Nineteen fifty-nine. Six years earlier it had been just one man, one woman. Now it was one man, one woman, and three rowdy youngsters, squeezed into a 900-square-foot salt box on the Gulf Coast. The old Ranch Wagon couldn't keep up anymore, and one day the man came home from the Ford store in something about half the size that promised to drink maybe half as much fuel. I took an immediate dislike to it.

1959 Ford Anglia advertisementThen again, the little Fordlet did seem to have some advantages to it: it would fit in the narrow driveway, which the Ranch Wagon really didn't, and the lack of a front bench meant there would be no squabbling about who got to sit up front with Mom and Dad, because there wasn't any room for any of up there. And it was reasonably abstemious with fuel: seldom did it take more than three dollars' worth to fill up. (The fact that the tiny tank didn't hold much more than three dollars' worth didn't occur to me at the time.) Even then, I was fascinated by speedometers, and Ford had provided something I'd never seen before: instead of a pointer, there was this humongous orange arc, maybe half an inch wide, that slowly painted itself along the inside of the gauge, eventually reaching 60 or even 70 mph. (And "slowly" says it right: contemporary test reports show zero-to-sixty in these 1.2-liter boxes would take somewhere around half a minute.) I did think it was unconscionably cheap of Ford to fail to provide a tenths indicator on the odometer: there were five digits, nothing more. And after 26,898 miles, both orange arc and rotating digits locked themselves into position, never to budge again; apparently the speedometer cable had gone troppo, and replacements had to be ordered from far away. Dearborn, maybe? No: Dagenham. The gauges remained unfixed until the children outgrew the Ford's back bench, at which time Dad picked up a '62 Rambler Classic wagon, about which I knew nothing except that it was made by something called American Motors, suggesting that it was in fact made in America.

In fact, a few years later, just about all of the cars on our little suburban block outside Charleston were made in America, including the Pontiac Tempest (later revealed to be a GTO, not that I knew what that meant at the time) next door driven by Mark's mom. (There was a whole year when Mark's mom drove me to school in each morning, which surely had some effect on my future development.) But one house down from Mark's mom was Mr. DeAbate, who drove a weird-looking finned thing with a three-pointed star atop its unsmiling face. This was the first Mercedes-Benz I'd ever seen, and it was wild: a vertical speedometer, seats made from some seemingly indestructible leather that wasn't really leather, and a price tag about twice as high as Mark's mom's Pontiac had supposedly cost. What's more, apparently it ran on diesel, a nasty, odoriferous stuff that reminded me of the heating oil we stashed in a tank out back. I'd never heard of such a thing. The family was not, however, overly concerned with my automotive concerns: there were six of us now, a seventh on the way, and a three-row vehicle was acquired: a Volkswagen Type 2, the first of two we would own.

By this time I was finishing up high school, and I was becoming aware of lots of other cars that had never seen the lights of Detroit. One day in Austin, I spotted a tiny lot containing two weirdly-colored fastbacks, identified as Saabs, which were apparently made in Sweden. Who knew they made cars in Sweden? Cousin Charlie, who lived in Austin, had a Swedish car, a Volvo, which looked even weirder than those Saabs. In fact, in the next year, I would see all manner of makes and models I'd never heard of. The car in which I would eventually learn the rudiments of driving, however, had become familiar to me: it was our second VW Microbus.

Given my easy distraction by dials and such, the Vee Dub was probably the ideal training vehicle for me, as its dash was utterly barren: a speedo the size of a dog dish, surrounded by not much of anything. The engine was a low roar, seemingly about half a mile behind me, and I learned to upshift when the noise level jumped upward. I hadn't gotten my license yet when I joined the Army, so I spent less time in the motor pool than most, and while there were some spectacular examples of automotive weirdness surrounding me in USAREUR, I didn't get to drive any of them. And so it came to pass that I returned home, picked up a third-hand Chevy, and began noticing that there were a lot more foreign cars on American roads.

There's a lot of "buy-American" talk these days, though much of it is undercut by grumbling by people who wouldn't be caught dead in something by "Government Motors." I never have quite bought into that notion; I thought GM's bailout and bankruptcy were not handled particularly well, but the company seems reasonably close to being stabilized these days, and if the taxpayers lose a few billion here and there, well, this is what Washington does: lose a few billion here and there. You can't fix that without fixing the whole system. Taking the longer view, it's damned near impossible to come up with a workable definition for an American car. Mitt Romney, we are told, is fond of American cars, and his lovely wife drives "a couple" of Cadillacs — though those Cadillacs are assembled in, um, Mexico, at the same plant whence came the short-lived Saab 9-4X, which of course is a Swedish car, isn't it?

It gets worse. Starting with the seventh generation, Honda's Accord bore no resemblance to either the Japanese domestic or European versions of the Accord, and it was built in Ohio. Doesn't that make it an American car? Only a few of them were moved in Japan, under the name Inspire. And how about those Chryslers "imported from Detroit"? Even apart from the fact that Fiat owns 58 percent of the company, several models are brought in from Mexico or Canada. (Interestingly, the little Fiat 500 is built Stateside.) The line between domestics and imports has been blurred so much that nobody even recognizes it anymore. I just hope today's six-year-olds aren't as baffled as I was. At least they won't have to worry about where their Fords come from.

The Vent

  1 March 2012

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