I TRIED, AMERICA. I worked at it for more than a year. I'd bought American cars for the last decade and a half, and I had no intention of stopping now, when the economy really needed my money. I figured it was going to be taken out of my pocket one way or another. If I didn't spend it on an American car, I'd just pay for it in food stamps to former UAW members. But nobody could quite bring themselves to sell me an American car.
A recent windfall allowed me the luxury of looking for something a trifle sexy.
The first thing I tried to buy was the Chrysler convertible, shortly after they came out. The first thing the salesman would not let me do is drive it. Not around the block, not around the parking lot, not at all. I guess they didn't want me to experience wind in my hair and admiring glances from passersby. I might have whipped out my checkbook right then and done something crazy. No, instead they stuffed me into a family sedan that they claimed was comparable.
In the confines of this mom-and-pop-mobile, without the distractions of being able to see the sky, a few flaws in the K car started looming large. Such as the thing cornering like a four-posted bed. I wanted a little excitement in my life, but not the kind caused by feeling I was taking my life in my hands around a 30-mile-an-hour corner.
Then I noticed that the undercoating that I didn't want anyway had been so liberally applied to the cars in the showroom that there was black tar splashed all around the rocker panels. The screws holding down the top were rusted. The convertible functionally had no back seat. The engine was a Mitsubishi. An additional $4,000 worth of profit had cheerfully been added to the car, bringing it over $15,000, take it or leave it, no deals.
I didn't need this. Several months later Chrysler was up to its kiester in unsold convertibles. The price came down to $11,000. I was not surprised. I was also not tempted. This is not the only car in America. I decided to take Lee Iaccoca's advice -- find a better car and buy it: a Chevy.
I went and looked at Camaros. I started asking technical questions, but I did not get technical answers. In fact, I had tremendous trouble getting a salesman to talk to me. The distinct impression I got was that people asking questions were automatically labeled tire- kickers -- people who have nothing better to do than waste the time of salesmen who did not have a single other customer in the dealership.
Such grunts as I was able to illicit indicated that the salesman had not had enough initiative to learn as much about the car as he could have with a casual glance at Car and Driver or Road & Track. He seemed bored.
And again, they wouldn't let me drive the car. I liked the car. I pressed. Okay, they said, make an appointment for next Tuesday night. We'll probably be able to find a car to let you drive.
I came back. They handed me the keys. I asked where the nearest winding road was. They said, "Oh! We're not going to let you take it out of the parking lot. What do you think this is?" I'm leaving, I said. Good-bye, they calmly said, walking back into the showroom devoid of customers.
At this point, I was getting a little steamed. I wasn't crazy about the lack of amenities in the 114,000-mile 1978 Mustang that I was driving, but it had been a decent car. There had been public announcements that the Mustang convertible was about to be introduced. I'll stick with Ford, damn it, I said.
Went to the Ford dealerships. Yup, coming out within weeks they said. This was last June. It was also last September, last November, last December and last February. But I'm no fair-weather patriot. I was willing to wait to get the opportunity to buy American. In March I got a call from one of the many Ford salesmen with whom I had left my card. Convertibles are in. Be right over, I said.
Looked good. After debate with two salesman and the senior manager, it was agreed that I could drive the car -- a little. All right, I said. Let's get the top down. You see what's coming: the tonneau cover that wouldn't stay on, the clamps that wouldn't lock, the glass rear window that weighs so much and requires such a contorted position to install that it is almost physically impossible to deal with.
This thing did have a back seat that would hold one person, not comfortably. It didn't have much trunk. Yet the wind felt good. Pretty girls smiled at me. I reached for my checkbook. Okay, how much? Over $16,000, I was told, and you certainly can't have this one. Somebody ordered this one months ago. We can put you on the waiting list.
I was not deterred. As long as I'm on a waiting list, I said, special order it so I can pay for only the options I want. We sat down. It took a crowd to figure out what options were available on the convertible. But we worked something out. Okay, I said. I'm finally going to get a car, and in only two to three months!
I went home and told my wife the good news. She said, let me see if I've got this straight. You're going to pay $14,400 for an $8,000 car that doesn't include an air-conditioner or a radio?
What do women know about cars? I went into work Monday and told my fellow car-enthusiast on the financial staff the good news. He said, you're going to pay $14,400 for an $8,000 car that doesn't include an air-conditioner or a radio?
Guys who write financial news are really smart, I thought to myself. I called Ford back. Sorry, I said, but that's just too much money. I'm going to buy a Pontiac.
I liked the Firebird a lot. It was 1,000 pounds overweight compared to other cars in its class, which meant a four-cylinder engine was out of the question. But I could live with a six. It would probably get 22 miles a gallon, but what the heck, gas is only a buck and a quarter. It didn't have any head room, but the special suspension will keep my head from hitting too hard on the roof. To get the sunroof open, you can't just hit a button. You stop the car, get out, lift two heavy panels off the roof and store them in the not-too-spacious trunk. But with the T-bar open, at least you have room for your head.
And I really, really liked the optional Lear seats. Lots of lateral support. Six different adjustments from lumbar to thigh areas. Very functional and comfortable, given that I spend a lot of time in the car.
They wouldn't let me drive the Firebird out of the parking lot, either, but I now understood that that was an unreasonable request on my part. I at least got to like first gear driving from the showroom to the fence. Besides, I was getting desperate. I was running out of Detroit brands.
Went home. Studied the information packet. Waited for a Saturday that wasn't pouring rain to go back and buy the Firebird. That took until weekend before last. This time I was so determined to buy I brought my wife. We walked in the door of the dealership and took out our checkbook. The salesman was not supercilious. He just said they didn't have anything with the good seats in stock. We were again willing to wait for a special order. The salesman wrote it up, took it to the manager for a price, and I got out my pen.
By this time I should have known things were going too smoothly. The manager and the salesman come back with long faces. We can't sell you the car, they told me. Special orders were shut off May 23. We won't know what the prices will be on an '84 until late in the summer. Even if we did, you wouldn't get it until late September. There's nothing like what you want anywhere for 300 miles. There is simply no car to sell you.
Stunned and dejected, I trailed my wife back to the old car, kicking the pavement. My eyes were so studiously downcast I didn't realize I had followed her all the way across the parking lot. That's where the Honda place was that is part of the very same car dealership. She was staring at a new Prelude.
It wasn't American. I wasn't interested. I turned to go and bumped into a salesman, whose very first words, before introducing himself, were, "Want to drive it?"
Did I hear right? Was this a car salesman asking me if I wanted to drive a car?
I didn't have time to collect my thoughts. A ring of shiny black objects were arcing toward my chest. I caught them reflexively. They were car keys.
In a daze, I turned around and looked at the Prelude for the first time. Nah, I said, I don't want it. Automatic transmission.
The salesmen handed me a different set of keys. "The five-speed's over there."
My wife was trying to wipe the pleading look off her face. "It's going to be your car," she said, resolutely.
I looked at the Prelude. I tried to clear my mind of everything terrific I'd read about it. Well, I rationalized, after a year of shopping, I could at least treat myself to one ride in somebody's new car. "For the best winding roads, take a right and head straight," said the salesman, unprompted.
The Prelude smoked out of the dealership. "Oooh," I tried to prevent myself from saying out loud. Through some S-curves, the car squatted, pointing itself exactly where it should go, clutching me in its standard- equipment high-support seats, so much like the ones I longed for in my Pontiac.
I won't dwell on the power sunroof and the four-speaker digital-readout stereo and the owner's manual that recommends against taking the Prelude over 80 miles per hour in third with two more gears to go. Nor will I dwell on the fact that with all these goodies and a hefty, unconcealed dealer profit, it's the same roughly $11,000 as the less-fancy Firebird nobody would sell me.
I will draw three meager pieces of solace:
I'm buying from a kind-of American company. Honda has started building Accords in Ohio. I know. This is a Prelude. I'm reaching for comfort where I can.
I discovered to my relief that there are cars that America is building with which I could have fallen in love, had someone given me half a chance.
There is still at least one American in the Washington area who knew how to actively sell me a car. He may have learned his attitude from Japanese management. But he learned it.
There may be hope for us yet.