Archive for Sunday, March 1, 2009

For trucks and automakers, it’s survival of the fittest

March 1, 2009


I bought my truck in 1987, back when men wore powdered wigs and wrote sonnets to their paramours with quill pens. Old Blue featured an antiquated device known as a clutch: a shaft protruded from the floor for shifting gears. Old Blue had no air-conditioning. The windows were raised and lowered by hand. It had no computer. It was not what you’d call “high tech.”

One of the key engine parts was an arcane mechanism known as a “carburetor.” Mechanics today who know how to service them are artifacts themselves, like coopers, tinkers, or blacksmiths, craftsmen who practice arts of a bygone age.

I would have kept the truck forever had it not fallen into the hands of my teenage sons, who used it to train for careers in the demolition derby field. Since it had four-wheel drive, they thought it could be driven over chasms and through boulder fields. After they were through with it, it ran like a bucking bronco on the two good cylinders that remained out of the original eight.

Wind whistled through the driver’s door, which was rendered permanently ajar after it met an immovable object when the vehicle was in reverse. The truck’s body was eaten away by rust, the original majestic blue faded to lifeless gray. Other drivers gave me a wide berth when they saw Old Blue a-coming. They probably suspected that the driver was a rural outlaw married to his 12-year-old cousin, supporting himself by operating a meth lab and hosting dog and cock fights.

Anyway, the truck was no longer safe to drive. Lured by prodigal rebates and other incentives offered by its maker in Detroit, I reluctantly bought a new one. My test drive was a shock comparable to Early Man’s first outing in a horseless carriage. As the salesman put it, “Trucks aren’t the same today.” Its instrument panel was like a commercial jet’s. I counted no less than 80 electronic buttons on the steering wheel, the doors, the rear-view mirror, the ceiling and the dash. It was a tribute to our culture’s infatuation with gadgetry.

The salesman pressed a button on the rear-view mirror. I heard the sound of a phone dialing. A pleasant female voice answered and greeted me, “Hello, Mr. Gurley. How do you like your new truck?” I had the sense that she was watching me. The salesman explained that the truck had its own cell phone connected to a satellite which could diagnose engine problems from outer space. If I had a wreck and was lying unconscious in a ditch, a signal would beam my precise location and help would be on the way.

If someone stole the truck, its whereabouts would be electronically traced and the truck would be automatically disabled. It was delightful to imagine the thief, making his getaway, pursued by the cops, when the truck decelerated from 90 to zero, however violently he stomped the gas pedal to the floor.

Technology is awesome, but creepy. Does someone in a vast computer center begin tracking me every time I start the engine? Driving home from the dealer’s, I was curious about the mileage. But I was afraid I’d push the ejection seat button rather than the odometer button, so I left the buttons alone.

Some years ago when I was working for the Kansas City Star, I drove my Honda into the parking lot of an American automobile manufacturer. I wasn’t more than a minute into my interview with a union official when there was a furious banging on the door. “Get that import out of our parking lot,” a deranged voice yelled. I had failed to observe a large billboard warning me of displeasure aroused by the sight of Japanese autos in the vicinity. Mortified, I left the office and removed the offending vehicle. But I couldn’t help thinking that this was an unfriendly way to treat visitors, a strange approach to winning customers, and an ineffective way of dealing with competition.

Now the Detroit automakers, no longer referred to as the “Big” Three, are hemorrhaging money, facing bankruptcy and holding their hands out for alms. Inept management, noncompetitive labor costs, perverse government regulations and the brutal recession share the blame. My new truck is a marvel, but it may represent an endangered species, like a dinosaur that sprouted superfluous horns. It won’t be of much use when we run out of gas. But maybe technology will save us and someday we’ll be able to travel by converting our bodies to beams of light.

Life is a struggle for survival — for machines as well as living creatures. Think of all the buggy makers who were put out of business by automobiles. Think of Hudson, Studebaker, Packard, Dusenberg, Bugatti, Kaiser, Frazier, Nash — once legends, now gone the way of the dodo bird. Did their stockholders and managements cry out for a bailout when they were on the brink? Or did Americans back then accept the law of the jungle? Yes, trucks have changed. We have too, it seems.

— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


Chris Ogle 9 years, 3 months ago

After finishing the tests at my last Doctor visit, I asked the nurse where I bail out (pay). She just stared at me in disgust.... then said " Sorry sir, no bail-outs here... you have to pay your bill" Yes, trucks have changed. We have too, it seems

George Lippencott 9 years, 3 months ago

Yes, Mr. Gurley, the good old days were fantastic! I too was raised on the notion of personal responsibility and earned consequences. Be nice if I could still be a “true believer”.

Let the “market” decide. Sink or swim based on your own efforts and dedication. Ah, but where is the market? Is the auto industry in the US truly a market as defined in the “Wealth of Nations”? We have collectively inserted ourselves into the “market” with health, safety, environmental and tax (to name a few) requirements levied on our businesses. The rest of the world is less demanding (or at least demanding in a different way). It is amazing that we have been able to compete at all.

Our economy today is in reality a complicated mix of government and private elements that belies easy definition. It is not a “true “market”! As I recall, the auto executives quite actively in some cases, passively in others, resisted all these demands. How in good conscience can we hold people accountable when we have denied them the authority to manage their own affairs in the name of the “common good”?

It sure makes it simple to lay the current problems on the auto executives or the banking executives or whoever. They sure are bumbling idiots. Of course, the real problem, as is so often the case today, is in the mirror.

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