The Clunker Evolution of American Steel

junk carsBy Sergio Impleton

Sergio is our back room water cooler sentry who occasionally surfaces from his disgruntled station to proclaim his views on family and society.  He is probably the last standing chauvinist, and how he has escaped the bullet is anyone’s guess.

A society that takes a man’s cigar is one that is patently setting about to remove the manifest destiny of maleness. It’s gone far beyond the nanny society of personal laws for our own good, the astronomical taxation for alcohol, tobacco and gasoline consumption and a work force that shows more preference toward women than men.  It has categorically urged and proclaimed that men give up their love for the American automobile.

The all steel automobile has been given a pretty bad reputation in recent years.  Taunted for being a gas hog, plastic, generic versions of the once classic designs and functions, shoved the elegant society of stately automobiles aside like dying dinosaurs.  The curious thing is, these new gas-saving designs can’t efficiently pump out as many miles per gallon as an all-steel mechanism twice its weight.  This has to do with an electrical system that looks like the arteries in your arm and a brain box that politely tells you when its plastic parts are sizzling and need to be replaced.  Replacement is no longer a job that any back yard mechanic is capable of accomplishing.  If it’s nothing more than the pistons, you’ll probably have to remove the engine to get to them.  Without that box at his side, telling him just what went wrong, the new mechanic has no idea what’s wrong with your car.  Once that brain box is fried; which usually happens in about ten years; the car is fried, unless you just happen to be willing to invest in a new chip, and take a gamble that there was nothing else seriously wrong with your vehicle.  Most people won’t.  Our throw away mentality tells us that ten years with one vehicle is long enough.

There are other things the advocates of Barbie Doll vehicles don’t tell you.  Steel is more recyclable than plastic.  It’s more durable and more easily interchangeable.  Any vehicle made between the early 1900’s and 1980 can be completely rebuilt.  Anyone with an elementary understanding of mechanics can make it run.  You can’t say this about today’s automobiles.  Many of their parts are made overseas, are more fragile than American steel and don’t fit standard American measuring tools; also made from American steel.  If you want to hear the worst epithets ever expressed this side of a sailor’s sea-faring language, give a mechanic a set of American tools, take away his digital read-outs, and put him to work repairing a car with a catalytic converter.

If I had reservations as to how far mass mentality will go in accepting the wisdom of advertising dictation, I have none now.  Setting aside the demands of “it’s my money and I want it now” and the assurances we can be sold Nirvana because we care, I find the encouragement to get rid of your old clunkers as astonishing as cleaning out your unwanted gold.  I have yet to hear anyone say, “oh, this gold is cluttering up my jewelry box.  I should trade in my grandmother’s antique brooch so I can play the stock market.”  Yet, here are these visions of elderly ladies, cackling away as they trade in their double handfuls of gold necklaces for cash.

There never was an American dream until the invention of the automobile.  Wrapped in metal and chrome was the ultimate representation of freedom; the freedom to travel quickly and efficiently, the freedom to carry around an extension of the home, the freedom to extend your personal space within the confines of 1,500 pounds of hurtling machinery.  America became a country in motion.

That dream, collecting rust in a weed choked backyard right now, was our empowerment.  Your bucket of bolts could be running on only three cylinders, but as long as you could get under the hood and twist a wrench to stave off congested engine failure, you were the dude.  Your back seat was the waiting massage parlor where the hopeful could get lucky.  The automobile became as much a statement of who we were as the way we dressed, the magazines we read, and how we spent our free time.  It was an integral part of us.

American steel has been on the decline ever since the feeding frenzy glutted the market with toy counterparts to the steel revolution.  Stereos, televisions, communication devices went down the tube as the disposable technology of light-weight plastic structures, one third the cost of the cumbersome metal units took their place.  Never mind that the life span was only one fifth that of your antique Pioneer receiver that heightened each tone you favored for sending delicious thrills down your spine and only half the quality.  The I want it now generation clearly had easy credit access and pleasure is only in the moment.  It was better to buy the latest because next year there might be something better on the market and make your three year old DVD player obsolete.  There was no point in keeping a six hundred dollar sound system that was good to go at least another ten years when it doesn’t have a twenty-five CD holder that will rifle through your music and play it on command.

American knives reached a similar demise. Remember Buck knives?  Strongest steel blade of its kind.  It was a piece of work  to sharpen, but once it had been done, it kept an edge for ages.  My first knife was an Old Timer.  It was a sweet little pocket knife that could be used for all kinds of small jobs from whittling to enlarging the hole in the wood panels for a new pipe fitting.

Then came the Leatherman, the dream tool of the handy-man trade.  Even if you weren’t so handy, the most important challenge was to see how quickly you could whip out your combination blade, mini-saw, screwdriver, tiny scissors and how deftly you could open the functions.  Each Leatherman looked exactly the same, but each one worked according to the efficiency of the owner.  It was the grown up version of a Swiss knife.  Shortly after this work of blue collar art was created, a deluge of imitation Leatherman sets, Buck knives and other substitutes for American steel blades hit the market.  Knives that wobbled in their cases, wouldn’t keep an edge and snapped easily at the points.  They were four to five times cheaper than the American knives, but they were throw-away objects.  American knives languished and slowly shrank from the shelves.

Along with imitation American knives, came a wide variety of imitation Craftsmen tools, skill saws, rachet wrenches, pliers and drills.  For twenty bucks, you could get a hundred piece set of drivers, bits, wrenches and pliers.  They made impressive Christmas presents; these huge boxes that should be every mechanics dream.  There was a problem however.  The tools were all either a millimeter off for doing the job, or they broke while using them.  The twenty dollar boxes of cheap tools began to pile up like kitchen flat ware.  Special tool boxes were purchased  to store them in, which consequently also began to warp, bend and crinkle, their clever drawers and compartments refusing to slide either in or out.

Yet nothing has quite so impaired the dignity of a man’s garage as the plastic automobile. No longer do we have works of art squatting in canvas corners under wraps while we patiently clean and organize the parts that will send our dream machine humming down the road once more.  Our love affair is a clunker.  The shrill purveyors, peaking into the privacy of yard and home have declared we’re harboring junk.  They wish us to turn in our American steel, which has become so valuable even pot hole covers have to be chained to their bases in order to keep them from being carted off to the junk yard for cash, and they wish us to believe by clearing our clutter of steel fascination, they are doing us a favor.  Somehow, all this is supposed to make us less dependent on oil.

American steel is slowly recovering its place on the market.  The demand for cheap appliances, tools and technology is slowly giving way to the quality of exact fittings and endurance.  Independent companies compete with the big blast furnaces, turning quality steel from slag and recycled steel, turning out quality parts.  American automobile manufacturers are developing a line of light weight, fuel efficient vehicles with metal, interchangeable mechanics.  Harley Davidson has steadfastly remained behind its steel machine, which is probably why no motorcycle ever sounds quite the same as a Harley.  For those who are truly interested in clearing out the junk of gold and steel within your yards, by all means, take the money and run with it, but for God’s sake, or whoever you deem a higher power, don’t gamble away your temporary buying power on the stock market.

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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10 Comments on “The Clunker Evolution of American Steel”

  1. “Sergio is our back room water cooler sentry who occasionally surfaces from his disgruntled station to proclaim his views on family and society. He is probably the last standing chauvinist, and how he has escaped the bullet is anyone’s guess.”

    Gee whiz. Could it be Mitch?

  2. As I just ranted on Tillie’s fiction about Charles de Lint I feel a litle like a vulgur groupie, but I have to say I read his newest novel “A State of Grace” about a female gearhead (translation, vintage car rebuilder likely to listen to rockabilly and look like Kat VonD) Anyway after that book I spent hours looking up both rockabilly music and old car gearhead stuff. It’s a love affair and yes, much more recyclable that steel. You can also run those cars on moonshine. Not bad for all you greenies out there.
    We can’t recylce the polymers that new cars are made out of as easily and the great lie is the damn Prius is made from Petrochemicals almost entireley.
    I do however feel we will somehow never loose this corner entirely. People truly love these cars and steel will still be there when we need it to recycle.

  3. I read recently that American car manufacturers are planning to come out with a line of fuel-efficient, light-weight steel automobiles, and all steel, American made,interchangeable parts. We are only fooling ourselves that we are being efficient as long as our vehicles continue to use gasoline to power them, and oil to build them.

  4. I’ve got a ’78 Suburban pushing 2,500 pounds of steel that purrs along at 22 miles to the gallon. It’s a leg sprawling, back road capable vehicle to take the family camping in. The wife would like to trade it in on one of those push button commodities in the cash for clunkers program, but i reminded her, if we did, we would have to stop our weekend recreational activities. Since we’ve already trimmed the fat from restaurant dining and given up on the idea of a Hawaiian vacation, this has kept her quiet for now. God save me when she decides she wants a hybrid, unless it’s made out of American steel and has plenty of leg room.

  5. I had one of those Suburbans but gave it up when I moved closer to the center of towne. I miss it. And yes it was wonderful for camping sheltering our family of 6 more times than one when we pulled in somewhere too late to make camp. You’d better hold on to that in case you need to live in it sometime soon.

  6. Thanks for keeping it real. Your information is valuable and happy I found it while searching yahoo for a car part. I bookmarked your site on my stumbleupon account so I can check back with ya. Peace out from Bellevue, Ky.

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