Saturday, April 04, 2009

A personal tale of bad ol' Detroit

There's an interesting article cataloging the automotive sins of the Big Three. In "10 Cars That Sank Detroit" author Rick Newman maps the road(s) to destruction of Chrysler, Ford, and GM starting from the 70's up to today.

I'd like to add a bit of personal history to that sorry saga. My dad was a GM buyer, going back to a second-hand black Chevy he purchased when I was about 3 (we're talking the 1950's here, folks). I distinctly remember standing up in front of the steering wheel in my dad's lap, with both hands on the wheel, while we drove ever so slowly in front of the apartment we lived in at the time. From that time forward we seemed to buy nothing but GM, mostly Pontiacs. During the 60's in particular we kept getting a new one every two years. I even purchased two used Chevy's, a dark blue '63 in 1971 and a gold '67 in 1972 when I totaled the '63. The only Detroit-built non-GM car we ever purchased was in 1970 when my dad got my mom a 1970 Ford Pinto with the bigger engine. It was white, and it was what my mom wanted at the time.

My dad would later buy a second-hand El Camino he used exclusively as a pick-up along with a new Olds 98 for general family transportation. But starting in the late 70's my parents began purchasing Datsun's, then Nissans, as family cars. I remember in particular the 260Z my dad got for my mom because she thought it was cute. After driving it for a while my mom then told my Dad she'd rather drive the Olds instead. When the Olds 98 was finally traded it was for a Datsun 510 hatchback for my mom, and then handed down to my baby sister. That was a workhorse vehicle that faithfully served the family for 13 years. Ever since, over the decades, my parents have owned Datsun/Nissan sedans of various types, trucks, and vans. But never another Detroit product.

In recent discussions with my dad he told me the reason he kept buying Pontiacs every two years was because they were "pieces of junk." I remember dad complaining about noises the cars made, the way little things wouldn't fit right on the car, and the poor service he kept getting when he would take the cars in (he became quite adept at servicing the cars, correctly, at home). The Ford Pinto seemed better than the GMs, but just barely; I remember the alternator bracket breaking, and dad having to go over to a parts store to get a spare and then of replacing it. It managed to survive family service for six years, but not without a lot of TLC at Beebe Motors. It was traded for the 260Z.

About my Chevy's; out of economic necessity I kept that 67 from 1972 to 1978, and wound up personally replacing nearly every part that could break on that car, usually more than once. The most failure-prone part on that car was the starter motor. It didn't matter if I purchased the starter as new or remanufactured, I could count on replacing it just about every 12-18 months. I remember distinctly one cold December night in 1976, in a parking garage at Lenox Square mall, the current starter finally failed to work. I'd had warnings it was failing and I had a new starter in a box in the trunk, but I hadn't replaced it soon enough. Nothing I could do that night would get the engine to turn over just one more time and get me home. So I grabbed my tools, my flashlight, and my new starter motor out of the trunk and crawled under the car to replace the old and busted starter motor. Fortunately replacing the starter motor was dead simple and I had prior experience, so the task took all of 15 minutes from start to finish, but that cold December night, lying under that car on ice-cold concrete I made a solemn oath I'd never again buy another GM product of any description.

In early 1978 I went with my dad to look at replacing the 67 Chevy with a new Ford. I'd read something about the Ford Fiesta, and decided I would get a new economy car. So we drove over to the dealership, walked onto the show room floor, and started looking at their Fiesta. I remember how the driver-side door flexed in my hand when I opened and closed it, and how thin the door looked. The door had the window rolled down so there was no extra stiffening provided rolled up glass. I wasn't particularly thrilled with the interior, either. Again, it looked real cheap and thin.

While I was looking with growing dismay at the Fiesta dad noticed a silver Honda Civic CVCC off to one side. He showed it to me and it was almost love at first sight. The styling was more rounded, and the build was more substantial. The little silver car exuded quality. Unfortunately it was a 5-speed stick, and I had no stick experience. No problem the salesman said. All he had to do was show me how to put it in gear to get it going, and everything else would come "naturally." It's a good thing it did, because I bought the car. I spent the rest of the day getting used to the stick, and by the end of the week I was driving it like I'd never driven anything but. The Silver Bullet (so named by my baby sister) went on to give me great trouble-free service for four years and 120,000 miles driving around Atlanta. It's only flaw was it had no air conditioning. I couldn't afford it at the time.

The common thread to all these memories was the two decades of poor product quality of GM and Ford vehicles. My two brothers and my sister have purchased nothing but Honda's and Nissans. With the exception of my oldest brother, who drove the Pinto for a time out of necessity, they never owned anything from Detroit, and they would never think of buying from Detroit. Rick Newman says that Detroit's problems started in the 70's. I'd say they started even earlier than that, at least with GM. Problems that were never really solved and that are going to kill GM (and Chrysler).

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