The Investor

Driven to Distraction

What you drive says a lot about what you drive.

By 1.22.03

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My mother-in-law told me back in 1984 that I could never own a Volkswagen. "That car was Hitler's idea." (Ferdinand Porsche designed the engine, but this is not an argument to get into with one's mother-in-law.) A Mercedes was out of the question not just because of Nazi association but because we had no money, terrible credit, and our trade-in was a four-year-old Dodge Omni Miser -- that was its actual name; cool, huh? -- with over 100,000 miles and heavy body damage. She had a grudge against the Japanese from World War II and told me Henry Ford didn't have a nice opinion of Jewish people. Chrysler products were verboten because both our fathers blamed the company for ruining their professional lives, not an uncommon claim in Detroit.

So we bought a red Yugo, which we nicknamed Dracula. Around the time Dracula bit the dust, our fortunes and credit had sufficiently improved where we could purchase a car that a couple drunken teenagers couldn't tip over. We bought an Audi and told my mother-in-law that Audi comes from Sweden. Luckily, she was not very knowledgeable about European cars, especially when our next car was a Porsche. I think we passed it off as Italian. Frankly, her son-in-law managed to hold a job for a couple years and turned out to be less of a bum than she expected, so she was willing to believe whatever crapola we handed her.

Everybody has an opinion about what you drive. For our most recent vehicle, we tried to make everybody happy: a yellow Hummer H2. GM product, over three tons of Detroit iron, costs enough to employ about forty-five auto workers. We picked it almost by process of elimination. With German and Japanese products out of the question, and two of the three quasi-American automakers off limits, the world suddenly seemed very small. I heard Hyundai is a comer, but South Korea is a little too close to the axis of evil for my taste. If Lexus and BMW hadn't already been disqualified, we had to skip them because too many doctors drive them. No health care reform, no Lexus or Beemer. Someone suggested a Cadillac but that car has a reputation as a pimp car; at least it did on Starsky & Hutch. I wouldn't dare be so insensitive to women.

Of course, the H2 has engendered a level of resentment I never imagined. Jeffrey Runge, the head of NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), said he wouldn't buy an SUV for his daughter "if it was the last one on Earth." It took Runge until 2003 to decide that SUVs, because of their higher center of gravity, are more likely to roll over. Whatever that guy does, he's not going to do it very fast.

In addition, I'm on the verge of going nuclear -- or, nucular, if you will -- on Arianna Huffington. Her so-called "Detroit Project" is running ads linking SUV ownership to terrorism, because they run on gasoline, which we buy from the Middle East, which finances terrorists.

I think Huffington has it completely backwards. Osama bin Laden's family, for example, didn't make their money selling oil. They built roads. Roads, Arianna, which your Ford Focus guzzles to get around. The H2 doesn't need roads. My SUV is a bin Laden-free zone.

I appreciate that President Bush has leveled the playing field by increasing and speeding up the depreciation on small businesses that use SUVs. (A writer does count as a small business, right?) I'm just a little surprised that this provision is getting any publicity. I thought this was the sort of tax break that only showed up in unrelated legislation on those rare days when Congress stays in session beyond the evening news hour. This more than makes up for the mischief of the Earth Liberation Front. Calling these guys terrorists probably has Mullah Omar spinning in his cave; delinquents with gas cans is more like it. If there's a place in hell where terrorists hang out, I don't look forward to what the ELFs have to look forward to for eternity.

I'd prefer to let the free market sort this out. If my H2 keeps guzzling 91 octane premium, which it will until April when I can occasionally supplement it with 100 octane racing fuel, I might be able to drive up the price of oil high enough to encourage further exploration. And if the price of gas gets too high, all those SUVs on the lots will encourage the automakers to develop better alternatives. I'm also hoping the Venezuelans who follow both my driving habits and the rising price of oil realize they have to get rid of that socialist they've got running the country. They're losing out on opportunities to make too much money off gringos like me.

Turning cars into geopolitical battle grounds always backfires. Back in the Seventies, as a teenager in Detroit, I took a lot of abuse for learning to drive on my Mom's brown Toyota Corolla. It cost me my friendship with Steve, a neighbor whose dad got laid off at Ford. Steve's dad didn't strike me as any kind of political activist, until he started making ends meet by buying junked Japanese cars -- usually Toyota Corollas -- and charging a buck in the Livonia Mall parking lot to take a swing at the car with a sledge hammer.

In the end, the Corollas that didn't end up under the hammer led a revolution that made money and provided jobs for Americans. Many of those Japanese cars lasted longer and got better gas mileage. Enough people weren't intimidated into driving them that the U.S. manufacturers had to compete with them, taking some of their best ideas and developing some new, better ones. America got better cars and many Japanese companies sold enough cars that they had to build plants in the U.S., employing U.S. workers, to meet demand.

I don't even think the people who paid Steve's dad a dollar to whack the Corolla got their money's worth. Sure, the first few got to smash in windows and headlights. But I was in the parking lot one day and saw a guy take a swing at a hubcap, hit the tire instead, and almost kill himself when the hammer ricocheted back at him. Another guy, who was one swing too late at the front grill, caught the engine block flush and turned into a mummy for twenty minutes from the reverberation.

In the meantime, I've got a bumper sticker to answer anyone who gives me a hard time over owning an SUV: Honk if I ran you over!

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About the Author

Michael Craig is a writer in Scottsdale, Arizona.