Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The New Government Motors

GM and Segway are collaborating on an electric vehicle. Here's what it looks like. Where do you put the groceries? Hell, where do you put your briefcase? Watch out for puddles too. I am sure there will be a few sandal-wearing urbanites with a lust for attention and making a statement willing to take their lives into their own hands and buy these death traps.

It comes with your choice of vanity license plates, Environmentalist Dork or Soon To Be Handicapped.

With the American automobile industry in such a sad state I have been thinking about all the cars I have owned. I have owned far more domestic than foreign brands and only two of the imports were purchased new. My very first car was a used 1961 Volkswagen Beetle.

VW’s were very popular when I bought mine used in 1969 for $350. It was black and the body was in great shape. At that time regular leaded gasoline went for 27-32¢ a gallon. The tank held ten gallons so I could fill up for about $3 but even with a four cylinder engine 20mpg was the best it could do. Didn't matter. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t nimble and it sure wasn’t pretty. What it did do was get me around on my own and when you’re seventeen that meant a lot, especially back then.

My next car was a 1967 Pontiac Tempest convertible. I paid $375. for this one in 1971. There was a dent in the right rear quarter panel (which later was repaired). It had a 350 V8 and a 3-speed trans. Without power steering and air conditioning belts draining power this a real neck-snapper. It was just short of a GTO, a car built on the exact same frame and body. It burned rubber in all three gears. This was a time when American cars were built well and consumers were happy to buy them. The muscle cars of the late 60's and 70's were high performance works of art never to be duplicated again.

Then came my first new car, a 1972 Chevrolet Vega GT. What a piece of junk that turned out to be. But it was a fun car to drive with the wide tires, a solid suspension and good handling. I never liked Jap cars. They always seemed cheaply built back then and they rusted quickly.

When I became a radical conservative in the 80’s I swore I would never buy a foreign car, ever, and have been a consider American made first guy ever since. As a family guy with a boat to tow I owned three General Motors mini vans in a row. The first two were Chevy Astros. They were both outstanding, reliable vehicles. The very first one was rear ended on an interstate by a semi truck with my two small kids in the back. The van was totaled but all onboard were fine. That says a lot. The third was a GMC Safari, which was built on the same assembly line. It carried the GMC brand, a different grill and nametags so the other GM dealers had a mini van to sell.

After the Safari went over the 100,000 mile marker (my limit for any vehicle) I bought a Ford Exploder four years ago. The company I worked for had the Lincoln-Mercury advertising account so we were able to purchase Ford made autos with the employee discount at factory invoice. It tows the boat well, gets decent mileage, is a good size for hauling large items and has the 4X4 safety I prefer.

My dearly departed Jeep Wrangler was a solid vehicle that gave me little trouble. It was the workhorse American Jeeps were meant to be and I miss it. I was going to buy another Jeep when she told me how she hated driving it. “Why don’t you get that sports car you always wanted?” she asked. With the price of fuel at $4 a gallon it made sense to own a smaller vehicle. It was a second car that didn't need to haul stuff. I always wanted a two seater. Suddenly, I was bitten by the roadster bug. My intent was to own a vehicle that sipped fuel, was fun to drive and had a convertible top.

Two seat rear wheel drive roadsters always captured my attention. Many of my friends had them. Triumph Spitfires and TR3’s, MGB’s, Alpha Romeos, Sunbeam Tigers and even the lowly VW Karman Ghia were so much fun to drive and ride around in. Problem with those cars was lack of dependability and they were foreign made.

At first I aimed high. After test driving the Porsche Boxter, Audi TT, BMW Z5 and Nissan Z I was stoked. Excellent roadsters all. Then I realized I was looking at very high price tags on foreign made cars. What’s worse was the cost of ownership. Considering sky high insurance rates, repair and maintenance costs, waiting for parts, poor mileage and the risk of theft not one passed my price to value equation. Since I buy my cars instead of leasing the resale value on any of these is very poor. I was never one to break the bank on a rapidly depreciating investment just to project an image. That's not for me.

A friend had recently purchased a Mini Cooper. I really liked it even if it is foreign made and not a roadster. The online reviews were good but there was one problem. The nearest dealer was in Indianapolis. Not good when you are 90 miles away from a warranty repair. And who works on Mini’s when they gag? My local independent mechanic said no way. He didn’t want a car taking up space in his lot for two weeks while waiting for parts.

As I lowered my expectations for the next price category one roadster really caught my eye, the Pontiac Solstice. It looked sexy and it was a true American made roadster. When I test drove one the speed from the turbo boost was noticible. It was a little screamer. Handling was so-so for a small roadster but worst of all is that it didn’t fit my 6’3” 250lb carcass. The narrow cockpit and extremely low window profiles made it very hard to see out of. When the top goes down there is no trunk. It's a poor design. Sorry, Detroit. I looked at comparable reviews online to find the Mazda MX5 beat all other roadsters in this class by far so I went for a test drive at a dealer in town, two miles away from my country bunker.

The 2008 Mazda MX5 was everything it was reported to be. It is the third generation Mazda Miata with better looks and more horsepower. It handled similar to the Porsche, Audi and Nissan with a much lower price tag and cost of ownership. One problem I wrestled with again was that it was not an American made car, it’s made in Hiroshima, a place we bombed to kingdom come. It was not a neck-snapper off the line but had great torque on the move. On the plus side it fit me comfortably with a wider cockpit and windows I could see out of. WTF, it was fun to drive and passed my price to value equation so I bought one. This is the second foreign made automobile I have ever purchased new.

Six months later there are no regrets. My MX5 is worthless in the snow just as all rear wheel drive roadsters are. That was expected, but it sticks like glue to dry pavement. I looked into adding a turbocharger and performance exhaust that would bring it up to and probably exceed the Solstice in overall performance, acceleration and horsepower. After consulting with my dealer I found out that doing so would void my warranty. When the warranty runs out in three years I am going to turn this little go-cart with a body into a true midlife crisis performance machine. The aftermarket provides a lot of great performance options for not a lot of money. Maybe I will even paint a racing stripe on it, it already had roll bars.

When I add them all up, more than half the autos I have owned were made by General Motors. With the exception of my Vega each American car I have owned has been an exceptionally good value over time and very dependable. In my experience it is a myth that foreign built autos are better.

I said all that so I could say this.

Everyone is aware that the American auto industry is in deep doo-doo. Bad management, stiff foreign competition and greedy unions have done them in financially.

According to Forbes magazine, The average UAW worker with a high school degree earns 57.6% more compensation than the average university professor with a Ph.D., and 52.6% more than the average worker at Toyota, Honda or Nissan. This is inexcusable.

CEO's and executives making millions in compensation and bonuses is fine when a company is solvent and the stock pays a dividend. When they're driving it into the ground and losing money that's just as inexcusable.

Years ago a neighbor worked at the Ford assembly plant on Chicago's far south side. He bragged about his job, his compensation and his vacation time. In gaining seniority he earned five weeks of paid vacation. In August, when they retooled the plant for the new model year, he got an additional three weeks paid time off. Add in healthcare and profit sharing benefits why would anyone bother with a higher education? Union, baby! he would say. I bet he is retired and living in Hawaii right now.

The government didn’t help and neither did recent$4 gal gasoline. The government mandates emissions (C.A.F.E. standards) and safety requirements that are regularly increased. This adds to the cost of a vehicle and saps the performance. Recently the push for vehicles using an alternative renewable energy source in light of outrageous gasoline prices caught manufacturers with their pants down, the evil eye of the federal government and a UAW monkey on their backs. They are way behind in alternative options. E85 and Hybrids are a joke right now. It will take a decade or two for automakers to come up with an affordable and practical alternative solution.

I don't understand the demand for electric cars. One won't get you very far. Electricity must be produced by a source. Plug it in to the wall? If you think your utility bill is high now wait until you plug in your automobile each night. When many others are plugging in their electric cars expect brown outs during the summer when everyone is running an air conditioner. The limited run time makes this all but impractical for anything but running for groceries in the urban areas. Where does electric power come from? It comes from coal and nuclear power. So much for saving the precious earth. GM is planning on offering the Volt, the first all electric powered American car. If the current financial situation doesn't do them in the Volt surely will. With fuel now back to $2 gallon even the once hot Toyota Pious hybrid is not selling.

When I opened the hood of my 1967 Pontiac Tempest there was a visible internal combustion engine. You could see the traditional V8 outline and the road beneath it. It was easy to change the plugs and give it a tune up in the driveway. I changed the oil, flushed the radiator and changed the trans lube on my own for cheap and it was fun to monkey around with. On the VW Beetle a friend and I replaced the clutch by blocking it up, removing four bolts and lowering the engine block with a hydraulic jack. Open the hood of any modern vehicle and you are intimidated with an array of hoses, canisters, modules and wires and computer chips. This is the result of a combination of things. There are auto emission (CAFÉ standards) laws that required manufacturers to add on this engine compartment nastiness but I also blame the auto industry. Dealers make more money in their repair shop than on the sales floor. By making it difficult to perform your own maintenance they eliminated their competition, the gas station owner and the shade tree mechanic. The American auto industry did itself few favors.

When GM and Chrysler woke up to the possibility of filing for chapter 11 under federal bankruptcy laws they instead sold their soul to the federal government devil. The socialist government currently in control is more than pleased to take over a one proud American industry setting a precedent that will alter our American capitalist free market forever. This is just a start. Taking advantage of a crisis to control private enterprise makes me sick. First the financials and now the industrials, what’s next? I’m afraid to think bout it.

The Presentdent has taken action. Many are commending him for this claiming that he is “doing something”. I have no issue with the federal government doing something but the decisions they are making are disturbing. It appears that they will assume control with what should be private enterprise. Private enterprises are fully capable of failing on their own and they don’t need a socialist bureaucrat to show them how. Consider Amtrak. How's that going?

It’s been my opinion that GM and the others should go the route of bankruptcy as all private businesses have. Most make a healthy comeback. I believe the results would be more equitable to all involved. The only ones to suffer would be equity holders (I am one) and the unions. I would rather lose some money than watch socialists take over.

Since the Presentdent was able to fire the CEO of GM and his weak Treasury Department butt boy is talking about controlling compensation for executives of the beggar companies why not also fire the UAW leaders and dictate their compensation? Since the unions fund the campaigns of the Presentdent and his cronies that is unlikely to happen. Look for him to promote UAW leaders to the board of directors instead. His grand socialist experiment is doomed to failure. Socialism has never worked and never will.

Soon the Presentdent and his politburo will dictate what kind of autos are manufactured by companies accepting government cheese. As a result I am sure that new Government Motors automobiles will get great mileage, be eco-friendly and look reminiscent to something the Soviets would have built. Here's what's coming soon to a dealer showroom near you.

From now on as long as the government takes control of a private business I will no longer patronize that business. In hindsight my decision to buy a new foreign made car vindicates me. Instead of compromising my principles I think I made a smart decision, something the government is now incapable of doing.


Chris from Colorado said...

I remember that vega. Didn't the engine blow after you sold it?

I worked for a company that filed for bankruptcy after the owners embezzled millions of dollars. Then, the government took over, and within a few months, drove the successful midwest department store chain of Steinberg and Baum into the ground, never to exist again. I saw all this first hand, and the year was 1971. The government has no business interfering with private business.

Dan from Madison said...

We used to use those Chevy Astro's at our place of business. Quarter million miles easy on some of them with nothing but routine maintenance. Never a finer cargo van was produced.

Carl from Chicago said...

Great post and agreed on the solstice. I wanted to buy one too but couldn't fit in it comfortably, either.

Still on my 1998 Altima, as a result.

Snakeye said...

Good writeup. I agree with you about the "electric" cars... no one stops to think that the power has to come from elsewhere. I guess where I disagree (or maybe not so much disagree, as more take my stand) is I think any measure that takes us off an oil dependency is a good one (for the most part).

Personally, I think hydrogen shows a lot of promise depending on how much energy it takes to manufacture it. So I guess I don't mind the government imposing alternate energy source stuff. Furthermore, having been on the ground in Iraq 3 times now, I can tell you that a good portion of the blood money used to build IEDs and wreak havoc on us and fund the "insurgency" comes from black-market oil... the same oil that we depend on. Want to end Iraq and Afgahnistan? Quit buying oil - it'll send the entire Middle-east economy back into the stone age.

Just my thoughts...

Gerry from Valpo said...

...and those are good thoughts!

Any alternative energy is fine with me. But having the government mandate it or use our tax dollars to pay for it is just wrong. I have personally invested in alternative energy companies so I am all for it.

There's enough oil in the ground in the US and off our coast to augment the foreign supply until a viable alternative can be implemented. As long as the government bows to environmentalist polechokers our own domestic oil companies can't get at it. I'm with the drill here drill now crowd. Screw the Arabs.

Once an affordable manufacturing and delivery process for hydrogen can be established that seems like the best option to me too.

Thank you for serving our country Snakeye. And thanks for the compliment.

Mark said...

Unfortunately hydrogen isn't the best option. Alcohol (flex fuel) is the way to go - we need to model after Brazil. Here's an excellent book that lays out the argument against hydrogen:

Gerry from Valpo said...

All alternative options to power automobiles are on the table. May the best one win. The winner, and their investors will reap fortunes. If the history maker in D.C. will allow it.