Monday, June 01, 2009

General Motors

This was my first car: my dad's old 1984 Cadillac Eldorado, silver hardtop with red leather interior. You read that correctly: red leather. (This picture is just one I found on the web, but our car looked exactly like this.) I remember the midsummer day when we drove down to the Potemkin dealership in New York City. My dad spent a few hours working out the transaction. My brother and I passed the time sitting in all the Cadillac models in the showroom, messing with the windows and knobs.

My dad bought this car during his period of automotive nationalism, when he strongly believed that all Americans should buy American cars. We bought two Caprice Classic station wagons in a row during this period. Much of my childhood was spent hanging out in the back of those station wagons, sleeping, reading, listening to a Walkman, staring out at the scenery in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island.

When I first sat in the driver's seat of the Eldorado, I couldn't imagine ever being able to actually steer the thing. The hood seemed to run on for miles. The first few times I drove the car, I would steer by using the hood ornament as a target that I would aim where I wanted to go, since the absurdly long hood made it hard to actually see the road. Luckily, the Eldorado handled like an aircraft carrier. Everything was soft and plush: the brake pedal, the steering wheel, and especially the hydraulic car leveling system.

The Eldorado met its end flying off an icy road into a telephone pole in the winter of 1992. Middle Brother Octopus was at the wheel, and luckily was unhurt. But before the end, the Eldorado was a vehicle for fantastic memories: eating Pop Tarts and shaving with an electric razor as I rolled into our prep school in Connecticut blasting Public Enemy and EPMD while Middle Brother Octopus slept under a blanket on the massive back seat, tearing down dark streets in Manchester, South Windsor, and Glastonbury trying to get home before my 11 p.m curfew, driving up to a mountain in Vermont, which I climbed with a friend, and the name of which I've forgotten, and could never find again.

The American auto industry as we knew it is over. It'll continue, but it likely will never be the same industry we all grew up with.

I loved that Eldorado, and I still like American cars. The 2003 Dodge Intrepid I'm still driving has to be one of the most reliable and comfortable cars I've ever had, even now at over 110,000 miles. I know it's past time to let go of car culture as we've known it in America. But today, for me, is a day to remember American cars we've all loved. I know it's stupid and sentimental, but I grew up largely in American cars, and for much of my childhood I buckled a seat belt with that blue GM logo across my lap. Some dumb part of me, the same infantile part that pledged loyalty to the Mets in 1985, still feels that if I do buy a car, it should be American -- though what it means to "buy American" is not such an easy question these days.

I had an American childhood, and was driven through that childhood in gigantic American cars. Those cars will always be with me.


NRao said...

I love this post. I feel the same way about my dad's '79 Buick Electra (AKA "The Plushmobile"). That thing was like a tank, and it saved our lives when we got in a really bad accident once. And of course, in desi dad fashion, my dad put my name on the license plate, hahaha!

Anonymous said...

I am very touched by this post.


MK said...

You know, I can't really get sentimental about GM's deminse.

My dad's first car also had a "GM" logo. But it wasn't an American car. It was a bright orange German-built 1978 Opel Kadett C Caravan 1.6. (The car shared the same basic platform and design with the Chevrolet Chevette of those years.) We later moved on to Volvo, Audi and BMW.

Opel in many ways embodies everything that is wrong with GM and with the US car industry as a whole - from totally amoral business practices, to milking the government, to resisting innovation, to just plain stupidity.

GM bought Opel in 1929 or thereabouts. They happily produced trucks and armored vehicles, and later parts for torpedoes and other armaments, for the Wehrmacht, thus earning GM a handy profit from the buildup of the Nazi war machinery. Some 20% of its wartime employees were forced laborers. One of GM's US managers who was in charge of Opel received decorations as early as 1938 from Hitler for his support of the Nazi effort. In 1942, when it became difficult to transfer Opel profits to the US via Switzerland, GM then wrote off Opel from its US tax returns as "property in enemy possession". Then, after the war, GM billed the US for millions in "reparations" for damage suffered at its Rüsselsheim factory from allied bombing raids.

You'll recall how, ever since the oil crisis, GM in the US spent millions on lobbying against any sort of fuel standards, let alone Pigovian taxes on fuel consumption, arguing that it would limit consumer choice and stifle innovation. Of course, the opposite is true. In Germany there is a hefty fuel tax, pluss an annual vehicle tax determined by the displacement of your engine, both of which incentivize consumers to buy more efficient smaller cars and which push manufacturers to become more efficient and creative at making them. So where have GM's best designs of recent vintage come from? Not Detroit. They came from Opel. The entire current Saturn lineup (except the SUV) is from Opel. The Pontiac Solstice is an Opel, the Cadillac CTS is an Opel, the current Chevy Malibu is an Opel.

In the wake of the GM bankruptcy, Opel, with all of its patents and its design team, is now being sold to an Austro-Canadian company.

Sorry, as much as I liked those old Cadillacs with the huge fins (and that was before I knew how poorly they handle), I just can't really shed any tears for such a stupid company.