Actually, Ford Doesn’t Have a Better Idea

The Curmudgeon came late to the idea that foreign cars are infinitely better than their American-made counterparts.  In hindsight, this isn’t much of a surprise; The Curmudgeon has never been an early adopter.

He recalls that in early 1982 he was still in his first post-college job, working in Levittown, Pennsylvania (well, technically it was Tullytown, but the company preferred the far more prestigious Levittown address).  Levittown and Tullytown are very close to Fairless Hills, a steel company town that at the time was dying a slow and painful death marked by gruesome lay-off after gruesome lay-off at the mill.  After one particularly painful furlough of hundreds of people, angry, newly unemployed workers announced that they would rally against, well, no one in particular, just their sad fate, and employees where The Curmudgeon worked at the time were advised not to drive their foreign cars to work that day.  Switch cars with a friend or relative, employees were told, because your foreign car may not be safe in the company parking lot.  The Curmudgeon was in the clear:  he was driving a Ford Pinto at the time (okay, he saw your smirk when you read that, so knock it off right now) that would eventually be passed from one person to another in his family for more than a decade and never have anything even remotely approaching engine trouble.

After the Pinto came a Dodge Charger that The Curmudgeon enjoyed very much even though in the seven years he owned the car it never – not once – started on the first try.  It always started, never left him stranded, but when it came time to replace the Charger, he decided it was time to join the rest of the thinking world and buy a Japanese car.

The Curmudgeon’s first Toyota was an excellent ten-year Camry and was succeeded by a Honda Accord that was another excellent car even though it wasn’t much fun to drive.  In family lore, the Accord is now known as the Accordion because The Curmudgeon was in an accident in which the car was totaled both in the front and rear (see photos below) in a smash-up that was not The Curmudgeon’s fault and in which everyone involved – the police, the rescue squad, the tow truck people, the firemen, and several know-it-all passersby – could not believe that the Accord’s driver escaped unscathed as he did.

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To digress just briefly, The Curmudgeon is not much of a car person.  He still recalls that sometime around 1976, a co-worker asked him what he thought of the new Hondas.  “I don’t like motorcycles,” replied The Curmudgeon, clueless that there were Honda cars as well as Honda motorcycles.  In general, a car is just a car to The Curmudgeon.  He doesn’t care what it looks like, doesn’t care if it’s a popular or prestigious model (and if you don’t believe that, consider that he loved the look of the old AMC Gremlin), and doesn’t care how long it takes a car to go from zero to sixty because first, that feat is seldom required, and second, he knows of few places where going from zero to sixty will not incur the wrath of a peace officer.

When the Accord was declared totaled and The Curmudgeon needed to find a new car, he felt obligated to give a fair chance to an American car even though the two Japanese cars that interested him the most, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, are 100 percent made in America and were considered far, far superior to anything GM, Ford, or Chrysler could offer.  It was just a nagging feeling, no doubt fueled by a combination of liberal and Jewish guilt, that he should at least give an American car a try.

The American car most like the Accord and the Camry at the time was the Ford Taurus, so on a snowy Saturday morning, The Curmudgeon set off to take a look at a Taurus.  It turned out not to be much of a look:  he visited a Ford showroom in Philadelphia (on Frankford Avenue, for you Philadelphia readers), and even though there was not even a single other shopper in the building, he was completely ignored by the dealership’s sales staff.  After ten minutes of such non-treatment he shrugged his shoulders and left.  A few days later he became the proud owner of his second Camry.

Six years ago, The Curmudgeon was on vacation and reserved a compact rental for a week.  When he arrived at the car rental counter, however, he was informed that the company had no compacts on the premises but would be happy to rent him a mid-sized car at a compact car price.  He agreed, and the next thing he knew he pulled his rolling suitcase up to a Ford Taurus that was the spitting image of his Camry:  same color exterior, same color interior, and of course, all these mid-sized cars look alike to him on the outside.

The Curmudgeon got into the car and started driving, and before he even left the airport’s access roads he could see and feel how inferior the Taurus was to his Camry in every way, and he says this from the perspective of someone who normally just furrows his brow in ignorance and amusement when people talk about how one car handles in comparison to another.  For the first time in his life, he had an idea of what those people were talking about.

The Curmudgeon is telling you this because he recently returned from another vacation and another car rental.  This time the rental company did have a compact on site, so The Curmudgeon drove away from the airport in a Ford Focus hatchback, which he understood to be a popular and highly regarded car.

And for the life of him he cannot understand why.

From a balky engine to a transmission that had trouble shifting gears to the worst visibility he has ever encountered when using a rear-view mirror to a radio so complex that he never did figure it out how to work it to an air-conditioner so complex that he never did figure out how to work that, either, to a dashboard that had more buttons and dials on it than an airplane cockpit to windshield wipers that went back and forth in a most disconcerting and non-synchronous manner, The Curmudgeon found the Focus to be the sorriest excuse for a car he has ever encountered (and this coming from someone whose family very briefly had a Chevy Corvair when he was grow up).

The Curmudgeon’s current Toyota is ten years old, and because he works at home, it does not have a great deal of mileage on it.  His thinking du jour is that he’s inclined to replace it in the spring of 2014, and when he does, he thinks it’s highly unlikely that he’ll again feel any moral obligation to at least try an American car.  He doesn’t know what the American car-makers have been doing all these years, but in Ford’s case, it appears that at least one thing they’ve not been doing is trying to figure out how to design and build a better car.

American car-makers like to claim that they’ve learned their lesson, that they’ve closed the quality gap, and that the only thing that now distinguishes them from their Japanese counterparts is reputation.

They can claim that all they want, but based on these experiences, we’d be damn fools to believe it.

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