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 worldand
ourselvesthat 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
I think the current argument over their cars vs. ours is just about
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 knowwe 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.