It was quite a thing to hear.
The big U.S. auto manufacturers, finding their sales affiliates smarting over the loss of business for the once-profitable mammoth, 4X4 luxury monsters in deference to smaller, fuel-friendly models and higher prices at the pumps, started testing the waters to see what would happen if… they sold those divisions? Maybe they might just close the Hummer and Escalade plants down, seeing as how the time for them had come and gone. A part of me, the part that never could afford one of these stupid counties on wheels and was gleeful in spite, cheered the announcement. Sure, it wasn’t a concrete plan of action — merely a “f’rinstance” — but the merest mention of the possibility was enough. At least, it momentarily was.
Then that other part of me — that sober-minded, analytical, boring-as-hell side — saw those auto manufacturing plants closing, more employees put to the street, more of a wrench to our economic recovery than a victory for common sense, and it suddenly seemed less like a reason to celebrate. If anything, it was an expose of the needy human ego, an insatiably arrogant beast if there ever was one, and that’s no reason to dance around the big straw hat. Recall, if you will, that at one time the Hummer was a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HumVee for short) and was strictly used for military purposes. Then some folks with the cash and the power to buy and sell most of us thought that thing might be a real attention-grabber on those Sunday jaunts. Soon, owning a Hummer was certainly a status symbol to be reckoned with.
Land Rover, an English company, saw potential in this marketing strategy. Appeal less to functionality and more to the sociological; stroke the demographic that can afford the rubdown. Pickup trucks the size of spacecraft started metastasizing on American roadways, “Hemi” became a buzzword. Cadillac, a company that was founded on the bigger-is-better ethic, broke in with the aforementioned Escalade and despite having that company’s name attached, a name synonymous with a much older generation’s standard of luxury, Generation Hip-Hop took the machine to heart. Soon, it was the symbol of success and excess. The rich and famous flaunted their shiny, death-black pavement muncher, as if to say “you can’t be me, and this is the proof.”
Only, that’s not how the human ego works. As it tends to go, those who truly needed to show off found ways of getting their status machines, sometimes through lease packages, sometimes through buying used (how gauche) but many through handy-dandy home refinancing. The lure of instant money based on the accruing equity in one’s own home must have been a lot like going into the basement and finding an ATM wedged between the washer and the dryer. Now you had the Smiths down the street, that newlywed couple that just moved in, driving a vehicle that could pack in every one of their immediate relations. The MacPhees down the road have a four-year-old, but why shouldn’t the four-year-old have his/her/it’s own DVD and custom audio package for their backseat? And so it went as those who never had the chance to live above their means before were shooting straight into the fiduciary stratosphere, and the uniqueness of having this type of vehicle just wasn’t the same anymore.
And don’t kid yourself. Gas is super-expensive but, at that time, it wasn’t necessarily couch cushion change. Those who had to put on the show surely kept paying for it but, at that time, it didn’t seem to matter. It was all a part of the play. You must be something special if not only you have that kind of car/truck/Autobot but you can keep it tanked with gas/diesel/energon. Now we arrive at the present day where the speculative lifespan of these models is growing dangerously short, yet I have to wonder why. The transport in question now can only be available to those with the means to purchase and maintain it, essentially bring the same back to its place of original intent. It takes back the allure of unattainability by all except the privileged few and becomes a status symbol once again. It’s like complaining that your ice cream was too cold yesterday, just right today, but will likely be too cold for you tomorrow. Remarkable.
So if all that has changed falls between the years where the have-nots eked a way to have, why should a single car manufacturing employee lose a job? Had the individual car companies reckoned with the “what goes up comes down” physics and not bankrolled the majority of their output on the behemoths, then there absolutely could have been a prudent scale back that not only kept the companies fiscally culpable but kept the plants cranking away. Truth is, every bubble bursts but they who blow it assume it never will, not the mortgage and housing wonks, not the Internet geeks and not the oil barons who, in the presence of record profits, predict a glorious reign for eons to come. That is, eons to come so long as they’re not scooped by an industrious small nation willing to pay triple per barrel, undercutting the flow to America and intentionally destabilizing the Dollar in order to kick the competition in the family jewels.
We are left not only to find transportation that satisfies the needy teenage heart in all of us, but to find such that appeals to the needy teenage wallet in our pockets. It is odd to see the change since the shift happened so fast, from guzzler fans to tee-totaler trendies. It’s even more odd that almost exactly the same thing happened to our parents in the 1970s yet we took nothing away from our history lesson to save us the grief (we’ll leave that discussion for another day.) Suffice it to say that, one day, your kids will probably be mulling over the same circumstances so you’ll be able to engage them in at least one future conversation. Human beings tend to suffer, not learn, their lessons. Likewise, we’ll suffer gladly to get what we want when we want it so long as it appears to elevate our social rank. One hopes we’ll remember enough of it this time that it might do us some good…
…but I doubt it.