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Cars & Stripes Forever

As the Big Three flirt with the prospect of collapse, some diehards recommend buying nothing but U.S. cars. It's the ultimate act of patriotism -- and it turns out that, my whole life, I've been the biggest patriot around.

Charles P. Pierce and his 2005 Mercury Sable. Charles P. Pierce and his 2005 Mercury Sable. (Joel Benjamin)
By Charles P. Pierce
June 7, 2009
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Like any American of my age, I maintain an automotive biography. You can trace most of the major events in my adult life by what I was driving at the time. The first car I ever bought was a used Buick compact. In the first month, I had to replace the transmission. In the second month, I had to replace the better part of the engine because the tappets went bad. (The mechanic explained to me what tappets were. I have long since forgotten.) I didn't have time to replace the brakes because they failed during a blizzard, causing me to ram into the back end of a vehicle that had demonstrably better brakes than mine had. This resulted in the Buick's being retired to a brief career as a lawn ornament in the front yard of my parents' house.

By this point, I had moved to Boston and gone to work for an alternative newspaper, the salary structure of which dictated that any vehicle I would ride during my employment there would be owned by the MBTA. Once I left the underground press and went to work at a daily tabloid newspaper, I went out and bought a Chevrolet Chevette. The transaction took seven minutes. (I think that may still stand as a record at the dealership.) The Chevette got me from my house to the ballpark, which is all I ever demanded of it, which was probably a good thing. Pushing the plucky little car past 60 miles per hour made it quiver and shake. Alan Shepard had a smoother ride into space than I usually had trying to get to Natick. And once, when I drove it to New Hampshire to cover a tennis tournament, the middling mountains around North Conway made it gasp and wheeze and labor so badly that I thought seriously of just leaving the poor beast by the side of the road so some hunter could put it out of its misery. In something of a cruel irony, after I was married, we gave the Chevette to my sister-in-law, who was living in Appalachia at the time. Somewhere in the distant mountains, it breathed its last. As far as I know, it's still there, a home for squirrels. That left us, briefly, with only the Pontiac LeMans that my wife had brought to the marriage, and still my favorite among our family cars.

Since then, my family and I have owned a Chevrolet station wagon for which the word "lemon" might have been coined, a Ford Granada that I got when my father's Alzheimer's kicked in, a Buick that I got when my aunt's Alzheimer's kicked in, a couple of Mercury sedans, and a Ford Windstar minivan that we bought at a bargain in 2001 because President George W. Bush told us that buying a car was the best way to keep Osama bin Laden from moving in down the block. Some of these cars ran like tops. Others -- like the Windstar, which has been great for keeping terrorists at bay, but lousy at keeping its electrical system from failing -- have not. But all of the cars I've ever owned have one thing in common.

They were all American cars manufactured in the United States of America.

This makes me rather alone among my friends, almost all of whom, at one time or another, have driven some foreign iron. (The only foreign car I've ever driven regularly was a Toyota owned by my college roommate, who was from Louisiana. Every time the clouds rolled in over Milwaukee between October and April, he tossed me his keys, his knowledge of snow and ice being largely theoretical and his car having tires roughly the width of my fingernails.) This was not a conscious decision, but I am not discounting the subliminal effect of all those commercials I saw in my youth about seeing the USA in my Chevrolet.

After all, this is a car country. We invented the automobile. We invented the way it could be produced for the masses. We invented the kind of labor movement that ultimately would enable the masses to afford the automobile, and ultimately would enable the masses to have weekends off so as to enjoy the automobile and all the places that the automobile could take them. Like McDonald's and the Holiday Inn. We turned the dials on the car radio and we heard people singing about cars, from Robert Johnson's Terraplane to the bargain Chuck Berry got for "No Money Down," which may well have been the "coffee-colored Cadillac" into which he saw Nadine climb, from "Mustang Sally" to "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena," from the "Little Deuce Coupe" to the "Little GTO," from "Thunder Road" to "Dead Man's Curve." From the end of World War II on, the United States of America was an internally combusted, fuel-injected, hemi-powered country of the mind, with its own music, its own language, and its own cultural identity. They should have replaced the eagle as the national emblem with a Stingray, or at least a Mustang.

How much of a car country are we?

One acronym -- NASCAR.

So, given all that, it's fair to ask what in the name of Henry Ford happened to me?

I am in that prime demographic. I was raised in one of the suburbs that made The Car central to all our lives. It was the only way to get anywhere, and there were so many new places to go, as the highways spread out in all directions and created a new and more mobile economy as they did. You could even go to the movies in your car; one night at the local drive-in, I saw Ben-Hur in the middle of a thunderstorm, which livened up the chariot race considerably. Driving became an ineluctable rite of passage.

Nevertheless, I was -- and still am -- an automobile agnostic. The sum total of what I know about cars can be summed up in the phrase, "Valet Parking -- $15 per day." Even manual transmission is far too exotic a device for me. I learned to drive a stick on a dump truck owned by the Commonwealth's Department of Environmental Management. Rommel used more delicate vehicles at El Alamein. My clutching technique was such that I could downshift and make that baby leave the asphalt with all four wheels. It doesn't change much if you drop me behind the wheel of something smaller. For all intents and purposes, everything with a manual transmission is a dump truck to me.

To my mind, a car was always an appliance, like a blender or a dishwasher. It was a device to get me from one place to the other and back again, and since it was more likely that I would be driving to the grocery store for cereal than to a casino to play baccarat with mysterious men in tuxedos, I never saw any reason to buy a car like the one The Man From U.N.C.L.E. drove. I never understood the fascination with what was under the hood. If something broke, you hired someone who understood the fascination to fix it and hoped that he would not charge you more to do the job than the car was worth.

Once, after I was married, my wife, my young son, and I went out to buy a new car. My wife understands cars. (She once explained to me what a fan belt actually did. I have long since forgotten.) She was haggling with the salesman. He said to her, "Well, let's see what the boss says." She explained to him that all "the boss" -- that would be me -- cared about was whether the damn thing had a cassette tape deck. She then pointed over to the car in which the boss was sitting, with his toddler son, and they were both pretending to be on the bridge of the USS Enterprise.

The ultimate reason for my having owned nothing but American cars may come down to the fact that I never cared enough about cars to do anything else, which is as un-American a thought as you can have. But, as it turns out, I may have committed an ongoing, 30-year exercise in serendipitous patriotism. Largely by

accident and ignorance, I may be the most American guy I know.

'Nothing but American cars?" says Paul Stanford. "Well, God bless you."

Ever since 1968, his family has owned a Chevrolet dealership in Dearborn, Michigan. The business has lived through the steady decline in the American automobile industry that began for good during the gas crisis of the 1970s. Most recently, he's seen the struggles of the industry spiral into what looks like a complete collapse. All three major automakers have appealed to the federal government to be bailed out. General Motors will close all of its US plants for up to 11 weeks this summer. Also, at the end of April, GM announced that it was discontinuing the Pontiac brand. No more GTOs. No more Trans-Ams, like Burt Reynolds drove in the movies. At about the same time, Chrysler threw itself into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company reorganized at least in part by merging with Fiat, the Italian automaking giant, but not before a nasty showdown between JPMorgan Chase, which was Chrysler's largest lender, and the Obama administration. Originally, Morgan tried to insist that Chrysler's $6.9 billion debt would have to be fully repaid as part of any reorganization plan. The administration called Morgan's bluff; President Obama himself told the bankers that the company could be liquidated in such a way that the lenders would get very little of their money back. A deal by which the value of Chrysler's debt was slashed was quickly forthcoming. Things aren't much better on the retail end. Chrysler and GM recently announced plans to close dealerships all over the country, including several in Massachusetts.

The situation with Chrysler was demonstration enough how deeply the crisis in American automaking had become entangled with the politics of overall economic recovery. In Dearborn, however, Paul Stanford noticed another indication that struck him rather closer to home. As early as the fall of 2008, conservative legislators, particularly from the South, seemed to be insisting that any bailout of the industry be contingent upon radically restructuring the existing contracts of the members of the United Auto Workers, the industry's primary union, along the lines of the work rules under which labored the workers in the various Japanese auto-manufacturing plants studded throughout the United States. Republican Senators Richard Shelby of Alabama and Bob Corker of Tennessee were particularly rigid on the subject. From where he sat, Stanford saw politicians running the ball for foreign manufacturers while simultaneously trying to break a stubborn American union.

He called Alan Sussman, a self-described angry, left-wing ad man in Detroit. They put together television and radio ads for Stanford's dealership that featured Shelby and other politicians making their case not only against the UAW, but also in a general sense against the domestic automaking industry. "I just wanted to tell the truth -- that this was nonsense," Sussman explains. "When they [the representatives of the Big Three automakers] went to Congress and were quizzed by these lovely Southern senators, bought and paid for by foreign carmakers, what part of America has slipped on the banana peel?"

Stanford ran his ads in and around Detroit, and judging by the calls his dealership received, the response was positive. "How those senators came to feel that way is beyond me," Stanford says. "The disdain that they feel, that the American autoworker is a lazy, no-good SOB and that their workers are more productive, it couldn't be further from the truth."

Stanford and Sussman are not entirely alone. While the industry remains in crisis and while some concessions from the UAW are inevitable, there seems to be something of a backlash rising against the notion that the making of American cars should entirely go the way of the Studebaker and, now, the Pontiac. Mark Cuban, the renegade owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, recently proposed his own complicated plan to save the industry while, at the same time, announcing in his blog that "The next car I buy will be made in America." The most popular make of car in China is the Buick -- albeit Buicks made in China by Chinese workers who do not enjoy the same wages and benefits as their American counterparts -- at least partly, according to a segment on NPR's Marketplace, because a Buick looks more stylish and more rugged than does a Toyota, its nearest rival.

Which is, of course, how the American car came to create the American car culture in the first place. It was always about style, which the American industry abandoned in its ill-starred and inexplicable desire to make a Cadillac that looked like a Buick that looked like an Oldsmobile. Homogenization remains one of the most overlooked reasons for the decline of the domestic auto industry. American cars stopped looking American -- individualistic, eccentric, and possessed of a personality all their own that was quickly attributed (and even more quickly adopted) by the person driving the car. The car culture inculcated a certain pride of ownership in the people who bought the cars -- my grandfather proclaimed himself a "Dodge man" back in the 1940s -- and a certain pride of authorship in the people who made them. And they made them everywhere, even here.

The region's UAW headquarters in Canton is in an office building at the top of a hill. Some of the offices are

occupied. Some of them are not. The UAW's suite seems caught somewhere in between the two. It's clearly

occupied but, at the same time, the number of empty desks and the random piles of boxes give the impression that someone's just moving in or just moving out. In a conference room in the heart of the place, two men are talking about the jobs they used to have. The UAW headquarters is the most conspicuous part of the automotive industry still functioning in Massachusetts.

Both Bill Floyd and Al Lamoureaux worked at the General Motors plant in Framingham that produced cars from 1948 until it closed in a welter of bad feelings in 1989, its prolonged demise eventually stranding 3,700 workers without a job. "When I was there," says Floyd, "and it was going full-steam, we had one car coming down the line every 45 seconds." Floyd started out in the wet-sand area, where cars fresh from the oven would have any imperfections in their various welds sanded down. Very few people in the wet-sand area had any fingerprints left after a while, which is possibly why a guy from the wet-sand area used his lunch hour one day to rob a local bank. "They never caught him, either," Floyd says. "He turned himself in."

A whole business district sprang up in Framingham around the plant. "Guys would go down to lunch at Gallerina's at 10 or 11 in the morning, because we used to start at 6," Floyd recalls. "You'd call in your order and it'd be there waiting. Go down there and say who you are, and they'd have the table all set up and you could have two or three quick beers and eat your lunch."

By the late 1970s, however, as the gas crisis and inflation beat down on the automakers, the Framingham plant was in trouble. At the same time that GM increased the speed of the assembly line, it cut back the number of inspectors.

(" 'The dealer will fix it.' That was the attitude," Lamoureaux explains.) Mistakes got through. "Management wanted those cars out the door," Lamoureaux says. Around this same time, GM cut back on the number of shifts at the plant.

However, at the end of 1983, GM brought the plant back to full production, and three years later, the company announced that it would build a new $60 million plant in Framingham that would produce minivans, which GM called the car of the future. That was in May of 1986. By September, the company killed those plans. Shortly before Christmas, the president of GM said that the Framingham plant and two others would be closing, a comment that the company's PR people scrambled to deny.

For the next two and a half years, Floyd, Lamoureaux, and the rest of the workers at the Framingham plant went through an endless cycle of high hopes and bad news until July of 1989, when the plant shut down for good. "We thought it was a good sign when the company built a new $250,000 paint shop," Floyd says. "Then the plant closed and they picked up that shop and it went to Mexico."

Floyd and Lamoureaux, then, saw in microcosm 20 years ago what is happening now with a vengeance to their industry. The economic debacle with American automaking destroyed the brand loyalty that was at the heart of the American love for the American car and the car culture that grew around it. Like the jobs that went to Mexico, neither man believes that's ever wholly coming back. "I don't think there's the kind of loyalty among the younger people," Floyd muses. "They're all looking at the price, you know? Can I save $500? We've always tried that, you know, 'Buy American.' One of the problems we face at the UAW is that we get a lot of negative press because of some of those benefits that we negotiated years ago."

"People are driving foreign cars, and there's nobody in this country working. Do they know that?" says Lamoureaux. "I was down the Cape and they had that Tea Party thing going, and I leaned out my window and I said, 'How many of you are driving American cars?' They all just looked at me.

"Of course, if there were more people like you, we wouldn't be in the shape we're in."

All right, a friend of mine said. If you're going to write about this, you at least ought to drive another foreign car. She wasn't altogether impressed with the depth of knowledge I had gained driving my Cajun buddy's Toyota across the Wisconsin steppes 35 years ago. I agreed. Which is how I came to be here, along the Automile in Route 1 in Norwood, in a dealership that gleams like some place in which you could stage a society wedding, waiting to drive a car that cost a quarter of a million dollars. In for a dime, in for a great many dollars, I always say. However, I now discover why people who drive fancy European sports cars wear driving gloves. My palms are so wet you could use them to water your plants.

"So," says Mark Mina, a sales associate at Ferrari-Maserati of New England, "are we ready yet?"

The car is a Ferrari, a 2007 F430 Spider that I am assured is the most popular model of Ferrari there is. I take his word for this, since it is certainly the most popular Ferrari in my experience, which is now almost six minutes, more or less. It is red and low-slung, and I bark my forehead sliding into the passenger seat. The engine is in back of the cockpit -- one hesitates to call it the front seat -- and it is covered with a clear Plexiglas panel (a standard feature) so you can see the engine as it roars. Mina and I go off down Route 1, and he is telling me a complicated story about Enzo Ferrari and his various mistresses, and all I can see is that this car fairly hungers to leave the various panel trucks and minivans in a cloud of dust. It breathes, this car does. It seems to think. We turn down a side street and into a state reservation. Mina takes the car on some winding turns through a forest, and at one point I believe I have left my spleen in a ditch. "This thing moves," he says, "like a horny angel." I do not disagree.

At the end of the road, he turns the car around and stops.

"OK," he says, "your turn."

The first thing I notice is that there is no clutch. All shifting is done with two paddles attached to either side of the steering wheel. This makes me feel better, because I had no desire to show Mina how high I could make a $250,000 automobile jump. I start slowly, and gradually I notice that the steering on this thing is so finely calibrated that it seems to be into a turn before I'm fully aware that I've moved the wheel. I come to the unnerving conclusion that this car is telepathic. I get comfortable with the shifting paddles. We move off of the state land and back onto Route 1, and I realize that I am now a target. The people in their boxy American vehicles love to come up on the Ferrari and pass it. I can almost hear the chortling. Since I am attempting to get back to the dealership without owing some

body shop the national debt of Brazil, there's little I can do to challenge them. "You know," Mina tells me, "when it comes to everyday driving, America still makes the best cars."

This cheers me up enough to get the Ferrari back unspoiled and undented. I determine that I am not cut out for this. I am uncomfortable driving a car that costs more than I made in the first eight years of my career and that seems unquestionably to be smarter than I am. I don't need Japanese efficiency or remorseless German craftsmanship. What I need in a car is what American cars have always provided -- a basic tool that gets me where I need to be and back again, with a functioning radio, reasonable air conditioning, and enough of a warranty that I don't necessarily have to know what tappets are. I don't need a car that's smarter than I am. I need a car that's as lazy as I am.

It turns out that, unintentionally, I have made a statement with my automotive biography. Even in this time of economic upheaval, America's greatest product ought still to be convenience, and because of this, by remaining unsullied by foreign iron, my record of owning nothing but American cars is the truest expression of my patriotism. I climb into my Sable and pull out onto Route 1 again. Somebody in a Mercedes cuts me off. I blow my horn. God bless America.

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at cpierce@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the story on American cars in the Sunday magazine incorrectly stated where the car was invented. It is widely credited as being invented in Germany. Also, the origin of the Ford Windstar was misstated in the story. It was manufactured in Canada.