Crappy Cars 2: Safety Last
In 1967, a chain car collision in Louisiana would impact traffic safety rules. A mosquito fogging truck slowed down a tractor-trailer. Behind it, a pink Cadillac under rode the tractor-trailer and crashed. Tragically, a lap dog was killed. Also killed was Jayne Mansfield, an actress with large breasts. The public was shocked and alerted to the danger of cars crashing under trucks. The feeling was, If Jayne Mansfield's huge boobs couldn’t cushion the force of a collision, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that semi truck trailers be outfitted with a rear under-ride bar. This bar became forever known as "The Jayne Mansfield Bar" (and what have you ever done with your life, Chum? 'Got any safety bars named after you?). After World War II, Detroit’s safety strategy was simple: Make sure you can kill the other guy with your big-assed car. In 1965 Ralph Nader published "Unsafe at Any Speed." The auto manufacturers responded with a then-standard reply: "This is a Communist plot to destroy America." In a typically logorrheic White House Tape conversation (4/27/71) full of ums and ahhs and incomplete sentences, Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca are heard bitching and moaning about airbag mandates to a somewhat bored President Nixon. Iacocca implies (paraphrasing): "Um, ah, we can't install airbags and figure out what the consumer wants at the same time!" Although Nixon is coy with the Ford executives, he does try to cheer them up by expressing his contempt for Ralph Nader and new technology of any kind. When the subject of the (then new) seat belt warning system comes up, Nixon loudly proclaims, "Oh, I hate those Goddamned things!" A Ford executive mischievously suggests that Nixon can have the flashing light and the pinging sound disabled by a rogue mechanic. Later, when discussing airbags in cars, Nixon bellows, "I'd never drive a car with one of those things, Fuck 'em!" (In fact, President Nixon never drove anything but a golf cart after his forced retirement). Elsewhere, these titans of free-market capitalism are heard groveling for protectionist measures from foreign competition. When discussing a proposed 5 MPH bumper standard, (that's just 5. Five. Miles. Per. Hour.) even Lee Iacocca admits that Ford's bumpers are "rather fragile today." Nixon-the-clown derides proposals for safer bumpers as “Rubber baby bumpers.” Things were indeed rather fragile in the early 70’s, but airbags, like heaven, could wait (until 1998 as it turned out). In 1973, Americans were in for quite a shock. In the wake of U.S. support for Israel in the Yom Kippur war, Saudi Arabia staged an oil boycott. The actual withholding of oil only lasted a few weeks, but it caused the sudden realization that the U.S. was no longer self- sufficient. The nominal price of gas quickly doubled. This was as if the cargo cult had stopped hearing the buzz of propellers. Like the tin bumpers on a Ford, Americans became rather fragile. Some forms of rationing were implemented. To older folks who had lived through the depression and WWII, this caused a PTSD flashback. "Here we go again!" they thought. Others decided to "blockade" reality. I can still hear Dave Sinclair, the St. Louis Ford dealer announcing on his commercials, "Don't worry about the phony energy crises!" The big four auto companies collectively crapped their pants. They then scraped the results off their underwear, and this was the result: The Ford Maverick; The AMC Gremlin, Hornet and Pacer; the notorious Ford Pinto, which tended to explode if hit from behind. Finally, “the ruster”: The GM Vega.
LE BOX Cars got ugly and boxy fast. Gone were the feminine curves, the zoomorphic fins. Box after box came out like a new regime had taken over. Some blamed it on the new emission and bumper standards, but I suspect the veneration of a certain Swiss Architect and his German co-cultists are to blame. During World War II, Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Mies Van Der Rohe fled Germany and were immediately given powerful positions in American academia. Mind you; these were not political refugees, just losers in a master builder contest. Mies would have been happy to have been Hitler’s architect, but old pubic lip preferred a mashup of the classical and Boullée and went with Albert Speer. Le Corbusier earned several medals of distinction during World War II. He became one of the few Vichy collaborators that Jews could still love (Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and much of the city of Tel Aviv were all willing to forgive and forget) and he earned the distinction of being too extreme––even for the Nazis. Corbu wanted to level Paris to build his radiant city. (Xavier de Jarcy has recently written a book in France about Corbu’s super fun Fascist pals). But hey, art is amoral, right? Focus on the beauty. The purity of Monsieur Purism! During the war, when he wasn’t frolicking with fascists, Corbusier would go out and stare at concrete bunkers. While others might have been reminded of the violence and the scar of war, Corbu be trippin’! Beautiful! The raw concrete c’est magnifique! And it was there and then that the architectural barf of concrete Brutalism was born. (The council flat in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was selected for its alienating architecture. Suck it and see indeed!) It took a little longer than the architecture field, but by 1970 Detroit’s auto designers had been thoroughly indoctrinated by the little creepy European art cult that could. The international style that brought you “machines for living” and machines for sitting would now bring you the ultimate machine for driving. And repairing. And sometimes dying in. Finally, foreign competition nudged the American manufacturers into consciousness. The Marshall plan had encouraged Germany and Japan, Hey, you guys focus on building precision made automobiles. We’ll protect you from the Russians. The plan worked spectacularly well. We wrecked ‘em. They built ‘em.