Cultural Chassis

June 5, 2009

In 1956, there were less than 170 million US peoples, unemployment was at less than 5 percent, a first-class postage stamp cost less than a nickel.
And Dinah Shore was hawking the Chevy brand.

In the illustration at left (found here), she is seen with her national, prime-time TV pitch-line, “See the USA in Your Chevrolet,” in a promotion for a chance at winning one of three corvettes, America’s only true sports car.

Four years later, the ‘vette would become a cultural prop for the popular TV show, Route 66, in which a couple of wankers/drifters traveled around “in a Corvette on an existential odyssey in which they encountered a myriad of loners, dreamers and outcasts in the small towns and big cities along U.S. Highway 66 and beyond.”
America in them days of ‘small towns and big cities‘ was crawling with optimism — most likely the height of the US experience occurred between the early-1950s to the late-1960s — fuled by the multi-faceted drumbeat of General Motors, then the biggest company in the whole-wide world:

Entering the 1950s, no corporation even came close to General Motors in its size, the scope of its enterprise or its profits.
GM was twice the size of the second biggest company in the world — Standard Oil of New Jersey (forefather of today’s ExxonMobil) — and had a vast conglomeration of businesses ranging from home appliances to providing insurance and building Chevrolets, GMCs, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Cadillacs and locomotives.
It was so big that it made more than half the cars sold in the United States and the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division was threatening to break it up.

The year 1956 was also GM’s real beginning of the end — the retirement of Alfred P. Sloan, who had led the company for 30 years.
Even in the midst of the Great Depression, GM increased car sales (1936) and by 1955 profits had reached $1.2 billion ($8 billion in today’s dollars).

By the end of the ’60s, however, and into the early 1070s, GM started to tank under the weight  of its own greed: As GM goes, so goes the country:

The decline of GM is a testament to how poor strategic decisions over the course of decades will ultimately lead to collapse.
The United States has followed the GM model of failure for the last three decades.
The U.S. has too much debt, too much bureaucracy, too many government supported industries, too many agencies, too many employees, and $53 trillion of unfunded future liabilities.
See any similarities to GM?
Can the U.S. avoid the fate of GM, or is it too late?
If we can learn the important lessons of the GM decline, it may not be too late to reverse our course.
Or, we can continue on the current path and follow the advice of Will Rogers: “If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?”

And GM’s nefarious bankruptcy filing this week was just another up-chuck of the Great American Dream, that continual fantastical principle both inherited and highly-fueled by Baby-Boomers, which includes me.
So on a personal level, I’d somewhat culturally-foreseen GM’s demise long, long ago in switching part my success=automobile/woman aspirations (triad foundation of my own well-researched version of America’s great hope and dream) from America’s macho-iconic corvette to sleek and lean foreign machines — the success and women stuff remained intact until I got older and realized a lot of such things are not worth the trouble.
In the late 1960s, the neatest cars started to carry names like Jaguar and Porsche.
And later, Honda and Toyota.

Developed through GM’s Chevrolet marque since 1953 (work started on the project in ’51), the corvette has gone through at least six generational revisions — cheesy cool to neat cool to not-so-cool to You Suck!

In the primitive cheesy cool, a good many ‘vette people believe the 1956 corvette, shown at left (illustration found here), is the best of the lot.

Although the original 1953 model was basically a 1952 Chevrolet under a radical fiberglass body, by ’56 the ‘vette had morphed into a true sports car with the introduction of a 265 cubic inch, 195 hp V-8 engine and 3-speed manual transmission.
Even as a dumb-ass kid in the late ’50s, I felt the ‘vette then looked bulbous and a bit pretentious, a car for older people — parents of today’s Republicans, maybe.
Only with the introduction of the “sting ray” version in 1963 did I become emotionally involved with the car.

(Illustration found here).

The “sting ray” configuration lasted just four years — 1963 to 1967 — and the car captured my mental image of the man’s manly car, neat-cool and quick.
Slick little blisters on the fenders created a sense of even more clean, clear speed.
The ultimate Sting Ray was the 1967 — the year I graduated from high school — and it not only looked the neat-cool, but it could haul ass, listing a L-36 427-390 engine and carried a sophisticated sense even with all the muscle, keeping somehow that spartan, independent notion.
I spied one on a sales lot in the fall of ’67 and although I could not afford it, the image stayed burned in my fantasy life for years and years.
And like a lot of other shit, GM couldn’t leave well enough alone and the following year, 1968, redesigned the ‘vette into the beginning of You Suck!

In many ways, 1968 was indeed a watershed year — the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, the Chicago riots, Nixon elected US president etc., etc. — and GM’s introduction of the “Shark” version of the corvette, as seen at left (Illustration found here).
Life started to suck.

The corvette’s life was all but finished — the style looked awkward, and carried that not-so-cool finish.
Instead of nimble, the ‘vette also began a move into a kind of mutant luxury/sports car category.
GM’s Chevrolet encountered such problems the debut was delayed a year.
The 1968 was also the year I eloped — an idiot 19-year-old — which swiftly-launched the end of childhood.
The ’68 ‘vette was in similar circumstances, tossing aside cool for cold-hard cash, or just get bigger and bigger.

(Illustration found here).

By the mid 1980s, the corvette had fattened down into a two-seat Ford Thunderbird — like that big, ugly piece of shit shown above — and began to reshape itself into a high-ticket, exotic automobile geared for people loaded down with disposable income.
From Consumer Guide on the 2007 model:

Our Best Buys are the BMW Z4 and Chevrolet Corvette. Our Recommended picks are the Jaguar XK Series and Porsche Boxster, and Porsche Cayman.

Unfortunately for GM, however, people chose the BMW.

And what of the ‘vette with the GM bankruptcy?
The brand will live on, but the value is in the past.
A co-owner of The Corvette Center in Newington, Connecticut, on the future of the ‘vette:

“They’re a great car. They’re built really well. They last a long time. We’ve got cars here from the 50’s and 60’s that are still on the road, still running. Value tends to be a big part of it. Some of these old cars that were a couple-thousand dollars way, way back right now could be a-hundred-thousand dollars right now. So there’s that mystique about it. The car’s fast, its fun, its efficient. It’s a good car to own.”

The original concept.

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