Friday, June 28, 2013

Quality vs. Control

I recently purchased, with the monetary aid of a decidedly non-federal source (my brother), a 2006 Ford Focus.

Those who have known me for a long time know that I have a track record for liking Fords. I wanted a Ford Taurus since I was a wee lad (probably around 8 or 9) and have always wanted a classic Mustang. My love of the Taurus has waned in favor of the Focus, which I currently think is one of the best compact sedans out there (but don't take my word for it since I am the opposite of an expert on cars.) However, my love for the Mustang is an ongoing thing and I find it hard to break it off with her. She just gives me everything I need.

Ok, that's not quite accurate, but it sounded funny in my head.

Why do I love Fords? I find it hard to answer that. Perhaps I am enamoured of the history of the Ford, from the idea of a single man with the drive (pun unintended) to succeed in an ever-changing world to the invention of the assembly line. From the Model A to the Mustang to the Focus, a company which has lasted a century and more while many others fell by the wayside. Where is Studebaker? Where are all the other ones that I can't think of because I've never heard of them because they went out of business more than 50 years ago and who cares about what happened 50 years ago? (Besides the release of "With the Beatles") Perhaps I love Fords because they are an All-American company which worked. You know, the American Dream, baby. Maybe, though my reputation as either a red-neck, a hard-core Patriot or a conservative is slightly lacking. I'm generally thought of as a slightly hippie, liberal anglophile, which might be accurate.

Let's just chalk up my love of Fords to a fluke of my mental wiring which is decidedly male and as such has no emotional depth but just responds to Power and Noise and Action and Stuff that would make the Women Squeal. Or something.
Because I AM Vin Diesel.

Let's instead talk about a word I used about 3 paragraphs up. Classic.

I won't pretend not to love vintage things, and perhaps the worship of the god Vintage is no better than the worship of the god Dionysius. There is something that draws me to the classic and to the vintage and unfortunately it does have to do with a rejection of the current culture of manufacturing and style.

Looking at the dashboard of a classic Mustang is like looking at the work of someone who cared so much about what he was designing or crafting that he was willing to use the most durable materials in the most logical arrangement with an eye to balance of color and proportion.
As the poet say, "Gah."

In most cars before the 70s (and certainly before the 80s. Blech.) there was a certain sense that a car mattered not merely as something that would get you from point A to point B but also something that the maker could be proud of having designed and made. "This is my newest car I designed. Look at how well it runs, how long it lasts and how sleek the design." It was a time when Quality mattered.

Now cars are ultimately all basically the same, besides the internal workings of a hybrid or other such car which is apparently the Car of the Future. The value of Quality has been sacrificed at the altar of Cheapness (so as to produce as many as possible for as little as possible...a mentality which I am so vehemently against that I almost blame Henry Ford for inventing the Assembly Line), the altar of Safety (yes, I understand that Safety First, but for goodness sake, don't lull the dear kids who are just learning to drive into the sense that the car will keep them safe. It won't. It's dangerous.) and the altar of the Computer. Although it may not be true that only the dealer at which you bought a new car has the tools to fix the computer in your car (which a mechanic I recently was at complained about with a sign), it is decidedly true that whereas before, the car owner could tinker with his car, improve the engine, suspension, and everything else in between, now the owner is obliged to take it to someone with the necessary tools to go through a computer system as well as fix the mechanical parts.

I think the altar of Cheapness hardly needs an answer. Apparently making a car out of plastic makes a car more affordable to the Common Man, but let me tell you, it's not that easy for a common man to buy even a plastic car unless it's used and will probably fall apart in a year. It's not so much its affordability that I have an issue with, of course. It's the fact that in making it affordable, you are depriving the owner of something else: the knowledge that he/she has made a purchase that will Last. Cars are now built so that once the mileage has been reached, the car is useless. Before, the parts of the car could be retrofitted and replaced with much more ease. We are selling the Common Man short if we say that the only way to have a consistently quality vehicle is to be Really Rich and able to afford a new car every 3 years.

The altar of Safety is one altar about which I have mixed feelings. Of course I don't want to die in a car crash if it can be helped, but isn't there some way for a car to be both safe AND well built? It would seem that those would go hand in hand. I there has got to be a way for the interior and exterior of cars to be sturdy, look sturdy and be safe. Come on, Ford, don't let me down.

The altar of the Computer is only a symptom of a larger problem which is that the work required to maintain such an ordinary everyday piece of equipment requires Experts to be involved because it is too Complicated for the Common Man. As new technologies develop, there are more and more things that the Common man does not know about computers that could result in a complete blowout of the system if he makes one false move. Cars were, at one time, hardly more complicated than the parts out of which they were made. They were almost, in a way, just like Bicycles in their simplicity. Could you imagine if a bike manufacturer were to suddenly get the bright idea that all bikes would now require a complicated computer system to make sure it worked correctly? We would no longer be able to just put the chain back on the gears without taking it into a mechanic.

All this is just to make a greater point than just about cars. I know little to nothing about how cars work, but I do know that with the advent of mass production, the idea of well-crafted, meaningful, and long-lasting have been given second place in the race to profit and progress.

Which is a topic for another post.

4 comments:

Robert Gotcher said...

Concerning computers, my speakers STILL don't work, NATE.

N.W. Thomas said...

Well, like I said. Just a little click of a button by an amateur and it's all over.

Anonymous said...

Don't modern cars typically last far longer than vintage vehicles? I know they may not have as much shiny metal, but quality for me means reliably getting me from point a to point b.

N.W. Thomas said...

They typically last longer in terms of miles, perhaps. I just think that the car-makers should care about making the total design of the care be functional and long lasting as well as each component well made and designed integrally with the rest of the car. The design of the '68 Mustang shows such an integrity of design (as I said in symmetry, balance of colour, proportion and material) which a lot of modern cars don't have. It's not that it has shiny metal. It's that the shiny metal is used strategically to give an overall pleasing and sturdy appearance which translates to how sturdy the car actually is.

As I said, I'm no expert in cars, but this culture of manufacturing applies to all products. We should try to combine longevity due to technological advances as well as longevity due to care in the fashioning of the product and how easy it is to maintain for the owner.