In 1978 I was driving a Dodge Colt (made by Mitsubishi) that got over 30 MPG. My salary was $9,600 a year and I lived with a roommate in a house trailer about 40 minutes from work. When the Oil Embargo hit, I remember gas going from 28 cents to 56 cent a gallon overnight. I started buying hamburger in a tube and had to switch to domestic beer. Those unpaid student loans would have to wait.
Back then, gas-guzzling land schooners–cars that pretty much filled their respective lanes–with big block V-8s were the norm. Unleaded gas was still relatively new.
Although American car makers had compact cars, they were designed to appeal to first-time buyers, who would “trade up” as they became more “successful” to something more suitable to their economic status. Coincidentally, American compacts were designed to fail in several years, so those who followed “five-year” career plans were ripe for the picking. Imports were pretty much all compacts, except for big/powerful British luxury/sports cars and German offerings. Asia (Japan, back then) focused on building good small cars/trucks that would run rings around American compacts on far less fuel.
Detroit responded briefly to fuel shortages/rising fuel costs by downsizing luxury models and replacing big-block V-8s with 6, 4 and even convertible engines that adjusted the number of cylinders based on the needed output, which were poorly designed, difficult to maintain and hated by most owners.
Gradually, domestic automakers devoted token resources to compacts, still using them as entrance-level vehicles to young buyers. Detroit designed flashy SUVs and luxury trucks that allowed more profit spending lavishly to convince image-conscious Americans that we couldn’t live without them. Soon we forgot lessons learned in the 70s and sought behemoths–offshoots of military vehicles–to protect us and our families and cradle us in luxury as we ran our errands.
I always felt that when imports introduced “prestige” lines in the U.S. and we couldn’t get enough of them, that it was potentially the beginning of the end for Detroit. After all, they had conceded the compact market to Asian manufacturers, relying on larger, more profitable models to keep them afloat. As Asians and others encroached on that turf with high-quality nameplates it seemed all over but the shouting. But Detroit still had TRUCKS. Why did they think that import manufacturers, who were now DOMESTIC wouldn’t repeat a successful formula?
IN 1980 my wife and I drove our Honda Accord on a camping trip to Michigan. The scorn was palpable. There really weren’t all that many imports on the road around Detroit. People actually complained to us about our Japanese car. Around the campfire, I had to defend my purchase–and growing up near Lordstown, Ohio, it wasn’t easy.
In the early 90s, I again found myself in Detroit and imports were everywhere. There were no catcalls, no ire. Honda was half an hour away from us, manufacturing cars and motorcycles in Marysville. Things had changed. They got even murkier as American manufacturers merged with the likes of Daimler, Volvo and Jaguar.
I stopped buying imports soon after my 1980 trip to Detroit. I owned a series of shitty American vehicles, even succumbing to a high-top conversion van that became a sail in slight winds and “rolled” in turns like `a school bus.
Having said that, I still want to see Detroit to succeed even though, given their behavior, they truly deserve to fail.