Sunday, May 31, 2009

The American Love Affair with the Automobile is History

As I sit here writing this, General Motors (GM), once the nation's largest employer, is about ten minutes away from filing for a "government led" bankruptcy. What that means is, once the dust has settled, the federal government is going to wind up controlling about sixty percent of the company.

It will represent the largest industrial bankruptcy in this nation's history.

For those of us who fell in love with the automobile during our formative years, and who now make up a decidedly dwindling number of true "car enthusiasts," this is not a happy time, and it doesn't matter whether you were really a Mopar aficionado or a Ford guy. GM was part of the "Big Three," and seeing it in this sorry condition is akin to a kick in the bag.

P.J. O'Rourke, author of twelve books, and who has written for Car & Driver (my favorite car mag for two decades) among other publications, has opined as to what it was that killed the love affair Americans once had with the automobile:

Thus cars usurped the place of horses in our hearts. Once we’d caught a glimpse of a well-turned Goodyear, checked out the curves of the bodywork and gaped at that swell pair of headlights, well, the old gray mare was not what she used to be. We embarked upon life in the fast lane with our new paramour. It was a great love story of man and machine. The road to the future was paved with bliss.

Then we got married and moved to the suburbs. Being away from central cities meant Americans had to spend more of their time driving. Over the years away got farther away. Eventually this meant that Americans had to spend all of their time driving. The play date was 40 miles from the Chuck E. Cheese. The swim meet was 40 miles from the cello lesson. The Montessori was 40 miles from the math coach. Mom’s job was 40 miles from Dad’s job and the three-car garage was 40 miles from both.

The car ceased to be object of desire and equipment for adventure and turned into office, rec room, communications hub, breakfast nook and recycling bin—a motorized cup holder. Americans, the richest people on Earth, were stuck in the confines of their crossover SUVs, squeezed into less space than tech-support call-center employees in a Mumbai cubicle farm. Never mind the six-bedroom, eight-bath, pseudo-Tudor with cathedral-ceilinged great room and 1,000-bottle controlled-climate wine cellar. That was a day’s walk away.

We became sick and tired of our cars and even angry at them. Pointy-headed busybodies of the environmentalist, new urbanist, utopian communitarian ilk blamed the victim. They claimed the car had forced us to live in widely scattered settlements in the great wasteland of big-box stores and the Olive Garden. If we would all just get on our Schwinns or hop a trolley, they said, America could become an archipelago of cozy gulags on the Portland, Ore., model with everyone nestled together in the most sustainably carbon-neutral, diverse and ecologically unimpactful way.

You can find P. J.'s entire excellent article here.

It is definitely worth a read.

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When liberty is taken away by force it can be restored by force. When it is relinquished voluntarily by default it can never be recovered. -Dorothy Thompson