The end of an affair

Sam Smith
2009

I was raised on Chryslers. I can only remember one General Motors machine ever being granted resident parking permission in my parent’s driveway and the only Ford I ever drove was a farm tractor.

Admittedly, my first car was a 1941 Oldsmobile Hydromatic. But it was 20 years old, had just 26,000 miles on it and was too cheap and nifty for a twenty-something to resist. Besides it really was owned by the little old lady who only drove it on Sundays. I actually talked to her. But it only lasted six months thanks to its novel but unperfected transmission, so I sold it to a fellow Coastguardsman who somehow transformed it into a clutchless yet shiftable vehicle.

Including three cars handed down by a similarly inclined grandfather, my parents’ fleet over the years included a 1936 Plymouth, a used 1939 Plymouth laundry van, a 1941 and 1946 Plymouth station wagon, a 1946 Army surplus six wheel personnel carrier with winch that required double clutching and in which I learned to drive at 14, a 1949 Chrysler coupe, and a 1952 DeSoto. My own collection included a 1952 Chrysler New Yorker dubbed Gloria because it was sick transit, a 1985 minivan (a sister model is now in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History) which my sons found too embarrassing to take on dates, and its 1995 successor. The other day I sold my last Chrysler, getting $400 for a 1995 Cirrus whose constant stalling had befuddled all repair shops but which I kept going through the simple expedient of turning on the air conditioner to reve up the idle.

But I’m afraid that’s it. I just can’t see myself buying a Chrysler built by Obama fiat and Italian Fiat. I’m afraid that each time I would put on the brakes, I would see phantom images of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner in the road ahead telling me that the problem was all just a matter of corporate readjustment.

We live in a time when reorganization is substituting for reality, answering multiple choice questions on school exams has replaced learning the way things attached to each other actually work, and cliche-ridden management patois has eliminated the need for actual competence. If those at the top understand marketing, mission and finance, what more does one want?

The problem is that cars don’t work like that. Management is the least of their problems. Getting people from place to place, not spending too much fuel in the process, creating a little piece of happy solitude in the midst of five lane chaos, and knowing the best place to put the cup holders is what really matters.

If I want sleep-inducing rhetoric, Barack Obama is my man; if I want some funny car stories, Fiat is my vehicle. But if I’m looking for something that really works, that will make me happy, and keep working until someone else in my house says, “Can’t we buy a new car yet?” then I’m going to seek elsewhere.

Jeff Barlett of Consumer Reports seems to agree. Last May he wrote:

“For those Americans who recall when Fiat cars were sold here, the brand made a less-than-stellar impression. Looking back at Consumer Reports reliability ratings from the late 1970s, Fiat models typically had more dreaded solid black blobs than most car shoppers would prefer. . . Back then, Fiat was sometimes referred to as ‘Fix It Again, Tony.’

“A lot can happen in 30 years, but don’t get your hopes up. . . The annual Which? Car survey is the largest survey of its kind in the U.K., and it is conducted by a publication that, like Consumer Reports, does not accept advertising and delivers the straight facts from its findings. . .

“When the brands are ranked, Which? Car finds Honda and Toyota at the top of the 2008 reliability list, followed closely by Daihatsu, Lexus, Mazda, and Subaru. . . Among the 38 brands featured in Which? Car, Fiat ranked 35th, followed by Renault, Land Rover, and Chrysler/Dodge. . .

“Fiat, Chrysler, and Dodge are categorized as ‘Very poor.’ In total, Fiat, Chrysler, and Dodge provide similar reliability, and it isn’t good.”

So, if I was raised on lousy Chryslers, what’s so much worse about a Fiat? Only this: in six decades of Chrysler cars, I only had one lemon (the 1995 Cirrus). The worst thing that ever happened with the other cars was when the hood flew up on the 1941 Plymouth station wagon as I was driving to college and when the tire fell off the 1952 DeSoto driving down a highway, probably the result of a bad mechanic rather than of bad mechanics.

I beat the averages all those years and one thing about averages is that only in Lake Wobegon can you always do better than average. So I think I’ll start trusting Consumer Reports rather than my luck. Besides, I can’t get an image out of my mind: that of Barack Obama, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers looking under the hood of my car and telling me not to worry, it’s just a matter of a different approach to financing and changing the management structure. I’ve never had a car that worked like that.

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