jalopiesThe controversy of the federal government’s “cash-for-clunkers” program dramatizes the odd position we Americans have put ourselves in as victims of our own success.

The program provides a $4,500 subsidy for a qualified buyer who wants to trade in an old inefficient vehicle for a new and “greener” one. Everybody wins in this program: the buyer can afford a new car, the auto dealer and — by extension — the manufacturer gets rid of inventory, the environment is subject to one less outrage, and the junk yard gets another heap to turn back into cash. The program is so beneficial, and consequently so popular, that it went broke in a hurry, and the question of whether to re-fund it is now being debated in Congress.

john_mccainOne of those opposed to more funding for this program is U.S. Sen. John McCain — Sarah Palin’s former running mate. McCain thinks this program is an unfair subsidy of the auto industry, as distinct from other classes of business that are at risk in this economic downturn. But the auto industry is getting this attention because it has become such a pervasive part of the overall economy; if it goes down, according to conventional wisdom, everything else goes with it.

BrandNewCarsRex460At the root of this phenomenon is the American obsession with cars and with new cars in particular. This has been out of control for a long time, but we were too giddy to notice. The industry produces too many cars, and whole sectors of the economy have grown around that practice like barnacles. This has happened in a country that has failed miserably at building an efficient mass-transit system, though it talks endlessly, and without blushing, about the need to get travelers off the roads and onto trains and buses and monorails and — while we’re daydreaming — into teletransporters. I don’t know if this is what McCain means by his opposition to this latest proposal to expand the federal deficit, but despite the rhetoric about reforming the auto industry, the game plan really seems to be to help it continue overproduction. And what do we think will happen in the long run if we win at that game? I admit to a prejudice here, because I drive a car until it has well over 150,000 miles on the clock, but if we continue the same behavior and expect a different outcome, aren’t we all — by definition — crazy?

"Beam me up"

"Beam me up"

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1952 De Soto

1952 De Soto

My father had two De Sotos – a ’48 and a ’52. The ’48 is the first family car of ours that I can remember. Chrysler stopped making the DeSoto in 1961. The car was named after Hernando De Soto and many models had a nifty likeness of De Soto as a hood  ornament. Perhaps school kids are still taught that De Soto discovered the Mississippi River in 1542. Actually, he led the first European party to find the Mississippi River. A few folks had already seen it, but hadn’t sent word far enough East to reach De Soto, whose achievement was put into even sharper context by Jerry Seinfeld: “Yeah, like they wouldn’t have found that anyway.” 

But I digress. 

 

HENRY J

HENRY J

Joe Engel drove a Henry J. That was a more or less compact car manufactured by Kaiser Frazer, beginning in 1950. The car was named after the head of the company, Henry J. Kaiser. The Henry J disappeared from the market in 1954. Under the terms of a federal loan Kaiser had received in 1949, specifications for the Henry J were dictated by that harbinger of efficiency, the federal government. Under those terms, the basic Henry J had to sell for no more than $1,300, including federal tax and dealer prep charges. It had to accommodate at least five adults and be able to sustain a speed of 50 miles per hour. In order to meet those standards, the Henry J was bare bones. For instance, there was no trunk. Well, there was a trunk, but to get to it, a person had to pull out the back of the rear seat. There was no access from the outside; that was to save parts. The basic model also had no glove compartment, no arm rests, no sun visor on the passenger side, and no ventilation of outside air. It wasn’t a success, especially since a driver could buy a better car from another manufacturer without spending much more. Frank Zappa once rode across country in the back seat of a Henry J, and lived to tell about it.

I heard that Joe Engel had once played for a Yankee farm club in Binghamton. That was when the Yankees had a farm system that developed so many good players that …. But I digress again.

I’m thinking about the De Soto and the Henry J because of the news about  discontinuing the Pontiac line. The layoffs and the impact on ancillary businesses and industries will be murder, but a decision like this is a reminder that one thing healing the economy should not be about is preserving business models and government practices that contributed to the false prosperity that recently collapsed around our heads. Over-production and over-expansion were among the wrongheaded practices, and the goal should not be to get back to making those mistakes. I don’t have such fond memories of the Pontiac anyway. The only one I ever drove was a ’56 that my brother let me borrow for a date. The driver’s side door wouldn’t open from the inside. Every time I wanted to get out, I had to roll down the window and reach the outside door handle. Naturally, it rained that night, so I spent the date with a drenched left arm. Fortunately, I’m right handed.

 

Corvair

Corvair

The New York Times reports today on a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showing that drivers who opt for minicars increase the chance of injury in a collision. To reinforce and quantify what we already knew through common sense, the institute conducted tests in which mincars collided with mid-sized cars while both cars were traveling at 40 mph. The laws of physics being the stubborn things they are, the midsized cars sustained much less damage.

This information will have as much impact on me as the known hazards of tobacco have on inveterate smokers. When Pat and I got married, she had a 1962 Corvair that looked a lot like the ’63 model in the photo above and I had a ’61 Volkwagen Beetle. We drove a lot of full-size and mid-size cars after that, but I always preferred the smaller models, and the more manual gears the car has, the better I like it. You can’t beat the small car in almost any situation except street racing, and I got that out of my system a long time ago. Now, we have a Chrysler that I drive only when I have to and a 1999 blue Beetle with 165,000 miles that I would marry if I were a single man.

The Times reported some questions raised about the institute’s study – for instance, that the collisions were head-on, which is relatively unusual. The institute had two recommendations: reduce speed limits and reduce horsepower. Neither one will fly, and that’s because there are so many self-absorbed, self-important drivers who prove their superiority over the rest of us by behaving irresponsibly while they’re on the road. They live for the weight and power. The vehicles, after all, don’t cause the accidents. 

All of which reminds me of The Playmates’ 1958 hit, of which these were the last two stanzas:

THE PLAYMATES

THE PLAYMATES

 

 

Now we were doing a hundred and ten
This certainly was a race
For a Rambler to pass a Caddy
Would be a big disgrace
The guy musta wanted to pass me up
As he kept on tooting his horn (beep beep)
I’ll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn
Beep beep beep beep
His horn went beep beep beep

[Very quickly]
Now we’re going a hundred twenty
As fast as I can go
The Rambler pulled along side of me
As if we were going slow
The fella rolled down his window
And yelled for me to hear
“Hey buddy how do I get this car outa second gear?”

Living on the edge

February 26, 2009

beetleI hate when this happens. I got in the Beetle Tuesday morning, and it wouldn’t start. It had the death rattle. Dan, the incomparable auto repair guy, said it sounded like a dead battery, so I had AAA lug it over there on a flatbed. The AAA driver jump started the bug before he took it away, so I had some assurance that it would live to fight another day. Dan had it overnight and came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with it. The battery is still good, even after a few “stress tests.” The alternator is functioning properly. The wheels turn in circles as Nature intended. Aside from the faded flower in the bud vase, there is nothing wrong. Good news, right? Except that the battery was dead on Tuesday morning for no apparent reason, so now I live in constant fear that it will be again be dead for no reason – and not in front of my house but, say, tonight, when I get done teaching my class in Passaic. Passaic, for the love of Pete!

I once had a Rambler that would just stop running, perhaps when I was in the middle lane doing 55. I’d coast over to the side of the road, get a ride home, and send Wayne the Mechanic out to get it. Wayne would get in and turn the key, and the car would start. “Mr. Paolino, I can’t fix it if it isn’t broken.” Yeah, I studied logic in college, too. But I drove that Rambler with my heart in my throat, because I never knew when it would stop running.

Maybe I’m missing the thrill inherent in such experiences. After all, if it weren’t for that battery, tonight would be just another night in class. Instead, I’ll be in a state of anxiety all night and, if I go out into that dark parking lot – in Passaic, for Pete’s sake – and the car does start, that’ll be more enlivening than the usual trip home. Maybe that’s what Winston Churchill was talking about when he said, “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”