So why wasn’t it sold in the US?

  • avatar
    jnik

    I went bankrupt in 1977, and when my sweet Accord lost an argument with an 18-wheeler, my father bought me a Ford LTD. After years of driving an Opel, a VW, and an Accord,driving the LTD was like piloting an aircraft carrier! I painted the hood gray and glued model fighter planes to it. After the LTD, and still a financial untouchable, I had an AMC Hornet ( only the drivetrain worked right) and a Dodge Aspen with (I think) the Slant Six. It ran every day, but BORING.
    Thanks, Syke, for that link to the Austin Rover website! A wonderful site for fans of the marque(s) and must the history is something EVERYONE must read and see how we are going down the same path.

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    I lived in Germany during the 1970’s and want to share these observations with you. 1. I always thought German cars were the best built in the world until I saw first hand Mercedes that rusted. I think they lasted longer in the US, especially the drier climates of the Southwest and West but generally rust just like other makes. They are good cars but somewhat overpriced relative to others.
    2. In Europe and Asia, I was also stationed in Thailand during the 70’s, few students and entry level workers owned cars. They mostly used public transportation, whereas here in the US even minimum wage workers and students are driving cars. I note that many of the comments here about poor build quality are for cars that were likely purchased used, driven hard and probably not maintained on a regular basis.
    3. In my driving years I have owned a 65 Mercedes Benz, 71 Porsche, 67 VW, 71 Citroen, 58,74,85 Chevrolet (3), 76 Buick, 77 Cadillac, 67 Lincoln, 82 Camry, 04 Accord, 00 Avalon, 00 Passat, 89 Ford Crown Vic and a 90 Saab not necessarily in that order. All of these cars required maintenance and the replacement of parts at one time or another with the exception of the Passat and Saab both of which I owned only 2 years under warranty.
    In my 50 years of driving and owning experience, mostly in the US I conclude that overall US made cars are relatively inexpensive to maintain and operate.

    While build quality may not always have been exceptional for American cars, they do provide excellent cost benefit as personal transportation. And in some cases the build quality far exceeds that of similarly priced cars from other countries. My evidence for this are the taxi fleets in the major cities, mostly Ford and Chevrolet, since the demise of the Checker, that prove the durability and reliability of US built cars.

  • avatar
    corvette

    just brilliant assessment of the us industry. i lived this as a large gm dealer for 30 plus years. they did it to themselves and our now paying the price, with possibly no way out. thanks ex dealer

  • avatar

    My folks owned the big iron…Plymouth Roadrunner with a 383 because they would not insure the 440 or hemi in NYC at the time. The next two cars were Pontiac Grand Prix, a huge car with 400/455 engines. Somehow, American cars then fell off the cliff, we had a Malibu with the infamous 3/4 V-8, the unbalanced V-6, followed by a Cutlass Supreme, or as we called it, the Supremely Gutless, also with the lame V-6.

    Suddenly, the American car, a shot of bourbon, became warm lite beer.

    I took my driving test in the second gen Corolla, which stunned me. While tiny to my eyes, it was solid, felt like a Rolex, and the 1.8 liter 4 was a runner.

    While I had a few older cars in College, as soon as I could, I went Euro and have not looked back. (I do miss my 67 Fury, bought as an “estate” car-the only car I’ve ever had stolen, no doubt for the “Commando V-8” under the hood)

    I had an Omni GLH Turbo, which fell apart at 35k, sadly, and from there, a Scirocco with a Callaway turbo, which didn’t.

    Currently, I’d consider a Cadillac SRX, based on a relative’s CTS. The Corvette is a choice, but not practical. I’d buy a big 3 work truck although my sister has a Tacoma, which is big, tight and quiet at speed. If I lost my 330i, I would drive a GTO, but in the dullest color possible and without the wing.

    The other 90% of the Big 3 is not great…How can they screw up so badly ? The Engineers are smart, and they have the best technology money can buy. I realize my 3-er is a different target, but I was in pain in the last Taurus rental car I had. The Taurus could be a competitor, but they’d have to have spent some money on it, or maybe done something other than DE-content it.

    We used to lust after detroit iron…like the Grand Prixs—what happened ?

  • avatar

    One other note. Prior to the 3-er, I bought a new Mercury Mystique, because it was the euro Contour. With the v-6 and a manual, it was a decent car, and with the SVT suspension, drove well. Sadly, it too fell apart, and at 110k, I sold it for very little. The whole car, while well designed, turned out to be a Ford-how can we save 3 cents on this part-special. I was very disappointed, although I find great humor in the Jaguar X-type, which is built on the same line (look at the floor pan closely).

    I have a suspicion that running one BMW instead of two or three Contours is cheaper, including depreciation and maintenece costs, without the intangible of having a better car.

    From the inception, the Contour/Mystique came in like the euro version, and was decontented every year until it died….while dealers upsold people to the ancient Taurus. When Fordites complain about the Old Focus vs. the Mazda3 Focus, this is old hat for Ford.

    Attention Detroit IF YOU SPENT $50 ON THE INTERIORS, YOU’D RULE THE WORLD !!!!

  • avatar
    skor

    Rastus, A lot of the people who talk about sabotage sound like mid-level Soviet apparatchiks who are trying to explain why the 5-year plan went down the toilet. Back in the bad old days, the average US auto line worker barely had enough time to take a bathroom break. These people did not have leisure time to sit around thinking about tying bolts underneath dashboards in order to harass the company's customers. Over the years, I have worked on dozens of cars, I have yet to find evidence of deliberate sabotage. I have found lots of half-ass assembly and evidence of QC people who seemed to have been asleep. I have a friend who runs the repair department for a large Chrysler dealer. This man has worked on cars for over 20 years, he has yet to find evidence of deliberate sabotage from the factory. American cars stink because the people who run American car companies think of their customers as rubes who don't know any better. This was true until the American car buying public had some other choices. The American consumer wised-up, but Detroit continued with business as usual. 

  • avatar
    Arragonis

    Ahh, the good old “Shuvvit”.

    To solve the pending oil and transport crisis I suggest we all use our “beer scooters” more often. Its amazing how far you can walk when served to an appropriate level. And it will offset the fat and sugar…

  • avatar
    mikey

    Thank you skor saved me a lot of typing.
    As usual Paul N.s Writing and research is superb.
    However I must comment on some of the comments.In all walks of life there is a certain percentage of a–h-les.They come in all shapes, sizes,races,and genders.They can be doctors,lawyers,writers,garbage men,police officers, and yes assembly line workers.
    In my 35 years of working in and around assembly lines,I would love to say I have never seen deliberate sloppy workmanship,but I would be lying.
    On the rare occasions it has occured the culprit
    has been dealt with by severe disipline up to and including dismisal.The union puts up a fight but not much of one.
    To folks that have never worked on an assembly line the culture is hard to explain,or justify
    I can tell you this much, if one guy srews up his job it impacts 20 other folks down the line.
    Like police officers,and doctors and convicts we have a code of silence.Believe when I say,that
    deliberate sabotage is not tolerated or condoned by fellow workers.
    I do remember one occasion when a fella tripped and got a bloody nose and a black eye.
    It went down as an unrecorded accident.It seems that even with 20 people including a superviser,and groupleader,nobody saw the unfortunat accident.
    I could write a book on my experiences as an autoworker.I don’t want use up all TTAC.s space.
    I can tell you this I can read 200 comments by people that think they know what really goes on in a modern vehicle assembly plant.It is so easy to pick through them and find the few comments written buy folks who have actually had hands on experience.
    MYTH
    Pop bottle in door.In 1975 a bunch of us tried to put one in a 75 Pontiac Catalina [yard car [never leaves the plant]big and I mean big 2dr coupe.
    Even with the help of a skilled Tool and Die man
    we couldn,t get it to work.If we could get the door panel on the window woudn’t go up.There was just not enough room.Keep in mind the door on this baby was bigger than a Yaris.
    Another myth get shattered

  • avatar
    Arragonis

    Ingvar:

    The Ford “Festa” was late in being introduced as Ford of Europe wouldn’t make an FWD car until they were sure they could cost it appropriately – BMC lost money on every FWD car they made. They were introduced after the 73 oil crisis when demand for small cars increased.

    They were made in Europe, predominantly in Spain, and I think in some other markets as well. They were very popular in Europe.

    A few were sold in the US where they had 1.6 engines (Europe had 1.0, 1.1 and 1.3 only), which were later introduced in Europe as the Sporty XR2 models.

    The KA was not based on the same platform as Bobcat. The Mk1 (Bobcat) and Mk2 Fiesta used the same platform as each other but the dreary Mk3 introduced a new, larger platform and “me too” Peugeot 205 style bodywork. The engines remained the same as the previous models but the body was much heavier, the Mk3 is regarded as very poor. It did sell well though, the Fiesta was the top selling car in the UK for quite a while.

    The Mk4 and 5 are essentially Mk3 based but with a proper suspension system that actually works, and it was this that was used for the KA – still with the old OHV engine until recently when a new OHC version was introduced. The same platform was also used for the sadly missed Ford Puma although that also benefited from Yamaha engines which were also used in some Fiesta models.

    The Mk6 version introduced a new body and parts shared with the Mazda 2, plus new engines.

    The full story is here http://www.channel4.com/4car/ft/feature/retrospective/1186/

    The OHV “Valencia” engine in the Fiesta has no method of adjusting the tappets so progressively they become noisier with use – quite unbearable after around 40K. The noise has been described as sounding like a skeleton wanking in buiscuit tin. Its very similar to the death rattle of a Pinto engine when the camshaft lubrication tube gets blocked.

  • avatar
    daro31

    Rastus, A lot of the people who talk about sabotage sound like mid-level Soviet apparatchiks who are trying to explain why the 5-year plan went down the toilet. Back in the bad old days, the average US auto line worker barely had enough time to take a bathroom break. These people did not have leisure time to sit around thinking about tying bolts underneath dashboards in order to harass the company’s customers.

    I did 5 years on the line and then 5 years as a supervisor in a Ford plant bulding Pintos, Maverick, Fairmonts and I can tell you yes you don’t have much time, but eveytime there was a notice of line speed up, or manpower reduction, there was allways time for a Sh*t Run. If you had to put in 6 bolts you put in 5, doesn’t take much time to throw a body skid bolt or a handfull of crap into a gas tank. Turn up the regulator on your air wrench and strip your bots or sheet metal screws. 30 minutes of that and the repair hole was full for 2 days. It was a common stratedgy of the 70’s to fight management who always had to deliver more with less. As soon as we would start to produce good cars, repair holes clean at night and utility guys not chasing repairs all over the plant, that was the signal to management that we shuld balance out another 15% of the workers. And then it started all over again. As my superintendant saids to me one night when I complained about not having enough men to do it right the first time. “What does the customer expect for $10,000 a perfect car? Tell em to by a Mercedes.”

  • avatar

    I remember reading about problems at the Lordstown plant

    Maybe this is the source:
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,905747,00.html

    “Hardly anybody calls it sabotage—yet. But last October somebody deliberately set fire to an assembly-line control box shed, causing the line to shut down. Autos regularly roll off the line with slit upholstery, scratched paint, dented bodies, bent gearshift levers, cut ignition wires, and loose or missing bolts. In some cars, the trunk key is broken off right in the lock, thereby jamming it.”

    I believe Delorean also made mention of this in his book. I also remember a football payer I can’t remember his name being quoted in either CD or MT that had worked at a GM Oklahoma plant one summer telling of workers attaching a bolt to a string and then having the the string comedown between the the metal body and the interior facing so that there would always be a mysterious rattle that would be found as a joke. Hey thats what he was quoted as saying in MT or CD.

  • avatar
    jnik

    That football player was Bosworth of the Seahawks. everybody at the Oklahoma plant denied his story.

  • avatar
    skor

    Daro, I know for a fact that there was a lot of animosity between labor and management at the Ford plants where my relatives worked. I also know that there was a lot of slipshod assembly done at those plants. From reading what some folks post here, a person could come to the conclusion that the average auto worker is/was a drunken lout who lounges around the factory all day drinking and thinking of ways to screw the company’s customers — the very hand that feeds him — while the UAW protects him.

    I believe that workers who were constantly harassed and pressured to produce more with less would come up with ways to slow things down, or just reach the point of not caring. This is very different from urban legends about beer cans in doors.

    I’ve worked on cars that had missing/stripped fasteners or assorted junk under the carpets or back seats. That’s the kind of thing I’d expect from harried or demoralized workers. I’ve never seen a car with bolts hanging off strings or bolts in the gas tank.

    The blame for American’s auto manufacturing mess goes to management, irrespective of what Rush Limbaugh says. The people who run the American car companies succeeded in pissing off their employees, suppliers and customers. Those are the facts.

  • avatar
    daro31

    Skor, you couldn't be more wrong about the average autoworker, oh sure like anywhere there was a percentage that just wanted to do as little as they could for the most money. The most of us were just young guys with families, thankful for the great paying jobs. I mean at 21 one years old with just a high school education I was driving a new car, buying my first house, a great stereo system and my wife could stay home with the baby. The us and them mentality taht management thrived on created a war zone at work, and even the most caring employee was taught by the system that if you did your whole job, everytime, you would be the first guy that got work added. If you did it right all of the time there were guys who would screw up the work you had done, just to keep the time study guys at bay. We all knew that the minute we were building good cars, the lines would speed up, with no more men added or they would cut out men and spread the elements of the jobs around. I think sometime in the 80's they got some language into the contracts that said that work load had to be established in the first 3 months of a model run, and then jobs could not be changed. I believe that helped out a bit with the quality. For the last 15 years I have worked for suppliers to Ford and I would have to say that probably the biggest contributor to improving quality has nothing to do with the autoworkers. It has more to do with all of the components and assemblies being sourced from 2nd tier suppliers. The big 2.5 can control the quality from their suppliers much better than in their own house. Back in those days if you had a bad part coming from a Ford Plant you just learned to live with it, wheras from an outside vendor, they were in the plant in hours begging for their lives not to lose a contract or have parts returned.

  • avatar
    210delray

    You assembly line workers (both past and present) are supporting what I’ve read, which may have included DeLorean’s book. That is, build quality declined from the 50s through the 70s because of increases in line speed and/or cuts in manpower, in order to move more units out the door with lower labor costs.

    I know my mother said of her 3 successive Chevys – a ’55, ’61, and ’67 (the last I’ve discussed above), the ’55 was the best (and of course would be worth the most today if we still had it).

  • avatar
    Ron Larson

    No one has mentioned the “downstream repair” concept. That is how the factory knew of problems, but left it to the dealers to correct them. They would knowingly ship a defective product just to meet their quotas. Yet they were comforted by the knowledge that the dealer had mechanics on staff to fix the problem after the customer discovered it.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Regarding those vented trunks on Vega Coupes and other GM cars. Yes, air from the interior of the car was SUPPOSED TO to exit from them. Under certain conditions, air and rain water was sucked back into the car. The feature was discontinued after the 1971 model year.

  • avatar
    KingElvis

    Surprised to see no mention of the “personal” or downsized luxury cars of the ’70’s – that’s what made all the money. Ford’s bright spot was the Granada, Cadillac’s sold the Nova derived Seville for $12G with a fuel injected Olds 350. Chrysler stayed alive with the Cordoba – it doubled the sales of the division with just one car.

    It’s telling that GM still maintained it’s 50% market share in the ’70’s. (I’ve read the peak was in ’62 at 52%) because GM carefully avoided going over the 50% line to avoid anti-trust hearings.

  • avatar
    210delray

    Ford’s “bright spot” was the Granada? Did they fool enough people into buying them — “looks just like a Mercedes!”

    My mother had a personal luxury coupe — the ’73 Monte Carlo. Stylish — relatively speaking, considering that dismal model year — but highly impractical. Huge, heavy doors, and aircraft-carrier hood. The latter meant you had to “stick your nose out” at blind intersections just to make sure no one was coming. Given all that overall length, the back seat was surprisingly small, once you wriggled back there.

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