Tuesday, April 11, 2006

One for the Road

My first Japanese car was a Datsun, circa 1973 if I recall.
It was green with gold racing stripes that ran its length, a silly touch for a car that groaned at 50 mph.
I bought it partly in reaction to gasoline shortages that were plaguing the country at the time. It had a four cylinder engine and body that was slightly stronger than tin foil.
But my primary motivation was to dump the Buick I owned that drank gas like the tank it resembled and overheated even when it was going downhill.
We were too young for a Buick anyway. My wife said it made her hair turn blue when she drove it.
I have tried to stay true to American products since then with mixed results.
I had a Chevy that still had some GM assembly line worker's coffee cup wedged between the engine block and the fender well when I bought it.
We bought the inevitable Chrysler mini van when we were in our soccer mom phase.
But we have also gone foreign in our purchaes over the last several decades, a little Japanese here, a little German there.
I thought about that recently when I read that Ford and GM are caught up in a protracted sales decline, losing to more nimble companies like Toyota which had its best March in history.
Even South Korea's Hyundai is experiencing better results than Ford and GM.
That's not entirely surprising. The American automotive industry has become fat, arrogant and stupid over the years.
A Los Angeles Times story on the plight of the Buick marque contained this telling ancedote:
"I remember being told by a GM executive … that they'd never worried about Buick because as people got older and richer, their asses would get fatter and they would always buy Buicks to sit 'em in," said Dan Gorrell, vice president of San Diego market research firm Strategic Vision, which has done consumer studies for GM.
That mentality certainly worked on one level: the average Buick buyer is 69 years old, the oldest demographic in the industry, according to marketing rearch reports.
Buick is in such desperate shape that even Tiger Woods can't sell them.
A cornerstone of the American capitalist system is that you stay quick and competitive or die. And it appears that Ford and GM may be checking into an automotive hospice
Should we care? After all, most of our appliances, electronics and clothing are manufactured overseas. So who cares about Ford and GM?
I do, for one.
It's hard to get teary eyed over an industry that sold over priced and somtimes unsafe products to an unsuspecting public for decades. Remember planned obsolesence? The Corvair? The Ford Pinto? All brought to you by the American car dealers.
However, automotive manufacturing remains an important part of our economy. Roughly one in five jobs in the industrial Midwest is dependent upon General Motors alone, for example.
And on a strictly sentimental level, Ford and GM products are more likely than not a part of our personal history. Chances are, your first car was a Ford or Chevy. Maybe even your second or third car. Chances are it was your Dad's first car, too. Chances are you lusted after a Corvette or Mustang.
I'm not advocating a government bailout of two multi-billion companies who have managed to fritter away what was once a monopoly.
But we can hope they make a go of it. And there are some signs they are finally awakening from a long slumber.
Ford has responded to hybrid innovations from Japanese manufacturers by bringing out their own line of hybrid vehicles. GM has hopped aboard the alternative fuel train in hopes of capturing market share.
And both are beginning to pay attention to design after being stuck in the 50s for 50 years.
Even more important, reliability is improving. Indeed, Michael Quincy, automotive content specialist for Consumer Reports, says the quality of Ford and GM cars has improved greatly in recent years.
Looking at Ford in particular, that company's American-branded cars are about average in long term reliability. Again, though, today's "average" is a lot better than the "average" of years gone by.
Recalling a jingle from some year's back, "Wouldn't You Rather Have Buick?"
Maybe, just maybe, I would.

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