June 1, 2009
A decade ago we watched events leading up to the dot-com-era implosion, and this morning we witnessed a milestone of the drawn-out automotive bust: General Motors is now a bankrupt company. Economic history is peppered with booms, bubbles, and busts of various sorts, but the current automotive struggle seems different—perhaps more human.
The dot-com bust involved people who made millions and lost it all, and some had grand dreams of the kind of utopias made possible by the amazing potential of the microchip that could process 1s and 0s faster every year. Of course, "1011110001" doesn't carry with it the passion of horsepower, torque, and the loads of other jargon gearheads ticked off with little or no prompting. My dad was a gearhead (still is, in fact, but only with old cars). In high school, working at a local garage, he fixed the elements of internal combustion, bent over the hood with a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth. In his youth, as Dad recalled, spouting car jargon could get a guy a date. I'd like to see a software programmer do that.
Unlike the dot-com bust, the automotive bust came after decades of growth and a slow, painful decline. Generations have grown up in the car biz. Today the Grand Rapids Press covered, among other people, Steve Hamilton, a third-generation employee of the Wyoming, Mich., General Motors stamping plant, which ended full production on Friday. His grandfather, Douglas Dulyea, helped install a sewer system in the plant back in 1935, and his father, William Hamilton, spent 28 years as a diemaker.
As Hamilton told the newspaper, "Every day I go in there, I think I'm basically walking where they walked, working where they worked."
A great essay about the car business by P.J. O'Rourke in last weekend's Wall Street Journal got me thinking about cars, but not as a business. As he put it, "We embarked upon life in the fast lane with our new paramour. It was a great love story of man and machine. The road to the future was paved with bliss."
Then, the minivan happened.
"The car ceased to be [an] object of desire and equipment for adventure and turned into office, rec room, communications hub, breakfast nook, and recycling bin—a motorized cup holder."
Volumes have been written about the auto industry's golden era and its supposed fall from grace, and it's a complex issue, to say the least. But the fact that so many write so much about their cars says something, and I haven't read any great poetry about PCs. Sure, the Internet created an information superhighway, but it doesn't move people anywhere. You can social-network as much as you like, but all the typing and clicking in the world won't take you closer to a neighbor's doorstep.
So here's to hope: hope that the U.S. car business is here for generations to come, and hope that for at least some people, cars remain not just about business, but about the freedom to step hard on the accelerator to see what's out there—or just to say hello to a friend, face-to-face, no typing allowed.