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Big Three Auto Firms Will Need Music, Too

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The American "love affair" with cars is close to dead, then-Ford Motor chief Bill Ford lamented six years ago. "In California, people used to write songs about T-Birds and Corvettes," said Henry Ford's great-grandson. "Today, they write regulations." Ford had earlier shocked Detroit by admitting that sport utility vehicles caused environmental problems.

Ford got it, even before the recent spike in gasoline prices sent consumers stampeding out of gas-guzzlers. As the Big Three automakers again ask Washington for help, Ford Motor is the only one not begging for an immediate taxpayer bailout. One reason: It's the farthest along in developing fuel-efficient vehicles.

Once the companies restructure and have the technology in place, they can turn to winning back the public. A car isn't like a refrigerator. You buy a fridge, and if the appliance works, it quickly fades into the wallpaper. A car is your steed and daily companion. It develops a personality, even if only in your head.

And what kind of personality has Detroit offered in recent decades? Often not a pleasing one. A half-century has passed since ads promoted the 1957 Chevy Bel Air as "Kitten-Quiet and Cream-Smooth." Gone are the automotive hymns of the '60s -- the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" or Jan and Dean's "Surf City." Would Bruce Springsteen ever serenade an SUV (or its owner) as he did the pastel Caddy in his 1984 rockabilly song "Pink Cadillac"?

A moment of silence for the female curves and rocket ship fins that made Detroit's golden age so much fun. At some point, cars designed to seduce turned into trucks of potential aggression -- humorless, muscle-bound brutes. The SUV was old technology sold at big mark-ups in a market dependent on cheap gas.

Detroit lost hearts and minds. Environmentalists raged at its killing of rules to cut smog and emissions of planet-warming gases. National-security experts decried its promotion of a gas-guzzling culture that enriched our oil-producing enemies. While General Motors fought fuel-efficiency regulations, Toyota successfully marketed itself as the earth-loving maker of the Prius (even as it churned out gluttonous Sequoia and Tundra trucks).

Yes, Detroit had to think short-term if it was to maintain its very generous employee and retiree benefits, some of which were excessive. (Even friends of labor strain to justify paying laid-off autoworkers $31 an hour plus benefits to do nothing.) The United Auto Workers are not to blame, though. They tried to get what they could. The carmakers should have drawn lines.

Thus, when the Big Three went to Washington last month for their bailout, they met a Congress that was not so much lame duck as mad duck. Imagine Donald Duck's nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie flying their private jets to ask Uncle Scrooge McDuck for a handout.

Note that President-elect Obama and the enhanced Democratic majority in Congress are not rushing forth with alms. "Taxpayers can't be expected to pony up more money for an auto industry that has been resistant to change," Obama said after the three executives were sent home empty-handed. "And I was surprised that they did not have a better-though-out proposal when they arrived in Congress." Uncle Scrooge couldn't have said it better.

Detroit's plan should include a return to romance. Picture an ad with a cowboy. He's leaning against a big-tailed 1957 DeSoto Fireflite in "Fiesta Red" with white trim. "Choose any car in the De Soto corral, and pardner," the cowboy says, "you've got yourself a thoroughbred."

Nothing wrong with plain, reliable cars, but surely Detroit can market something sexier than the appliances produced by Honda and Toyota. There may be a song in it.

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