AUGUST 2,  2021

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June 10, 2021


We all love’em. Big, small, fast, slow, steel, rubber, the world runs on wheels and we love’em. For all of us that are still on the green side of the grass, it’s been that way our whole lives. They made Michigan great, they made America great, and we were the kings, right here in our own back yard. The legacy is still here, many of the plants are still here, many of the guys that worked in them are still here, and the UAW is still here with them, but the rank and file is but a shadow of what it was in the glory days. Obviously, it’s still a powerful organization, but a number of marketplace forces have all aligned to vastly reduce their numbers, when compared to the figures of the 50’s and 60’s era. At the time when many of us came out of high school, the “shops” were taking about all the warm bodies they could get, and it was almost a given that you could get a summer job there or even a permanent one if you so desired. For those who did, it was often only a matter of time before you went to work for Uncle Sam in Southeast Asia, but at least you kept your seniority in the shop.


It was a way of life here in Michigan. For much of the 20th century, the heavy manufacturing industry kept America and the world on wheels. It was the bedrock of the Nations economy and the rest of the world looked on us with envy, while they looked to us to provide them with our products. It was that same broad based manufacturing infrastructure that was already in place which allowed the generation before us to put the military on wheels and even added the wings that turned the tide of WWII. Henry Ford in Dearborn with the Rouge Plant, Steering Gear with the “Gun Plant” in Saginaw, and similar facilities all over this country were able to be quickly converted to the defense industry needs that would allow us to remain the “Land of the Free”. When the war had been won, it was right back to Buicks and breadwinners, Pontiacs and prosperity. For most of us, the American Dream came with lots of chrome, a big V-8, and the comforting knowledge that the bumper was securely bolted on by Uncle Pat, the farm boy from Irishtown who migrated to Flint to make a career at “the Buick”.

Even us poor folks can remember the thrill of making a stop at the local dealership when the new Chevy model was being unveiled because we knew it would look nothing like the model before it. From two blocks away, we’d know if it was a BelAir, or just a Biscayne, a Crown Victoria or a Customline, a Roadmaster or a Special. How much “status” could your family afford? We knew that Cadillac’s were only driven by politicians or maybe the Pope, a good doctor might have a Buick or Lincoln, a local business man might aspire to a Pontiac or an Olds, while the rest of us were well aware that our station in life was unmistakably identified by the Chevys and Fords that we drove, and how many model years out of style it was. Even though it was more than half a century ago, we all remember the first one we drove, the first one we owned, the first one we wrecked.

Fast forward to 2008, the North American Auto Show in Detroit, right where it ought to be. Still quite a bit of hoopla attached, and a fair amount of press coverage, at least here in Michigan, but I can’t escape the feeling that we will never recover the core magic that rolled in on those chrome capped wheels we saw in our youth. The new products, we know, are longer lasting, more efficient, better designed than were the marvels of our era, but they also seem more homogenized, more indistinguishable, more uninteresting. Songs like, “Little GTO, Hot Rod Linclon, and “409”, aren’t likely to be written about the 2008 offerings from the auto industry. Today, all the hype seems to center around the latest electronic wizardry that has found it’s way into the world of wheels. GPS, voice activated phones and music, stability control, variable displacement, traction control, DVD players, interactive speed control, etc. It seems like the Las Vegas Electronics show and the Detroit Auto show have merged. Smoke and mirrors, loud music and anorexic models, big screen video sales pitches, it all feels more like a “virtual” auto show to those of us who remember the real smoke and thunder of a good test drive back in our day. It should be no surprise that the only truly big marketplace introductions these days are for things like the latest I-Phone, or the newest Nintendo widget. You don’t see people camping out overnight in front of the Ford dealer to be the first in line to buy a new Focus.


As the National press almost gleefully tells us that Toyota has nearly tied General Motors in global auto production, the price of gas regularly exceeds $3 per gallon, and the price of a new F150 should get you a decent modular home, one begins to wonder if we can ever recapture the great era when “Made in America” was the norm, and the label “Imported” only added snob appeal to a bottle of wine? As local witnesses to the grand history of the automobile, we very well know what happens to the economy when the “Wheels” fall off.

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