Saturday, June 9, 2007

The (not so) good old days

As is well known, all of the former "Big 3" domestic automakers are in trouble currently, losing money in spades, and possibly heading toward bankruptcy. Although the present tailspin began very recently with the runup in gasoling prices and falling sales of traditional SUVs, it's common knowledge that legions of former domestic car buyers have switched their loyalties to the so-called "import" automakers, especially Toyota and Honda, over the last three decades. These companies as well as Nissan, Hyundai, Mercedes, BMW, Mazda, and Mitsubishi have assembly plants here in the United States. Many of these companies build their engines and transmissions here as well, and stamp the body sheet metal.

We're all familiar with horror stories regarding the Big 3's lack of quality and reliability. Most seem to think the downturn in these areas started in the 1970s. However, there were problems well before that; for example in their April 1965 annual auto issue, Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, complained that their batch of mostly American cars selected for testing exhibited the poorest workmanship in a ten-year slide starting with the 1955 models.

In regard to build quality and reliability, we Americans tolerated a lot back in the 1960s before the imports could compete in the medium and large car field (unless you paid a king's ransom for a Mercedes, and even that was only "compact" size). This was before the often documented maladies of the 70s with the "Rube Goldberg" emissions controls that lowered gas mileage and made cars hard to start and keep running.

My mother's 1967 Chevy Bel Air 2-door sedan was rife with build quality issues, including numerous dents in the body work, a missing dome light bulb, and a driver door that scraped against the A-pillar trim when opened. There was also a "jingle bell" sound that some years later was discovered by my brother to be a loose bolt in the starter.

As for cheapness, granted we didn't have a mainstream Impala (pictured above in idealized splendor) or top-line Caprice, the trunk was totally devoid of any carpeting or trim -- all speckle-painted metal -- what was the point of the bottom of the line Biscayne?

I distinctly remember the automatic choke failing to shut off and the engine backfiring going up inclines within a couple of years of ownership. Rust started to bubble through the quarter panel behind the right rear wheel after just two Pittsburgh winters.

On a cross-country trip in 1971 (starting at 25,000 miles), the water pump failed on the way out and the alternator on the way back. Luckily back then, service stations still provided service; they weren't primarily gas, junk food, and cigarette outlets like today.

Detroit has mainly itself to blame for losing so many of its former loyalists. Let's hope the situation can be turned around, because competition is good for everyone.

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