Ford Taurus: Case Study in Unlovable Gas Efficiency

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When gas prices rise, auto manufacturers respond. Consumers aren't always happy with the outcome, however. John Heitman, professor of technology at the University of Dayton, talks with NPR's Scott Simon.


It's no wonder the trains are gaining riders, what with gas prices soaring. Americans are buying fewer cars. Overall auto sales are down about eight percent so far this year. Sales of SUVs and trucks have dropped 23 percent, according to US News & World Report.

When prices rise, auto manufacturers respond. John Heitman teaches the history of technology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. His latest research is on the automobile in American life, and Professor Heitman joins us from the studios of WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN HEITMAN (Professor of Technology, University of Dayton): Thank you.

SIMON: Remind us of what happened in 1973. That's when the oil-producing nations increased prices across the board.

Mr. HEITMAN: Right. What Detroit found was those big, gas-guzzling, heavy vehicles that had been the main staple, really since the postwar era, all of a sudden that market had shrank pretty precipitously, and what we see happening is the rise of Japanese cars in the automobile market in the United States.

SIMON: We should remind ourselves that when Japanese cars first came into the U.S. market, there was some disdain because they didn't look like the American cars, they weren't big like that, but they turned out to be, many of them, beautifully engineered for a new era.

Mr. HEITMAN: Yeah, particularly by the early 1970s, where we begin to see the appearance of the Honda Civic, which was very clean in terms of emissions, and here we're going on with 14-, 16-mile-per-gallon large cruisers. So we were totally unprepared for really what was far more, with Oil Shock One, a fear of a shortage of supply than actually shortage of supply.

SIMON: Now what happened in 1979? You had, if you please, a change of regime when the Shah was overthrown in Iran.

Mr. HEITMAN: Right. Rather than respond to the challenge of '73 in a very positive and forceful way, we tended to drift in Detroit. By the end of the decade, we were ill-prepared for Oil Shock Two, and what we see is the auto companies finally take very seriously, across the board in production models, aerodynamics.

Essentially, a great portion of fuel consumption is a result of wind resistance, so over time, with aerodynamics, cars begin far more to look alike in terms of profile.

And so, you know, if you grew up in the 1950s, for example, like myself, almost every young man that I knew was a car-spotter. You know, at 100 yards, we could spot a Desoto or a Dodge or whatever. I mean, you know, the quintessential aerodynamic production car that hit the market in the '80s is a result of really Oil Shock Two - was the Ford Taurus, and that was affectionately called the flying potato because that's what it looks like when it's on the road.

SIMON: To bring us up to today, what do you think of hybrids?

Mr. HEITMAN: When we get to the plug-in electrics, I think that's probably our future. For example, Toyota right now is having a difficult time getting batteries for their hybrids.

SIMON: Because they're selling so many hybrids?

Mr. HEITMAN: Yes. Anything that they get on the lot, they can sell.

SIMON: We already have some anecdotal evidence that Americans aren't taking road trips, for example, during Memorial Day weekend that was recently past and perhaps might be cutting down on road trips this summer. Do you expect that to become more a way of life than just a phenomenon?

Mr. HEITMAN: I think to some degree, you're probably right. You know, people are still going to take road trips. There may be more people in the car. They may be shorter trips, but this notion of freedom and individuality and status, that's not going to go away, and we really like our convenience.

You know, unlike a rail trip, you go when you want to go, come back when you want to come back. Americans have been wedded to the road since the Model T and auto-camping in the period of World War I. I don't think that's going to go away.

Mr. HEITMAN: John Heitman, who's a professor of history at the University of Dayton, thanks so much.

Mr. HEITMAN: Thank you.

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