Saturday, September 26, 2009

My truck.

Okay, so everyone has his or her own ideas about what's happened to the American auto manufacturing industry. It has lately been beaten so badly that Government ownership has been the choice of actions to keep it out of the morgue. Now, when you consider their successes lately, it's like handing a patient to an undertaker rather than a physician.

My intention here, however, is to offer my own experience as to why the industry is on it's knees. First, an introduction is required, though. My first experience of memory being transported in a vehicle was in my father's 1947 GMC half-ton pickup. It was military surplus, and, had been through a few other owners by 1965, none too kind, and, it was spartan to say the least as far as amenities. Heaters were an option in those days, and Dad had to save up to buy and install one. By 1968, a broken transmission part spelled it's doom. Since it would be another 15 years before the aftermarket parts industry for "classics" such as it would have been able to save it with reproduction parts, it was unceremoniusly dismantled in our driveway. The bed ended up being incorporated into a trailer. But who knows, had a part been found, it may have lived to be a coveted "collectible", or, to evolve into a "custom street machine." Point being that it certainly didn't know that the warranty was up; that decision was made for it.

About that time, my grandfather was still periodically operating a 1942 Chevrolet ton-and-a-half flatbed for hauling firewood. Another spartan, but, ultimately utilitarian machine, also of military heritage. No frills, just hard working. It fared better than Dad's pickup, I eventually bought it during my third year of high school and drove it as my first vehicle for another 15 years, off and on. I still have it, and, it still runs. And, I can get parts for it.

However, it not being the most practicle vehicle for a daily commuter, I settled on another, smaller truck in 1981. It was a red 1966 GMC stepside with only one option to set it out from the basic low-price model. It had a white cab above the bottom window line. Oh, and, I paid $300.00 for it. What a deal! Only 98,770 miles on it! And, no wheels, no engine, no sheet metal at all past the front of the firewall, and, no transmission. I bought it on blocks! But, General Motors built approximately six million trucks in the 1960-66 family group that shared many of the same parts, not to mention GM's penchant for using things like the same alternators on many other different brand vehicles. Couldn't go wrong there. So began the reconstruction.

I bought two new fenders at the local Chevrolet dealer to start with, and, from there, I scoured wrecking yards for a 50 mile radius as well as working through old buddies to assemble the rest of the parts, and, even though I took my sweet time, it came together fairly easily and quickly. After about four months, I had a freshly reconditioned engine bolted in between the new fenders, and, was able to drive it soon after. I had to save up for another two years to give it a fitting body and paint job, but, after applying a salvaged chrome grill (standard trim was white paint) to that beautiful new red paint job, I was turning heads like a 21 year old dance hall girl in front of an Elk's Lodge.

Now, this may just seem like another sentimental, fuzzy, feel good old truck story, but, now comes the analysis. That truck cost it's first owner $3,667.00 new, and it served him and others well for an expected fifteen years. But, at what should have been it's demise, is where the story really begins. The truck is much easier to repair because it was built not only before auto emissions standards, but, before the Environmental Protection Agency ever reared its ugly head. "Heresy!" you shout. "We must protect Nature!" you cry. How dare I? Well, I'm no stranger to controversy, so, let's go down that path for a miniute.

While the vaunted E.P.A. constantly claims credit for singlehandedly abating incomprehensible and questionable amounts of dastardly you-name-its in every corner of the fruited plain, thereby justifying it's bloated buget, inept administration, and strangling regulations, the truth is that, in the case of the automobile industry, it is just the embodiment of bureaucratic Federal control over problems that other government agencies are too inept to cope with on their own. And it manages this while costing manufacturers (and you) more money. For example, smog in the Los Angeles Basin should have been thinned or prevented by proper zoning and occupancy densities at the local level. Period. We in rural Nevada don't have smog, don't live like ants, and, have no need for power robbing smog pumps and expensive catalytic converters. I'd even be willing to bet that it's the same situation in Wyoming, Texas, Montana, and many other places where blanket Federal regulations cause everyone to share in a few others' misery. I know, some people are offended by simple, black and white solutions, but, I only go where logic leads. Back to the truck.

Not having to acquire such tools of the Envirowakos as catalytic converters and other related appliances right off saved over a thousand dollars on the resurection of the truck. Further, there were no faulty airbag connections to test and repair, no engine management computer with its myriad sensors to diagnose and outwit, no power steering pump to fight belts over, no brake booster leaking vacuum pressure, no fuel injection lines cracking and spraying, no transmission cooler leaking oil into the radiator, no turbocharger with frozen bearings, no aftercooler with bent fins to block the radiator air flow, and, no automatic door locks to trap your keys in the cab. "Shazam!" you exclaim. "How could it even be legal to produce such a simple, inexpensive, practical, easy to maintain truck! And, where can I get a new one!" Sorry. It isn't. And, you can't. Simply put, that truck wasn't built with anything it really didn't logically need to carry a thousand pounds of payload at seventy miles an hour safely all day, every day, for years. But, those brilliant engineers at Congress fixed that.

"Okay. so, why are we all doomed to watch our dashboards crack in the sun and our door panels crumble and decay while you're blissfully unplagued with such maladies?" you ask. Simple. A nice young rabblerouser named Ralph Nader (originator of such needless maintenance items as the "cyclops" brakelight) decided that self-centered Senators must know more about economical transportation than the people then producing it, (the same people, by the way,who were in a pissing match with him)so, he started working toward getting automobile design legislated. That's when the inviolable laws of physics began to be supplanted with legislative laws based on fantasy. Anyway, in 1968, some of the first "safety" rules for automobile construction began issuing forth from the Federal Government, including mandatory installation of seat belts (although it was already being done voluntarily by some manufacturers as early as 1958). Also, among other things, came a rule that said that you must apply padding of some sort on what were previously painted steel dashboards so that when your torso was flung forward because of the required lap belts in an accident, your mouth would be somewhat cushioned before your teeth were all knocked out and your jaw broken. That minor oversight was corrected by shoulder belts, but, Congress never moves backward, so, car interiors will forever more be cheap, rotting, smelly, plastic trash.

I would be remiss if I were to lay substandard construction strictly at the hands of dumb safety excuses, because there's another, equally dastardly, Federal excuse for legislated control over logical manufacturing procedures. It is seemingly harmlessly known simply as CAFE. What, a restaurant? No. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. My truck was built before any such idiocy as the thought that you could defy physics and legally demand that a given amount of hydrocarbon molecules produce infinately expandable amounts of energy upon combustion. An automotive engineer understands that burning an ounce of gasoline produces a definite amount of work. A physicist can explain why. But, only a Congressman can dictate that if that value is not exceeded, someone will pay!

Another inviolable rule is that no one can force a Congressman to understand anything he doesn't care about. So, what to do? The engineer's only choice is to do less with the same amount of fuel. What? Why not more? Once again, he has to work with physics. If you have to move a pound of steel in a paintable, dent and sun resistant, easily maintained door panel down the road a mile, and it takes a certain amount of fuel to produce the necessary work to accomplish that, but, it only takes a third of that weight in sunlight-decaying plastic to replace that pound of steel, you can move a less massive, less well constructed door panel that mile with less fuel. "Aha!," you exclaim. "But he can move it three times as far." Well, the problem is, less massive, less well constructed...... you get the idea. Now you're hurtling down the road like a loose Space Shuttle tile in a plastic ball full of expensive, dangerous contraptions designed to substitute for that all important steel shell that protects me, and, saved my father's life in a rollover accident several years ago in a similar truck. Your freedom to pay less for a well constructed vehicle that fits your needs has been hijacked by Government's need to dictate the opinions of others to you through control of your purchasing power.

Now, as for those brainwashed do-gooders that like to point to statistics that claim to justify mandatory "safety devices," where are the cries of "foul murder" when, as happened just today during a local motorcycle event, an accident claimed the life of a passenger of a bike that hit a bump in the highway and caused the driver to loose control. I'm sure that, along with her customary tank top, cutoff shorts, sandals, and tattoos, she was probably protected by the mandatory helmet. Why didn't anyone legislate that that machine come with mandatory training wheels, and, a carbon fiber cocoon with airbags? What? No self-respecting biker would buy it? Well, at least if they don't vote with their ballots, they are still, for now, able to make their own decisions and vote with their money.

But, you say, "the airbags and crush bumpers and seat belts make me feel safer." There you go again, giving up liberty for perceived security. More steel makes me feel safer. Simple physics. "But, we all have to pay for other people's injuries through higher insurance rates" claim insurance agents, and, their partners in crime, the Highway Patrol. Let's take another side trip. Normally, I don't begrudge a free enterprise making whatever the industry's market will bear. And there are circumstances where dealing with insurance companies can be beneficial. But, when they use scare tactics to lobby for a state mandated industry franchise to guarantee themselves a paycheck at MY expense, I get a little peeved. If I'm a responsible driver, why should I always have to financially share in other people's missadventures? At one time, auto insurance was nothing more than a prudent option that you were free to choose if you felt it necessary. Sort of like adding oil to your engine if you wanted it to last longer. Accidents were settled by legal means. They ultimately still are, you just have a third-party gorilla involved. People were more attentive to their driving, though, because they didn't have the perception of buying off the responsibility for their actions.

You never come out well with auto insurance. You bet against yourself, and, if you "win" and don't need their service because you're a skillfull, responsible driver, you loose the money spent on your premiums. Money gone forever. And, if you loose, well, you're likely injured, and, those premiums didn't prevent that, so you continue to pay anyway. Yes, they cover some bills, fight over others, and, disallow still others, but, none of that can make up for enduring two weeks in traction or major surgery when responsible driving would likely have avoided all of that.

Not to mention that they never use all of that money to pay the real value of repairs. If you have a 20 year old vehicle that you depend on to get to work and that you have invested five grand into for restoration or upgrades, they'll still only give you a few hundred bucks for it when it gets a dented fender because the fender repair cost twice as much as they want to "value" your vehicle at. To hell with you and the other $4,500.00 investment. And the years of premiums that would have well covered the repairs. There went my freedom to choose how to manage my repair money. And, I'll get cheerfully fined by the State if I don't support this Ponzi scheme, adding to their coffers, but, still not preventing one dented fender. Ninety-seven percent of which could be inexpensively prevented by forcing drivers to be more responsible by stiff fines for lawless driving, and, making them PERSONALLY responsible for their own carelessness. For example, if someone backs over your wheelbarrow in your tulip bed behind your front fence while texting gibberish to giddy cohorts, you file a lean against their car, income, or other property for the value of the damages. They pay or else. "But, what of people who cause accidents who have no assets or means to pay," you say? Well, what about those ubiquitous scofflaws, the "uninsured motorists"?

One reason I keep my truck is that it DOESN'T have airbags. Seems it doesn't need them. Makes me feel kinda independent, like a biker. And, considering the deaths they've caused over the years, safer.

I've drifted off the main message, the one I wanted to convey to General Motors (or, Government Motors, or whatever.) Since I began my odysey with the red truck over eighteen years ago, and, while it celebrates it's forty-third year on the planet, it has cost me, maintenance, fuel, insurance, registration, and capital expenditure included, an average of $232.00 a month to operate in daily service. It has done that for me for 246,000 miles. On top of someone else's 98 thousand. And, I can put it into brand new condition with my skills and $4,500.00. You see, it doesn't know how old it is, it just reacts to how it's treated. God forbid that the Government finds out how well it's performed, they'll try to kill it. (Remember "Cash for Clunkers"?)

Let's see the local GMC dealer with a comparable new truck match that. I'd bet that I can buy a lot of gas for the difference. Or, parts.