Sunday, May 31, 2009

'Twister,' Trucks and Dead Scrap Driving

I'm sitting here watching the 1996 movie "Twister," as storm chasers zip around the backroads of the Midwest, dogging tornados and hashing out their romantic and professional differences.

One the one side are the good guys, driving a motley caravan composed of pickup trucks (including a red one that executes some fairly sweet maneuvers, including driving through a house) and a battered station wagon. On the other side are the "corporate kiss-butts," piloting a sleek convoy of big black SUVs.

It's car heaven. Can you imagine this movie shot with a Prius, two Smart cars and a vegetable-oil-fueled minivan that smells like a taco stand? But that's where we're headed. If you thought the teeny-car chase in "Demolition Man" was the greatest thing ever, this auto future's for you.

(By the way, if you've never seen "Demolition Man," get it. It's prophetic, only I suspect that in many ways, its future is now.)

Very likely, by the time you read this, General Motors -- founded by entrepreneur William C. Durant, who transitioned from horse-drawn to horseless vehicles -- will have declared bankruptcy. The fate of the venerable American automaker will then be in the hands of the courts and its chief stockholder, the United States Government.

Oh, joy, the people that just sent stimulus checks to the dead will now be running a major manufacturing company.

One thing's for certain, my poor Pontiac Vibe -- the latest in an unbroken string of GM vehicles I have owned -- is now an orphan. In 80 years or so, it could become a collectors' item. But, unlike the odd Ford Model-T that's still motoring around, I doubt it will survive long enough to to be a treasured remnant of a bygone era (Ford Motors may, though, and no doubt there's a lesson in that).

My car's just dead scrap driving, doomed to represent the beginning of the end of an automobile era -- a phenomenon political satirist P.J O'Rourke captured with mordant wit and flashes of road poetry in this brilliant piece for the Wall Street Journal.

At this moment, much of the U.S. auto industry knows what it felt like to be the village smithy, standing under his spreading chestnut tree on the day the first Flivver rolled into town. Unfortunately for him -- along with farriers, stable boys, saddlemakers, tack suppliers, hay farmers and carriage builders -- nobody was around to prevent the inevitable downsizing, reorganizing, retooling and even professional demise.

How many horses wound up as dog food or glue when the world just didn't need as many of them anymore?

Who weeps for them today? The same "no one" that will be weeping for 20th-century automakers decades from now when we're tooling around in whatever comes next. This is creative destruction, evolution, if you will, as those lucky enough to have the skills and clever enough to have the ideas suited to the new reality rise from the ashes of the past.

I suspect that even the United States Government can do little but prolong the agony. America's mighty manufacturing engines must adapt or die.

As the daughter in a family of men that love cars, and as a dedicated fan of the British boys-and-toys car show "Top Gear," the prospect of driving the Los Angeles freeways in an egg crate on wheels is not appealing.

Because, until they perfect the transporter, and Scotty can beam us to work or the grocery store, people will still need to get around.

"Oh, what about public transportation and bicycles for all?" you may ask. They have their place and their dedicated devotees, and always will, but if there are personal motorized wheels available, whatever the form or fashion, plenty of Americans will burn rubber to grab them.

But I have faith that somewhere out there, maybe in a garage in Sausalito, or a body shop in Bangor, or the back of a dealership service bay in Tampa is a William C. Durant or a Henry Ford, just itching to reinvent those wheels.

And if the experts and the know-it-alls and the car czars and the "pointy-headed busybodies" of O'Rourke's piece can just manage to get out of this kid's way, I'll get to drive something that's not only safe and fuel-efficient, but way cool.

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