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.