Noise, Vibration Harshness: How Detroit Won and Lost Its Mojo

The Interpretation of Dreams: How Detroit Won and Lost Its Mojo.

When it was great, the American auto industry didn’t just make better cars. It built better dreams, offered to a public hungering for them. Carmakers then proceeded, however imperfectly, to help make these dreams come true. And always at the core of the industry’s success, from the merry Curved Dash Oldsmobile onward, was an upbeat message about the automobile’s contribution to society and people’s personal happiness, steeped in an unrelenting optimism about the future. One shouldn’t – one couldn’t – wait to be a part of it.

Paving the way for his Model T in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Henry Ford painted a portrait of liberation for potential car owners, from the lonely drudgery of farm life toward a worldly sociability that newfound mobility would allow. For city dwellers, the Tin Lizzie offered another type of escape. Suddenly, the open spaces and natural beauty denied urbanites could again be theirs – all it took was a drive in the country.

As the market for basic transportation became saturated in the 1920s, General Motors deployed the allure of style, color, and speed to overtake Ford. Capitalizing on man’s innate vanity and competitive nature, it supplied graduated tiers of refinement and social status to sell more cars. Raising the stakes higher with the conclusion of World War II and a long period of enforced national austerity, GM and its Detroit brethren kicked off the second half of the century by conjuring an over-the-top futurescape, with powerful, high-compression engines and big, swoopy cars whose tail fins and chrome exhaust portals made them look like the rockets and jet fighters that were capturing the nation’s adolescent imagination. America’s successful volume manufacturers always had this in common – they were selling you a ticket to the future, a future that was understood to be better than the present, whether it really was or not. And they always aimed young.

I vividly recall being brought to the 1964 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Ford chose this last unabashed exposition of American prosperity to introduce to the public its new Mustang (the timing – and importance – of the fair explaining the first sporty coupe’s unusual ’64 model-year designation).

I fell hard for the Mustang, like every other first-grader. But space was the place then, and I also vividly remember having my mind blown at the fair by wub-like show cars of the future, some of them three-wheeled orbs that, we were told, would be our future transport as we traversed not just the streets of our hometowns but the lunar surface and beyond. Turbines, jet engines, nuclear reactors . . . it didn’t matter how impractical or absurd, these were the cars of the twenty-first century, and they simply had to be desired, because they were what was next.

That was then. After the fair closed, emissions control, fought by the American industry tooth and nail, gradually began making its way onto to-do lists, along with the safety equipment that had been opposed at every turn. And somehow, in the following decades, the industry lost its ability to articulate a compelling, optimistic vision of the future. As it ran out of ideas for slaking the public thirst for the ever new, new, newer sales paradigm it had helped create, Detroit became reactive rather than proactive; – no longer enthused, but sour, grumpy, and nostalgic for the old ways.

Part of the problem – the carmakers had painted themselves into a corner. Flying cars raised more questions than they answered, atomic autos were a terrible idea from the get-go, and it would be a long time before Mom and Dad would drive the family to play miniature golf on the rings of Saturn. Getting people psyched for more horsepower was easy; offering them passage to distant corners of the universe was a nonstarter for companies that had trouble committing to unibodies and radial tires.

After lower, longer, and wider, where could they go? Taller, higher, and heavier? That was the sport-utility movement of the 1990s and 2000s, but SUVs represented Detroit’s last gasp of marketing creativity. And this was a dead end, too, fully delusional like so many of Detroit’s greatest dreamworld hits but more about defensiveness and fear of the other than good-old American optimism about the future.

As we roam through history, let’s be clear – it wasn’t the regulations that brought malaise to the U.S. industry, although some pundits like to say so. They blame the regulators rather than the executives who buried their heads in the sand for so long about crucial matters like air pollution and safety (called out by critics, incidentally, from the very first days of the automobile, but studiously overlooked for more than half a century). Where it might have embraced and gotten in front of the environmentally aware, energy-conscious future that was coming whether they liked it or not, Detroit spent fifty years and more working to actively subvert political will and public awareness. Misinformation, disinformation, and shrill misery became their stocks in trade.

Like an angry teenager grounded for failure to clean up his room, the American industry spent far too much money and energy creating doomsday scenarios of what would happen if they were forced to build cleaner, safer cars – how impossible it would be, how many jobs would be lost, how much consumers would suffer. Almost all of it, in the end, was nonsense. Like the frustrated adolescent, they should’ve just cleaned up their room and gotten on with their day.

What that would have involved – and I’m here to suggest it still can happen, that the opportunity is still out there – is to get optimistic about the future once more. A bright, green future. Chevy Volts and Nissan Leafs aren’t going to save the polar ice caps single-handedly, but in their selling is a wellspring of optimism to tap into, an exciting new world where cars are not part of the problem.

Yes, there are immense technological, infrastructural, and political hurdles to work out before electric cars don’t pollute indirectly, but who wants to argue that the internal-combustion engine arrived more than 120 years ago with all its problems resolved?

Besides, actual truth is not the point. Stop anyone under thirty today, and chances are they believe global warming exists and society should do something about it. So American automakers, get back on message. Help the younger generation dream the dream they want – and ought – to be dreaming. As you once knew so well, get the folks dreaming, and the biggest beneficiaries will be you.

Writer: Jamie Kitman
Illustrator: Tim Marrs