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I have just tumbled, through weird rabbit hole links, into the madness that is the New York Times automobile section. It contains phrases like “Ford has given its die-hard fans reason for hope…” and “Best-looking G.M. interior in a blue-collar model since the Harley Earl era” and “my vote for the 2002 Car of the Year… goes to the 2009 Pontiac G8. Yes, General Motors is late to the party again, but consider buying one of these anachronistic V-8 gas guzzlers, because if the company needs more bailout money, your tax dollars will be paying for one anyway” and “Ford Taurus … the 2010 model, to be unveiled in January, incites lust” and “Cars didn’t cause the crisis” and “Yet even in this slumping, truck-averse market, the F-150 remained America’s best-selling car or truck, as it’s been for 27 years. Calling it quits would make as much sense as Apple pulling the plug on the iPod” and “Only a Hooveresque economy is keeping this Bimmer from being a smash with the style-first, cost-who-cares crowd” and “The car is most notable for the fact that if hydrogen should suddenly become widely available at reasonable prices, Honda is ready to roll” and … I could go on.
It’s like Clarkson with neither wit nor irony. It is still, though, grimly informative. I learn that: there are people who consider themselves fans of Fords; people who write about these things can have wildly divergent ideas about the impressiveness of the BMW 1 series; American cars are basically very good things; there are no French cars; there is no need to mention carbon dioxide in the discussion of internal combustion engines; there are people who think there will be iPods in 2028; that 35 miles to the gallon (6.72 liters per 100 km) is something noteworthy; that Detroit is of non-pathological interest to many.
It’s not just being enthusiastic about cars. I’m not, as it happens (I’m not a driver, and normally a reluctant passenger) and I also think that so being is not very helpful. In general, though, it’s a poor person who looks down on an enthusiasm simply because he or she does not share it. Yet these seem for the most part such strange cars to write about, either porn-y over the top or utterly drab. Matthew Parris happened to opine on related issues last weekend
As a keen amateur car mechanic I have, since the age of 16, been puzzled by something about America. Here was a nation crazy about automobiles and held out to me as the last word in modernity, innovation, capitalist dynamism and go-ahead technology in all that it did. But its cars weren’t any good. I say “weren’t” – we’re talking 1965 here – because some commentary about the current woes of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler has suggested that it is in recent years that the US automotive industry has slipped behind; and it’s certainly only quite recently that they’ve started losing a lot of money.
But the product, though always flashy, has been technologically inferior since the end of Second World War. While European carmakers were pioneering front-wheel drive, independent suspension, small diesel engines and efficient automatic gearboxes, the Americans kept churning out big, thirsty, fast-rusting, primitively engineered behemoths. Partly this was because fuel was cheap, but the oversprung American limo, loose-handling and imprecise, was always a pig to drive, too. At root the problem was lack of competition.
Being harmful to the environment is one thing. I’m no one to preach on that matter. But to be so in this way… Madness.
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