Sunday, October 19, 2008
My Town Monday: Detroit
In several ways, General Motors has dominated my life. My father worked for GM dealers for thirty years. All of our cars, growing up, were from GM. The first car I ever drove was my grandmother's '55 Chevy Bel Air, ten years old at the time.
This is exactly the model and it stalled every time I pulled out onto Upsal Street in Philadelphia. Now it is one of the all-time favorite models and these colors: gray and pink are favorites too. I still love to go the car museum at The Henry Ford and breath in its scent. Sometimes I wonder if the scent cars from that era seemed to have was mostly cigarettes.
Our fate rose and fell with the auto industry throughout my childhood although we were near the bottom rung of it. Loaner cars were my father's sole perk as the office manager of a dealership so a variety of models moved in and out of our single-car garage. Even when he bought a car, it was always a GM. No Fords in our garage.
The car I remember best from my teenage years was a gold Pontiac Le Mans. We went out for our maiden ride one autumn day, turned on the radio, and it was the first time I heard the Beatles singing 'She Loves You.'
Marriage sent me to Detroit in 1970. And once again, it was the car industry that dominated my life. We didn't stick with GM anymore, but it was always American: a Ford Torino, a Dodge Dart, a Chevy Nova, a Ford LTD, a Ford Taurus, a Chrysler Jeep. The eighties were scary times for the American car industry but they held on and eventually resurged with SUVs. Big mistake, of course. Maybe their biggest. And certainly the worst for the environment.
Five years ago, we broke down and bought a Subaru. Traitors finally.
I have never been a fan of big business but I have to admit when I read an article yesterday advising GM and eventually Ford to accept their fate and declare bankruptcy, it gave me pause.
The writer wanted them to declare bankruptcy only so they could retool the way the airlines have, ditch union contracts and big pensions. Nasty and what if it doesn't work out that way. It's barely working for the airlines.
Am I prepared to see GM, Ford and Chrysler go the way of the steel industry? Or all the rest of the industries that once employed people like my Dad. I guess not. As imperfect as that industry was, it's been a big part of my life. There is a creative act in designing cars and as a resident of Detroit, I hate to cede that to Asia. We have a local college (College for Creative Studies) where car design is a popular major.
This is us. This is Detroit. Can we change into something else fast enough?
I've only been to the North American Auto Show once but I'd be sad to see the big show only taking place in Tokyo, or Beijing or Seoul. Did Pittsburgh mourn the demise of the steel industry. Yes, but they moved on to other things--but more service industries than manufacturing, I think. Can we exist solely on the success of industries like fast food, health care and higher education?
GM, Ford, Chrysler, come back before it's too late.