April 2010

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Why We Should Be Angry at the American Car Industry

by Toni Seger

 

I need a new car. What's unusual about my plight is if/when I raise enough money, there's nothing I want to buy. I own a 17 year old car I bought almost 14 years ago for less than $5,000. and I don't want to replace it. Not only are cars a lot more expensive now, but from my perspective, they aren't anywhere near as good. My car has 212,000 miles on it and it no longer has a book value, but there's nothing available I consider to be as good as what I own. I drive a Ford Festiva. It's my second Festiva, but they stopped making the car about a decade ago, so it's going to be my last. It gets 50 miles to the gallon and standard maintenance of about $1,200. to $1,5000. a year keeps it humming. It's short and easy to park, has a turning ratio that's literally turns on a dime, has front wheel drive that has pulled it out places that would have stuck most other cars and a high hatchback shape that carries months of trash when I go to the dump. A mechanic I know who owns three Festivas says the engine will never give me a problem. Just to prove it, he told me about his friend with a Festiva that has over 300,000 miles on it.

 

So, why isn't this car made anymore? Because the geniuses who make mega salaries running car companies viewed it as a product with a skimpy profit. After all, why would a car maker consider any factor other than profit? Oil's just a national security matter that's drawn us into two wars, so why would that issue concern them?…

 

If I sound frustrated, it's because I am. What I've learned, very painfully, is that another bad consequence of the Bush II years was car makers didn't bother making cars that made any sense. Bush II did more than wreck the economy, feed the rich and pollute the environment. His all pervasive influence also eliminated the last shred of sensible transportation for those of us who like to drive sensibly. Pretty amazing for a guy who was rarely even visible in the office. The ironies of life are endless when you consider the collapse of the global economy started with the devastating effect of $4. a gallon gas in the United States. This accelerated cost proved to be the straw that finally broke the back of the American consumer and dragged everything else around the world down with it.

 

So, here we are, 37 years after the formation of OPEC, with a fragile economy that's more addicted to oil than ever. Here we are, after $4./gallon gas toppled our economy like a house of cards, and the car industry is promoting cars with 28 miles/gallon as if they're technological marvels. Hybrids cost a small fortune on my puny income and, to my amazement, they can't come close to matching my mileage, so why would I want to own one? (Even if they could fix the software that causes unexpected acceleration...)

 

Back in 1973, my husband and I sat in a gas line where I had an epiphany. (I feel obliged to say, I only had to sit in one gas line to figure this out.) Looking at an endlessly long line of cars with frustrated drivers honking their horns inside them, I realized the United States wasn't a powerful country anymore. Like a drug addict acknowledging a destructive habit, I saw in a clearly illustrated instant that the society I lived in had a massive dependency that would sink all of us if we didn't get control of it. Clearly, our overwhelming need for foreign oil was a high priority national security matter…

 

I only sat in one gas line to have this epiphany, but I soon discovered and have continued to discover in the decades since that most other people thought my conclusion to be pretty silly. The first thing I did was call my parents who drove large, gas guzzling Cadillacs. They were immediately and deeply offended that I could suggest they make any change in their driving habits and/or life style. Obviously, I was ignorant of how the world really worked. After all, Cadillacs were status cars that gave their owners the respect they deserved. Furthermore, Cadillacs were made in America and buying American contributed to America's strength whereas I drove a VW Beetle which was not made in America and did not contribute to America's strength. I didn't agree with this reasoning at all. I didn't see how gas guzzlers sucking at a finite resource were contributing to the economy when the money was going elsewhere. At the time, my bug got about 28 miles/gallon, but I already felt that wasn't very good mileage and we could do better.

 

Over the years, I got to expect what I still continue to be strange reactions on the subject of car mileage. For example, if I asked small children what would happen if they had 6 apples and gave one apple to each of 6 people, most of them figured out pretty quickly they wouldn't have any more apples left. But when I raised with adults the conundrum of a finite resource being gobbled up by a rapidly growing world, I got what I considered to be totally irrelevant responses. Wise, well heeled adults would smile all knowingly and instill me with the knowledge that oil companies would simply have to find better sources. Sometimes, I was told I didn't understand how the economy worked. Or, I might receive very suspicious looks because I obviously didn't understand how America worked and why it was such a great country and maybe I didn't appreciate it as much as I should. Sometimes, I got accused of being a negative thinker and lots of other negative things and, sometimes, I was told I was unpatriotic and anti-American, but no one gave me a reason to change my opinion that Detroit needed to do a better job making cars.

 

For several years after my epiphany, I tried pointing out to people that the source of gasoline wasn't a gas station pump and if we didn't develop a clear coherent energy policy in this country we were in danger of going to war in the Middle East. That statement which was universally received as utterly absurd, was invariably greeted with a major sigh and the bemused statement that I was far too dramatic and needed to grow up…

 

When Jimmy Carter proposed taxing gas guzzlers and rebating to people who drove small cars as a reward for saving fuel, there was a major outcry. Hordes of indignant people who sounded a lot like my parents were clearly very angry. When Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House (which I thought was visionary) and tried a fireside chat wearing a sweater, people hated him for acting like such a loser he had to wear a sweater indoors and loud voices insisted no one was going to make them shiver in the dark. It wasn't just the Iranian hostages that defeated Carter, it was forward thinking accompanied by the sorts of voices that drown out such thinking that also doomed him. Even after the hostage crisis, the paucity of voices connecting the dots between fossil fuels and foreign policy was depressing. When Ronald Reagan took office, he announced that America didn't conserve its way into greatness and, as one of his first acts as president, took down the solar panels from the White House…

 

After our bug finally died, my husband and I owned a Datsun hatchback which upset a lot of people because it was Japanese and, in the 80's, our fear of the Soviets taking us over had morphed into the Japanese taking us over, but I loved the car. It got about 38 miles/gallon and handled like a luxury car. Frankly, I was amazed to see auto workers bashing Datsuns with baseball bats as if they were accomplishing something. Instead of whining about a country that was beating us at our own game, why didn't we just get to work making better cars? Isn't that the way capitalism is supposed to work?

 

After the Datsun, my husband and I owned two Dodge Colts, one after the other. With Colts, we got mileage in the low to middle 40's/gallon with the second Colt doing a little better than the first. People thought we were buying American now and said so with pride, but I liked pointing out the engine was Korean and it was just the body that was made in Detroit. I felt it was important to credit the source of better mileage, but most people seemed amazed that cars were made in Korea even if they were just little cars.

 

Once, driving back to Maine in the winter, my husband avoided what looked to be an inevitable collision when a car in front of us jammed on its brakes to avoid the car in front of it which had stalled. Instead, my husband took the Colt over the top of a guide post covered with snow and down into a ravine. When we climbed out unhurt, the line of cars back up on the road cheered, but they were completely amazed when we pulled out of the ravine and flew back onto the road. I felt like I had a better car than James Bond.

 

Our first Festiva was next. I knew immediately I never wanted to drive anything else ever again. Everything about this car was designed for sensible driving. Forget car ads that talk about sex appeal and remember what a car is for and you have to appreciate a Festiva.

 

Again, the car came off Ford's assembly line, but the engine was made in Korea and I still don't accept that we can't make cars that stand out like this one. Maybe car makers make smaller profits per Festiva compared to SUVs, but if everyone drove something as good as a Festiva, there wouldn't be any more parking problems, everyone would have a lot more money in their pockets, we'd be a more secure country and we wouldn't be in a war in Iraq. The last part of that bothers me the most for obvious reasons. It never occurred to me Ford could be so stupid as to stop making this car, but during the first decade of the 21st century while climate change and carbon footprint became part of our every day vocabulary, while young people fought and died over oil, manual transmissions and sensible transportation virtually vanished.

 

After gas topped $4./gallon, people started asking us what sort of mileage we got. They were always amazed when they heard it was higher than an expensive hybrid and it was obvious they were doing some fast calculations of how much money they could save. Instead of joking about our toy car with its toy tires, people who knew us would comment that we'd owned the car a long time and they'd ask how many miles it had and what it cost to maintain. So, it only took a global collapse to get the conversation started, but what good does it do if people can't buy a car as good as a Festiva? Of course, now we're in a real bind. Gas is creeping up again because the economy is doing better, but as soon as the price reaches a tipping point, the economy could easily topple again which means if we don't do something dramatic about car mileage we will never return to prosperity as a society.

 

I think all leaders carry with them the responsibilities of leadership. Leading economic engines like car manufacturers need to maintain some semblance of the larger picture which our car industry never has. For years, the industry fought the development of electric cars and now we're trying to play catch up with countries that have developed this technology much further like Japan. I feel awful for all the people who have lost their jobs in Detroit, but they have only their bosses to blame for it.

 

I've never lost faith in the energy and ingenuity of Americans when they put their flair for entrepreneurship behind an idea, but there's no more room for fun and games in car manufacturing anymore. If we don't start making sense, we will continue to pay a price for our stupidity until we have nothing left to pay with.

 

Co-owner of a media/communications firm; ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades. Seger is the author of "The Telefax Box", the first in a satiric trilogy about our overly mechanized lives available at https://www.CreateSpace.com/3335778 She has produced and directed original plays for stage and television and is an award winning film maker with endorsements from Maine Public Broadcasting. Her film, "The Force of Poetry" is available at https://www.CreateSpace.com/260202