- Written by webmin
Along with the now-resolved mystery of the Cuban skycar, I also came across a passage from Richard Schweid’s 2004 book, “Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba,” that I thought worth noting here (many thanks to the University of North Carolina Press for allowing us to publish this excerpt):
Keep it running. Use it. Make it last. Hold its costs down. Use as little gasoline as possible and do what is needed to keep it on the road. As it is in Cuba now, so it was in the early years of mass-produced automobiles. Those early models were built to keep running. My grandfather, Reuben Mills, had a Rolls Razor, which was a stainless steel safety razor in an oval nickel-plated box that fit in one hand. The box lids were lined with a leather strop and a stone hone, so one could sharpen the blade daily before taking it out to fit on its handle. Box and blade were designed to provide their owner with a sharp razor, every morning, for a lifetime. This was the kind of industrial design that appealed to both my grandfather and to Henry Ford, whether for razors or cars. Others who subscribed to this doctrine of utility were among the founders of various automobile companies, including Ransom E. Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile; the Dodge brothers; David Dunbar Buick; and William C. Durant, who built the first Chevrolet. What appealed to the market up until about 1925 was something built so well it would never need to be replaced.
The years between the Depression and the Second World War saw a sea change in attitude among Detroit’s carmakers, moving from Ford’s production concept of standardization and durability to the marketing concept of ‘‘planned obsolescence,’’ of designing and building a car that was expected to last only a minimum amount of time before being deemed aesthetically old-fashioned and outdated and the mechanics of which were also programmed to self-destruct. Things began to be built so they would need to be replaced. By 1934, according to Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers, speakers at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ annual meeting proposed limiting the life of automobiles.
Alfred Sloan of General Motors and Walter P. Chrysler were a couple of the early and most influential proponents of planned-obsolescence marketing. Sloan lured a car customizer and designer named Harley Earl away from Hollywood, where he was designing cars for movie stars. His initial designs were for the 1927 Lasalle and the 1928 Cadillac. Sloan then named Earl as head of General Motors’ styling, a position he occupied until he retired in 1959. His flamboyant designs, sleek, exuberant lines, exaggerated fins, and aeronautical flourishes resonated with both Cubans and North Americans, and they still do.
Other companies followed Earl’s lead. The proponents of styling and planned obsolescence carried the day, and the century for that matter. In the United States, figures for 1924 showed that Ford accounted for just over 50 percent of new car sales, according to Richard Wright’s West of Laramie: A Brief History of the Auto Industry. In second place was General Motors, with about 19 percent of new car sales. By 1926, the ratio was 35 percent Ford and 28 percent. In 1931, General Motors passed Ford in sales, and it remained ahead thereafter. Henry Ford resisted Sloan’s marketing techniques for a time, but when his son, Edsel, took over, he decided Ford had to compete on General Motors’s terms or lose the automobile market.
The industry turned from utility to style, with exterior designs changing each year, built around an unchanging, lead-burning gasoline combustion, and each year’s model costing more, not less, than the previous year’s. In this new market, an automobile represented more than transport in the life of its owner. It was an indication of status, success, of a driver’s identity. The new approach was the beginning of a profit-driven shift by manufacturers that would grow only more intense as the years passed, until things reached the state that Jonathan Raban described in his 1974 book, Soft City: ‘‘Cars have had to carry an excessive burden of symbolism; they have been decked out with every sort of frippery, used as promiscuously as tailor’s dummies to promote a style. The car is a special simulacrum of the self; it goes where its owner goes; it forms his outer suit, his most visible and ubiquitous expression of choice and taste; it is most often seen briefly, on the move—like the citizen himself, it has to make its message plain in an instant.’’
Cubans have always responded favorably to GM’s concept of styling, every bit as much as people in the United States, and they have made these cars their own. Cuba was one of the largest markets for Detroit manufactured vehicles in the Americas. An island—albeit 750 miles long, the Caribbean’s longest—with no more than a few million residents: not much of a market on the face of it, but the volume of cars purchased in Cuba was prodigious. The island was among the half-dozen best markets in the hemisphere, year after year. Every year consumer excitement was whipped up by newspaper ads for new models, and Cubans fell prey to planned obsolescence in the same way North Americans did.
In January 1932, as the Cuban car market disappeared beneath waves from the Depression in full force to the North, an editorial in A.C.C. called for a tax break for older cars, pointing to France, where it was policy to exempt from taxation cars over nine years old: ‘‘In Cuba there must be very few cars or trucks that are more than nine years old, because of the practice adopted from the Americans of changing an old vehicle for a new one every two or three years. It’s highly probable that with the crisis whipping us more automobile and truck owners will have to make do with what they have for as long as they can.’’
Maybe even now Cubans would buy a new car every couple of years, like North Americans, if they could. Maybe they would, and maybe they will get the chance to do so again, but the fact is right now they cannot. So they have cared for and maintained the same models that North Americans bought and threw away in great numbers, so many of them scrapped that the remaining few have become collector’s items. The mechanics in Havana and Santiago de Cuba who have kept these cars running all these years belong to a genre of Cuban genius. They have done these cars much prouder than the manufacturers who built them to throw away. Cubans have turned dishwashing detergent into brake fluid, enema bag hoses into fuel lines, and gasoline-burning engines into diesels in order to keep Detroit’s dream cars on the road. They have accorded respect to these cars, taken them into their families, treated them as well as they could, provided the level of care that befits an elder, fed them and kept them moving, not tossed them away.
From CHE’S CHEVROLET, FIDEL’S OLDSMOBILE by Richard Schweid. Copyright Â© 2004 by Richard Schweid. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.