In all the discussion about the decline of the American auto industry, one factor -- and, I think, the decisive one -- has been left out: Americans have ended their romance with the auto. I saw that romance at its most intense moments, growing up with the children of auto executives in the suburbs of Detroit in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I remember how people would whisper about the terrible financial trouble a family must be having when it kept one of their cars more than two years. I remember how excited we would be when we saw the first pictures of the new car models -- or, better yet, spotted one of them being photographed for advertisements somewhere in Bloomfield Hills. I remember too the smell of new car upholstery, and how excited I was when we picked up our new cars at the dealer's, the 1953 two-tone Pontiac Catalina or our first wraparound windshield Oldsmobile in 1955.
We are told today that one reason auto sales are down so much is that cars and gasoline are so expensive today. But the $11,000 car of 1982 is equal, in real dollars, to the $3,000 top-of-the-line Chevy or Ford that so many Americans bought in 1955. And in real dollars, the $1.20 gas of today is not so much more expensive than 30-cent gas in 1955. Americans in the 1950s and 1960s were, if they were living much above the poverty line, willing to part with a lot more of their income more frequently than they are today to buy cars -- and mostly American cars. In the past three years, only 7 or 8 percent of American households (not counting duplications) have bought new American cars -- a figure lower than in any year, even in recessions, since World War II. American car sales per household were twice as high in good years like 1955, 1965-66, 1968-69, and 1972-73.
What happened to the romance with the auto? To understand, you have to remember that the people who were in love with cars in the 1950s and 1960s are not the same people as the potential auto buyers of today. Most people under 43 today could not drive legally in the boom sales year of 1955, for example, and most auto buyers of 1955 are not doing much (or any) driving this year. The Americans who were buying cars then were people for whom the Depression of the 1930s was a vivid and recent experience; it was especially vivid since almost everyone -- economists and politicians, voters and consumers -- expected it to return immediately after World War II. We know now that instead there were three decades of fabulous prosperity, of economic growth. But even those of us who lived through those years as adults find it hard to recall how unexpected that good fortune was.
So in the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Americans found themselves affluent far beyond their expectations. What would they do with their money? Many of the luxuries we enjoy today were simply not available in large quantity then: color televisions, charter trips to Europe, video games, vacation houses, air conditioning. For the most part, people in the 1950s spent their new wealth on things we regard today as basics: they ate more meat than their parents did, drank more liquor and smoked more cigarettes; they bought more clothes; they bought rather than rented houses; and they bought new cars.
And on all of these items they spent more on decoration and ornament and on buying this year's new model than their parents in the 1930s had been able to afford. Not just the automobiles, but the clothes and accessories of the 1950s were characterized by a gaudiness we have since been taught to regard as excessive and hideous. The Americans of the 1950s, with their costume jewelry and chrome tailfins, seem vulgar and ostentatious to us today. But we should regard them more sympathetically: they were people kicking up their heels, enjoying a wonderful prosperity and freedom that they had never expected.
Americans today are obviously different. People under 45 have no vivid experience of the Depression, but instead remember what seems now to have been a long period of steady prosperity. They have a much wider range of products competing, as marketing vice presidents say, for the leisure dollar; and many different types of vehicles (campers, pickup trucks, sports cars, as well as ordinary passenger cars) competing for their transportation dollar. They have less taste for ornament in consumer products: while architects and painters are moving back toward decoration, car buyers increasingly want Bauhaus-style cars. Automobiles are not symbols of success (except for the Mercedes and Ferraris of Beverly Hills), and certainly not of a sudden and unexpected freedom from economic privation; they are just a way of getting around. The children who loved the smell of new cars now resent spending money on them and buy them as infrequently as possible. They want to spend their money on a VCR or two weeks in Europe instead.
So it's wrong to blame the American auto industry entirely for its problems. Its leaders presume, as most adults instinctively assume, that their own behavior and taste will be replicated by the next generation, and that people somehow need to buy new cars every two or three years. They did not understand that consumers would end their affair with the American automobile one day and pursue romances with other products. "Fashion," says the French historian, Fernand Braudel, "is a search for new language to discredit the old, a way in which each generation can repudiate its immediate predecessor and distinguish itself from it." While we mock the fashion of the 1950s and make fun of the auto executives who thought the romance with the auto would go on forever, we should pause for a moment and wonder which of our own fashions and enthusiasms, which weem so sensible and natural to us now, will seem tawdry and foolish a generation hence.