As I walk or bike to work, I pay attention to cars, if only to keep them in sight so they don't run me over. Large American-made SUVs burble past, a suddenly endangered species as gas prices continue to climb. These awkward behemoths, rear windows plastered with private-school symbols and GOP-leaning stickers, no longer enrage me as they once did. The big, dumb brutes and their owners now make me a little sad. The world beyond the captain's chair of a GMC Yukon is changing, yet 8,000 pounds of metal, a V-8 and a dose of denial will somehow keep change at bay.
Then some real déj… vu: A new Dodge Charger growls by, and I hear that honest-to-God Mopar rumble. It's "Dukes of Hazzard" time, even if this Charger's design is not as retro as the Mustang's. The Dodge packs a Hemi V-8 descended from boulevard brawlers that screamed down Broad Street until the mid-'70s, that wistful twilight of the first muscle-car age. It was just before I got my license, a time when an American's lust for wheels reached its peak. Back then, surviving muscle cars were already dinged-and-scratched history on used-car lots. As the decade went on, engine displacements and horsepower slumped, while gas prices and insurance rates rose faster than a tachometer on a '69 GTO Judge. Sure, Pontiac might have put a "screaming eagle" on the hood of Burt Reynolds' Trans Am, but his car was a bulky disco on wheels, not a racer. People instead bought thrifty and reliable Japanese models like Honda Civics and Datsun B210s. VW owners in their Squarebacks and bugs grinned at the rest of us and said, "Told you so."
It became cool to call full-sized cars "boats," "dinosaurs" or "pimpmobiles." We bought more imports, even as Ricardo Montalban interrupted "The Six Million Dollar Man" to seduce us with the interior of Chrysler's horribly unreliable, oversized Cordoba. Soon after that, I drove the Cordoba's poor country cousin, a Dodge Aspen. I would imitate Montalban whenever my rattling (though new) heap shut off on hard turns, apparently a feature of its fuel-saving "lean-burn" carburetor. "Ah, but look at the soft Corinthian leather seats," I would purr at the Toyota Tercels passing my dead Detroit marvel. Good seats. High technology, that.
You would think that the Big Three, after playing an honorable game of catch-up with those German and Japanese rascals throughout the '80s, would have learned to think strategically while catering to drivers' tastes when oil prices dropped. As horsepower began to increase and fuel efficiency decline in the '90s, the Japanese eventually rolled out their own SUVs and big trucks, but American models led the way into a foolish future. There was no plan B for this madness. The saddest part is not the ecologists' laments that Detroit made guzzling gas acceptable again and consumers really don't give a damn about the planet until their kids get sick. The saddest thing is that Detroit never could think beyond cheap oil, a lack of planning that calls into question our reputation as innovators.
Meanwhile, even as most imports got better (and a few bigger), their makers put other ponies in the stable: VW's ever quieter and cleaner turbo diesels, Toyota's and Honda's full and partial hybrids, Subaru's small and versatile AWD wagons. Meanwhile, Bob Lutz at GM scoffed at fuel efficiency while his company released the Hummer, Ford made the Expedition and Excursion ("Extinction" and "Mass Extinction" in our house), and Dodge brought back the Hemi. At the same time, our carmakers never matched Japanese reliability and innovative technologies. GM's new hybrid pickups only add 2 miles per gallon. But, hey, there's an AC outlet in the bed so you can run that circular saw off the hybrid battery. Woo-hoo. An ad I just spotted reads, "Charger Hybrid: burns gas and rubber." Good joke. About as funny as bankruptcy.
I can see it now: Sunset in Detroit over Woodward Avenue. Two guys line up for a quarter-mile showdown. In one lane, a new Mustang Cobra, in the other, an '05 Charger Hemi. The light turns, tires smoke, shifters are thrown and the duel begins. A woman packing bags of groceries into her Toyota Prius turns and shakes her head. In a driveway nearby, a dad putting camping gear into his Subaru Forester stops and listens. His son also hears the big engines in the distance.
"Dad, what's that?"
Turning from the top-rated small SUV in Consumer Reports, the dad gets a wistful look on his face. "It's 1975, son." SJoe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond and still dreams of owning a 1967 GTO.
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