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Jack Simpson - 06/05/09
Come On Down It's A New Car

Those of us old enough to recall the Great Depression remember not everyone had a car, let alone two, in the family garage. If we had one, it was probably a Ford because those were mass produced and not all that expensive. The one we had was equipped with a rumble seat.

Sunday rides were fun back then. American cars were special and desired. If my memory serves me well, I believe you could buy a new car for about $850. Can you believe it?

I didn't see the USA in a Chevrolet like Miss Dinah Shore asked us to do. No, I learned to drive in a friend's 1933 Plymouth. It was four doors, black in color, and the Scoutmaster taught several members of our troop how to drive it to finally qualify for our drivers licenses.

What happened to those carefree days and the once popular American auto industry? For one thing, foreign competition entered the marketplace with excellent products. Domestic automakers somehow failed to measure up. Sure, some made good cars.

Youngsters no longer took drivers training in Plymouths. Hondas, Toyotas, Volkswagens and other foreign cars with fancy names became more popular. They were priced right and got better mileage, and their service records were good.

Once we had joked about cheaply made Japanese products, but in auto making they made us eat our words. Japan overcame its reputation for shoddy stuff and turned out desired vehicles.

More and more the competition sold cars where those made in America sat on lots. American jobs were shipped overseas, workers were laid off, factories were closed. Auto workers lost pensions and benefits, and their homes suffered foreclosure.

Poor quality and performance caught up with the industry. A once great industry moved from prosperity to trouble and bankruptcy. Honda, Toyota, Nissan and BMW seemed to thrive. American showcases displayed lots of brands, but they were expensive, big and had poor service records. Customers went for reliability, styling, comfort and economy. Big wasn't better and Americans took too long for this realization to set in. Foreign cars took over our highways as Chrysler and General Motors chief executive officers appeared before Congress seeking bailout funds.

There may not be a Plymouth in the future of youngsters learning to drive. Maybe the vehicle of choice will be an electric car and people will worry less about the cost of gasoline and more about where they can find to plug in the smaller hybrid, economy vehicles.

As this column is being written, General Motors has filed for bankruptcy and President Obama says they will recover with help. General Motors will keep Buick, GMC, Chevrolet and Cadillac. They will drop their other brands. They will close 12 plants and lay off over 20,000 workers.

More bailout monies will be needed and more dealerships will close. All those overseas jobs may never return as the American auto giants face increased competition from Toyota, Volkswagen and Fiat. Big cars may disappear as smaller, more fuel-efficient models appear in our future. The economy may take another big hit.

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Jack Simpson is a former educator, veteran, author, and a law enforcement officer. His column appears each Friday.