Our second trip to the April 28, contagion 1975 Newsweek well yields this rather timely ad clipping from the fine folks at General Motors:
While it might be tempting to see the above rogues’ gallery of lemons as the point where Detroit went hopelessly off the rails, approved the seeds of the American automobile industry were planted a quarter-century prior, when Harley Earl’s vision of populuxe opulence won out over Raymond Loewy’s aesthetic of elegant simplicity.
It was not the physical manifestations of Earl’s design philosophy that were the problem. Tailfins and chrome tits (a.k.a. “Dagmars”) may have been quaint and perhaps silly examples of vehicular greebling, but they were symptoms of a larger issue — an overwhelming focus on transitory fashion over enduring functionality in automotive design and marketing.
This approach to engineering was codified to an astonishing degree. The decision to shift toward, say, smaller grilles was plotted in incremental arcs and carried out over the space of years, and operating under the prevailing (and correct for the time) assumption that the typical American consumer would purchase a new vehicle if not every year, then every other year.
This disposable attitude toward automobiles had other benefits besides turnover for the manufacturers and dealers. Outright clunkers and misfires — like the Corvair or the Edsel — might pose an embarrassment and source of financial loss, but the effects (outside commercial mythology) were largely short-term in duration. Long-term maintenance issues were also moot when dealing with a effective vehicle life of under twenty-four months for the initial buyer. Used heaps and beaters were the provenance of teenagers and folks either determined enough or desperate enough to take on the uphill challenge.
The system functioned well enough within the economic climate that prevailed in America from the early 1950′s to early 1970′s, where labor shortages, coupled with a massive expansion in consumer spending power, gave rise to a large (if unevenly) prosperous middle class willing to buy into the marketing-driven myth (and implied class hierarchy) of the automobile. The problem is that this unique set of circumstances was assumed, by consumers and producers, to represent a perpetual status quo…
…which, in true Sophoclean fashion, ran up against the wall of harsh reality in the early 1970s, when an economic shitstorm struck. A weakening manufacturing sector, the massive influx of baby boomers into the labor pool, and skyrocketing fuel prices caused income levels to stagnate (right through the present day, actually, though that has been obscured with periodic infusions of imaginary revenue from debt and speculation bubbles).
The American auto industry responded to this shift in the economic paradigm with denial born of two decades of comfortable complacency, followed by tone-deaf efforts to adapt. One minute you’re fat and basking in the Cretaceous sun, the next you’re trying to pass off a mid-sized sedan with a fucking 8-cylinder engine and SUV-level MPG ratings as the definitive answer to soaring gas prices.
The arrival of hard times made reliability and durability a consumer priority, especially in a landscape transformed by the post-war growth of suburbia and underinvestment in public transportation. The “car as status symbol” mentality didn’t fade away, but the “car as necessity” one took on a greater importance, as did acute awareness of the associated costs — maintenance, fuel, repairs. When “every year or so” gives way to “when I need to replace it,” it becomes even more crucial that the car you purchase doesn’t turn out to be a temperamental money siphon. Yet whether out of resentment, arrogance, or outright ineptness, Detroit saw fit to unleash a series of models — Vegas, Novas, Gremlins, and Pintos — that weren’t just badly made cars, but enduring black marks against the companies’ reputations for quality.
So the situation remained up through the early 90s, with Detroit coasting on a sad mix of vestigal brand loyalty, base patriotism (pay no attention to the plant closures and outsourcing, folks), and the popular assumption that imports were either too expensive or too shoddy in comparison to domestic vehicles.
When the empirical evidence knocked out the third leg of the above tripod, the whole decrepit facade should have come crumbling down then and there, but the dawn of the SUV craze provided a short stay of execution. Once again, Detroit confused short-term contextual trends with long-term demand, and once again a jolt to the global economy caught the manufacturers completely flat-footed.
The executives show up cap in hand to the government in a plea to save the “American” auto industry, even as their restructuring plans involve the decimation of domestic manufacturing jobs, additional outsourcing (to the point where “American” no longer applies), and squirreling out of contractual obligations with the auto workers’ union.
Meanwhile, I’m tooling around under Super Lumina’s hood and wondering if I’m going to have to spend five hundred bucks to replace the head gasket for the third time in six years.
God bless the Yew Ess of Ay.