Thursday, May 21, 2009

• Detroit Icons - Ending More Than An Era

2009 is a year that will long be remembered by all automobile enthusiasts as the year they killed the American car. After over eight long decades, GM announced the closing of the Pontiac brand. More than an automobile era is closing. For many of us, this is an acknowledgement and confirmation that the transformation in a segment of our social landscape is now permanent.

There were many other closings of venerable marques over the years, such as Plymouth, or more recently Oldsmobile, that hit us as “little deaths.” The current economic devastation spilling bloodshed throughout the auto industry, however, is overwhelming the Detroit based manufacturers. The impact is making some of the dissolution irreversible. The names we grew up with, names that were very much present in the consciousness of our society and had meaning through multiple elements of North American culture, will no longer be components of corporate America. The future of the Big Three is now in serious doubt.

Vehicles such as the 1958 Pontiac Bonneville, the 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, the 1956 DeSoto Adventurer, the 1955 Chrysler C300, and the 1958 Chevrolet Impala were not simply transportation. They were the artful and complex product of creative teams, led by visionary designers who delivered “glory days” for their employers.

Europeans produced engineering marvels, but Detroit pushed vehicles into the artistic realm. If, for example, you analyze the taillights on vehicles from the ‘50s and ‘60s, their designers made them an integral and unique element of the rear decks. For European manufacturers, on the other hand, taillights were an afterthought. For most of them, it almost appeared as if they had forgotten that taillights were even required and the taillights had been added as the cars rolled off the assembly lines. Not so for the symbols of American knowhow and creativity.

Even the interiors were uniquely stylized, one more exotic than the next. Most importantly, Middle America could afford them. New or used, for a couple of generations, they represented stages and punctuations in one’s life or career. They were icons with vastly differing characteristics and complexions. For millions of us they represented dreams and aspirations, … “one day I’m going to own an Olds 442.” That the day did not always come wasn’t important, but dreaming of that Z28 Camaro, GTO or Barracuda was an enjoyable part of life for young and old.

The emotional component that automobiles of that era provided has not been replicated, and as poor management and careless unions destroyed the fabric of Detroit’s ingenuity, we watched the epoch extinguish itself from within.

The Oldsmobile Toronado, launched in the mid ‘60s when GM held 60% of the U.S. auto market, was a landmark technological wonder. Under one of the longest hoods on the road, the car’s 455 cubic-inch (7.5L) displacement Rocket V8 engines could smoke the enormous front wheels hurling the 5,000lb. vehicle down a quarter mile in under 17 seconds. The ’68 rendition, with hidden headlights and a front end the length of a Concord, is one of the great but underappreciated American automobiles. It punctuated the end of the sixties, and the fading of an automotive era, whose ending after four decades of denial can finally be put to rest in 2009.

We can rest confident and grateful that the tireless efforts of curators, aficionados, enthusiasts as well as hobbyists will continue to resuscitate, restore and preserve the art that has been the American automobile. Dare we dream of a resurgence?


  1. The thought of the world without GM to me would be almost like the day Dale Earnhardt died. I was a huge Nascar fan and never missed a race and since that day, I have never been able to watch another race. If GM is gone I don't think I will want to ever drive anything else.

  2. Gizmomak,

    Isn't it amazing that these companies, even though they have been run into the ground, once upon a time created such a sense of pride and wonder? ... At least for all those of us who thoroughly enjoyed them through the years, that is.

  3. I clearly remember the Toronado, a genuinely exciting car. I always associate it with the late commentator Paul Harvey. who raved about it. Yes, it did punctuate the Sixties, the best decade ever for the industry.

  4. I grew up in the decade of the 80's. I can't look back and remember one US car that didn't suck by today's standards. These cars were not any more technologically advanced than cars made by the big 3 30 years earlier. I particularly remember loose steering, crappy interiors that fell apart, weak handling and no power despite the poor fuel efficiency. They also rode porly after the first 2 or 3 years.

    You will have to excuse me if I don't get all misty.