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.


Unknown said...

That gray and pink Chevy is a beauty. My parents bought a 4-door hardtop Buick Special in 1956, baby blue. Prettiest car they ever owned.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We've never had a Buick. They were elegant, weren't they? Wish the two-toned cars would make a comeback.

Clair D. said...

Michigan spent years dominated by the auto industry. It's not just Detroit.

It is, I think, why Michigan's economy tanked faster and harder. The auto companies went down hard and haven't come back.

Don't feel bad, Patti. GM bailed on Michigan (esp Flint!) long before this.

Barbara Martin said...

While growing up my mother purchased a 1957 Buick Special in the mid-1960s, two tone, two-door, peacock blue on the bottom, white on top with a slash of red on the side between two chrome lines. I remember my older brothers were allowed to drive it, and when they were caught drag-racing it, the car was sold and replaced with a Dodge sedan with no pep.

Thanks Patti, for this trip down memory lane.

Travis Erwin said...

I'm rooting for the American companies even though they barely an American made car barely fits the term anymore. Assembled yes, built no.

Lana Gramlich said...

The only decent domestic cars I've ever had were Chryslers. From what I understand, GM's currently considering buying them out. So much for Chryslers. <:\
I was horrified to learn that "back in the day" the Detroit automakers used Lake Erie as a unilateral dumping ground.

Reb said...

Much as I love the old cars of the fifties and the SUVs of today, I must admit that IF I can ever afford to get another vehicle, I will be looking at imports. Hm, maybe by then the big three will have perfected their own hybrid technology and will be competitive again.

pierre l said...

I count as an Oldsmobile guy -- my father had seven of them from 1953 until 1972. After that, I moved to Europe and have had mostly Citroens.

Junosmom said...

I live near a Ford plant and neighbor Ford workers. We hope they hang in there, but the news is often full of dire threats.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That kind of loyalty is probably gone. Why Olds and not Buicks?

pierre l said...

Particularly in the earlier days, Olds had more interesting technology; but also habit and preferring the Olds styling -- I don't think there was much difference in the pricing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Today's news of the possible layoff of 30,000 Chrysler workers is truly frightening.

Lyzzydee said...

My husband used to work for GM here in the UK, Strange company to work for.

Anonymous said...

I loved the cars and have memories of older cars my folks had as well.

They just announced that another Ford plant has decided not to tool up here as well.

Living in a suburb of Cleveland, I can really relate. Driving past empty steel mills and auto plants tells a very big part of our story here in the rust belt.

Thanks for your heartfelt post.

debra said...

I remember my grandfather's Buick LeSabre and his red Dodge Dart convertible with push buttons marked R,N,D, and P (Reverse,Neutral,Drive,Park)
My first car was a purple Dodge Dart.
This part of the country is so dependent on the steel/auto industries---it's hard to see things so depressed.
Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We all have so many fond memories of cars in our past. But why not now? Perhaps that's why the industry has failed to hold our attention.