A 1996 Park Avenue, similar to Monmaney's. In addition to being 17 feet long, the car is decked out with pleated leather seats, fake spoke wheels, whitewalls, chrome door handles and a transmission shifter on the steering column.
Terence Monmaney is the executive editor of Smithsonian magazine. He has never covered the automobile industry. He commutes to work by subway and walking or biking, depending on the weather. In fact, he successfully avoided car ownership for many years, though he has succumbed to, aside from his current rides, a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle, a 1983 BMW 533i, a 1986 BMW 535i and a 1995 Honda del Sol.
I'm of two minds about the GM bailout. I'm for it because I hate the thought of hardworking folks losing their jobs. But I'm against it because letting the company collapse might be in my best interest.
I have this old Buick, a 1996 Park Avenue. It had just 40,000 miles and was in great shape when I bought it from a nice old lady a couple of years ago for a few thousand dollars. You can barely start a lease for a new subcompact for that little money, and instead I've got a big American cruiser and no monthly payments.
You've got to love the retro touches — pleated leather seats, fake spoke wheels, whitewalls, big chrome door handles, a transmission shifter on the steering column. The car, no kidding, is 17 feet long, with a front hood the size of a putting green and a trunk you could hide a mobster in and still load up at Costco.
And yet it gets 29 miles a gallon on the highway and 20 around town. Which is better average mileage than my wife's four-cylinder Subaru wagon, the official car of the rugged eco-crowd.
As any car nut knows, the real charm of GM sedans of that vintage is the tough, reliable engine, a 3.8-liter V6 put together like the Parthenon. You don't even change the spark plugs until 100,000 miles.
So from where I sit behind the wheel, the question is: What went wrong with GM?
One problem is that GM cut corners. My car's a Park Avenue, but the interior plastic is cheesy. The paint isn't all it could be. The CD player broke. One of the power windows doesn't work. And I just had to replace the fuel pump.
Another problem is GM's clueless marketing. My owner's manual is from 1996, but you'd swear it was 1940. There's a five-page history of the company with a black-and-white cameo photograph of company founder David Dunbar Buick. There are pictures of a 1908 Buick Runabout and the first Buick factory. There's a company coda in which it is stated that Buicks are, in capital letters now, SUBSTANTIAL, DISTINCTIVE, POWERFUL and MATURE. Mature? The text refers to the vehicle as a "motorcar," as if we might assume it was pulled by a horse.
But another big — and largely overlooked — reason for GM's troubles is, well, us. For the most part, the company plowed along making trucks and cars that basically go from Point A to Point B. Meanwhile, American consumers were becoming glorious fussbudgets. Needless to say, my fine motorcar doesn't have Bluetooth, a voice-activated cell phone directory, an electronic navigation system, MP3 capability, rear video monitoring, pop-down video screens, automatic parallel parking or a computer that gives me restaurant reviews. It has all of two cup holders, one of which is broken.
I would argue that the American auto industry can't be entirely blamed for failing to satisfy modern consumers' desire to fetishize everything, including cars. Maybe it's a little silly of us to want all that stuff in a car, and to burden ourselves with the huge payments that make it possible. Maybe getting from Point A to Point B is enough.
Which is why, speaking selfishly, it might be OK with me if GM collapsed. The demand for boring reliable Buicks would sink even further, and I'd be happy to get 'em cheap for years to come.
Terence Monmaney is the executive editor of Smithsonian magazine.