No Fixed Abode: Steady Going Nowhere
This is Part Two; Part One is found here —JB
The Best & Brightest didn’t contest my point too strongly earlier this week when I suggested that the American family vehicle of choice has long possessed familiar dimensions despite sporting a diverse variety of exterior styles, from “tri-five” to high-hip CUV. Some of you thought it was a point too trite to make — what’s next, some assertion on my point that family cars always have four wheels? — but I think most Americans believe there’s a genuine difference between a Ford Fairmont wagon and a Ford Edge CUV.
If, on the other hand, there is not a genuine difference, it raises the question: What external force constrains it thus? What’s so special about those “A-body” dimensions? What makes us return again and again to the scene of crime, across generations, both human and mechanical?
Or at least that is the question I thought I should be asking, prior to truly thinking about it.
I’ve long held what I think of as the “Descolada” theory of automotive evolution. The Descolada is an intelligent virus that lives on a distant planet. When new life forms appear on that planet, the Descolada contrives a way to mate with that life. (This is also the idea behind another Card book, Wyrms.) The resulting lifeforms look like they did when they arrived on the planet, but they carry the DNA and the genetic legacy of the Descolada.
Today’s Accord and Camry are Descolada cars. They arrived from foreign shores, mated with the local population. The resulting modern cars are effectively ’78 Malibus with the engines turned sideways, made in American factories to fit American drivers and American traffic conditions. The Pilot and Highlander are simply the Vista Cruiser variants.
Just as obviously, it wasn’t the existing cars on the market that changed the Accord and Camry; it was the mindset of the buyers that mated with the new arrivals to the market. That same mindset is what made Ford’s product planners change the Bronco II into the four-door Explorer XLT and it’s how the funky and offbeat RAV4 of the Nineties lost character even as the wheelbase stretched and the family-to-powersports-products ratios in the brochures swung from zero:infinity to omnipresent:insubstantial.
No matter what the marketers and the factories put in front of the American buyer, it eventually becomes that car. The longer a new nameplate is on the market, even if it shouldn’t have anything to do with the core American vehicle, the closer it converges to that core. Look at the idiotic Nissan “Gripz” concept for an example of this. In today’s market, there is an absolute overload of SUVs and CUVs and sports cars are as rare as fresh water in Southern California. So why does one of the last options out there for an enthusiast have to become a CUV?
It’s simple: it will sell better. That’s always been the case. The less “Thunderbird-like” the original Thunderbird became, the better it sold. The more average a specialty car gets, the more of an audience it has. If you don’t believe me, look at how well the Mustang II did in its day.
So the product conforms to the desire, and the desire has always been there. So far so good. But why has the desire always been the same? Hasn’t life in America changed again and again since 1948 or thereabouts? It certainly has. So why hasn’t the desire for that core vehicle changed?
Maybe the key is in that B-body to A-body sales shift that happened in the early ’80s. Could it be that the American consumer really wants a B-body (think Expedition/Tahoe) but has to settle for the A-body? Is it that the A represents a sort of minimum to which the customer will adhere, but the B represents the preferred proportions?
Today’s families are half the size that they were in 1955. Why are the cars the same size? It’s at this point that I’d like to tell you the actual reason, the one that I found in a secret letter at the bottom of a desk drawer in the old Packard plant, but the truth is that I don’t really know why today’s Santa Fe is about the same size as a 1955 Chevrolet.
The best idea I can offer is this: The expectations of the average American grew throughout the past half-century even as the family sizes shrank and the divorces increased. The young American mother doesn’t feel any less entitled to a first-rate family vehicle just because she’s having half as many children; the young American father still wants to have the nicest car in the neighborhood even if he isn’t terribly interested in anything besides video games and his career any more.
Couple that with a relatively static motoring environment over the post-war period in terms of road width and toolbooth height and whatnot, and perhaps that’s enough to explain it. Parking spots are a certain size and garages aren’t going to get bigger in pre-existing houses. And that, coupled with a decrease in childbearing and an increase in television watching, is enough to keep the American car puffed up to a certain minimum size.
Or I could be completely wrong. It could all be a coincidence, could be due to something else entirely. I don’t know. What I want to think is that it’s more important, and more sinister, than that. That there is a machine under a mountain somewhere, broadcasting a single frequency. A frequency to which we must all tune. To do the same things, buy the same things, say the same things, believe the same things. To wake up at the same time and be cordial and be effective and be productive and be consumptive.
That the worth of our individual souls is in due proportion to how broken our antennas are; the less of the signal we get, the better we are. And though the mountain may be telling all of us to buy the same cars, design the same cars, build the same cars; some of us can’t quite hear it. Those people with the broken antennas are truly diverse in the sense that they don’t hold the same mental model as everyone else.
They buy weird little economy jobs and ridiculous sports cars and unnecessary off-roaders and they just don’t seem to feel the need to have the Universal American Car. God bless them; they are the reason the Corvette and every other four-wheeler you’ve ever loved exists. Everybody else is listening to the same frequency, the idea that morphs everything into some undifferentiated whole, a void without form, in endless pursuit of what they already have.
Or, it could just be that the Pontiac Bonneville Model G was that good.
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