Found On Road Dead: A rant about vehicular attitudes

You know how the right wing hates France? There was a time decades back when something really bad happened with Japan, and the right wing decided to extra-hate Japan. The right wing has always hated Japan and does now, but this was a nadir in this touchy relationship having to do with cars. Just at this time, we (the archeology team I was with) had a large contract that included expansive suburban neighborhoods. As we wandered between streets and rights-of-way behind people's homes, avoiding dogs and angry landowners who never check the junk that comes with their utility bills warning them that archaeologists would be poking around in their yards, we observed something interesting and disturbing.

At each home where (I assume) the owner possessed a Japanese car, someone had used chalk to write terrible, offensive, racist slogans on their driveway or in front of their house. "Jap Lover" or "Toyota lives here," along with some threat or another, for example. They drew pictures of slanty eyed stick figures. And so on.

In certain remote, politically conservative or Union-friendly places in Minnesota, where there are long stretches of curvy roads and it is impossible to pass another car, local yahoos driving Ford or Dodge trucks will pull out in front of Foreign cars (like mine) and drive extra slow just to annoy us. Or, if they are behind, they tailgate. I know some contractors who need to use only US built trucks because their subcontractors or others will not like them if they purchase the Toyotas that that KNOW are superior. You are not considered to be a good American if you drive anything other than an American car.

Me? I bucked that trend a long time ago. It was not an act of radicalism when my first car was German. And my second car. And my third car was Japanese. And my fifth car was a Japanese truck. And my sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth car ... the one that is sitting in the driveway right now, and that I got two days ago ... were all Japanese but one, which was a Volvo.

No, these were acts of selfless patriotism.

Why? Well, actually, much of the time, I didn't have much choice and ending up with one car or another was an act of desperation mixed with certain (good or bad) luck. For me (see the other essay I'm writing about this, when its done) my choices in which car I've actually owned has not been entirely mine. But where I have had some influence, I've always encouraged the purchase of a good car, the best car for the circumstances that one can afford. Since most American cars totally suck, this usually means a foreign model.

And that, my friends, is the American way. That, my friends, is not being a socialist. That, my friends, is not giving big corporations welfare. That, my friends, is allowing market forces to optimize the economy.

And it hasn't worked at all. My intention was to force the American car industry to make better cars, more efficient cars, safer cars. Overall, more excellent cars. And this would have worked had it not been, my friends, for the preponderance of jingoistic Right Wing Morons busy buying Buicks, Chevies, Fords, and GM's no matter how much they sucked, and thus swamping out my patriotic efforts.

You all know what I'm talking about: The US car industry has relied, in no small part, on the fact that a certain none-too-small percentage of Americans would by American cars no matter how much they sucked. They did not need trade sanctions, they did not need protectionist policies, they did not need tariffs, they did not need subsidies, they did not need tax breaks, to obtain and retain this part of their customer base. Sure, they got all these things. But the American auto industry did not need these things to maintain the loyalty of a bunch of jingoistic red-blooded 'Mercans driving shit and not caring.

(It astounds me that these 'Mercans drive Fords. Ford owns Volvo, and Volvo is clearly a terrorist car company. A double standard, I guess.)

But this has ended, hasn't it? Yes, gas prices are 'back down' so people will start acting like gas prices will never go up. People will go out and buy the gas guzzler, or move farther out into the suburbs, and so on. But that is no longer important. The fact that a large percentage of American car buyers will go right back to purchasing trucks they don't need that get 8 miles per gallon is not important, because the big American car companies have gotten too badly burned. The preferential buying patterns are swamped by the magnitude of fluctuation in fuel prices that will be part of the Post Bush/Rove world. Gasoline prices will fluctuate from now on in a way that will drive consumer activity in a way that overcomes the jingoistic knee jerks of the jerky-kneed jingoists. The base is no longer to be relied on. Now, possibly too late, the car companies have to adjust to actual reality rather than politically constructed reality.

We bought a used Forester the other day from a Subaru dealership. This was the day after the big players in Detroit announced losses of 40 and 30 percent. I asked the guy at the dealership how Subaru is doing.

"Oh, we're only 10-20 percent down, except Foresters. Forester sales are way up."


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another thing that kills me is that these people don't realize there really is no such thing as an american car anymore. most are at least partially constructed overseas (my dodge neon has a mitsubishi engine in it). and many so-called foreign vehicles are made here in the u.s.

people need to wake up and realize that we are part of an international economy, whether they like it or not.

car2: Yea, I didn't go into that at all, though I was prepared to.

Subaru does, by the way, make a car that is 100% us and union built, I think. And the CEO of Subaru makes about the same as Joe the Plumber (plus or minus). Or at least a lot less than the CEO of Ford does.

I used to be a buy American guy. My first car was a Ford then a Chevy then a Mercury. Then I went German and have never looked back. But my next car will probably be GM because the end of year rebates are so ridiculously good. I owned a series of musclecars so I'm one of those guys. But I have no sympathy for the US automakers. I remember the energy crisis of the 70s, the Iran oil crisis. US makers have had over thirty years to get their act together and they did nada. Eventually you have to conclude they are just morons and move on to a car which is better built and gets decent mileage.
The Volt will be an interesting experiment but I'm afraid the cost, $35,000 is going to price out exactly those people who need the care the most. Lets think...$25,000 for a Toyota that gets 45mpg or $35,000 for a Chevy which gets 50mpg beyond the first 50 miles, otherwise uses no gas at all for the first 50 miles. Hmm...what was that price difference again?

This brings to mind an interview with the president of the Canadian Auto Workers that I heard a few months ago (for those who do not know, the major manufacturers of cars in Canada are Ford, GM and Chrysler). The union guy was lamenting the fact that the car companies were in trouble because the gas prices were so high, and customers did not want to buy the gas guzzlers that their plants were making. The car companies apparently had no choice about that - they were "forced" to make the gas guzzlers because those were the cars with the best profit margin.

I'd love to buy a US made vehicle... if they could design them like the cars I like (e.g. VW, Audi, Mazda, Subaru, etc.)
Of course we could build them- our workers are more than capable of building quality cars.
US companies just won't design & market them: cuts in to their profit margin and reduces executive bonuses.

If you want to know where your car was built, check the first digit of the serial number. If it starts with a "1" or a "4" the final assy point is in the U.S. If it starts with a "2" it was made in Canada, and if it starts with a "3" it was made in Mexico. (Aside to Sarah Palin: Those are the countries in NAFTA.) "J" is for Japan, "K" is for South Korea, "W" is Germany, and I haven't got the straight dope on other country's mfr codes memorized.

Chances are if you drive a Toyota, a Honda, a Mazda or a Mitsubishi, it will start with a "4" or gas, becuase of the number of plants in the United States that partner between the U.S. and Japanese mfrs. Ford at one time owned 40% of Mazda, they owned Jaguar unil a recent sell-off and yes, they are still saddled with Socialist Volvo's.

Toyota saved the Fremont, California plant in the 1980's by partnering with GM to make Nova's, then later Geo's and Corollas. Asian immigrants wanted Toyota's and other Americans wanted the Geo's cause they were cute.

I was once at a Mazda dealer in Eau Claire and they had a poster on the wall that illustrated the content of American parts and import parts for the various car lines. The "import cars" on average used more domestic parts than the "domestic cars." I try to explain this to union guys, but they get mad at me, and say "But yes, the profits on import cars are going overseas." And I respond "But the wages are staying here."

Theo is right, too. The American manucturers obviously know how to make the right kind of cars. They sell in countries where taxes and fuel costs set the market. The trucks have huge profit margins, it's true. But I don't understand how a greater margin benefits the company when a unit doesn't sell.

When the Manufacturers go hat in hand to Congress this week, think about all this. They want us to bail them out because they couldn't find a way to sell seal meat to the Inuit. They were trying to sell them refrigerators, instead.

Chrysler tries to sell cars here in sweden but i haven't seen one on the roads

My husband worked fo ten years at a Toyota plant in California. Here's how they handle a sales slow-down:
First, all contractors in the plant are cut and assembly line workers take their place (no pay cut).
Next, all execs and senior managers take a ten percent pay cut.
If sales haven't picked up, then and only then are layoffs of line workers begun. (Hasn't happened since that plant closed by GM was re-opened by Toyota in 1992.)
I'd like to see an "American" manufacturer go to such lengths to protect the line workers.

By Beauzeaux (not verified) on 09 Nov 2008 #permalink

As far as American cars go, I'd recommend Saturns based on my experience (drove one for around a year and we were very satisfied with it, then walked away from rolling it, which I think is a pretty good comment on their safety features). Of course, that's the sedans...

I'm currently driving Flagella, my '97 Saturn SL1. Flagella has been an amazingly good 'merican car. I've put about a quarter-million miles on it since we picked it up used in 2000, but she still gets 33-37mpg (occasionally over 40mpg with the right combination of fuel and driving conditions - the "summer blend" fuels and/or ethanol-diluted fuels seem to drop the efficiency down to the ~33-34mpg range). The only real problem I've had is the interior plastic getting brittle and breaking.
Unfortunately, I've heard that GM has since decided to "standardize" their manufacturing...and have therefore infected the Saturn® line with the well-known GM Suckiness.
Other than that, though, I have to agree - I don't really think "American" when I ponder who makes decent automobiles. I blame Marketing being allowed to overrule the engineers...

Beauzeaux, that's fascinating about the labor policies at the Toyota plant. I had no idea.

It astounds me that these 'Mercans drive Fords. Ford owns Volvo, and Volvo is clearly a terrorist car company.

And GM owns Saab - a more elitist car you will not find. Naturally they brag about Saab gas mileage (without mentioning the brand) for their advertising, as in "GM makes x number of cars that get over 30 mpg!" (They also own a piece of Subaru)

It isn't all a right/left thing though. At least one right-winger on my blogroll totally agrees with you that sucky car companies should meet their merciless fate in the market.

I've owned mostly American cars, but I'm very unAmerican, according to the ads at least, because I drive my cars into the ground before I replace them. The whole "trade-in" phenomenon means nothing to me - by the time I'm ready for a new one, I'm lucky to get $200 from the junkyard. And don't even get me started on leasing. Right now I have a '95 Pontiac with almost 150k miles and an '01 Mazda minivan with close to 70k that I hope lasts several more years.

We have a similar problem in Australia - the big "local" carmaker - Holden (actually a subsiduary of GM) is venerated by Aussies, but the cars are frankly rubbish. When buying a new car in Oz rational consumers by Japanese, as they offer better quality at a lower price. Having driven a few Holdens as hire cars, when looking to buy a new one I went nowhere near their garages...

There's a car called the Flagella? Is that like the mecium? I used to have a pair of them....

There's these "buy american" commercials that keep airing here in Kansas. This old white guy goes, "Japanese car? Who wants to see a farmer wearing a kimono?!" so he stands next to a tractor wearing a pink kimono. In other words, driving japanese cars makes you a chink. A bitch chink. Stay classy, America. He might as well have complained about fortune cookies falling out of his glove department, Racist bastards. Yes I know that's Chinese Actually it's not even that, that's an American-invented phenomenon), but I doubt he knows that; and that's the point. Anybody with even a quarter of an education of contemporary Japanese culture knows that they haven't worn kimonos themselves in decades. Kimonos are quaint, old-fashioned, out-of-date, to Japanese people. Their fashion trends are even wackier and shorter-lived than ours.

The ultimate irony of that racist commercial is that the technology of Japanese infrastructure is way ahead of ours. Computerized, magnetic bullet-trains, much better cell phones and other devices, cranes that don't fall down everywhere and kill people, you name it.

Tragically (but not surprising), these "buy American" folks don't even treat each other well in spite of having this crap in common. Last year a group of union electricians (and the local union here is big on Buy American) were working at the GM plant. Such is the culture of union laborers and electricians that if you don't use an American car, it's going to get its tires slashed, doors keyed, and sideview mirrors broken. Yet the GM assholes forbade the electricians from eating on their lunch tables, and forced them to eat on the ground, where trash is piling up. GM's hierarchy is quite classist.

And why are American cars at least $5,000 more expensive and 500% shittier? So that the car manufacturer good-ol'-boys can keep their retirement plans.

<sarcasm>Yup, they sure do have the best interests of America in mind. </sarcasm>

I have never met a single "buy american" moron understand that as long as we're an import economy (and we always will be), an emphasis on buying products constructed in America does little to no good to ebb inflation or increase quality. All those semi-truck trailers and ship containers? We buy 'em right from China by the shipload. We don't have the natural resources for this bullshit, people. On top of that, companies can always outsource labor across American borders, and frankly they're right to when American workers refuse to get shit built.

The hypocrisy of it all is that the basis of Unions, that an increase in quality of products made by laborors should result in a reward for the laborer and not just the consumer, is exactly what we need. But this "buy american" meme we have going around is in clear violation of that principle. If we let migrant workers into our unions and encouraged them to be part of our labor system in a collaborative system of support, it would greatly eliminate the perceived harm that is done to America by job outsourcing. If companies/stores were allowed to use aliens (illegal or not), but be forced to pay them the same living wages as American workers, the incentive for hiring illegal aliens in the first place is nullified. To do this, we need to get them into our unions.

But no. We're too fucking "proud to be American" racists for that.

As has been pointed out, US makers have Europeans arms already making good MPG cars which are not imported into the US or produced here. It's true that entire factories would have to be retooled for production of said cars, but if the Japanese can produce cars in the USA for export you would think we could produce cars for local sale and export to Mexico and South America. There's nothing wrong with the workers, it's the management which sucks.

And the marketing is a big part of this. EG: Suburu makes a diesel Forester that gets something over 50 mpg. It is a 2 litre car ans is very popular in Europe, and it is even made in Europe, I think. Thy are coming out with a US version of this but it will have to be a 2.5 liter because american's won't buy a 2 liter anything. The mileage will suffer, of course.

Related news: Volvo truck sales in Europe dropped by 99.7% in the last three months compared with last year.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 09 Nov 2008 #permalink

I second the wish for a hybrid Forester. Subaru really should start making hybrids since it fits their core demographic really really well. Anyway, for a vehicle to drive in rugged but not really 'off-road' terrain (dirt roads, mountains, ect), the AWD Subarus rock... and they don't suck in normal conditions.

On the manufacturing plants... I remember several years ago Toyota (I think) was looking to build a new assembly plant. A couple of deep south US states were offering all sorts of incentives like no property taxes that added up to many million $. Toyota ended up building the plant in Canada (with no incentives IIRC and a higher tax burden) because the cost of providing health-care for the workers was so much less.

The dealer told me that Subaru has no plans for a hybrid. I don't believe him. I think they know that if Subaru lovers knew a hybrid was coming within three years, that would change buying patterns a great deal.

I assume they are making one and it will be available in about three years. Thus, we got a used car that will last about three years. If I'm wrong, there's always the Prius.

VW has a diesel hybrid concept car that may not be so concept. They even tend to be tall enough for Ben. I'd just prefer a Forester. Of all the cars I've spent any time in, that one just feels the most right. I still miss ours.

If there's any chance of actually saving US automakers rather than just staving off the inevitable, we'd be better to put the bailout money into education. You can't design better cars when you have a country where everyone is either uneducated or in finance. We made the best cars in the world in the 50s and 60s because at that time we valued science, we invested in creating a generation of creative and talented engineers. Someone has to actually exist to design these better cars.

ahh, the giant american vs not-american cars issue. i actually am fairly into cars but i won't get too soapboxy around here. i'll just say that my husband was a mechanic for quite a while, and was insanely bored with the lack of troubleshooting and repairs required in his 3.x years at a toyota dealer shop. i told him maybe he should go work for ford instead, which got a laugh, then a dirty look.

we cheered when our last gm moneypit was hauled off to the junkyard, and have driven only toyota cars since. (one exception: a very old benz, out of necessity.)

Our present cars are a Ford Taurus (what we could afford to replace the Saturn at the time, with more reasonable gas prices and an expectation that we'd need the greater trunk and passenger compartment space that didn't exactly materialize) and a Toyota Corolla. The Toyota's only had to go into the shop when someone rear-ended it or a tire was punctured; the Ford has had ongoing electrical problems and we just replaced the starter for the second time in the three years we've driven it.

First off, I drive a Toyota. It's made in the US, and that's close enough for me. The Japanese know how to do it right.

The thing is, we do need native car companies for strategic reasons. But we can't just give them a bailout -- some kind of agreement on quality control and fuel economy is needed. I'd love to know what kind of criteria they'd use to figure that out, but one might be inclined to believe that the auto company brass wouldn't want to give up the profit margins on trucks.

Incidentally, I came up with a few expansions like you put in the headline, Greg:

Turned Off Your Overdrive Today, Ace?
Hacked Once, Never Defeated Again
Made Of Patches And Retreads

For ultimate hate-incurrment, I bought a Franco-Japanese car in August. OK, so I doubt it's on sale in the US, but if it is, it's the same as the Toyota Aygo. It's done nearly 100 miles so far and has just started its 3rd ever tank of gas. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha... And our evil socialist government gave me a 1000 dollar bonus for buying because it's ecologically friendly.

PS: I'm not using it as a city car, I live in a rural hilly area. For drivability, it has completely exceeded my expectations.

Curiously, the biggest selling car in Britain is a Ford. (NB. When it says 40mpg, that's 32 miles to a US gallon) I think they're manufactured in Valencia, Spain. But the point is, the big three can make useful, efficient vehicles, they just don't want to.

This is the Ayn Rand organization's take on "Buying American". While I don't wholly subscribe to everything mentioned in it, it's interesting.

How did this happen? Driving a Toyota makes you smart and inclusive and driving a Ford makes you a dumb-red-neck? The trade deficit with Japan is running more than $60 billion/year just in the auto sector. This country is quickly going bankrupt and it is still "en vogue" to own a foreign car and as much foreign merchandise as is possible. This nation became great because it manufactured everything and created a huge, prosperous middle-class. May the last man turn out the lights, it was fun while the american dream lasted.

Scott: I think the point here is that the American auto industry is free riding on American tendencies to try to do the 'right thing' by buying American even if a foreign product is better. Instead, the American auto industry should have been building a better car.

Perhaps there should not be an American auto industry at all.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 12 Nov 2008 #permalink

How did this happen? Driving a Toyota makes you smart and inclusive and driving a Ford makes you a dumb-red-neck? The trade deficit with Japan is running more than $60 billion/year just in the auto sector. This country is quickly going bankrupt and it is still "en vogue" to own a foreign car and as much foreign merchandise as is possible. This nation became great because it manufactured everything and created a huge, prosperous middle-class. May the last man turn out the lights, it was fun while the american dream lasted.

So what happened, mmm?

So what happened, mmm?

It turns out that socialism doesn't work. Socialism = "buy American even if it sucks"

For as long as I can remember, the only cars in my family - with the exception of my brother's - have been Chevrolet. Not because we're into the whole "buy American" thing, but just because we have built a successful, trusting relationship with a local car dealer that just happens to sell Chevies.

And they (the cars) have never given us any major problems.

What is my next car going to be? I don't know yet. If it has four wheels and gets me from Point A to Point B, and does so with above-average fuel efficiency, then that's all I need, and I don't care if it's American, Japanese, or Martian.