Last week, we finally broke down and bought a new car. It was an utterly different experience from that of my parents. Those changes mean a lot and they indicate something about our future. The faded banners flapping in the breeze on a highway with two dead auto dealerships and far too many empty buildings are a warning.
The glory days of the highway and American automobile are long over. We did the best we could. Here is the story of our journey.
Last Saturday the Hamilton family’s determined effort to maintain our 1997 Jeep Cherokee as our primary vehicle came to an end.
It had reached nearly 200 thousand miles of city driving, but the transmission was nearing the end. The second engine already had 140 thousand miles on it. Even that wouldn’t have driven us to the dealerships, but parts were becoming hard to obtain. Pickings at the salvage yards were thinning out. The last transmission controller took 9 days to find and install. A new one would have been 800 dollars. Allegedly there were only a handful of the new, no longer manufactured controllers in stock in California. The massive contraction in the US automobile market bankrupted many parts suppliers.
We loved the Jeep because it could haul an entire tent and gear for an information booth at a political or community event. The Jeep could ford 12 inches of standing water. Most of all it we liked the Jeep because it was American made with the WWII vehicle in its genes and a durable proven tractor motor as its heart.
Everything involved with our decision to buy a new vehicle would have been alien to my parents, for whom the automobile was a symbol of American power, destiny and liberation.
I remember the cars of my childhood well, in particular the day my mother brought home her massive midnight blue 1966 Buick Electra 225. This huge, heavy machine marked for my family, a solid, middle class existence. With that purchase, my parents finally put childhood memories of the depression behind them. It had vinyl seats at a time when that was fashionable. The blue monster had a massive power plant. Nobody cared how many miles it got to the gallon. It was built to devour America’s new interstate highway system at seventy miles per hour while refrigerating the passengers to whatever temperature they demanded. My parents kept it for five years. It left our lives with less than sixty thousand miles on the odometer.
For our family today, the automobile is the tedious necessity required by living in a landscape where things are spread out and transit can be sparse. The roads of our time, even interstates, are crowded. There is neither space nor money enough to massively expand the nation’s road network. Gas is currently $2.50 a gallon due to a global recession, but higher prices will return with the recovery. We are painfully aware that brave members of our military are put in harm’s way by every drop of gasoline we consume. It is the need for oil which keeps our country entangled in the Middle East. Every trip to the pump betrays our country and bleeds its capital.
The planet is getting hot and crowded. There are several hundred million people in Brazil, China and India who want a Buick Electra 225 or something like it. The wealthiest people from those countries will soon be bidding up the price of gas. They’re going to attempt to live the life our advertising and television programming has taught them to believe we live. Not the Brady Bunch, but Dynasty and Dallas. They have not seen the ruins of Detroit.
My parents went to the dealership in 1966 with questions like: is it fast, does it look good and can we trade it in three years? We went out with questions like: how far will it go on a five dollar gallon of gas, will parts be available a decade from now and can it manage a hurricane evacuation to Atlanta on one tank of gas? My parents knew their car would be American made. We hoped ours would be.
I work with the local transit authority, to retain and improve the CARTA bus service here. This afternoon will be agonizing over a million dollars in service cuts because the sales tax funding for the system is down. I don't see well enough to drive, so I ride the bus some and my wife drives me some. Our 17 year old son refuses to get a drivers license, but pushes a Trek hybrid road bike as far and as fast as the roads will let him go. There is no safe bike route to his high school. We take our twisted light bulbs, recycling and carbon footprint seriously. We're aware we consume more energy and resources than 100 people in Africa. We're doing the best we can. We know it is way less than perfect.
After much agony we bought a Toyota Prius. We’re glad it gets fifty miles to the gallon. We regret deeply that it isn’t American made. We got the sort of deal only people who really don’t want a new car can negotiate. The Chevy Volt Electric will cost over twice as much next year. The Nissan Leaf, with an electric drive based on American made batteries, didn’t have the range needed for hurricane evacuation. Fortunately electric vehicles with American made content have long waiting lists now and are commanding a premium. If that offends you, Hummers are available at fire sale prices.
We do not know what America will look like when we finally turn the Prius off. (You don’t start it in the ordinary sense since the gas engine often doesn’t come on until the electric motor has moved the vehicle out of the driveway or parking lot). A steady diet of survival shows, the Colony and dinosaur extinction specials on the Discovery channel seems to indicate there isn’t a lot of optimism about the future out there. 2022 might be a peaceful hydrogen powered Jetsons world. It might look like the Road Warrior.
On Saturday, we walked to breakfast at Bodacious Bagels. We met 10 neighbors on the way and 12 on the way back. We burned no gas and got some exercise. Every transportation decision a family makes affects the world our children will have. We hope we made the right one about our car.
William Hamilton (www.wjhamilton.com) is an attorney who lives in I’On Village.