Column

They don’t even make backseats like they used to

Roderick McQueen July 28 1980
Column

They don’t even make backseats like they used to

Roderick McQueen July 28 1980

They don’t even make backseats like they used to

Column

Roderick McQueen

The pert young thing is twinking down the street, legs alive with the swish of summer. Her shoulders

swing to share the T-shirt that shows a ’57 Chevy, celebrating a car she never saw new. To her, it’s a historic auto, one from an era when the earth was still cooling and the cars were still hot. Amid today’s motoring world of Rabbits, Lynxes, Eaglets and other animal

names that belong in the woods, not on the roads, it’s a welcome sight, and it causes other recent classics to spring to mind: The 1956 Ford Crown Victoria with full chrome fender skirts. The ’57 T-bird, white, with porthole windows. The ’59 Caddy with monster fins a-flapping, taillights the size of channel markers above exhaust ports like gaping mouths.

Or what about the flash and trash of the two-tone ’56 Plymouth, an outrage of pink and black blared together. The glitz and tinkle of a Roxatone finish, lovingly hand-rubbed

deep into the very soul of a Delray. Custom kits for a chopped and channelled chassis, full wheel discs, Holly headers and continental decks that stretched for a city block. And wasn’t it a 1960 Chrysler 300 that Tom McCahill tested for Mechanix Illustrated, and when he floored it at 60 m.p.h. the tires squealed? I mean, squealed at 60. Pontiacs were so wide they nearly needed running lights. Most were so long that garage front walls were knocked down so the neighbors knew that both you and the front grille had arrived. Together.

And the young drivers of the day. Well. Back to the door, arm out the window, eye on the sidewalk, mind in neutral. Another occupant, if male, slouched against the far door, carefully oblivious. If female, tucked under the driver’s arm, legs splayed over the transmission hump, no room for prissy sitting. The finishing interior touches: dice adangle from the mirror, flattened fuzz on the steering wheel, Buddy Holly

on a border station. Those were the salad days.

Today, the salad’s wilted. Cars are shrunken, foreign, or both. Even the names are unromantic. Last year, General Motors introduced the X cars. This fall, Chrysler counts on the K cars. Next year come the Js. Don’t they know that alphabet soup doesn’t sizzle? Where are the snow jobs of yesteryear? Firedome, Roadmaster, Starfire. North American manufacturers, after selling planned

obsolescence all those years, are now paying with their own planned oblivion as they troop to governments for a boost. Imagine the vehicle a bureaucracy might build: a combination of post office efficiency, defence spending cost control, tax form comfort and parliamentary performance.

When the $1.5-billion Chrysler bailout was first discussed last year, GM Chairman Tom Murphy snorted that such aid “presents a basic challenge to the philosophy of America”—free enterprise. Two weeks ago, when President Jimmy Carter unveiled his $400million auto rescue package—with goodies for all—Murphy’s law had been repealed amidst GM’s own slumping sales. “We welcome this opportunity,” said Murphy, “to move forward. It’s an important first step.” Hmm. Still, a nation just walking again may take a while to drive. Canadian Trade and Industry Minister Herb Gray, Canada’s last-gasp nationalist, is so silent these days he can’t even give orders to his

barber. As a result, he has the only brush cut in the free world that presents itself supine. Already in for $200 million on the Chrysler deal, Gray hints that he may find it in his heart, if not his head, to help the others, too.

But get this. Ford has talked to Toyota about building Japanese cars in the U.S. If only Herb could remember to tell them how silly it is to assemble someone else’s stuff in your own backyard. The U.S.-Canada auto pact, in ef-

fect since 1965, worked in Canada’s favor until 1971. Since then, the deficit has been mounting, and in 1979 reached $3.1 billion. The pact also means Canada can’t isolate itself from trouble when 40 per cent of auto workers are on layoff, sales are down 30 per cent and Japanese imports are up 25 per cent. Why, after last week’s Republican convention in Detroit, even Ronald Reagan doesn’t have a Ford in his future.

Of the 300,000 now laid off, 10 per cent are idle in Canada, the decision taken in some star-spangled boardroom. Two

short years ago, there was even fighting between Windsor, Ont., and Lima, Ohio, over some now needless new Ford engine plant. The Canadian and Ontario governments stuck their neck out with a $68-million grant and won. Some neck. Some turkey. No, neither the present auto pact nor border rivalry is the longterm answer. While foreign import quotas are possible, it’s more likely that the savior will simply be what’s known in the industry as the “rust cycle,” which will stimulate production as nine million cars head for the junkyard this year, needing to be replaced. Meanwhile, let’s forget about the future. I have no memory for it, anyway. Much better to return to the ’50s when the cars were bigger and the problems were smaller. Back before the environmentalists whined about clean lungs, or mayors worried about clogged lanes. Back to the time when the only auto pact that mattered was the one negotiated with your true love in the backseat of your father’s car.