Fiction: "The CAFE Continuum"
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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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.
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.