“She needs a carburetor, a set of plug wires
“She’s ridin’ me around on four bald tires
“The wipers don’t work and the horn don’t blow
“But there ain’t nothin’ wrong with the radio.”
— Aaron Tippin
I was saddened to read that the magazine Consumer Reports has ranked three of America’s iconic automobiles at the bottom of its list for automotive reliability. Cadillac, which once billed itself as “The Standard of the World,” was ranked 25th out of 28. Ford, which put reliability on the road with its nearly indestructible Model T, was ranked 26th. Lincoln, the car that has probably hauled more governors and presidents around than any other since FDR’s administration, ranked 28th.
I had a mental image of new cars smoking and steaming by the roadsides; of the country-club crowd missing tee times because their turbocharged steeds wouldn’t start.
Until Toyota began making sushi out of American makes following the energy crunch, Americans were tolerant of poor quality. Aaron Tippin summed up the attitude in his country-Western hit:
“Sometimes she runs, sometimes she don’t
More than once she’s left me on the side of the road
The older she gets the slower we go
But there ain’t nothin’ wrong with the radio”
We tolerated the unreliability so long as the car drove us to fun.
As old Hank Williams put it, “I’ve got a hot-rod Ford and a two-dollar bill, and I know a spot just over the hill; there’s lots of soda pop and the dancing is free, so if you wanna have fun, come along with me.” It was Old Hank who also wrote, “Let’s take the long way home tonight.” On such occasions, your car’s unreliability was an asset – a good excuse for getting your date home way past curfew. Her dad knew your flivver was prone to quit on you at unpredictable moments, so he couldn’t convincingly shoot down your excuse.
So I figured the American cars had reverted to their old habits and were giving up the ghost by the roadside.
Then I read further.
When Consumer Reports surveyed car owners across the country, it found that the complaints mostly centered on the “infotainment” gadgetry.
Aaron Tippin’s recipe for reliability has finally been recognized. The top criterion is no longer the performance of its engine, water pump, voltage regulator and transmission. It’s the ability to deliver entertainment and communication.
More than 15 percent of vehicle owners reported serious problems with their infotainment systems in the Ford Taurus, Ford C-Max and Cadillac XTS, according to Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports. One Lincoln owner who couldn’t get his radio to play threatened to pay the car off early and get a Cadillac. He’d better think again.
The automobile is no longer seen solely as a piece of transportation – something that will take you there and get you back with the sturdy reliability of Old Dobbin. It is perceived primarily as a vehicle of communication and entertainment. If the fuel pump quits working, it’s OK as long as you can coast to the shoulder and continue to make full use of all your apps. The car, after all, will summon its own road-service crew to get it rolling again. But if the communications gear is out of whack, you may have to hitchhike to the nearest Starbucks to find a Wi-Fi that will get you on line.
I grew up in the era of good old American unreliability. The 1967 Ford Country Squire I ordered from the factory had wood-grain siding that was deteriorating when it rolled off the delivery truck. Its automatic choke (remember those?) never quite got the job done in tandem with its four-barrel carburetor. It was easier to pump the accelerator one stroke short of flooding it than to get the choke adjusted. The radiator sprang a leak during the first year. The power steering went on the blink after 70,000 miles. The power tailgate window was an off-again-on-again matter.
Years later, my Cadillac came billed as a car that needed a tuneup only once every 100,000 miles. At 100,000 miles it needed not only a tuneup but also an engine overhaul – at a cost of more than $4,000. My Buick was somewhat better. Its transmission needed replacing just before the warranty expired. My Lincoln delivered dependable service until it came time to replace the fuel pump – a minor repair in days of yore, but somewhat more expensive now that it was lodged in the fuel tank.
In all those cars, my radio worked fine. In most of them, it was simply an AM job, and it picked up all the local stations plus the country/western outlets in Wheeling, Nashville, Cincinnati and St. Louis.
Now I drive a Toyota, rated near the top for reliability. It starts unerringly at the push of a button. It signals me when there’s somebody abreast of me in my blind spot. When I’m backing up, it shoots a video of what’s behind me and warns me if something is crossing my path.
It has a GPS with a woman’s voice that directs me turn by turn. I think I’ve figured out how to poke the screen to tell her, “Shut up; I know the way from here on in.”
The radio works fine, too, if I can figure out how to use it. I’m still trying to remember what hoops to jump through when turning it on and turning it off.
I usually just drive in silence. I’m afraid it will tune in Rush Limbaugh and I won’t be able to shut him up.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson. Readers may write Owens at WadesDixieco@AOL.com. To read other writing by Gene Owens, go to www.wadesdixieco.com.