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by Alexander Cockburn

Dangerous Bias Against Detroit

As with so many of my drives across the country in the past, I began in the northwest corner of South Carolina, where Wilbur, an old friend of mine, owns a small trailer park, across the road from the acres where he used to have his inventory of mostly '60s Imperials and Chryslers, before the value of land went up and the price of scrap went through the roof. It's why these days you see fewer junkyards with old cars in them than you used to. Back last November, when I was staying with Wilbur and his wife in Landrum, you could take a 4,000-pound car to the shredder and get $12 a pound, around $500, with the metal shipped off to China. Now, with the recycling business in China at a standstill, the price has dropped to $2 per pound.

Mind you, car manufacturers have always hated the junkyards. Ford used to buy them up just to put them out of business. What the manufacturers want is for people to buy new cars, drive them 100,000 miles or so, and turn them back in to their dealers -- often as substitute down payments against new ones. Anything to keep the customer loyal. Commonly the dealer will shred the old one so the junkyards won't have any customers for their replacement parts. The less old inventory in circulation, the better the manufacturers do. They'd like to make any older car an expensive proposition, the way the Japanese have with high taxes, insurance premiums and especially the safety inspection/registration fees, which can top $2,000 a time.

One of the first acts of Harold Wilson's 1964 Labor government in Britain was to introduce the seven-year Ministry of Transport test, which wiped out the cheap-old-car market. I had two cars when I was at Oxford just before Wilson got in, a 1937 Riley and a 1946 Wolseley. Both cost me less than 50 pounds. These days, in the United States, you see a fraction of the old cars I used to see on the roads when I began driving around America in the late 1970s. Back then, the highways were vivid with the sheens of the '50s and '60s, the fins, the chrome, the concave body lines of Elwood Engle, the tumid degeneration of '60s lines as we headed into the '70s. There were three-tone color packages in the '50s, paisley roofs. The options on a mid-'50s Bel-Air were virtually infinite. These days: nothing but monotone Honda Accords, Subarus and Camrys as far as the eye can see.

So these days, Wilbur devotes the time he used to spend packaging up molding strips and engine parts for the UPS man to fixing things in his trailers, approaching late payers at the start of the month, sometimes with one hand hovering near the .32 he keeps in his back pocket in case -- as has happened more than once -- the late payer has become dangerous. Trailer-park management is a tough business, giving the veteran a skeptical posture toward protestations of good faith and square dealing.

Wilbur described to me how, in his trailer park, by the late summer of '08, as local factories started closing, long-term tenants said goodbye and went on the road in search of work. The vacant trailers were soon filled by families walking away from mountains of mortgage debt and foreclosed homes. They live on budgets so tight that Wilbur says that they can just make the $500 monthly rental, but $550 puts them under. He pointed to one where an older man had just arrived from Michigan, 650 miles north up Interstate 75, heart of the U.S. auto industry and already in economic ruins long before the major auto companies went begging for bailout in Washington, D.C. States in the industrial heartlands, like Michigan or Ohio, have been reeling for years as the factory owners redeployed to China, but others, like New York or California or Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, now face budgetary implosion and cuts in services of up to 25 percent.

I'd stopped by to say hello to Wilbur and his wife and to pick up a 1989 Ford Festiva, essentially a Kia, designed in part by Mazda, ordered up by Ford to get its fleet's mileage averages up. Years ago I didn't care much about miles-per-gallon statistics. The first car I ever drove out of Wilbur's yard was back in about 1983, a Chrysler Newport wagon with a 383 engine and a rare, factory-installed straight shift, apparently designed for the cops. It was certainly a very fast car, doing about 18 miles to the gallon. The Festiva bounced along in nippy fashion, not as fast or a twentieth as solid as the old Newport. But it does get 38 miles to the gallon. I still hold on to the old cars, but a man has to move with the times.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor   February 12, 2009   (

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