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Darrell Huckaby - Auto industry's wonder years are long gone

The wonderful juniors and seniors who join me in my American history through film class and I have been studying the 1960s, as of late. It has been said that if you can remember the '60s, you weren't really there. I must not have been there because I can recall almost every day of the 1960s in vivid detail. Funny thing, memory. I wish I could remember last week as well as I can remember the 10th grade.

During the course of our study we watched the classic film, "American Graffiti," the forerunner to television's "Happy Days." Ron Howard, aka Opie Taylor, played in both. Harrison Ford was in the movie and so were McKenzie Phillips and Suzanne Somers, for a second or two, and so was Wolfman Jack - the infamous radio DJ.

But the real stars of the show in American Graffiti were the cars - the hotrods and sports cars and muscle cars, for which the decade was famous - made possible, of course, by 25 cents-a-gallon gasoline.

To my amazement, one of my students, a beautiful young lady named Jessica, knew more about '60s automobiles than Lee Iacocca. You'd never suspect it by looking at her. Our class got into a spirited discussion about cars - and that discussion brought back some great memories. You know me. I'm all about memories.

My favorite car of the decade belonged to Steve Piper, who was three years my senior and the closest thing to a big brother I ever had. Steve's car, while we were in high school, was a 1959 Plymouth Savoy - a gift from his sister and brother-in-law, who lived in Florida. Some of y'all remember about "Florida cars." The salt air often made them rust out and become old before their time. Steve's car had been a peculiar shade of blue at one time, I believe, but was so faded by the time he got it that it appeared more gray than blue. The floorboards were rusted out, but it was the first car I ever saw with seat belts. We never wore them, of course, but we did let them hang through the holes in the floorboards. They made a nice jingling sound, which almost made up for the radio the car didn't have.

You may recall that those old Plymouths had those giant tailfins, which made Steve's old car resemble Batman's car - so much so, in fact, we christened it the Batmobile and even labeled it so with some gaudy stick-on letters we bought at Harper's dime store.

Those letters seldom impressed the various law enforcement officers who seemed inclined to pull us over on a regular basis, but that's another story for another day.

Tony Harris drove a Plymouth Roadrunner when we were in school, and Luke Odum's daddy bought him a Pontiac GTO Judge - bright orange - and it was the most car I had ever ridden in. Still is, come to think of it.

I am not an expert, like Jessica, but I believe that Luke's car had a 440 cubic inch engine. It had 160 mph on the speedometer, and would do every bit of it. Luke didn't show me. His daddy did.

I was standing on the sidewalk, in front of White's Department Store one day when Sheriff Odum pulled up in Luke's GTO Judge. "Get in," he told me, with a big grin on face, "and let's go for a ride."

When Sheriff Odum told you to do something you did it, so I got in. We immediately headed out toward the entrance to I-20, which wasn't open yet. The sheriff drove around the DOT barricades and headed east on the un-striped pavement. "I bet Luke doesn't have any idea how fast this car will go," he told me. I didn't either, of course, but was pretty sure I was about to find out.

I did. Sheriff Odum floored the car and buried the speedometer needle, laughing all the while at my white knuckles and terrified expression.

Those were the days - and those were the cars. The era of the muscle is long gone, of course, thanks to OPEC and folks who actually care that we are on the verge of running out of fossil fuels. And now it looks like all American cars are about to be placed on the endangered species list. Ford says it can hang on for another year. Chrysler and GM say they are all but done. The House of Representatives and both presidents favor a multi-billion-dollar bailout for Detroit's Big Three, but the Senate is balking at throwing good money after bad,

Most people are blaming the GOP for gumming up the works, but in all fairness, a majority of the Senate was primed to go along with the House except for one little sticking point. The United Auto Workers refused to make concessions on salary and benefits. And how could they? The current average salary is only a measly $40 an hour plus benefits. How can we expect them to get along on any less than $83,000 a year?

Without a bailout, some folks think that American cars will go the way of other American industries - like textiles and electronics.

It's a shame, really. I could never picture Junior Odum inviting me to go for a test run in a Honda Accord.

Maybe someone should read the Union executives the story about the goose that laid the golden egg.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.