Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Why They Don't Make Them Like That Anymore (The Recession of 1958)

The 1958 DeSoto Adventurer Convertible.   Why does Detroit not make cars like this anymore?  In a way, they still do - it's called a Cadillac Escalade SUV today.  But economics is what drove the befinned monsters off the roadways by 1960 - Economics and changing tastes.

If you like to watch old car videos or read about old cars, the Internet is a treasure trove.  And no cars are more iconic American than the "forward look" Chrysler products of the late 1950's.  And if you watch some of these videos, you will inevitably see, in the comments section, some lame comment from an ignorant know-nothing, whining about "how Detroit got greedy and stopped making great cars like this!"

It is an ignorant comment on so many levels - and probably something planted by our Russian troll friends.  You know, the folks who made the Lada and the Trabant back in those days.   They want to run us down and make us hate our own country.  And sadly, so many people in our country are willing to go along with this.

First of all, Detroit still makes these cars - rear-wheel-drive 20-foot-long monsters with big V-8 engines, seating for six, and all the bells and whistles.  Today they are called SUVs or Pickup Trucks, and they became popular as EPA mileage requirements for cars meant that if an American wanted a "traditional sized" car, they had to look at a Tahoe or a Suburban, or an Expedition or a pickup truck (with four doors, of course).  They might not have fins and gaudy chrome, but they are the same layout, same technology (in the case of GM, the same damn engine), and the same size, weight, and gas mileage.  The Cadillac version even has truncated fins!  So you can still buy a car like the one shown above today, it just looks slightly different.

But speaking of fins, one reason they went away is that styles changed.  The fins were looked upon as gaudy even at the time, but within a few years, tastes had changed so radically that having a befinned car was seen as tacky.   The "new frontiers" of the Kennedy Administration and the neat, tailored look of the Lincoln Continental were in, and the chrome jukebox look of the 1950's was definitely out.   Of course, the car companies love it when styles change - they sell more cars that way.   And this has been the case throughout history.  In the 1980's, everyone "downsized" to boxy American sedans that looked like a child's drawing of a car - with industrial grills that looked like air conditioner registers.  They made the whale cars of the 1970's look antiquated.   But by the 1990's, the "aero look" took over, and suddenly, driving a box-shaped car was out.

But economics, more than styles, are what doomed the finned cars.  Bear in mind that back in the 1950's, each car division basically sold one size of car.  If you wanted a Chevy, you could have it in several flavors - Model 210, Deluxe, Bel Air, or whatever, but it was basically the same body shell underneath.  Not only that, but each division of the car companies were basically selling the same car.  The DeSoto shown above was largely indistinguishable from the Plymouth, the Chrysler, or the Dodge, other than in fin shapes.  Often, they came off the same assembly lines.

All that changed with the recession of 1958.  People stopped buying huge cars, and the "Big-3" were forced to offer downsized versions of their cars.   The Chevy II, the Valiant, and the Falcon, all came on the scene, to go after the market share of Studebaker and Rambler - who quickly folded their tents.  These were smaller, more affordable cars that got better gas mileage.   Shortly thereafter, the "intermediates" came out in the mid-1960's, thus effectively offering three sizes of cars for each division.

People actually had choices in car size now, and many chose compacts and intermediates instead of the traditional "full size" American car.   But even before the gas crises of 1973, the "Big 3" had in the works to build (or import) these new "subcompact" cars, such as the Vega and Pinto.  Demand for smaller cars was great, and got greater when the price of gas doubled overnight.  Suddenly, the big "muscle cars" of the 1960's were not only unafforable because of their high prices and insurance rates, but because of the high cost of gas.   Styles changed, overnight.

But there is another factor as well.  I say people are ignorant for pining for the days of cars like the one shown above, because they are ignorant.  Cars like that had horrible bias-ply tires, poor suspensions, fading brakes, and quality control of a third world slum shack.   They weren't meant to last more than a few years, and most rusted through within 2-3 years in the Northeast.   No one kept a car much past 50,000 miles, and by 80,000, most were in the junkyard.   When Jay Leno shows an "original unrestored survivor" from the 1950's with "only 60,000 miles on the odometer!" I have to laugh, because the car was less a survivor and more of a car simply abandoned at that point in the past as being old and worn-out.

Today, cars - even American cars - have much better quality, rustproofing, brakes, suspensions, transmissions, tires, engines - and just about everything.   I doubt many people would tolerate a scratchy AM radio with one speaker for their daily commute, or bumpers that dent when you touch them.   Or the fact that cars of that era were just so damn unsafe.  Even wet pavement was enough to send them into a spin, with the shitty tires they had in that era.   Nostalgia is always suspect.   Looking at a carefully restored car from the 1950's is not the same as having to live with that car in that era.  Cars always smelled like gas back then - because the tanks vented to the atmosphere, and the primitive carburetors ran super-rich all the time.

So what's the point of this?  Well, tastes in vehicles change and change abruptly.  And economics often force people to make changes in their lifestyles.   The chrome cars of the late 1950's were not only poorly made and sucked gas, they also were very expensive, and many people, after years of "trading up" every three years, found themselves saddled with expensive payments that were harder and harder to make.   It is the same old equation - the same one happening today - of people mortgaging their futures to have more today - to impress people they don't even know.  Status rears its ugly head once again.

In the late 1990's and early 2000's, there was a resurgence in the popularity of the big SUV - the Suburban and Tahoe for example.  Up until that time, the Suburban was something that only highway departments used to ferry work crews to a job site, which is why they originally only had three doors.  Very few ordinary citizens bought them, unless they were towing a very big trailer.  GM didn't update the design but once a decade.  It was a slow-seller.  But with the demise of the traditional American station wagon and the demise of the "full sized" sedan, the big SUV took off and became the new de facto station wagon of the suburbs - usurping the minivan from that role.

But its time in the sun was short-lived.  By 2008 you couldn't give them away because of the gas crises and the recession.   GM and Chrysler went bankrupt.   Suddenly, everyone wanted to buy a Ford Fusion.   Fast-forward a decade and once again styles change.  Gas is cheap, and of course, always will be, right? (even as oil slowly creeps up to $70 a barrel).   So everyone is buying big SUVs and pickups, once again.

How many times do we re-live this pattern before we learn?  The answer is, of course, we never learn.  Each generation has to re-learn the same painful lessons of their ancestors.  For example, many young people today are going to learn than Nazism isn't really the answer to anything - something that my generation assumed was a settled issue in 1945.

Will big cars ever come back in a form other than the SUV?  Perhaps.  Ford has shown prototypes of a new Lincoln Continental, but they really can't sell it, as EPA requirements for cars are stricter than for SUVs and trucks.   As a result, they can sell a big car, but it has to be an SUV, and you can't make a Continental as an SUV.  Or can you?

Will we see another sudden shift in car tastes and styles as we did in the past?   Well, one could assume so - all it takes is another recession or another gas crises, before the desirable SUV becomes something that is unsalable.   The sad thing is, this next time around, the "Big-3" will be stuck with nothing but Tahoes on the lot, and nothing that people can actually afford to buy.