No, I'm not talking about her desire for a senate seat she doesn't have
to win an election to inherit. That's just SOP for the U.S. House
I'm not talking about her haughty refusal to make disclosures about
income and job history every non-royal politician has to make. Let's
forget that she's the daughter of the Democrat Camelot's Guinevere and
the niece of Lee Radziwill, who married two princes (the first,
unfortunately couldn't prove it and so
had to be divorced) to get the title she knew to be her birth right.
And I'm not
even talking about her bored, tepid public speaking style. If you're a
Kennedy, the audience provides any missing rhetorical drama in the act
of listening. You're spellbinding just by being there.
Caroline and Aunt Lee. They share a
sense of royalty and a wicked overbite.
What I don't get, at all, is why this scion of American imperial
splendor walks like a damn truckdriver. Watch the video. I'm not
imagining things. There's walking like a lady. And then there's walking
like a damn truckdriver. You tell me which category she belongs in.
Her mother was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis Christ, for God's sake. Her
father was God's gift to all women everywhere for all time and the once
and future King of America. Her brother was the Second Coming and the
ultimate Prince Charming of an entire generation of National Enquirer readers. She went
to Concord Academy and Radcliffe College, and she's been at the top of
every society guest list in the Manhattan social register since she
reached puberty. And in all that time, nobody ever taught her how to walk?
Ordinarily, I'm pretty good at figuring things out. This time I haven't
a clue. I'm asking for your help.
I mean it.
You figure it out.
That Penny likes to think she knows everything. These two videos
belong together. Know why? Tell us. If you don't, keep quiet.
I wouldn't care at all except that Jeff Buckley was also a fan of Edgar
Allan Poe and
(Yes, I know it's strange. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
There are born singers and born poets and born drivers. Trust your ear
for all three. Me, I never could sing. And my rhyming would embarrass
dissing you, Penny. Just having fun. To prove it, here's an answer to your question about
the space program and rockets.
It's a movie called October Sky. Outstanding. Buy
it, rent it, see it somehow. It's not all about what you think it's about. It's about what this post is about.
Monday, December 22, 2008
Future is the Past, Part 2
Joining the Club
1940 Bantam Hollywood. The symbol of a great
success congressional story.
POST. Having discussed government involvement in the automotive
industry in the last post, I was going to move on to other Future/Past
topics, but then I realized that a lot of you younger IP readers (i.e.,
under 40) probably have some huge holes in your knowledge of the
American automotive industry.
And those holes are not only interesting
in their own right but also relevant to understanding how the
capitalist system works in good times, bad times, and when the government gets
involved. This post is therefore going to seem something of a
hodge-podge, without a clear political lesson, but my intention is to
make part of the fairly recent past you may think you have a good
handle on a great deal more intriguing and worthy of exploration than
you might have imagined. The Internet contains an immense amount of
information, but unless you know what you're looking for, there are
vast regions of its geography that will remain permanently invisible to
you. End of lecture. Now, on to the good stuff.
Like the clicheed middle child, the middle part of longish histories
tends to get overlooked -- it just doesn't get as much attention as 1)
the exciting beginning and 2) either the sad end or (if the story's not
done yet) the duller and more familiar present. Here's my sense of what
reasonably well educated people know of the history of American
automobiles. They know about the revolutionary breakthrough of the Ford
Model T, the technological dead end of the Stanley Steamer, maybe
something of the early sport marques like the Mercer Raceabout and the
Stutz Bearcat, and almost certainly the (still) startling glamour of
Depression-doomed Grand Marques like the Pierce
They also know about the rise of the modern American automotive
corporation, best exemplified by the General Motors economic
stratification of markets with brands ranging from the low-end Chevy to
the high-end Cadillac. They know that both Ford and Chrysler prospered
by pursuing the same strategy -- Ford by offering Fords, Mercurys,
Edsels (ha ha), and Lincolns and Chrysler by offering Plymouths,
Dodges, Chryslers, and Imperials. And they may know that there were a
couple of lesser competitors -- Studebaker and American Motors -- who
fell by the wayside sometime in the 1960s or 1970s.
They probably even think of it as basically a two-part story. Part 1
begins with the Model T and ends sometime in the Great Depression when
no one can afford the iconic Duesenberg SJ and coffin-nosed Cord. Then
there are no cars built during World War II, and afterwards (Part 2)
it's all about GM, Ford, and Chrysler, with some minor distractions
provided by the Studebaker Lark and the American Motors Rambler and
(ugh) Gremlin and Pacer. And, oh yeah, somewhere in there is a
mysteriously complicated history of the archetypally American Jeep,
which somehow fills the World War II hole all by itself, being the only
passenger vehicle made in the U.S. between 1942 and 1946.
But if this is your understanding, the hole in your knowledge is far
bigger than World War II, and the Jeep -- which still miraculously
exists -- is only an incredibly important placeholder for what is in
many ways is the most fascinating, and illuminating, part of the
American car story. In fact. this is the part of the story that offers
us the very best available insight into the current state of the
worldwide automotive industry -- both in terms of how we got here and
where we might be going from here. The story of the Jeep is a huge fork
in the road, analogous to what we face today, and back then, as now,
the government of the United States played the deciding role. Are you
ready for some forgotten, almost invisible history?
The car pictured above was manufactured by a company called American
Bantam, which was organized in 1930 at the onset of the Great
Depression by a British entrepreneur who believed there might be a
market in the United States for small, inexpensive cars as an
alternative to the big, comparatively pricey gas hogs of the day. His
plan was to make American cars in America for American consumers,
initially under the Austin name that had prospered in Britain but as
soon as possible under the American Bantam name. Here
is a photo gallery of the American Bantam product offering. And here's
a sampling of what you could have bought between 1930-something and 1940 if you
had a job and didn't need the elbow room of a Buick:
We're not talking Ford Pintos and Chevy Vegas here.
mean, think about it. Style is style, regardless of size.
Now. Wouldn't you think that the U.S. government, in the days of FDR's
New Deal, would be rooting for American Bantam to succeed, to prevail
in its attempt to bring a vision of 'less is more' to an American
public so distressed by economic hard times? Yes? Well, here's
The American Austin debuted in 1930 at
the National Automobile Show. In little more than a week more than
52,000 orders had been received. By mid-June a production rate of 100
vehicles a day was achieved at the Butler [PA] plant. Unfortunately,
the Great Depression continued and American families had less and less
money and sales fell drastically. The factory closed in the spring of
In the fall of the same year, the
factory was acquired by entrepreneur, Roy S. Evans, who, at age thirty,
was the largest automobile dealer in the South. Austins again
rolled off the production line in Butler. By summer of 1935 more than
20,000 cars and trucks had been built. But the stockholders decided to
sell all the assets of the American Austin Car Company. Evans was able
to acquire these assets and reorganize the company as the American
Bantam Car Company, by 1936, but had no money left to build cars.
It wasn't until 1938 that the first Bantam "60" passenger cars and
trucks began rolling off the production line. A recession later that
same year resulted in far fewer sales than expected. In 1939 five new
models were added to the line and prospects seemed bright. Over a two
and one-half year period the company produced approximately 6700 cars
and trucks, but at an average loss of $75 per vehicle. By 1941 those
bright prospects had dimmed considerably.
War had already consumed Europe and
Evans saw the handwriting on the wall. He had tried to interest the
government in a military version of the Bantam for some time.
Meanwhile, a military committee had been formed to develop a midget
combat car. Before deciding upon specifications the committee
members came to Butler and each drove a Bantam roadster. The report of
the committee indicated the potential of the vehicles and the
capabilities of the plant.
Formal bid requests were sent in 1940 to 135 manufacturing companies.
By the time Bantam received the request the Engineering Department in
Butler had been disbanded. With less
than two weeks to develop a design and no engineer on the payroll, the
company contacted Karl K. Probst, in Detroit. He reluctantly agreed to
come to Butler and make an attempt. Within days, Probst, factory
manager, Harold Crist and Cmdr. C. H. Payne, Bantams military sales
representative, presented an actual layout of the design to the
The Willys Overland Company of Toledo, Ohio also presented a design.
(Ironic since Evans, himself, had helped keep the Toledo factory open
through a financially hard times several years before.) But only Bantam said they could deliver a
prototype within the 49 day time frame required.
Early on the morning of September 23 the prototype began a day-long
drive to Camp Holibard, Maryland. It
arrived with only thirty minutes to spare.
The first "Jeep." (Short for General Purpose vehicle.)
Doesn't it sound like the classic
American underdog success story? Individual vision and effort, heroic
execution against formidable odds, followed by acclaim, fame, contracts, and
riches? Forget it.
The vehicle was rigorously tested by
the Army for several weeks, and then declared to exceed expectations.
By this time both Willys and Ford had submitted their own prototypes.
Both companies had the advantage both of watching the testing of the
Bantam, and having free access to the blueprints of the Bantam.
In the end the government decided that
the American Bantam Company plant in Butler was too small to produce
the numbers of vehicles it needed and the contracts were given to
Willys and Ford. But the Bantam "jeep" had already begun to
revolutionize surface warfare...
In May of 1943 the Fair Trade Commission charged Willys with false and
misleading advertising by claiming that Willys had created the Jeep.
The court determined that the Jeep was fostered and conceived in
Butler, Pennsylvania, by the American Bantam Car Company.
At the end of the war the tools and dies had been scrapped at
government request and Evans sold the company in 1946. New management
continued building trailers at the plant until 1956 when the plant was
sold to American Rolling Mills.
In fact, the government had a lot to do with the way the
post-World War II automotive industry developed. Without its Jeep
contracts, Willys would surely have perished before the
post-war boom. But they received the lease on life that the far more
innovative American Bantam never got. Here's
a look at their product lineup through 1953, when they merged with
another automobile manufacturer, Kaiser Motors, which wouldn't have
existed at all if its founder, Henry J. Kaiser,
hadn't become a tycoon by low-bidding on government contracts in World
War II., most notably for the infamous troop-transport "Liberty Ships"
which were renowned for being built in four days and then breaking in
half en route across the Atlantic
In 1946, Kaiser reinvested his shipbuilding fortune in the U.S.
automotive industry and founded Kaiser Motors, which holds the unique
distinction of being the most forgotten player -- well nigh invisible
today -- in the biggest business in post World War II America. If you
think the 1950s were dull, well...
A digression. Most of us have a sense of the fifties that is shaped
more by media -- movies, memoirs, memorabilia, music, nostalgic
creations (a la Happy Days),
and conveniently ignorant oversimplifications -- than actual memory.
We've been taught to think of it as conformist, dull, repressed, safe,
witlessly prosperous, lacking in choice and variety, essentially
sexless except for Elvis and the Righteous Brothers. We reinforce these
cliches every time we (make or) see a movie populated by 1957 Chevies
and poodle skirts. The cars are always Ford, GM, and Chrysler products,
beautifully restored and convincing exemplars of the age. The viewer
can't help but infer a stultifying corporate, rococo conformity. But
the image created thereby is factually and historically wrong. Has it
ever occurred to any of you that part of the creativity of the beatnik
culture of Jack
Kerouac, Ken Kesey,
Ferlinghetti might have have been partially inspired by the
industrial creativity of the era? That they were not the only creative
voices of their time, but merely the angry tip of a monumentally
If you don't click on any other link in this post, click on this one, which should, in every sense of the term,
blow your mind. Just a few models of the most bizarre (and occasionally
brilliant) automotive company in American history.
The sports car at bottom was a fiberglass-body roadster that beat the
Chevrolet Corvette to market by a few weeks in 1954. You can like the
cars or not, but they were there, they were part of the competition,
and you don't ever see them in reruns of American Graffiti.
Truth is, the American automotive landscape was a hell of a lot more
interesting in the 1950s than any of our movie-based fake memories
comprehend. There are two levels of perception for you to tumble to
here. First, whatever you think you trust about your inherited sense
memory of the fifties is counterfeit if it doesn't include Hudsons,
and, yes, post-war Packards.
Second, your knowledge of how American big business works is wrong if
you don't understand that even in times of great prosperty like the
fifties, companies die all the time.
On average, company lifespans are shorter than human lifespans. It's
far less amazing that GM, Ford, and Chrysler are dying in their current
incarnations than that they have survived this long. All this talk of
imminent liquidation is just the business equivalent of political scare
tactics. Hudson and Nash didn't liquidate; they became American
Motors. As did the Jeep component of Willys, which survived Willys,
Kaiser, and American Motors
to remain a vital part of today's
Daimler-Chrysler. Because people still wanted the product, regardless of who stamped
their name on it.
Two more points before I move on. Liquidating the entire American
automotive manufacturing capacity makes no economic sense at all.
Automotive demand is not dying, only the business viability of the
companies that have been slowly losing their competitive capabilities
for two generations now. Automotive jobs will not leave the United States.
Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, BMW, and Volkwagen have plants here because
they can't serve
the U.S. market economically without building much of their product
here. That's not going to change.
Just as Hudson, Nash, and Willys
merged with more successful companies, so will GM, Ford, and Chrysler.
If Michigan won't bow to market realities, South Carolina, Georgia, and
Louisiana will. Nor will the profits of foreign manufacture in the U.S.
leave the U.S. We can still buy stock in the companies that do business
here, and we can keep our dividends and capital gains here. If
automotive manufacturing capacity becomes a national security issue, we
can appropriate foreign plants to build tanks and armored personnel
carriers. When it comes to that.
If you're getting hung up on the "too big to fail" argument," remember
this: it's the United States of America that's too big to fail. Not
because we have the biggest government on earth, but because we're the
biggest consumer market on earth. If we stop buying things, the world
economy dies and goes the way of the Maya.
It's okay if GM becomes a footnote like Hudson and Kaiser. Michigan
suffer. The U.S. will continue to prosper.
Second point. It's a 'What if' point. It was the federal government
that killed American Bantam, which -- given the chance -- could have
financial whore like Henry Kaiser to create the manufacturing capacity
for the Jeep. Think
about it. If American Bantam had been allowed to enjoy the fruits of
its brilliant design, maybe the entire foreign invasion of small cars
could have been blunted, prevented. We'd have had our own homegrown
inoculation against Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, and even British Leyland
and BMW. Just a thought. Yes, the government would have been playing a
role in that outcome, too, but we've reached the age when the
government always has a role. Why couldn't it have come down on the
side of creativity and individual innovation? For once?
INERADICABLE LAW OF BIG GOVERNMENT: When it involves itself in
business, Big Government ALWAYS favors Big Business.
Remember that. The Obama administration will also come down on the side
of big business. They'll faciliate the acquisition of American car
companies by Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi. You know. Bigger-is-better
type stuff. The global economy and all. And the worldwide union label.
So. Join the club,
Detroiters. We'll still always love all your old pictures.
An astute commenter has pointed out the omission of the most famous
Kaiser of all, the Henry J, which was conceived by its eponymous (and
modest) creator as a kind of post-war Model T. It was cheap. Really
cheap. So cheap that it was even sold in the Sears catalogue under the
Turns out, people didn't want a post-war Model T. Enough said.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The Future is the Past
In the late '70s, all the struggling
U.K. automotive manufacturers merged, because bigger is better, right? Or
at least, there's "too big to fail." Right?
. What nobody wants to admit about the Obama/Democrat agenda
"Change" is that all its ideas and models are really quite old. The
good news is that we have the opportunity to see the future they
envision for us because it's already been tried, most often in the U.K.
Commonwealth nations and in the European Union they want to impress on
us as a superior approach to governance. There's no reason to think
that old ideas are bad, of course, as long as they work. But do they?
Well, let's take a look, beginning with the automotive industry, which
is now teetering on the edge of one form or another of nationalization.
It's been tried already. In Britain. The U.K. nationalized British
Leyland to save all those jobs and a critical national industry. How
did that go?
are usually tried when a boat is sinking. You can waste a lot of resources
not saving a sinking boat.
Of course, Jeremy Clarkson is the real-life incarnation of House and a
devout Anti-American, so it probably wouldn't have occurred to him that
once you make an industrial enterprise a vassal of the government,
there's no coming back. Selling off the diseased and tainted
organizations which result is the best face you can put on a total
loss. How total a loss was it? Clarkson's Top Gear show was more
definitive about the failings of the BL vehicles themselves than he
could bring himself to be about who slew the British motor industry.
The jocularity of the Top Gear team tends to obscure the sheer awfulness
of the cars they're driving. For example, we once posted about a Top
Gear show that was devoted completely to America bashing.
The Top Gear trio journeyed from Miami
to New Orleans in this hour-long English masturbatory fantasy of a
show. They sought out the poorest sections of Miami in which to buy
junk cars for less than $1000, and their only communications during the
purchase process were with camera-happy pawns only too delighted to
play to their prejudices about the prevalence of guns, violence, and
murder in the American south. Clarkson described his own $800 purchase
as a vehicle made when all American cars were "rubbish" and "put
together by idiots." (Oddly, he seemed to regard it as a personal
triumph when his totally trashed 19-year old Camaro still did 0-60 in
7.9 seconds on the racetrack.) Then they leaped into their cars
and drove all the way to New Orleans without talking to anyone but one
[I]t's incredibly unlikely that any two-decade-old vehicles "put
together" in the U.K. -- including, especially, Jaguars-- would have
made the same trip without breaking down catastrophically before
reaching New Orleans.
Now watch their event testing of the British Leyland junkers of the
same age as the American cars they drove from Miami to New Orleans.
And this. Which is actually an extended riff on an old joke about the
company that made the electrical parts for Brit cars that goes like
this: "Why do the Brits drink their beer warm? Because Lucas makes
The really really good news is that when the Obama administration
passes card check -- i.e., the end of private ballots in union
elections -- even the transplant automakers in the United States like
Honda, Toyota, and Mitsubishi will start building cars like the ones
the Top Gear crew is
cackling over above.
But they have that wry, detached Brit sense of humor that seems to
enjoy being enslaved and chivvied by bureaucratic dimwits. It's part of
their Old World charm. Do you think you can manage it? You better.
Because getting as bad as the Brits and Europeans is the new mission of
the Hope and Change crowd.