The more things change, the more they stay the same

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By Kes Colbert

I think I know what the problem is with the automobile industry. They are all making the same car! A Buick Lucerne pulled in front of me at the four way stop at Stonewall and Magnolia and it looked just like a Toyota Avalon or a Chevy Monte Carlo or a Kia Amanti. These days you can’t tell who is driving what. It reminds me of an old Pete Seeger song, “and their all made out of ticky tacky and they all come out the same.”

Trucks are even worse. The ex-football player comes on TV bragging about Chevrolet’s gas mileage and pay load. The “almost a country singer” tells us how tough Ford’s trucks are built. Toyota, or maybe it is Nissan, espouses the virtues of the new way of looking at trucks. Are they kidding me? They all could have come off the same assembly line. There are only three kinds of pickups being built today; big ones, mid-size ones and little ones.

I just bought a brand new van. Well, actually Cathy bought it. I’m just helping pay for it. It replaced a Dodge Caravan we had purchased in 1998. It was 11 years newer. I couldn’t tell them apart. And this new one is a Toyota!

I wasn’t keen on buying a Toyota and it certainly didn’t help when we perused the used car lot. I couldn’t tell the 2005 “old” model from the 2009 I was buying. It didn’t make sense to me. I asked the salesman why anyone in his right mind would buy a new model that looked 4 years old before he could get it off the lot. He quickly raced down to that part about side air bags, back-up cameras and full train warranties.

He also said that 74 percent of this Toyota was built in America. Now, that will make you scratch your head, I don’t care who you are! I checked the inside door panel on a Ford I was looking at and the parts were from Mexico and it was assembled in Canada. No wonder the industry is in a mess.

I have been big on “American” cars all of my life. We grew up with General Motors. My Dad bought Chevrolets because he couldn’t afford Buicks. I still remember the afternoon he drove up in our brand new 1960 Impala. It didn’t look like a Ford Galaxie or a Nash Rambler or an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. It didn’t look exactly like the 1959 Chevrolet and it certainly looked nothing like the big change they made in 1961. The 1960 Chevrolet was a one of a kind animal. Unique. Individual. Exclusive. Matchless. Distinctive. I don’t think those descriptives are used much in the auto industry today.

You wheeled into the front yard with a brand spanking new car in 1960 and I’m telling you, people came out of their houses to take a look. Farmers on the way to the market in Greenfield stopped to walk around it. Everyone wanted to get behind that big steering wheel. I was so proud…and I was 3 years away from being old enough to drive.

I can still remember the anticipation and excitement as we tuned in to the Dinah Shore Show on NBC each fall to see what the new Chevys were going to look like. And you ought to have heard her belting out “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” It beat the heck out of ex-football players and quasi-country singers mumbling about gas mileage and rear end differentials.

When was the last time you tingled over the prospects of the new models being unveiled? It made no difference if you could afford one or not. Or even if you were old enough to drive. The point is the industry had a product people wanted to see. And dreamed of owning one day.

Cars had such great names when I finally got my driver’s license. If you had the cash, you could cruise by the Dairy Bar in a Firebird, Thunderbird, Eldorado, Crown Victoria, Apache, Grand Prix, Lesabre, Bonneville, Continental Mark V Limited. Today, you have to buy an LS 580, EMX 50, Q 45, ES 300, LXM 250...

We didn’t know what Impala meant in 1960 but it was better than a number. We thought the Ford Falcon was over named. And there was a time I would have given anything to have owned a 1956 Bel Air hardtop. The gas cap was located underneath the left tail light. One turn to the right on the chrome bar directly above the light dropped the fixture down to reveal the cap. How innovative is that? The ’58 Chevy had the gas cap “hidden” on the middle left side right above the back bumper. In ’59 and ’60, Chevrolet placed it behind the license plate. Today gas caps are all boringly placed on the back side panel. I believe it has something to do with air bags, back up cameras and full train warranties.

We didn’t even think about gas mileage in the early ’60s. You could put “$2 worth” in and drive all day. Our minds weren’t cluttered with thoughts of fold down seats, automatic head lights, auxiliary plug-ins, cup holders or DVD players. We were more interested in where we were going and who was going with us.

The modern car industry needs to focus a little less on being like everyone else and a little more on chrome and duel exhaust and moon hub caps.

When Cathy wheeled our brand spanking new vehicle up into the yard last month no one came out to take a look. No farmers stopped on the way to the market. No one hopped behind the wheel and took a pretend drive. My neighbor did see me out in the yard a couple of days later and commented, “Hey, Coach, I see you finally washed your van.”

I rest my case.