Friday, January 29, 2016

An Introduction to the History of the Automobile in America during the 1970s

My wife and our 1973 Pinto?

The 1970s: Never Forgotten, Never Celebrated
“Nobody is apt to look on the 1970s as the good old days.” – Time Magazine.
“It seemed like nothing happened.” – Peter N. Carroll title of his monograph on the 1970s.

Personally, the 1970s was a lost decade. And my memories of that time are for the most part filed in the deepest recesses of my mind, perhaps to preserve my present equillibrium.  My cars from those days reflect a similar mentality.  Nostalgia of those days is largely absent, and amnesia is the general rule. In looking back, how can a decade can be seen as positive  “auto” biographically, when the best car that I owned during the decade was a 1973 Pinto?
 That Pinto was a trooper of a car, powered by a 1.6 liter Kent engine that never quit. And contrary to my student’s perceptions, that car did not explode and kill its occupants! In contrast, my 1974 Capri V-6 was my first (and last) new car, a vehicle plagued with issues that included a clutch cable that kinked time after time after replacement, often at the most inconvenient times as I was crossing the Mississippi River Bridge in New Orleans.  The Capri was equipped with a water pump that for a year or so would last would last less than a 1000 miles. Those were the good ones, as several pumps could not be bolted on properly because flanges were not machined flat and thus uneven pumps fractured when bolted down!   And to add insult to injury, at the end of the decade my family purchased a 1979 Chevy Malibu that I subsequently inherited, featuring the infamous THM-200 transmission that blew pan gaskets and overheated repetitively. That problem was only solved after I tore that transmission out and replaced it with one proper for a V-8 engine. And it seems that everyone from my generation has similar car story disasters to tell.
On a far broader scope than that of personal or auto history, Andreas Killen has argued that the seventies continue as "the foundling of recent American history, claimed by no one." It was a decade of dwindling birth rates, the lowest in American history.  Given what happened to the U.S. in Vietnam, it was a time in which the limits of the nation’s global power was once and for all exposed. And our national identity was transformed, as homogenized culture derived from traditional class and economic structures gave way to new sensibilities that were linked to ethnicity, race, and gender.  Gays, feminists, African –Americans, and the elderly all wanted a place at the table, and to a lesser degree perhaps, their own distinctive rides.
One significant question centers on the extent that a complacent American automobile industry recognize the emergence of a rapidly evolving new social matrix, one contained within an economy characterized by both inflation and recession?[1] Secondly, how pervasive was the notion that the automobile had become a social problem, as argued by James Flink in his The Automobile Age and reflected in the contemporary writings of Ralph Nader, Emma Rothschild, John Jerome, Lester Brown, and others?
For the American automobile industry, the seventies have never ended. Intense foreign competition, high fuel prices, federal government regulation concerning safety and the environment, quality and reliability, potential power train transitions, and disaffected consumers all surfaced during the early 1970s and really never went away.  Yet, scholars focusing on automobile history have utterly neglected the decade.  Perhaps the oversight is because these years followed the glorious 1950s and 60s. Perhaps, the disregard is a consequence of enthusiasts' distain of what is regarded as the post-1972 "Malaise Era." 
      Nevertheless, in terms of both automobile history and global history this period contains all the ingredients of revolutionary and enduring change.  It was an era characterized by the loss of product quality and Detroit Three market shares due to the emergence of a rapidly changing global economy.  On the street, Americans experienced the appearance of cars equipped with ugly bumpers and poor running engines, annoying buzzers, and quick-to-rust body parts.

[1] Peter N. Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2nd ed., 2000), Preface.

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