The place was a mess. It wasn't my dream Detroit. It wasn't the Motown that gave America the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, the 1957 Chevy Bel Air, the 1959 Chrysler 300E, or the 1966 Pontiac GTO.
Somehow, the music had died; and along with its demise went those beautiful brutemobiles, with their big engines, tail fins and "Coke bottle" rear fenders. Those cars were as audacious as the pompadour hairdos on '50s rock-and-roll stars, as sexy as their skin-tight, shiny show suits, as wild as their dancing. They had funk and rhythm.
All of which were missing from Detroit and its automobiles when I started covering the auto beat for The Washington Post in 1982. What I found was depression, a company town that had lost its soul, beaten into submission by the Japanese and America's Automotive Calvinists, burdened by inertia, and cowed by a despairing recognition of its own failures.
Visits to leaders of America's Big Three automakers in those days were akin to psychotherapy sessions. Beset and befuddled executives would offer a list of excuses for why their fellow citizens were turning away from American cars in pursuit of Japanese quality and German engineering.
They'd speak, and I'd listen. I'd ask a question, and they'd get defensive. I'd re-assure them of my patriotism, and they'd smile. But we both knew the U.S. industry was getting its butt kicked.
The reasons were evident. Those big cars of the '50s and '60s were easy to love when they were running well -- which they often failed to do in Chicago winters or damp New Orleans heat. Their heavy chrome tended to flake and peel, exposing underlying bumper metal to rust. Their paint would blister and pop, inviting more corrosion. And the polyurethane forestry decorating their dashboards and internal door panels sometimes would warp, or pull away from its backing.
But, Lord! They were fun!
The era of permissive giddiness ended in 1973, when an Arab oil embargo taught Americans the true cost of driving, forcing them, temporarily, to abandon their belief that cheap fuel was a birthright.
There were long gasoline lines and occasional rationing. Fights sometimes erupted at besieged gas pumps. It was frightening.
Fear gave rise to the Time of Small and Ugly and its operative theology, Automotive Calvinism, which equated minimalism, reliability and practicality with quality, and which eschewed the notion of pleasure.
Pleasure was chrome. Chrome was useless. Pleasure was big. Big was excessive, exhibitionist, a sin against the Doctrine of Strict Utilitarianism, the key tenet of Automotive Calvinism.
Strict Utilitarians believed it shameful to worship cars as romantic objects, damnable to possess them as icons of motorized libido. Out went the chrome-laden front bumpers that adorned cars such as the 1955 Cadillac Series 62 convertible coupe. Away went the tail fins of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Big was downsized, sometimes to laughable proportions. Remember the 1982 Cadillac Cimarron, GM's ill-fated attempt to turn a small economy car into a luxmobile?
Strict Utilitarianism gave rise to public policies aimed at chilling America's passion for the internal-combustion engine. Chief among them were Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, introduced in the mid-1970s. These were Washington's program for getting better fuel economy without penalizing politicians.
CAFE put the onus on automakers to come up with more fuel-sipping, generally smaller cars, without providing any market incentives to make those models desirable to consumers. It was a masterpiece of well-intentioned hypocrisy, completely at odds with what was being done in Europe and Japan.
Those foreign governments resorted to Economics 101. To help control consumption, they raised the price of gasoline and diesel fuel and imposed other costs to help drive consumers toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. As a result, Japanese and European companies started turning out some of the best small cars available, largely because they had home markets eager to buy them at premium prices.
No such guts were on display in the U.S. Congress. Failure to raise gasoline prices in this country conspired with marketplace trends to make small cars undesirable. Small cars here were, and largely remain, money losers for automakers and their dealers -- a fact that led to a particularly perverse marketing scheme adopted by American car companies.
It worked like this:
CAFE is based on the average fuel economy of all new cars sold by an automaker in a year. Each automaker has to meet that standard or pay a penalty. So, American car companies started rolling out cheap, ugly low-quality rides, such as the 1970s Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega. The idea was to sell enough "economy" cars to build up a bank of CAFE credits that would allow the more lucrative sales of big rides.
But Detroit's industry captains soon learned that it is difficult to sacrifice quality on one assembly line without infecting another. The entire U.S. auto industry developed a reputation for bad quality, period. A recessionary U.S. economy made things worse. And that is where I found things in the dog days of the early 1980s.
But the glory of America is its unquenchable spirit, embodied at that time in the soul of then-Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca.
Lee (I've always called him Lee) is a natural salesman. He's currently marketing electric-powered bicycles through his new company, EV Global Motors. He'll make a go of it. The man could sell God real estate in heaven at a premium price.
The essence of Lee's genius has always been his ability to listen to consumers and understand their spoken needs and unspoken passions. He knew that most Americans hated small cars. Yet, he also knew that his financially strapped car company couldn't afford to pay CAFE penalties for building and selling large automobiles.
So, Lee reached into his idea hat and pulled out the minivan, which had the unique virtue of providing big station-wagon space in a vehicle officially classified by the government as a truck. Bingo! Trucks had to meet substantially lower CAFE standards than cars, and could not be counted against car sales in the CAFE credit game.
That was in 1984. Chrysler's new Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans were immediate hits. Soon, all domestic car companies and most of their foreign rivals were offering minivans, too.
That effectively put an end to the Time of Small and Ugly.
By 1990, the U.S. auto industry had gotten its act together on quality, and had moved into the age of what I call the Great American Potency Syndrome, or GAPS.
GAPS is the need to have more than you'll ever need just in case you need it, which you never will. It was the natural outgrowth of a booming economy, low gasoline prices and rising consumer confidence.
Big sport utility vehicles are the most prominent manifestations of GAPS. After all, who needs a $66,000 Range Rover 4.6 HSE -- a mountain-climbing, stream-fording sport utility vehicle -- to explore the well-paved shopping malls of suburban America? And what's the deal with the heavy-metal brush guards affixed to the front ends of many SUVs? Are they needed to protect brute-utes on urban safaris in Manhattan and the District of Columbia?
There are other sides to GAPS, often ignored in the concern over sport utes. They include the general return to product upsizing and the rebirth of the horsepower race.
Small cars aren't what they used to be. The subcompact Honda CVCC turned into the slightly larger Honda Civic, which has now grown into the almost mid-size Honda Civic. Japanese car companies, once known for their high-quality pintmobiles, are now out-Buicking General Motors.
Witness the Asian Buick, otherwise known as the Toyota Avalon, a full-size floatmobile that rivals the best of the biggest produced by Detroit. There are also the Nissan Maxima, Acura RL and Infiniti Q45, to name a few.
And though automakers have found myriad ways to boost fuel economy, they've also happily yielded to consumer demand for more horsepower in small and large vehicles, cars and trucks. How about a 150-horsepower Dodge Neon coupe, a compact car that began life in 1994 as something closer to an economy subcompact?
Need a family car? There's the new 200-horsepower Chevrolet Impala. Even more horsepower is available in bigger, and even in some much smaller, cars.
It isn't so much that the music has returned as that Detroit and the rest of autodom now march to a different drummer. Car companies in the past arrogantly decided what consumers would buy. Today, the goal is to give consumers what they want as quickly as possible.
If you want trucks, you get trucks of every type and configuration imaginable. Sport coupes? No problem. If you want hybrid electric/fossil fuel cars, such as Honda's new Insight or the Toyota Prius, you can get those, too.
How about pure electrics? GM, Ford and what is now DaimlerChrysler AG (formed through a 1998 merger of Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp.) are all working on ways to provide more of those cars in the future. Then, again, you can opt for one of Lee's new electric bikes.
It doesn't matter. The money is in pleasing the market, which sounds a lot more pleasant -- to my ears, at least -- than the grating noises of dictation, be they from the auto industry or the government.
Warren Brown writes about the auto industry for The Post.