Death of an American love affair
See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet. America is asking you to call. Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A. America’s the greatest land of all.”
Fifty years ago, those words, set to music each week on NBC’s “The Dinah Shore Show,” reflected an America and an automobile industry that are no more. That time and that industry were laid to rest last week when General Motors filed for bankruptcy and the government effectively nationalized GM and Chrysler after wasting billions of our tax dollars on a failed bailout.
Despite disclaimers from President Obama that the government doesn’t want to be in the car business, it is hard to see what it has bought with our tax dollars other than two of what used to be known as the “Big Three.” Government by default or determination will choose the types of cars the companies it owns will make. Government will buy a lot of them because not enough customers will, unless they are made offers they can’t refuse, not by a car salesman in a loud sport coat, but by a government bureaucrat in a suit.
It’s difficult to let go of an American dream. When I was growing up, every kid wanted to drive his own car. Our frugal parents (who had just one car) would let us drive theirs, but with restrictions, including a set time to bring the car back in the same pristine condition in which we found it.
A car was a rite of passage. It conveyed independence and status. Each September, we salivated at the prospect of new models. There always was a big buildup, and we would go to the Chevy (or Ford) dealer early on the morning the new models were introduced. Sometimes they would be covered with sheets, and a dramatic unveiling would take place. TV commercials would show parts of new models in a kind of striptease before their debut.
Some think the models between 1955 and 1959, especially the 1957 Chevy Bel Air and the 1958 Impala, are unsurpassed, though Ford devotees have their Mustangs and T-Birds. Pontiac’s GTO (cue the Beach Boys) and some Dodge and Plymouth models also were great.
Chrysler had the Imperial, which resembled a boat with running lights, and the New Yorker for “old rich people.” Then there was the one beyond our reach but not beyond our dreams: the Cadillac. The song “Pink Cadillac” became a hit, in part because we saw Elvis in one.
America’s relationship with its cars has rightly been called a love affair. Though some have tried to replicate the smell of a new car in spray cans, there is nothing quite like the feeling of sinking into new faux leather and, later, if you could afford it, the real thing.
Many, if not all, of those thrills will be gone, thanks to greed by the unions, government overregulation and bad management. The customers, who once were always right, have been cheated.
All one has to do is look at government-made cars to see they are about as attractive as government art, government architecture or many other things government does poorly. The Skoda had its own jokes when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia made it (they’re nice now, thanks to free-market capitalism): “How much is a Skoda worth with a full tank of gas?” Answer: “Twice as much.” East Germany’s Trabant, a major polluter, was little more than a two-cycle engine encased in the thinnest veneer, and the old Soviet cars were about as appealing as a Siberian winter. These are the kinds of cars governments have produced.
Mr. Obama says all of those laid-off autoworkers will have to “sacrifice” for the sake of their children and grandchildren. So much for their American dream. If a Republican president had said that, he would have been denounced as insensitive and uncaring.
“On a highway, or a road along the levee” “Performance is sweeter” “Nothing can beat her” “Life is completer in a Chevy.” Not anymore. “Bye-bye Miss American Pie; drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.”
This is the day GM died.
Cal Thomas is nationally syndicated columnist.