An Upbeat Auto Confab In Detroit

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - June 17, 2009
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“There are those of us who have had the good fortune to meet with strength and beauty, with majestic force in which we were willing to entrust our lives. Then a day comes when strength and beauty fails, and a man does what a man has to do. I’m going down into my basement garage to put a bullet in the ol’ V-8.”

Thus concludes P.J. O’Roark in his Wall Street Journal piece (Google P J O’Roark, WSJ, May 30) on America’s early preoccupation with “horsepower” (the unit of power required for a dray horse to lift 33,000 pounds one foot in a period of one minute) as we made that actual transition from horses to cars, and how in 1908 Henry Ford with his assembly line Model T Ford made mounted Sir Lancelots of us all:

“Privileged to joust for the favor of the fair maiden - at the drive-in theater.”

(Or on Main Street ... think American Graffiti.)


“Women, too,” O’Roark writes. “No one ever asked a woman to drive side saddle with both legs hangin’ out over the door.”

O’Roark goes on to point out that horsepower has always been more about status and being cool, sort of the foundation for America’s enduring romance with the automobile.

My friend Dave Rolf of Mililani is the executive director of the Hawaii Auto Dealers Association (and a former early employee of MidWeek). He was recently in Detroit, a city racked by scandal in the mayor’s office, turmoil in its lifeblood industry and 23 percent unemployment, to attend the annual “Motor Trend Summit,” a gathering of the representatives of the country’s 24 Motor Trend-sponsored annual New Car Expos.

There they heard presentations from several of the industry’s top executives, who confirmed the harsh reality of what most of us have read and heard: The unprecedented bankruptcy of GM even after the infusion of $20 billion and now another $30 billion, the purchase of Chrysler by Fiat for pennies on the dollar, the closing of hundreds of auto dealerships around the country, and that indeed the industry is going through some very difficult times.

New car sales are down nationwide 37 percent (31percent in Hawaii). Pre-owned certified car sales are up.

Cars and tires are lasting longer, and cars are being driven farther. So long and far, in fact, that the average car now on the road is older than anytime since World War II. Gloomy future?

Not according to Ira Gabriel, publisher of Motor Trend.

Rolf says Gabriel is clearly the man with his finger on the pulse of America’s auto industry, and he sees a return not only of economic viability but also a rekindling of America’s romance with the automobile.

He cites new mileage standards averaging 35 mpg, sexy new technological features in propulsion and safety, and the continuing premium on freedom of mobility transcending cultural pressures.

Although the conference happened to coincide with GM’s bankruptcy announcement, the tenor of the gathering was surprisingly upbeat.

According to Rolf, there will be some closing of dealerships in Hawaii. Island Dodge, for example, after 45 years is “closing with dignity and consideration for its current customers.”

Nevertheless, the optimism among the majority of Hawaii’s dealers is extraordinary.

“Auto dealerships require a huge investment in facilities and hardware, and - especially in Hawaii - investment in community, providing jobs, paying taxes, supporting advertising, sponsorships and charities,” says Rolf. “They are committed to getting through this difficult time, not only for their own good but for the community that depends upon them. They keep their focus on brighter days ahead. Perhaps this is one reason Hawaii’s annual New Car Expo was the only one of the 24 nationwide to experience an increase in attendance, up 8 percent.”

I too am optimistic about the future as I think about my own lifetime romance with cars.

My grandpa always referred to his Dodge sedan with the chrome Ram hood ornament as the “machine.” As in, “Let’s go, son, get in the machine!”

Scraping together my 16th summer’s wages, I bought my first car, a cherry ‘29 Ford Model A, then wrecked it the Saturday night before school started.

I think if I’d had to put a bullet through the hood of my ‘64 1/2, stick shift, yellow Mustang convertible that I drove for 20 years, I would have had to ask someone else to do it for me. They do shoot horses, don’t they?

But not that one!

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