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The Truth, Mainly - 01/13/1992

If an Infiniti rusts, what shall a Yugo do?

In "The Canterbury Tales," Chaucer's Parson asks a rhetorical question: If gold rusts, what shall iron do? Not everyone reads it this way, but I think he's talking about cars.

Some heavy thinkers in Washington believe that most of our troubles would go away if we could just convince the rest of the world—and ourselves—that we make better cars than other countries do. That's why the head honchos from GMC, Ford, and Chrysler went with the President last week to persuade the Japanese to buy Buicks and Plymouths and Lincolns instead of Toyotas and Hondas and Subarus.

It reminds me of the arguments we used to have between the Ford men and the Chevy men in my hometown barbershop. We didn't much care which church you went to so long as you didn't get serious about your religion. But the kind of car you drove was a matter of real dispute, some of it mechanical and esthetic, most of it metaphysical and hotly held.

I think the current argument over their cars vs. ours is just about as futile.

Because the truth is that all cars, American or foreign, have but one ultimate goal and that is to break the hearts of their owners. We need to understand that so that we're not tempted to bomb Tokyo or Stuttgart or Detroit when our cars do us in. That's what they're supposed to do. That's their raison d'etre.

Sure, I know—we all have anecdotal evidence of automotive benevolence. We can all tell stories like the one I tell about my '76 Dodge pickup with 145,000 miles on it, a pickup that took me on a 500-mile trip in 100-degree temperatures only to blow out its right front tire just as I pulled into my own driveway.

"There," I say, "is a vehicle that's all heart, a true-blue demonstration of how the tough get going when the going gets tough, of how quitters never win and winners never quit."

And so on.

But when cars serve us well like that, they are like the mule Josh Billings wrote about: it would be a good mule for six months just to get a chance to kick somebody. For every blowout in the driveway, there are four breakdowns in the middle of Death Valley just after the dog has been car sick.

My cars have specialized in betrayals that erode family trust.

There was the '64 Mercedes 190D which overheated and warped its head. My older son, who was in high school and had thus begun to doubt his father's omniscience, helped me take off the head, get it planed, get everything back together and running again. I could see new respect in his eyes. We took it for a test run to Kansas City but 25 miles out, between Bennet and Palmyra, the oil gauge dropped to zero. We opened the hood and everything was drenched with Quaker State 10-40 and a boy's faith in his father destroyed.

The Truth, Mainly


Or there was the '76 Honda I sold to my younger son after I was finished with it. He'd been away to college and so had begun to doubt his father's virtue. But when I let him have the car for $300 ($50 less than book retail), his eyes misted over in gratitude. His vision cleared at mile marker 413 on I-80 when the engine seized up the first time he took it out of town. He had to call me to come tow him home in the pickup, and his voice was the voice Isaac might have used to ask Abraham to explain one more time why sons should trust fathers.

And a decade earlier, there was the '66 GMC Handi-Van I had to talk my wife into buying. The engine sat inside the van between the front seats and I said it would be fun to check the oil while the kids and the dog frolicked in the back. She gave in and the van blew a head gasket in the middle of the night in the middle of Minnesota. I worked three hours at replacing it, leaning over from the driver's seat while she held the flashlight and while the kids and the dog frolicked in the back.

"Why don't we go now, Daddy?" one of the kids asked about an hour into the project.

"Shut up," I explained, stealing a line from Ring Lardner.

It didn't stay fixed. Two weeks later, it broke down in the middle of the intersection of 48th and O in the middle of July while my wife was trying to get home with my daughter's ice-cream birthday cake before it melted. That evening, my daughter said that while in some respects I was a pretty good father, the Handi-Van and I had ruined her tenth birthday party and quite possibly the rest of her life.

But at least it was an American-built disaster.

The moral is this: Any nation that links its success to the reputation of the cars it builds is living in a Fool's Paradise. If an Infiniti rusts, what shall a Yugo do?


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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