Circa 1980 found me employed by a Buick dealership, where one of my duties was to try to breathe some life into these vehicles before a customer would arrive to take delivery.
The cars would buck, lurch and misfire — step on the gas and nothing would happen, particularly when they were cold. So my assignment was to take them out on the interstate and “blow the carbon out of them” by exceeding posted speed limits to the point that the mills would be panting, but serviceable.
Drivers of a certain age will remember the word “hesitation,” which pretty much every American vehicle did when you mashed the throttle. Oil companies sold a grade of gasoline that pretended to fix this problem, but in truth there was no fuel volatile enough to inspire any kind of performance out of these sorry engines.
We were taught that this hesitation was normal, or else maybe the fault of emissions equipment forced on the automobile manufacturers by the government.
And for a while, we believed it. Then, as the ’70s progressed, Detroit was blindsided by a wave of Hondas, Datsuns and Toyotas, which didn’t hesitate or stall at the traffic light, and were fuel-efficient to boot.
Detroit had two options: It could build competitive automobiles or it could preach to us that we had a duty to “buy American,” no matter how inferior the product. It chose the latter.
It didn’t take long before even the most patriotic Americans were sick of American cars. Even Detroit got the message and began to build cars that were competitive with the world.
In recent years, even as more foreign-owned car companies have built their automobiles in the U.S., traditionally American cars have not only caught up, they have become world beaters.
Auto shows used to be grim reminders of how far behind we were. But in this year’s Washington, D.C., show, American cars were setting the standard. This is especially impressive because no one makes a bad car anymore. Hyundais and Kias can go toe-to-toe with Hondas and Toyotas. There might be a $20,000 difference between a Ford and a German exotic in price, but the difference in value between the two is nowhere near that much.
The Cadillac of the past and a Cadillac of today are two different cars. It didn’t take Chrysler a decade — it has done 10 years worth of improvement in two. Or less.
American car companies have remarkably enough stopped complaining about government fuel-mileage benchmarks, and are now sprinting ahead of the field. Ford had a beautiful midsize Fusion hybrid on display that, on its introduction this summer, will boast mileage in the mid-40s. By fall, it will come equipped with a gas/plug-in engine that will deliver the equivalent of 100 mpg. It also is working on a program that will combine a car with solar panels on your roof, meaning that you will be able to drive your car for free.
These changes — long the stuff of futuristic dreams on the pages of Popular Mechanics — are coming faster than you might realize. In the cities, you can already find charging stations at the neighborhood McDonald’s. Businesses that offer a top-off of electricity while you shop will have an advantage in attracting customers.
Many municipal parking garages already have charging stations, and Hagerstown would be smart to follow suit. Electric cars, as of today, sell for a premium. But imagine being able to “fill up” at any power outlet for something on the order of $1.50 — so the etiquette of staying overnight with the grandparents and refueling on their dime might not be as severe as it would seem.
It is, perhaps, a logic-defying sign of the times that the American automobile industry would also suddenly find itself at the heart of a partisan political debate, sparked by, of all things, a Super Bowl commercial.
In the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an all-but-defunct American industry rises from the ashes to become the standard bearer of the world. But we can’t even enjoy a clear-cut American win without someone crying foul because this win disproves his own political philosophy.
Fortunately, all Americans will be able to vote, not at the polls but at car dealerships across the land. And therein lies the real lesson: If our industries can produce innovative, home grown, high-quality products built by American workers, we have nothing to fear from the Chinese, or anyone else.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.