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As Long as We Remember...

December 15, 2008

When American Cars Were King

Steven R. Berryman

American cars manufactured by the big three automakers are case studies of what not to do in a competitive environment. When engineering creativity and innovation fall by the wayside, what you get is a “car by consensus” aimed at the widest possible audience that – in the end – satisfies nobody.


In the old days – which I define here as over 30 years ago – the buyer’s motto was “I am my car.” There was a huge sense that one’s personal identity was wrapped up into a car frame and body.


What we suffer today, as revealed by begging automotive CEOs seeking bailout cash, is cars by committee, blessed by their bean counters, their accountants.


American trucks may be the last vestiges of pride for Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Fuel economy standards, called “CAFÉ” standards, allowed sports utility vehicles (SUV’s) to have their day only for a while.


Now, you can buy one cheap!


But our national car industry was first based upon sedans, and then sports cars.


As an example of what we left behind, and then forgot, I offer you the 1970 Mercury Cougar XR7 sports car.


My Dad was at the height of his legal career at the time, and purchased one new as our second family car; my Mother drove it – mostly.


Eventually, as the oldest of three children, I came of age, and claimed it as my own – for a time anyway! The winning strategy had been to ask to be driven everywhere…


There was nothing remotely like the Cougar XR7 available at that time. It had the body of a fighter jet in sleekness, and an automatic transmission gear shift that resembled the throttle controls from an F-15 fighter jet.


Ours (mine!) was gold in color, with a black vinyl roof to set it off. It had a nose shape in front of the hood like a big feline, and remote headlight covers that opened and shut like eyelids. The car was almost alive.


From the rear, the turn signals blinked in sequence with a 7-stage blinking cascade that would have made any Vegas casino proud. Inside, even the horn was unique; the entire inner loop of the steering wheel itself was a pressure pad that could honk from any angle.


If styling was totally unique, performance was right there as well. The power plant was a “351 Cleveland” 8-cylinder engine that could move the 3,000 pound chassis around like it was nothing. The rear end featured unequal a-bar suspension to stay square around turns, and steel-belted radial tires came with it. This was not standard in the day.


Several of my test-drives made it past 125 MPH on a straight road, such as the Dulles Airport Access Highway, as it was underused at that time. However, the advantage of the 351 engine was not the top-end speed, but the ability to get to passing velocity very quickly.  Acceleration was like having after-burners; you could say it went fast fast!


One important note is that it could not corner well at speed, and I spun-out several times, but…


The ride from the inside was low to the ground, a la Jaguar. The “wow factor” included leather bucket seats. This really made the girls happy for some reason, and contributed to the “babe factor,” so to speak.


So, what if there was virtually no back seat or trunk space.


If memory serves me, there was more than one early girlfriend of mine who overlooked my sparkling chauvinistic personality in order to gain access to my cool wheels.


To personalize the car, I installed my own high-end audio system, complete with a Pioneer KPX 9000 power amp and KLH 300z tri-axial loudspeakers. It rocked!


Some day in a future column I plan to tell the “fake oil leak” story, which will illustrate the “adventure” potential of my car….otherwise known as “escape from summer camp!”


Back to the car…


The above became a winning success formula for Mercury; they were always in a back order situation for some versions of this classic car.


So, what came next? Future model-years killed the Cougar XR7. The body became much larger, and amenities disappeared. More trunk space replaced performance…


The accountants and demographers had had their day, and the 1970 version became legend, its lessons lost.


Fast forward to today!


What American automakers are banking on, or more correctly, are asking us to bank on include:


*Electric/Battery/Hybrid car models that will require a $9,000+ battery replacement after 8 years, effectively rendering some versions “totaled” by the car-value books.


*High efficiency gasoline engine versions with their savings predicated on $4 per gallon gas at the pump to garner a better than break-even fuel savings.


Just peachy.


So…whatever became of my old Cougar XR7 during all the days of subsequent years of American motor car industry atrophy?


I reluctantly bought a new car, as it was my brother Ken’s turn at the family used car.


Funny, he thought it was his car, too!


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