GM’s Fall and the Cars of My Youth
I wonder what my father would have thought of the self-destruction of General Motors. We were a General Motors family, but not a happy one. We always (but once) had Chevrolets. One of my earliest memories is being shown the first of them, a maroon Chevy.
My maternal grandfather had a black Model A Ford. He claimed it would go anywhere a horse could go. This was true if there were farmhands around to pick it up and put it back on its wheels when he turned it over.
My father worked for GMAC — the General Motors Acceptance Corp. Before he married, he spent the 10 years following World War I with the Union Pacific Railroad. He was an assistant to the maintenance engineer, and 11 months of the year they traveled the system in a private car, accompanied by cook and porter. It was great for a bachelor. When many years later I had to join a troopship in Oakland, Calif., he insisted that I travel on the U.P., to see “his” West.
When he and my mother married, he joined GMAC in Omaha, Neb., working the Nebraska-Iowa territory. That was in 1928. He survived the economic crash and first years of the Depression, but in the late 1930s he fell sick. GMAC said he had a week’s vacation due him; that was it.
The next few years were not great for the family, although my brother and I didn’t know much about it. Dad bought a lending library (placing books for loan in drugstores). I got to read all the western novels. I am still something of an expert on the works of Clarence E. Mulford and Max Brand.
We had a Chevy, a black four-door, when World War II arrived.
The car went with us to Columbus, Ga., home of Fort Benning, the infantry center. I learned to drive in that car. My parents stayed in Columbus long after I went off to college and to New York.
The Hudson Motor Car Co. was the only automobile maker to gamble on building an entirely new car after the war. The big companies brought out their 1940 models, branded as “new” (a typical GM stunt; it was Alfred P. Sloan, modern GM’s creator, who invented the system of making the same lousy car, which handled like a motorboat, year after year, changing the exterior styling annually and selling it as next year’s model).
We bought a Hudson. It was a good car, but Hudson didn’t last, and like Studebaker, another small company that produced a radically redesigned car in the late 1940s, it closed in the 1950s.
When I was able to buy my own car, it didn’t occur to me not to buy GM: an Oldsmobile 88, the “hot” young man’s car of the time. It was a black convertible with a red interior. Freudian-minded friends commented.
Then I discovered Jaguar. The Beetle had long since come to America, but the Jag was a sensation. Naturally I couldn’t afford it, but I often stared into the Jaguar showroom on 57th Street off Madison.
Then in 1960, a miracle! Jaguar came out with the sensationally voluptuous XKE (the “E-Type”). It had to unload its last XK150s, cars of classic beauty no flash XKE could possibly approach. I found an unsold one I could afford in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and grabbed a plane. It was a 2×2 gunmetal gray “drophead coupé,” as the British called it. I bought a wood-rimmed Nardi steering wheel for it.
It was a great car, suffering the affliction of all British cars of that period: a Lucas electrical system. (The company motto was said to be “Get Home Before Dark.”) My particular problem was a fuel pump under the right front fender that would go flat dead as I sped along (accompanied, of course, by a gorgeous girl). I would jam down the clutch and try to drift to the road’s shoulder without being hit.
There I would take out the block of wood I always carried, reach under the fender, and pound. If I was lucky, the pump would resume clicking. I would wipe my hands on the rag I also carried, and make excuses to the girl.
My fate was a familiar one. I’d bought a Jag. I met a girl. We got married. We had a child. I sold the Jag. We bought a Chevrolet. I bought its cheapest four-door Corvair, Chevrolet’s first experiment with a modern automobile. It had its engine in the rear, which disposed it to over-steer and roll over. Fortunately not with us. (Ralph Nader was not yet on the scene.)
Our last car, which we loaded onto an ocean liner when we moved to Europe with two children and two dogs, was an Alfa Romeo GTV. The best car I ever owned. A joy to drive (if not a joy for the overcrowded children and dogs). What a car! I wrecked it in a superhighway pile-up.
That Alfa was the reason I had been pulling for Fiat to buy GM. Fiat was Alfa Romeo’s financial rescuer and re-launcher. Maybe it could do the same for GM. But then maybe it couldn’t. What if GM wrecked Fiat? For that matter, what if Chrysler wrecks Fiat? All too likely; Americans tend to be suspicious of Fiat. Most don’t know that it makes Ferraris, Maseratis and Alfas. They think it makes toy cars.
I don’t think my dad would have approved of a Fiat-owned GM. Better bury GM on Boot Hill, with the other Americans who couldn’t compete. GM really made terrible cars. Except for the Olds 88.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
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