Where Did The Bumper Go?

left: 1969 Camaro. right: 2010 Camaro. Which do you think would far better in an accident?

I am originally from Detroit, Michigan, the center of the domestic automotive universe, the home of The Big Three automakers: Ford, GM and Chrysler. Not only is it ingrained in my DNA that I must drive everywhere I go, but I also care about the car industry. When I say industry, it’s personal. I’m not talking about the people at the top making the big bucks who ran successful businesses into the ground, but the people who work for a living. All those people who work in the car industry make it possible for a city called Detroit to exist. The survival of the automobile in the United States not only effects the people who work for The Big Three, but all the ancillary industries that feed, clothe and house the people who work for the car companies. All the mom and pop diners, drugs stores, movie theaters, etc. Basically, every single business in Detroit, The United States and even into Canada and beyond, hinges on the people at the top not fucking it up. This means that taking a private jet to ask for a government handout is probably not the smartest move, halfwits.

First off, let me preface my little account by saying that my knowledge of Detroit and its inner workings is quite rusty since I haven’t lived there in nearly 2 decades. So, what I am relating could have changed (hopefully, for the better) in the time that I have been absent.

In the state of Michigan, you drive an American car. Period. Every family has a specific allegiance to one of The Big Three as well. My grandfather owned a company that fabricated some parts for General Motors. My uncle worked for Detroit Diesel Allison which makes heavy-duty engines for heavy-duty GM trucks. Because of that, we are a GM family. We only ever bought GM products. At one point, we owned a Ford but we never talked about it. That car only lasted 6 months.

I worked at Ford for a few years. In the parking lot at work, if you drove a Ford, you were allowed to park right up by the door. GM and Chrysler products were at the back of the lot and foreign cars, if there was such a thing, had to park across the street. There were no signs posted in the parking lot telling you this. It was just known. If you drove a GM car (which I did) and had the audacity to park at the front of the lot towards the door, when you returned to your car, at best, the side would be keyed. At worst, your paint job would be destroyed, your tires punctured and your windows smashed. There was no judgment in it, no right or wrong; that’s just the way it was.

There was a hierarchy with foreign cars too. If you had to drive a foreign car for some inconceivable reason, European cars (Saab, Volvo, Volkswagon, BMW, Mercedes, etc.) were considered the lesser evil. Good luck sporting a Honda, Toyota or Nissan around Michigan and keeping it one piece. More importantly, when it is no longer in one piece, good luck finding someone to service it. It will take you weeks to get parts for it, whereas an American car could be fixed that afternoon. Even if you had no loyalty to The Big Three whatsoever, because of all of this, most people generally drove American cars. Plus, owning an American car in Detroit used to be a mark of pride. People would actually take pride in ownership. They’d wash and wax their cars in their driveways on Sunday.

But that was all many moons ago. In the 1970’s, there was an oil embargo. Gasoline was extremely scarce, hard to get and very expensive. I was barely even sentient, but I do remember sitting in the back seat of our Oldsmobile for hours on end, queuing up to get gasoline. Foreign car companies noticed this and decided to make small, high-quality, fuel-efficient cars. American car companies made smaller and more fuel-efficient cars for a few years, and then went right back to the gas guzzlers. Over the course of a decade or two, The Big Three handed over the small car market to its foreign competitors. What could it hurt? In America, we do things big! Bigger! Giant trucks with American flag stickers that come standard in the rear window. Commercials with trucks the size of houses hauling big things most Americans will never need to haul. Hummers for everyone!! 3 miles to the gallon? Perfect!

Along with the size went the quality. American trucks are, and always have been, perfect work vehicles. Sturdy, powerful beasts that can handle any job you throw at them, no matter what. But most Americans don’t need monster trucks. Most Americans need a car to commute back and forth to work, and drive to the grocery store with little Timmy in the back seat. The cars that The Big Three produced through the 80’s and 90’s in the commuter category were, basically, shit. Rather than devising a more fuel-efficient engine like their competitors, American cars were made more fuel-efficient by dropping down the weight of the vehicles, and thereby the cost to make, but not necessarily the cost to buy. Heavy American steel parts were replaced with rubber and Styrofoam. I’m not kidding either. I had a small GM car that had a 10 mile an hour front-end collision. The vehicle was toast. When I got out to look at the damage, I saw that the only thing between the radiator and the car in front of me were the same components you’d find inside a McDonald’s trash bin (minus the burger and fries).

I guess they figured that cars don’t need bumpers. They’re excess weight. The only vehicles with proper bumpers these days are trucks. Next time you’re on the road, take a look at all the cars around you (even the foreign ones) and you’ll notice that cars no longer have bumpers. They have smooth, plastic pieces coated with paint where the bumper should be. As I know from first hand experience, plastic and Styrofoam do not make good bumpers. Not to mention that the purpose of a bumper, beyond safety, is to protect your vehicle from dings and scratches. A smooth plastic panel vs. anything it is likely to come into contact with is going to lose.

left: 1969 Camaro.  right: 2010 Camaro. Which do you think would far better in an accident?
left: 1969 Camaro. right: 2010 Camaro. Which do you think would far better in an accident?

I suppose American car manufacturers thought that, as long as they still had the truck and SUV markets, things would work out alright. If they even thought that far ahead which I’m not sure they did. Here we are, 30 years after the gas shortages of the 70’s, a wake-up call if I’ve ever seen one, and along comes another gas shortage. It’s not surprising really since all fossil fuels are made out of, well, fossils. Your vehicle runs on dead dinosaur power. There were only so many dinosaurs in the world and, as far as I know, we can’t make more. At least, not yet.

Which brings me to another rhetorical question. Why is it that not a single major automaker in the last 30 years has produced a vehicle that runs on some other fuel source besides dead dinosaurs? And before you go off on a tangent with ethanol (which actually takes more fossil fuel to produce than it’s worth) or leftover French fry juice, yes, there are other means. But I’m talking about on a grand scale; a national or global scale. Why is it that the cars you can buy today, even hybrids, still need gasoline to operate? Did you know that the combustion engine was not the first car made? Before Henry Ford set up his assembly line, there were alternative fuel vehicles. Some even ran on steam. Steam!

I’m not the type to get a new car every year or so like my mom and sister. I drive cars into the ground like my dad. I figure that I might as well get my money’s worth. In the mid 90’s, I moved to Boston in my Chevrolet which, surprisingly, lasted quite a long time; over a decade. When my Chevrolet finally, irrevocably died, naturally, I went to purchase another GM product. However, at the time, my credit was such (through no fault of my own), that General Motors told me to shove it. So, I went to Hyundai instead. They gave me a brand new car that was smaller than my thumbnail which I then drove for 12 years. Almost 140K miles on a $12,000 car with hardly anything wrong with it outside of regular maintenance items. In 12 years, I had to replace 3 computer chips and a starter, but then the transmission went and the timing belt was on its way.

It was June 2009 and I had no car. Being a native Detroiter, I went into panic mode. It was imperative that I remedy that STAT. 12 years after my last car purchase, I now had good credit, so I decided to buy American to support my hometown. Probably not the smartest move in the book, but I’ve felt mildly guilty for 12 years now driving around in my tiny Korean fishbowl. Unfortunately, I’m still poor as hell, but I am employed and have a steady income. Not optimal bargaining chips, but chips nonetheless.

I go see Ford. Hello, Ford! I’d like to see about buying one of your cars so that I can feel proud to be a native Detroiter driving an American car and maybe help you out of the hole that you’ve dug for yourself. Not only did they ping the hell out of my credit (I got 6 “sorry we won’t finance you” letters from banks just the other day), but the best that they could do was just shy of $300 a month since the least expensive car they sell nowadays starts at $16K. Not having had a car payment for the last forever, that was more than I was willing to spend.

I trudge my ass over to Hyundai. Hello, Hyundai! I’d like to see about buying one of your cars since I currently have a 97 Hyundai that is probably the best car I’ve ever owned. Hello, Goldfish, let’s see what we can do. Goldfish, it turns out that Ford actually dropped your credit score by asking everyone and their brother to finance you, plus you’ve owned your current car for so long that any record of its existence has dropped off of your credit report so that you are now a first-time buyer again, but let’s make a deal. You can have this fancy-ass car that’s only a year old and still has 60,000 miles of (smooth, paint-coated plastic) bumper to bumper coverage on it, gets 30 miles to the gallon, and has so many buttons and gadgets it will take you months to figure them all out for just over $200 a month. Really!? SOLD!

Well, I tried anyway. I really did. It hurts my heart that I couldn’t buy an American car as stupid as it is to buy one right now. It hurts my heart that every day, I read about more and more people getting laid off. It hurts my heart that innocent people in my hometown are suffering at the hands of corporate greed machines and there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t know what the solution is. I just know that there are millions of people in my hometown and all over the world that are waiting for the bigwigs to pull their heads out of their asses, suss out the situation and make things better. But, it’s not over yet. There’s still a flicker of hope. The death knell has not yet been struck, but they better hurry up and do something about it right quick because we’re waiting. They’ve had 30 years to make this right and failed. Bring the bumper back before it’s too late.