What a concept for U.S. automakers

Published 9:04 am Thursday, February 23, 2012

What’s billed as America’s biggest car show is wrapping in Chicago today. Boy, American concept cars sure aren’t what they used to be.

USA Today reports that “in a more cynical age of downsized dreams and tight development budgets, the wild concept car — auto show eye candy — is becoming rarer.”

I’m an American. I love cars. I love how the automobile has been an American success story.

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In the early 1900s, Henry Ford perfected the assembly line, which made the automobile affordable. By 1950, America was producing two-thirds of the world’s cars. And up until the early 1970s, America was producing magical cars.

I speak of the ‘69 Chevelle SS, with its 396-cubic-inch engine, four-barrel carburetor and 375 heart-stopping horses under the hood — the first car I ever drove and one I will never forget.

The early ‘70s also gave us the Plymouth Duster, one of the most reliable vehicles ever mass-produced. A 1972 Duster was my first car, which I bought in 1984, fresh out of college, from my Uncle Jimmy for $400. He’d bought it — wrecked — for $75 in 1981, fixed it up and driven it 40,000 miles without so much as a tune-up.

I drove the Duster without issue for six months before trading it in for a brand-new 1984 Pontiac Sunbird — a product of a period when American automakers were having serious quality issues. It had squeaky bushings, stalled in damp weather and had a faulty sensor on the clutch that prevented the engine from starting.

Still, I went American again — with a 1987 Pontiac Firebird that was a pretty good car, though the T-tops leaked, the alternator stopped at 20,000 miles and the transmission began slipping at 60,000 miles.

And I went American again five years later — with a 1991 Ford Thunderbird. Its powerful V-8 made it fast, but it had lousy suspension, brakes that overheated and a transmission that started acting up at 20,000 miles.

After that, I finally abandoned American cars. I bought my first Japanese car — a 1994 Mazda 6 that I drove without incident for four years.

I traded that in for a top-of-the-line 1998 Mazda 6 that was a dud. Did that have something to do with American automaker Ford buying a controlling interest in Mazda a few years prior?

Whatever the case, I moved to a 2001 Nissan Maxima in 2004. When it was 8 years old, there was a minor incident with the fuel injectors, but the car was otherwise grief-free.

Last year, I purchased a brand-new Nissan Maxima — only the second new car I’ve ever purchased. It’s fast, sleek and stylish — the nicest car I’ve ever owned. And it has been perfect since day one.

Aside from a super-clean 1992 Chevy S-10 pickup I own — it’s been sitting in my dad’s garage for 12 years now — and a super-clean 2000 Jeep Wrangler 4×4 I purchased so I can make it up some monstrous hills to my house in the winter, I have not bought an American car for a long time.

Sure, American cars’ quality has improved, but too late for me: I’m a Nissan guy now.

Besides, it agitates me that GM and Chrysler made so many bad business decisions that they needed the federal government to bail them out.

It agitates me that they lack the funds to unleash the creativity of their designers to produce unbelievable concept cars to influence future designs.

Hey, I’m an American, and I love cars.

I’d love to see American automakers earn back a reputation for making the world’s finest and coolest cars.

Tom Purcell is a freelance writer and a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review. Email Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.