Sunday, December 21, 2008


Detroit and Crappy Cars

Hat tip HurricaneRadio
Listening to the debate about bailing out the Detroit automakers, I think of greed, stupidity and lousy cars. The auto manufacturers and the unions have been greedy and stupid. It didn't take a genius to see this coming down the road given the automakers and unions approach to business.

But, the bottom line is bad cars. Foreign automakers, in particular the Japanese, outperform the U.S. manufacturers in design and quality. I decided to take a look at some of the lousy pieces of junk Detroit foisted upon the public during my adult life. I'm doing this from memory, including cars of my family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances and my own.

The first that comes to mind is the Chevy Vega. A friend of mine bought one of these rolling pieces of trash. He had to have the engine rebuilt at 60,000 miles. Plus everything about the car was cheap, trim, fit, etc. In general, the Vega ran well until you got it off the lot.

During the mid-70s, Ford made the Granada. Magazine ads bragged about how it looked like a Cadillac. Unfortunately, the Granada beat the Cadillac in poor quality. It needed a full-time mechanic as an option.

Speaking of Cadillac, I wonder why the Indian tribes that protest test the use of Indian names and references by college teams, which is an honor, don't sue GM for defamation. Cadillac and Pontiac are names of Indian chiefs. Having their names pasted on rolling pieces of junk is surely an insult to the tribes.

Chrysler went through at least a decade without making a decent car. My parents bought a new 1965 Plymouth station wagon. That may have been that last good car they made for 20 years or more. Much later my mother had a Plymouth Horizon. The first car Consumer Reports rated as unacceptable. It had the disturbing characteristic of not automatically straightening out when exiting a turn. The driver had to manually turn the steering wheel back to straight. I drove her car a few times. I was on edge the whole time worrying I would forget to turn the wheel back going around a corner.

The Horizon also ate alternators for lunch. As I remember, my mother, who drove sparingly, had to put two or three in it. In contrast, I've never had to replace an alternator in one of my cars. For the past ten years, I've driven about 50,000 miles a year.

One guy I worked with owned an American Motors Matador. A leading auto magazine described it as a rolling brick. American Motors had a list of bad cars, the Matador, Gremlin, Hornet, Pacer and probably some others I've repressed from memory. Of course, AMC went under and there was no bailout for them.

Chrysler made its K-car which served as a platform for a Dodge, Plymouth and Chrysler. Keeping pace pressed to keep pace with deficient design and engineering, GM made the X body car. The best feature of these cars was that, due to the rattling and engine wheezing, the mechanic could hear you coming.

My ex-wife bought a Ford Tempo a few months before we married. Unsurprisingly, this car did nothing well. I often described it as defining mediocrity or ordinary. The A/C wouldn't keep the car cool during the southern summers of Tennessee. The cruise control died within two years. The best feature of the Tempo is that they quit making it.

Late in life, my parents began driving the Ford Taurus. They bought two or three used ones from car rental agencies. Like other Detroit offspring, the Tauruses demanded frequent repair although my parents drove relatively little. They like the cars because of their size and you could buy one cheaply. Wonder why.

In 1991, we bought a Ford Aerostar minivan. A vehicle I actually like except for its proclivity to transmission and engine problems. During cold weather, the transmission would allow the engine to rev to about 1,500 rpms before catching. It was like revving up the engine and popping the clutch but without knowing when the clutch would pop. Once it warmed up the problem disappeared. This was "fixed" under warranty which meant it was worked on and the problem stopped until the next winter when the warranty had expired.

Later, the Aerostar developed a roof leak which made it the only car I've owned which leaked in the rain. The Aerostar's engine required a contortionist as a mechanic. To change the spark plugs, I would reach two from above, one through wheel well and the other two by removing the interior engine cover and locating them by feel.

The Aerostar had the full-time four wheel drive feature. Ford seems to have a problem with such transmissions. My ex has an Explorer and one of her brothers has an Expedition. Both, especially the Expedition, have had more than the usual number of transmission problems. The Explorer's transmission died about 2 weeks ago and will most likely be replaced by a Japanese make.

In contrast, for my young adulthood I owned a 1966 VW Bug for 15 years along with a couple of other cars. The VW was as basic as they come. It had a reputation of reliability although by the standards of today, they were not. On the other hand, it was easy and cheap to maintain and repair. Twice I had the engine replaced. The first time it cost $250 for a factory rebuilt engine. The second time $350 for the same.

Currently I drive a 1998 Toyota Camry with 280,000 miles on it. Each day I drive a 120 mile round trip to work and back. Every 100,000 miles I have the timing belt and water pump, which runs off the timing belt, replaced. The only other repair was the replacement of the turn signal/windshield wiper control unit that attaches to the steering column.

Everything works great. A/C keeps me cool. Heater is fine. No transmission problems. Nice radio/tape deck (it's an older car). This Camry has over a 100,000 more miles on it than any other car I've owned except the VW and has had fewer repairs than any either.

They say Detroit matches the quality of the Japanese manufacturers but I have a lot of trouble believing that. Last night my son and I stopped and looked at the 2009 Subaru Forester. Very nice car for not much money. My sister and others I know have had very good luck with Subaru's. If I can swing it, I'll be buying one a Forester in a few months.

UPDATE I came across this and had to add it. Barack Obama's opinion of the Ford Granada:
"The car I learned to drive on was my grandfather's Ford Granada," Barack told Indianapolis radio station WFBQ. "It may be the worst car that Detroit ever built… This thing was a tin can. [Detroit was] trying to compete with the Japanese. They wanted to keep the cars big, so they made them out of tin foil… You basically couldn't go over 80 (miles per hour) without the thing getting out of control."
And, what was Obama doing trying to go over 80 mph. Is this evidence of a life of crime and disrespect for the law?

A commenter thinks the Granada was compared to Mercedes. Turns out the Granada was compared to Mercedes and Cadillac. Talk about over statement. Magazine ad comparing Ford Granada to Mercedes and Cadillac plus an ad comparing the Granada to just a Mercedes.

Interesting how everyone who complains about American cars last bought one from about 1990-1992, but hasn't from the 2000's. There is a night and day difference in the quality and feel.

Disclosure: I drive an '87 Volvo, because it was at a price I could afford when I bought it.
After 30 years of experience and observation, I'm more than wary. For some of us, it may not be too little but it may be too late.
My recollection is that the Ford Grenada was compared to a Mercedes, not a Cadillac, in advertisements.
I always thought it looked more like a Mercedes. I found an ad on ebay that shows the Granada being compared to a Mercedes and a Cadillac.
actually quite a few american brands now exceed the big 3 Japanese cars, and the Germans have been a distant 3 for some time... [the Germans can't seem to figure out electrical systems, and I have heard this from everyone regardless of breand, and yes several VW's that I owned had to be rewired]

But, as everyone mentions once you have a bad rep, takes forever to get that perception changed. Nobody remembers that all hondas till the early 90's and more rusted out to nothing, or that a lot of datsuns could be totalled by kicking them.

Ultimately what we have here is a case of bad timing. Bed timing that the big three didn't bother to look at the competition when they started building cars in the US. It should have been fair warning when they come to your shores to take you on at home. Beyond that it's just compound foolishness. Having been part of family businesses that ended up having to bust the union to survive... the union WILL cut it's nose off to spite it's face. Add sucky management to that, and the slow speed that they are willing to change? People suddenly decide they don't want SUV's anymore and everything goes to hell, michigan.

But. In this the Japanese are luck and learned a good system. They are actually far worse at changing ingrained attitudes, and being adaptable. They just happened to be concerned with quality at a better time, although... Honda was the first to realize that your reputation for Q was not related to the first owner, but the third one. Late 80's early 90's Nissans and Toyo's often had reliability problems with really basic stuff, like dome lights that were glued in with silicone, and vacuum systems that would wreck havoc when the lines started to dry out.
Thing is, the Japanese learned from their mistakes, because they were customer driven, while detroit seemed to rely on patriotism to keep going.

FWIW I have an '06 Pontiac Grnad Prix, which was a rental it first year, and I have had no issues at all. Since people tend to whip rentals, that is saying something. I'd put it against the hondas that I and the rest of the family have owned, ESPCIALLY in bang for the buck. A used Accord with the same milage and such costs MUCH more, and what exactly are you paying for there?
SwissArmyDad - You are correct about the trim, etc. on the early Japanese cars. A friend once told me that you might as well rip up the upholstery on the Datsuns when you bought it. But, another friend had a Datsun B210 that ran for over 20 years with no significant problems. He sold it for $500 with over 300,000 miles on it.

I've heard enough bad stuff about VW Passats and Jettas that I wouldn't buy one.
I bought a 1990 Ford Aerostar Eddie Bauer AWD because we liked to go camping. The kids were young, and we spent a lot of time on the Blue Ridge
Parkway - Skyline drive and Dollywood areas in those days. The vehicle started to Fall apart within 2 weeks of purchasing it. The transmission slipped, like yours, the dual air conditioning crapped out, the engine started leaking oil, the clear coat started peeling. I took it back to the ford dealer to trade it for an Explorer. In two weeks it had lost 50% of its worth. I took it to a Honda dealer and traded it in for a 1990 Honda Accord. The ex still drives the Accord. I drive a Nissan Maxima that is ten years old and still flawless.
I'm on my 4th Nissan vehichle. The previous three all went over 250K miles with only minor problems.

I will say, I had to take my Titan in for some body work awhile back, and the insurance company gave me a tricked out 08 Dodge Charger to drive while the workd was being done.

The Dodge handled well and looked very sharp, but the interior design was horrible. Cheap plastic parts, poor ergonomics, and a design that was just plain boring, especially when contrasted to the stylistically ambitious exterior of this vehichle.

If they'd made the interior worth a darn, the car might have been good enough to make me consider a Dodge next time... but no, I think I'll stick with Nissans.
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