National Geographic : 1983 Jul
T, the low-priced move to practicality. But a 1925 Franklin roadster, fire-engine red with a rearing lion on the hood, drew admir ing glances on Reno streets. By the quarter century mark motorists wanted fun along with convenience. I purred out of Harrah's gate in a 1933 Chevrolet, a car that nudged Ford out of dominance in the low-priced field. Last page in my moving history book was a 1940 Pack ard. A modern car with hydraulic brakes and factory-installed air conditioning, it marked a high point before World War II stopped production. I ROM HORSELESS CARRIAGES to habitat control the United States soon emerged as the primary auto mobile culture of the world. Ameri cans burst into song over the car. "In My Merry Oldsmobile" was the most enduring, but the romantic themes in all of them seemed to signal a new freedom between the sexes: "Tumble in a Rumble Seat," "Six Cylinder Love," and "Fifteen Kisses on a Gallon of Gas." The auto was welcomed as cleaner, cheaper, and safer than horses by such lumi naries as Thomas Edison, who prophesied, "the danger to life will be much reduced." The Wizard was seldom more wrong. If today's highways were combat zones, the casualty reports would topple governments. Instead, cars nurture governments with tax money as well as contributing to the general prosperity. In 1978, a good sales year, America's four major carmakers paid 2.8 billion dollars in taxes; in 1980 their losses earned them credits of 1.8 billion, a 4.6 billion-dollar drain on the national treasury. As early as 1928 the American market was considered saturated. A used-car market be gan cutting into new-car sales. To fight it, automakers began introducing fresh models every year, a practice that came to be known as "planned obsolescence." Car stylists be gan to hold more clout than engineers. Eventually even flashy chrome and fins could not cover up the realities of poor work manship. Writer Jerry Flint summarizes what he calls the end of "the golden age of the auto" in his book The Dream Machine: "Nineteen-hundred-sixty-five was the peak, and the cars-even the country-seemed to go downhill from then. The engines got bigger, not better, the paint became wilder, and the knobs fell off the dash." Then came the explosion of oil prices by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973, and the auto game changed-drastically. United States buyers began demanding more fuel-efficient cars, and most came from outside the U. S. As gas lines eased, buyers drifted back to large American cars, then were hit by the "second oil crunch." A revolution in Iran cut that supply of oil, bringing back gas lines and a second wave of small-car buying. The seesaw of car size confused and angered nearly everyone. The government called the car industry shortsighted, and the industry blamed gov ernment for long holding down oil prices. Auto management blamed the unions for rising wages, and the unions accused Japan of unfair labor practices. Buyers blamed them all and increasingly bought imports, 300,000 LAID-OFF UAW MEMBERS E DON'T LIKE YOUR IMPORT. PLEASE PARK IT IN TOKYO.