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Recalling Cars

The news that Toyota has replaced Ford as number two in cars sales in the US made only a small ripple in the business section of most newspapers.
The news that Toyota has replaced Ford as number two in cars sales in the US made only a small ripple in the business section of most newspapers. Once Chrysler had been bumped out of third place, it seemed inevitable that the foreign car manufacturers would move to the top of the list. General Motors is still holding onto first place, but sales trail in a number of market segments.

The domestic sales decline started many years ago when North Americans discovered a couple of small cars that offered a very different choice from the Big Three automobiles: the Honda Civic and the Volkswagen Beetle. These small efficient cars attracted others such as Datsuns, Austin Minis and Toyotas. The thing was, these cars were great value for their lower sticker price, while the American behemoths guzzled gas and seemed to be designed for obsolescence.

When the Japanese realized that there was a growing market for their cars in North America, they put together packaged cars that needed no “options”. Floor mats, two mirrors, radio, intermittent wipers, self-canceling signal lights and even a block heater all came with the car. You had to order these things with the base models from the Big 3. People were getting great gas mileage from the smaller engines and fewer repairs. A lot of buyers tried the imports, liked them, and have remained loyal customers.

What is it that creates customer loyalty with car owners? Some people drive Fords because their family always drove Fords. I guess it’s like politics – people get stuck on being a Conservative or Liberal and blindly stay the course despite policy or changing ideologies. Of course, there is a good or bad experience with a car that can create or destroy customer loyalty.

A check on the internet for automobile recalls gives an indication of the problems with today’s cars: Suzuki Grand Vitara – accelerator cable problem; Ford Escape – seat belt; Volvo – fuel leak; Nissan – engine revolution sensor; Honda – ignition problem; Jeep Liberty – front suspension; Toyota Tacoma – fuel leak; Ford Windstar – seat dislodging; Cadillac Seville – steering gear bolts. Not all of these are serious problems but ‘potential’ problems, some found during crash tests, some found by the drivers. ‘Recall’ has been euphemistically changed to ‘Service Advisory’ by some manufacturers. This list of recalls reminded me of some of my cars – good and bad.

My first car was a used ’55 Chevy, V8 automatic. My present vehicle is a 2002 Chevy Impala. Both good cars, but in between I bought a ’76 Pontiac that was a real lemon and that ended my General Motors days until the new Impala came along.

My best and worse cars? The worse car I ever owned was a Renault 5 bought in the early sixties. The brake light switch blew at least once a month – no warranty and they came from France - on a boat. For half the month I would drive around with my excuse ready for the police. It leaked oil and was terrible in snow, despite having the engine in the back. The French block heater had obviously never been tested in the north. Second worse was a ’65 Ford Meteor that rode and handled like a bathtub on wheels and couldn’t get enough oil to the valve lifters. Haven’t owned a Ford since, probably never will.

I tried the Volvo back in ’72 when safety was the big issue. It was fast, had good handling and great brakes. But the twin carburetors would go out of sync about every 5,000 miles, resulting in a day at the shop. The clutch cable was good for about 30,000 miles but when that went you were stranded. The car showed a lot of rust after 4 years and I traded it on the ill-fated Pontiac.

The most fun to drive would be a toss up between my wife’s Austin Mini and my AMC Javelin (similar to a Mustang or Camaro for those who weren’t into cars in the early seventies). I look at the new Mini Cooper with envy every time one passes me. I had a ‘talking’ ’84 Dodge 600 Turbo that was a lot of fun to talk to when I was alone.

Overall, the best all-around vehicle I ever owned was the Jeep Grand Cherokee. That was during my ‘pulling around a boat and driving over bush trails’ period. It was comfortable on the highway and the four-wheel drive was a nice feature for snow and heavy rain. The maintenance was reasonable until it reached the 120,000 kms and its sixth year.

My wife owned a ’92 Nissan Stanza that was probably the best car in the family. When it came time to replace it she opted to go back to the Volkswagen and now drives a Jetta diesel that is a winner.

I think what really turned the tide to foreign cars was they way they were made. Mr. Honda insisted that his cars would be designed and put together right. They would not leave the plant until the car would meet his quality specifications. That’s why even my old Honda snow blower starts every second pull, while my Briggs and Stratton lawn mower may or may not start on any given day.

There is a story that during Glasnost a Russian tank factory offered to make Harley Davidson motorcycle engines. The Americans scoffed at the idea but sent them a bike as a model. The Russians thought the Americans had intentionally sent them a dummy engine to make them look bad. They tightened up the tolerances to tank spec and returned a bike engine that shocked the Harley folks. The deal was declined because the sales people knew they could never market their American icon with a Commie engine. Shortly thereafter Harley began producing better engines. (Almost as good now as my Honda!)

It seems that the Big 3, like Harley, used to work with lower manufacturing and assembly tolerances and this often resulted in recalls. Their philosophy was to put the cars on the road and if something didn’t work they would issue a ‘recall’ and fix the problem in next year’s model. How many years did it take for the Big 3 to perfect front wheel drive? They sold and experimented with cars that should have been tested in the labs and lost a lot of customer loyalty in the process.

Have the original Big 3 learned anything over the past years? The J.D. Power ratings seem to indicate that they have. Customer satisfaction is up for most car owners and I would guess that there is really not much difference now between the imports and domestic cars.

Most ‘foreign’ models are now made or assembled in North America so the workmanship ought to be similar. The new car warranties are about the same, although the Jetta came with a 12 year rust perforation guarantee, something the others haven’t felt up to yet. Using ‘just-in-time’ delivery, most cars are assembled from parts gathered from anywhere in the world, so buying a foreign doesn’t carry the stigma it did 25 years ago.

2005 - Chrysler is going back to rear-wheel drive to reduce insurance costs and improve handling. They are also bringing back the beloved Hemi engine. Others are pushing the economy models for fuel savings. Many younger drivers will choose the Asian-made rice burners that can be tuned for performance.

For us old-timers, the weekly display of Classics at Canadian Tire will soon return and we can recall old stories and swap some lies. I remember a ride in a ’62 Chevy that had a 409 engine and Buick transmission . . .

Bill Walton

About the Author: Bill Walton

Retired from City of North Bay in 2000. Writer, poet, columnist
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