Auf Wiedersehen Detroit: Axis Wins Car Wars

February 27, 2009

Originally published in The Washington Times
By R.B. Scott

The other day while General Motors was going bust, a virtual group of friends spouted off about when and how it all went wrong for American car manufacturers.  Three pivotal and  interlocked breakdowns stood out:  

1) Detroit’s failure to evolve and continue to produce increasingly refined iterations of the cars it manufactured between 1939 and, oh, 1956

2)  Detroit’s failure to respond to Volkswagen’s and Volvo’s success in the 1950s.  Chevy’s Corvair was a valiant attempt until Ralph Nader got it deemed it unsafe at any speed, never mind the horde equally vulnerable Volkswagens and Karman Ghias and Porsches buzzing around.   

3) Detroit’s failure to anticipate the success of 1967-68 Japanese invasion.

From Paris, ex-pat concert violinist and car buff Michael Appleman pointed accusing words at the smog control devices and 55 miles-per-hour speed limits imposed by the government in the early 1970s. 

“Detroit got even more complacent. Motors were producing less than half the horsepower they were in the 60's, but no one cared since Americans couldn't drive faster than 55 anyway. The upshot is Detroit started making crap like the Mustang II, the Pinto, the Vega which was ready to overheat and crack its block before it got out of the dealers lot.”

Scott Vanatter of Fairfax, Virginia provoked the discussion by inviting us to comment on Michael Moore’s obituary of GM.  The rant was soooo Michael Moore, that the conversation soon turned into our own little critical post mortem and memory fest. 

There was evidence aplenty that Americans are still madly in love with automobiles.  This should hearten executives Detroit.  However they should be summarily fired if  they are just now learning that practically no one under the age of 65 owns an American car these days. The exceptions do so grudgingly, or hold titles to cars built more than fifty years ago. 

With few exceptions, the American cars Americans really adore are the ones they fell in love with as teenagers -- the Fords, Chevys, Plymouths and Ramblers of the late 30s, 40s and early 50s, the classic coupes and solid wagons Volvo, Volkswagen and Toyota et al knocked off to capture dominant shares of the U.S. Market in the late 50s, 60s and 70s. 

No sooner had the conversation turned, than Vanatter sent off a vintage snapshot of himself, perched on the fender of his first true love, a 1956  2-Door (can you believe it?) Chevrolet station wagon. Notice its resemblance to the boxy, indestructible station wagons Volvo introduced to the U.S. a decade later.

From Chanchung, China, English teacher Ward Lynds recalled the ’49 Chevy with rusted- out floorboards that got him through some bitter New Brunswick winters.  Park Lynds’ ancient Chevy alongside a 1992 Infiniti J30 from Nissan you’ll spot the kinship telltales immediately.  Ditto American Motors little Nash Rambler of the 1950s and the 1967-68 Toyota Corona.  

Volvo is quite unabashed about its copycat coupes: “…by the autumn of 1944 the company had unveiled one of its most significant cars – the PV444. Volvo’s first "true" small car, its stylish design combined American flair with European size and it was an instant success. The PV444 and the PV544 would dominate Volvo production through to the mid 1960’s and be the first models to gain Volvo a slice of the important US market during the 1950’s."

Volkswagen, Volvo then Toyota  picked off Baby Boomers by offering efficient, well-designed smaller, tighter updates of the classic cars they had loved growing up. Detroit tried to razzle-dazzle them with bigger, faster, newer, and, most of all, expendable gas hogs.

Admitting he’s partial to pickups and Volvos (depending on whether he needs to haul shrubs or kids), Jim Picht, an economics professor at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, says “Americans wanted well-built and stylish. Detroit gave us boring. You can feel it. Just sitting in a Volvo is more pleasant than sitting in a Taurus.”

For a couple of years after it acquired the Volvo’s car division in 1999, Ford seemed to be determined to transform the V-70 into Taurus with a Volvo price tag.  Then it wisely backed off.  Unfortunately, Ford had its way Jaguar, producing a Taurus-sized Jag  that seriously undercut the allure of the brand.  

A few years back, Gail Porritt, who cut his driving teeth wheeling his mother’s ’61 Chevrolet Impala through the streets of Boise, Idaho, found himself in a Jag-Taurus . “It looked good, people said they assumed I was rich, but it wasn’t a very good car.” Then he latched on to a sensible 2005 Volvo S-60: “Probably the best car I’ve ever owned…but no one thinks I am rich any more.”  

Douglas Palmer a Federal Courts official in New York City brought up the issues of creature comforts and safety. “Were I ever to move to Outer Subtopia I cannot imagine skimping on a vehicle that I would trust to hurl me down the road through rain, snow and ice. I cannot imagine settling on anything Detroit is making.  Luckily for me and the environment, walking and public transport will do just fine for now.” 

Many spun yarns of true love for one car or another.  One of the better tales came from Steve Seither of Placerville, California, who prefers to tool around on his ‘92 Harley Davidson FXR but still schleps the family in a 1955 Cadillac he inherited from his father . “Back in 1985, dad was neighbors with a sweet older couple,” Seither recalls. “After her husband died, we looked after her.  One day she came over for a cook-out, noticed the Caddy in the garage, jumped at dad’s offer to take a spin around the block. 

A father bequeaths a 1955 powder-blue Cadillac to his son.  

“Oh, wow,” she exclaimed gleefully,’ as she peered inside. ‘I had forgotten just how roomy it was.”  As she slid onto the long, rear bench seat, she looked around in amazement, turned slightly, then flopped backward onto the seat.  “Oh, now I remember,” she sighed, giggling a little.