It's sad to watch General Motors fall apart like a rusty old Malibu, and not just because so many workers are losing their jobs. When I was growing up in the '60s, GM was more than just an icon of American capitalism, more than just the company that made and sold half the nation's automobiles. General Motors gave me my first schematic diagram of the American dream.
These days we'd call the GM strategy an exercise in market segmentation, but back then I would have called it "moving on up." With its five distinct lines of passenger cars, GM created a climbable staircase of price, power and prestige. In the process, the company not only made tons of money but also helped cement a deep-seated belief that to this day is held by almost every citizen of this great nation: You are what you drive.
A Chevrolet (with one big exception) was basic transportation. Driving a big, wallowing Chevy Impala meant that you had enough money to buy a car -- no small thing, mind you -- but not enough money to be frivolous about it. A Chevy was a stolid, boring, no-nonsense way to get around.
The exception, of course, was the Corvette. My friends and I spent a lot more time imagining ourselves taking slalom runs in sleek, shiny Corvettes than on minor matters such as school, family or church -- and almost as much time as we spent thinking about sex, which we were pretty sure required a Corvette for consummation.
The next step up was Pontiac. A big, wallowing Bonneville was basically an Impala with an angry-looking grille, but there was a difference: The Pontiac was "sporty" in a way the Chevy couldn't possibly be. When the muscle-car era dawned, that image of cool was made indelible by the incomparable GTO, which wasn't as sexy as a Corvette but at least allowed you to imagine cruising with your friends.
After Pontiac, you could move up to Buick. The LeSabre was, yes, big and wallowing, and mechanically it wasn't much different from its less-expensive siblings, but there was an air of solid, middle-class accomplishment about a Buick. We were a Buick family -- we had a black 1964 LeSabre. The pastor at our church, Rev. Curry, had an identical car, which he let his son Jimmy drive. Like a lot of preachers' kids, Jimmy couldn't have been more polite and respectable in the presence of adults, or more mischievous the rest of the time. Once, before I got my license, Jimmy was giving me a ride somewhere and decided to see how fast he could take a curve. The tires squealed, we missed a telephone pole by inches, and any urge I might have felt to take our LeSabre through any slalom runs was immediately quashed.
By the mid-'60s, Buick was being overtaken by Oldsmobile, which represented near-luxury and advanced technology. Remember the 1966 Toronado, with the shocking innovation of front-wheel drive? And retractable headlights? Neat, but James Bond's Aston Martin was better.
Finally, at the summit, there was Cadillac. Driving a Cadillac meant not only that you had arrived but also that you wanted everyone to know how well you were doing. Or else that was just what you wanted everyone to think. Yes, eventually a slightly disreputable "Superfly" odor began to waft from big Caddies, but that could be avoided by forgoing most of the bling -- no super-wide whitewalls, no diamond-in-the-back vinyl top. A big Cadillac meant that you, too, were big.
Now, as it sheds high-wage assembly jobs -- at least 30,000 will disappear by 2008, the company announced this week -- and hemorrhages money on health and pension benefits for retirees, GM is much diminished. Oldsmobile, the oldest of the lines, is no longer made; Buick and Pontiac are fading fast. The ladder isn't a ladder anymore, because it's missing the middle rungs. GM's core business is inexorably being reduced to Chevys and Saturns at the bottom of the market, and Cadillacs and Hummers (and Corvettes) at the top.
That's becoming a common pattern in the automotive industry. Companies let you buy a Nissan at the bottom of the market or an Infiniti at the top; a Toyota or a Lexus; a Honda or an Acura; a Volkswagen or an Audi. And it reflects the new reality of this country, or at least the new way we're coming to see ourselves. Either you've made it or you haven't. Either you're a champ or a chump.
You can still buy an Impala and "See the USA in your Chevrolet," but the view has changed.