Monday, March 22, 2010

We (used to) build Excitement!

With the economy on the mend, it seems that auto sales are picking up too. Automakers are pumping more bland, cookie-cutter cars into showrooms, and we consumers think that the crisis is over. Is it?

Since Henry Ford first produced the Model T, America has fallen in love with the automobile. Automakers have brought out better models with better features, better power, and better value to keep us hooked. In my opinion, the 1950's was the decade when our national prosperity gave us the opportunity to buy some great automobiles. From the iconic 1957 Chevrolet, to the Studebaker Hawks, we were awash in great cars, that not only were affordable, but stylish, and just plain cool. A real source of pride in American engineering, "Detroit Iron" ruled the roads here.
That smug feeling of superiority blossomed in the 1960's, when we were blanketed in muscle cars, cars with fins, and big horsepower. We embraced the "Muscle Car" era on a national scale. Cool cars ruled, and cars that were sort of bland were gussied up to appeal to the market. The 1960's gave us the Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, Marlin, AMX, Charger, Challenger, GTO, and a host of others. Even stodgy "family cars" like the Plymouth had an alter ego, in this case, the "Road Runner".
We couldn't get enough cool, and Detroit obliged us with newer and better cars. We wrote songs about our cars, and they defined us as people. While a Camaro was cool, a humble Rambler might be considered cooler, because it's seats could be turned into a bed....great for the drive-in!!

By the 1980's, we lost our way. The 1974 Arab oil embargo made anything with a V-8 seem decadent, and we were offered a host of boring vehicles. The insurance companies grip on lawmakers didn't help either. We were forced to have ugly "recoverable" bumpers, while emission standards crippled our horsepower. As Detroit, and the rest of the industry limped into the 90's, we had a glut of ugly jelly-bean shaped cars. Few cars could even try to act cool. Automakers would add a few tape stripes, or add the word "Sport" to a vehicle, but that was about as exciting as things got.

Then Ford brought the Mustang back from the grave, and threw in a real motor, and offered a manual transmission, just like the "good old days"! Sales perked up, and the public started to crave the fun they had in the past. Suddenly, Automakers had discovered that cars could be cool once again, and the public discovered that they could be cool driving one!
It seemed we were starting to walk that long road back to our glory days!

Then it happened; a car brand known for stuffiness, stodginess, and an average buyer's age somewhere around grand parenthood, broke the mold!
I remember it, as if it happened yesterday. I had gone to the Chicago Auto Show, (an annual rite of spring in our family) and as I was shuffling along with the huge crowd, I heard music. Not like your Muzak stuff, or pop, or commercial jingles, real honest to goodness Rock and Roll, played at the proper volume for the song ("Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin)! "What automaker was so smug to think that they could promote a car with this anthem?", I thought. As I moved towards the sound, I saw it was.......Cadillac! The music got louder as I approached, and I kept thinking of all the old grandpas that must have been laughing at us kids, thinking they weren't cool! As I reached the stand, with the music pumping, and the cars gleaming, I instantly became a lifelong Cadillac fan, and would have sold my soul for one on the spot! This was a kick in the pants for the industry! Show a little swagger, build a good car, a cool car, and the nation will beat a path to your showroom door.
More cool cars followed. The Dodge Charger came forth (alas, with 4 doors), and Pontiac (the "We Build Excitement" folks) gave us the GTO again, (OK, it was from Australia), and the prospect for an updated El Camino (also from Australia, known as the Holden Ute). Damn, we were rocking!!

Then the economy took the proverbial crap, and Detroit, and the rest of the industry, was fighting to stay alive. Executives from the "Big Three" went to Washington to beg for a bailout, humbling themselves before Congress in order to get it.

Where was that swagger we had just a decade ago? Our auto folks flew down in their private jets, in their expensive suits, and begged for mercy. Is this the way an American Icon is supposed to react? What a bunch of pussies! They should have gotten the finest American Iron they could cobble up, be it a Corvette, Mustang, or Charger, and hit the road for DC. No suits, or designer socks, just jeans and an old sweatshirt for everyone! Throw in a few tattoos for good measure! This is American swagger, and when the Congressman asks your name, answer "What's it to you?" That's what built this country! Not kowtowing to a bunch of clowns, but walking in and owning the situation. That's what real car guys do (when they're not drag racing)!

Sadly, the execs caved in to the pressure, and for a few billion dollars, killed Pontiac (one of the few brands that still had that 1960's swagger), Saturn, (which was beginning to see the light, as far as cool goes), and Hummer, which was never cool. Chrysler sold their soul to Fiat in order to stay alive, and while the others were going down for the second time, Ford came up smiling. As always, cool rules! Ford made the Mustang the "it" car that everyone had to have.

So where are we now? We're about where we left off in the 1980's. Instead of "Little GTO", we hear:

"Little Toyota Camry,
You're really looking bland,
Got you on a used car lot,
For 'bout 11 grand...."

Afraid to ruffle the feathers of our legislators, automakers have chosen the low road, except for Cadillac. It's cars keep getting cooler, and I still hear that music pumping! Yeah! Go, Granny, go!