Ghost Warranty

A stalled car starts this 2018.

My wheels must’ve been equipped with artificial intelligence of the devious kind. An ’02 Mercury that has under 64,000 miles on its odometer, my car’s prime directive is planned obsolescence.

No matter my diligence concerning maintenance and flat-out babying it, the three-thousand pounds riding on those tires are hell-bent on giving up its ghost.

If the car had twice as many miles in half as many years, this driver could almost accept the model’s end-of-the-line inevitability. However, the only distances which have taxed it were those accrued on the trip to Las Vegas from New York. Otherwise that car’s only commuted between work and home and puttering around suburban New York and Southern Nevada.

Nonetheless since it bequeathed me 13 years ago, the rolling anchor hasn’t missed many opportunities to fill repair bays. Between fixing and part-swapping, one might believe the four-wheel hulk had first been assembled on Indian burial grounds.

Until relocating to the Mojave, I had driven a 1996 Toyota. Now those wheels let me drive them to the ends of the earth. If I’d kept the Toyo long enough, I don’t doubt I’d also have driven it back from the edge.

In 11 years of ownership and personally adding over 135,000 miles to the machine, no complaints. Only oil changes, new tires, batteries, front wheel alignments, and new brakes tugged my wallet.

That Toyota epitomized dependable. The Mercury? The Merc is a poster child for crap shoot.

It’s not too far-fetched stating had I stayed East the Toyota would’ve remained my No. 1 conveyance. But the Merc’s space accommodated my stuff for the ride West. Moreover, its six cylinders blurred the Plains faster and eased humping the Rockies.

I regret practicality came at the cost of preference.

Father eventually accepted my ownership of the Toyota. He’d spent 30 years at General Motors, most of them working on the line. Thanks to him, I also was fortunate to spend two summers during the late 70s in the same place toiling under conditions which really hadn’t changed since his first day there in 1951.

General Motors, prodded mightily by the UAW, allowed who knows how many tens of thousands like father who’d lived lives below the margins to vault into the solid middle class. From there those who’d put in the requisite years then enjoyed post-labor lives in comfortable retirement. The UAW, looking out for the families of its rank and file, bargained for and gained salaries and benefits which permitted union members’ sons and daughters like myself to lead, unlike many of our parents, young lives mostly free of worry and want.

Later, when our society had advanced so far that a good portion of Americans could look down upon industrial labor, it never failed making me burn when some know-nothing who’d never had the gainful pleasure of a hard day’s work – the sort that forms callus on palms, heavy sweat across brows, or the deep-seated sort of aches – for honest pay bitched about those workers’ recompense. Factory workers, especially if they were unionized, always “got paid too high.” Then would cascade moans equating how products’ costs reflected the inflated salaries given – always “given,” never “earned” – to those who did the toiling.

In our post-industrial society, I’ve yet to ever hear the same caterwaul rise regarding executive salaries or shareholder returns. Today in our New Gilded Age, dimmer shareholders blaspheme about the rare conscientious companies that wish to reward the people who make the wares which enrich investors.

Astonishingly, there is grumbling from greedier shareholders questioning why those creating their wealth deserve realizing even a sliver of any profits. No wonder that in the same circles one has yet to hear the words “decency” and “gratitude.” Tough to speak what isn’t genuinely felt.

Generous as father’s, mother’s too, post-labor life was will be as rare a one for us, their descendants.

At first, my driving a Toyota was a hard sell. Tough to tell whether father’s distaste of Japanese cars stemmed from their rivaling American manufacturers or his not yet having made peace with a former enemy.

On one hand, by the time he retired Nippon models had claimed a good chunk of the domestic car market. On the other, he’d already been inducted and started basic training when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

December 7th, 1941, stamped his generation nearly as deep as the Depression.

However, his view must’ve evolved. Otherwise that Toyo never would’ve found a safe place in our driveway or in front of the house.

When father started pulling assembly line hours, the finished product rolling off was of the finest quality. Those hourly workers assembling cars then were proud of their efforts. By father’s last years, quality had decreased and pride had waned. And no, it wasn’t because of the evil unions.

Instead, the old mindset had started vanishing in the various auto boardrooms. In our house and among the homes of others who worked the line, the distant automotive mandarins in Detroit were known as “car men.” Sometimes their management positions insulted and angered hourly workers. However, none of the membership doubted their dedication to and knowledge of automobiles.

Old car men have been supplanted by guys who’d never tinkered beneath an open hood with some buddies and a few brews, much less installed the same component 60 times an hour for eight hours or more five or six days a week. Gradually men who’d earned business degrees rather than had acquired automotive expertise sat around the decision-making tables.

Be assured no shade-tree mechanics powwow among the current council.

People invested in the products produced won’t skimp if it improves the goods and maintains the labels’ reputations. Should added expense be incurred to deliver the customer a superior product, they’ll have zero qualms about sacrificing a few cents here and there. Older, wiser heads knew, and we are gradually forgetting, that word of mouth is the best advertising.

A reliable product just won’t get return business. It will also generate new customers.

The business degrees easing aside the gearheads who once made American manufactured cars dominant are the sort of bottom-liners who’d sacrifice quality and longevity if only pennies fattened year-end profits. The recalls which have flourished across the last three decades must gall old-timers.

Retired, father and his fellow pensioners occasionally idled hours away critically eying the new models rolling off the line after their departures. They never failed pointing out how plastic components replaced durable metal fixtures. Certainly plastic is lighter. Less weight helped improved gas mileage, a wonderful selling point. But as they always remarked plastic lacked resiliency. It fatigued easier.

Or all the sensors and computers laced throughout newer vehicles made them prone to readings having nothing to do with the car itself but the systems monitoring components themselves. Of course guys who’d once wasted numerous Saturdays under a raised car hood messing with carburetors, changing their own spark plugs, were now confounded with seemingly sealed motors only a specialist or a magician, not a mechanic, could solve, much less repair.

Clever enough advertising claims all the complexities automakers have heaped upon the internal combustion engine represent progress. Cars now travel farther on petroleum and hybrid fuels. They emit less exhaust. Correct. However, conditions which wouldn’t have hindered more primitive models can now easily immobilize today’s swifter, cleaner, lighter-wheeled advances on roads.

Heated seats, additional cup holders, and climate controls gauged for individual passengers surely enhance driving experiences. But what amount of creature comforts excuse a balky drive train?

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