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October 23rd 2017 print

Tim Blair

Detroit Beat Hitler, Then Came the Yips

When the Big Three couldn’t compete with nimble imports flooding the US, the automakers' first instinct was to grope for the taxpayer teat and suckle long and hard. Oh, how the mighty do fall, in this case from building one B-24 bomber every hour to the shamelessness of mendicant also-rans

detroit wreckageIf you were a child of the 1970s—especially if you were a car-obsessed child from Melbourne’s western suburbs—Detroit, Michigan, held a powerful allure.

That was the city where Ford, General Motors and Chrysler were born, and produced vehicles that seemed magically potent and advanced compared to anything on Australian roads. In truth, this was a triumph of marketing over reality. The first time I drove one of my hero cars, a 1968 Ford Mustang, I discovered that Detroit engineers of the era evidently measured steering play in yards rather than millimetres. Porridge was apparently a crucial component in those cars’ suspension design.

But no matter. Detroit was the place.

Note the past tense. Detroit’s automotive industry and Detroit itself have been in steep decline ever since the 1970s. Both the city and General Motors declared bankruptcy at various points. Before the 1970s even ended, Chrysler required government loan guarantees worth $1.5 billion just to keep running. From a population peak of nearly two million in 1950, Detroit’s population has since fallen to below 700,000. A few years ago, following the global economic crisis, you could buy an entire street of houses in Detroit for just $10. Seriously.

Motor city became motionless. Motown went down. Some of this was due to events beyond Detroit’s control. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo—essentially an anti-Jewish act of economic terrorism, and a hint of things to come from Arab nations—sent US petrol prices soaring and presented challenges automotive manufacturers could not meet. The mighty (at least in terms of straight-line speed) Mustang gave way to the economy-themed Mustang II, an atrocity people mainly purchased just so they could drive it directly from the showroom to the wrecking yard.

Other wounds were entirely, and sometimes hilariously, self-inflicted. Nimble Japanese manufacturers frequently wrong-footed Detroit’s larger and much wealthier car-makers. Take the Big Three’s response to mid-1970s anti-pollution legislation. Ford, GM and Chrysler simply slapped the crudest pollution-limiting tackle on their enormous V8 engines, resulting in cars that simultaneously delivered woeful mileage and miserable power outputs. Seven-litre V8s of that period typically returned nine miles per gallon and generated less than 200 horsepower.

Honda, then a global automotive minnow, took a different, far more detailed approach. Its wily engineers reshaped and re-sculpted their engines’ combustion chambers—a tactic largely overlooked by Detroit. Those mid-1970s Honda engines turned out to be so clean-burning that they didn’t need any power-sapping anti-pollution equipment.

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And buyers responded. They loved Honda’s zesty, free-spinning little power-plants. In 1972, Honda sold a total of just 20,355 vehicles throughout the US. By 1979, that annual sales figure had climbed to 353,291. Last year Honda showrooms sold 1,476,582 new cars to happy customers. To give that number a local perspective, it is nearly half a million more cars than were sold in total in Australia during 2016.

When they couldn’t compete technically, Detroit’s Big Three sought government assistance. Again, this ended in disaster. A 25 per cent tax on imported light trucks was intended to protect the products constructed by Ford, GM and Chrysler. They didn’t anticipate a countermove by Subaru, however, which simply bolted a pair of small seats into the cargo beds of its small Brat utilities. Under the law, those cheap and easily-removed seats converted the Subaru from a light truck to a passenger vehicle—and rendered it ineligible for the truck tax.

As with Honda, the market responded positively. In 1977, the year before the Brat was introduced, Subaru sold just 80,826 vehicles. One year later that figure improved by nearly 30 per cent (one Brat buyer was future US President Ronald Reagan). Last year Subaru sold more than 600,000 new cars in the US—about three times the number sold by former leading GM brand Pontiac during its final year, before the nameplate was discontinued in 2009.

When a city is as dependent upon a single industry as is Detroit, its fortunes rise and fall with that industry. Today Detroit is attempting the latest in a series of revivals. The base for my automotive hajj in August was a symbol of that revival, Westin’s excellent Book Cadillac Hotel—the tallest hotel on earth when it was opened in 1924, and lately treated to a $200 million refit following two decades of closure.

The downtown area surrounding the Book Cadillac could do with a refit itself. Detroit frequently tops lists of the most dangerous cities in the US. By the end of July, 136 people had been murdered this year in Detroit or its suburbs. Before hitting Michigan’s beleaguered capital, I’d told a drinking companion in Houston of my travel plans. “Why the hell would anyone go there?” he asked. Given my companion was previously homeless and now makes a living delivering pizza by bicycle, his disdain provides a decent idea of where in the US social structure Detroit presently fits.

Yet it is impossible not to like the place. The people are friendly and talk Detroit up at every opportunity. A constant theme is the city’s gigantic contribution to armaments manufacturing in the Second World War. At one point Ford alone was churning out B-24 bombers at a rate of one per hour. Say what you will about Detroit’s collapse, but without those bombers there’d be even more German and Japanese cars on roads worldwide.

The Henry Ford Museum is a particular delight. It’s a two-day deal, at least, and rivals the Smithsonian in its scope. I suppose it says something when a city’s primary attraction is dedicated to examining the past, but put that aside. Detroit has a past that deserves examination.

Or even more than that. Detroit built the industrialised free West and then saved it. Detroit deserves eternal honour.

 

THE “yips” are an anxiety-related condition most commonly associated with the game of golf—specifically the putting green, where players who are otherwise confident and free-swinging suddenly find themselves unable to cope with golf’s more delicate requirements.

But the yips also occur in other fields. A friend lately developed the yips when tossing soft toys to his infant daughter. Instead of landing in her hands, various objects are either falling several feet short, smacking her in the head or flying clear past her and into the yard. He’s resorted to simply walking up to her and handing stuff over, which is useful practice for paying her future university fees.

His case recalls that of former New York Mets baseball catcher Mackey Sasser, who couldn’t return the ball with any immediacy or accuracy to his pitcher. “It’s unbelievable,” Sasser told the New York Times in 1991. “I mean, it’s just weird. It’s been a living hell.” At the peak of his difficulties, Sasser received this note from a well-meaning ten-year-old softball player: “Just get it and throw it. That’s what I do.”

Another friend, an excellent cook, once suffered through six months of the egg-cracking yips. Her previously celebrated omelettes became an ordeal involving eggs that were either not cracked at all or were smashed all over the kitchen.

During winter, I came down with the car parking yips. The onset of this was inexplicable, particularly considering my daily driver is a car so small it barely counts as adult transport. Yet there I was, taking two or three shots at lining the thing up in supermarket carparks and drawing pitying stares from fellow shoppers.

Every case of the yips has one thing in common: they do not occur in any endeavour requiring significant force. All are to do with low-input, subtle tasks. Sasser could belt a baseball out of a stadium but couldn’t lob it a few yards. My cooking friend could disassemble a crayfish but was stymied by eggshells. And I never suffered a moment of indecision or awkwardness on a freeway.

Indecision and awkwardness … what Prime Minister do those words bring to mind? Malcolm Turnbull proved very adept at the brutish aspect of politics, expertly undermining Tony Abbott and knifing his way into leadership. Since then, however, we’ve had two years of policy yips. Turnbull is a twenty-four-seven yipping machine, rendered incapable by any situation calling for deftness of touch. He’s still the same politician who in opposition gave us the Godwin Grech debacle.

As it happens, most of Turnbull’s woes might be solved not by subtlety but by impact. Instead of yipping around with Snowy River modifications, take a hefty swing with new coal-fired power plants and free-for-all fracking. Take a chunk out of our debt by halving the ABC’s budget. Do the same with welfare.

There are probably more areas where Turnbull could liberate himself of the yips. I’ll list them just as soon as I get out of this damn carpark.

Comments [4]

  1. en passant says:

    Tim,
    Kicking the carcasses of the politically dead or dying is considered bad form.

    Mal & the Liberal Party Igors are merely a historical anomaly about to be blown away like dust. As you point out, Mal’s main skill was in plotting, but he failed every other character and leadership test.

    How sad is a life in which you aspire to prove the “Peter Principle”, whereby your ambition propels you to achieve a level of incompetence for which you are totally unfit.

  2. Warty says:

    As En Passant indicates, one can be as ambitious as one likes, but if you don’t have the ability to negotiate a party room, then you don’t even deserve to go out with the potato peelings: at least those are useful in the compost.
    Tony Abbott had his own difficulties with the party room, and this certainly led to his being perhaps unfairly hobbled with policy failures not of his own making (e.g. failure to appeal s.18C). But Turnbull is an entirely different ball game: he won the leadership but attempted to take the party to a Labor-like (and lite) left, examples being an ever changing energy policy, with each change failing to satisfy public expectations; encouraging the development of gender fluidity in the army, despite the fact that potential enemies (like China, North Korea and Indonesia) are ensuring frontline soldiers remain male and focused on matters military rather than cosmetic.
    Turnbull does not suffer from the yips by any means, as those sufferers (the yip variety) reflect an inexplicable loss of form that no amount of trying can alleviate. Turnbull’s arises out of his chameleon-like nature: narcissist that he is he has to be liked, and when policies don’t improve his tendency is to merely adjust them sufficiently to nudge the polls skyward. The tactic never works because his essentially left leaning nature means that policies are only tinkered with, not blown out of the water. So the carbon tax becomes a RET, becomes a CEP, becomes a carbon trading policy without being designated as such, masquerading as a benign policy without a name, coming into full operation (as a policy without a name) three years hence, after the next election, therefore requiring no immediate action. This is not the yips, this is entirely dippy, even more so due to the fact that the conservatives who’ve fled to One Nation and the Australian Conservatives collectively smell a rat.
    When cultural Marxism devises policies aimed at emasculating your armed services and energy policies designed to deindustrialise your country in abject abeyance to green ideology, an ideology in itself a quasi pagan religion. When you realise this is deliberate and seemingly irreversible, then you know that no yips are at play here, but rather an entire demolition job on our country and our culture: it is game over.
    These people bank on the chance of our being asleep at the wheel.

  3. PT says:

    In some fairness to Detroit, Americans liked the big, powerful car. Low fuel costs (due to their longstanding self sufficiency in oil) was part of it, as were wide American streets. The clean air act was a sudden imposition. Their large production volumes made a major engine design change very expensive and time consuming to implement (and they wouldn’t be compensated for the retooling unlike building Liberators). This was rapidly followed by the first oil shock. Government intervention (particularly when government policy is at least partly responsible) is one thing, but it has to be temporary to allow industry to adjust, rather than a crutch.

    The other issue with Detroit, like British industry, it became complacent with being so far ahead of the overseas competition for so long. They took their eye off the ball.

    • whitelaughter says:

      PT, there have been any number of cases of companies or entire industries facing the situation you describe: but do you know if anyone has every *recovered* from that mix of complacency and size-induced inertia?
      we are currently writing epitaphs for everything in Western Civilization, and probably for the civilization itself – how do we find a way out of the mess?