Columnist Froma Harrop opines that the US auto industry needs to bring back the American love affair with cars if they are to survive.
A car isn’t like a refrigerator. You buy a fridge, and if the appliance works, it quickly fades into the wallpaper. A car is your steed and daily companion. It develops a personality, even if only in your head.
And what kind of personality has Detroit offered in recent decades? Often not a pleasing one. A half-century has passed since ads promoted the 1957 Chevy Bel Air as “Kitten-Quiet and Cream-Smooth.” Gone are the automotive hymns of the ’60s — the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” or Jan and Dean’s “Surf City.” Would Bruce Springsteen ever serenade an SUV (or its owner) as he did the pastel Caddy in his 1984 rockabilly song “Pink Cadillac”?
I grew up at the end of the “car-guy” era. I romanticized vehicles, tinkered endlessly with them, even named a few. So I feel qualified to say that this period of Americana has passed. No amount of Detroit marketing will bring that back. Sure, they can sell new vintage style Mustangs to us aging motor heads. There’s a niche in which to sell Cadillac CTSs and BMWs to image conscious businessmen. But nostalgia and marketing to mid-life crises won’t save the industry.
The reality is that for the most part, cars today are refrigerators. They are utilitarian machines. They lost their personality when they ceased to be fickle mistresses who required just the right touch to make them purr. In a sense, they are victims of their own success. You just get in them now, turn the key, and they go. There is no carburetor to tweak, no timing to adjust, pretty much no anything that a mechanically inclined guy can do to make his car perform just so. They are increasingly sealed systems with their own control systems. You just swap out parts when they fail. Yes, they require maintenance, but it’s a do-job now.
Romance is about trying to load the dice. It’s about putting in effort when you don’t know the outcome. It requires the possibility of getting something beyond your expectations. Cars today don’t really provide that. They just work. And while the memories of those uncertain days make for good stories for the kids, it’s hard to really want to go back to that level of randomness in my daily transportation.
The reality is that this product maturity curve is seen over and over with all manner of complex consumer goods. There was a time when stereos, computers, and other devices required that geeky touch to make them work just so. But as time goes by, the products mature and reach a point where they just work. It’s hard to think that’s a bad thing.
If the US auto industry is guilty of something, it’s not that it let the romance die. It’s that it failed to realize that the bloom was inevitably coming off that rose. The Japanese recognized this early on. Back in the 1970’s they took abuse for producing generic reliable transportation. But who’s laughing now? While it’s fun to reminisce about the heady roller coaster ride of emotion that consumes the early days of any relationship, most of us ultimately strive for relationships based on stability, trust, and reliability. In this regard, Detroit missed the boat. And pining for the past won’t save them.