Made in America – A Commentary

My wife and I felt environmentally responsible when we purchased our 2007 Honda Civic hybrid automobile. But at 30,000 miles when we needed to outfit our fuel-efficient car with a fourth set of tires, we were feeling anything but green.

In 1967 not long out of college and settled into my first job, I bought my first automobile, a Chevy. After a foray into low-end Fords in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, in 1986 I purchased my first Honda, a gray Civic, a perfect car, a marvel of engineering.

I was sold on Hondas, and as the years passed, a variety of Civics, Accords, and one Odyssey parked in our garage. Made in America was fine in the abstract, but as a consumer I wanted a vehicle that was fuel efficient and reliable. The U.S. auto companies produced huge flashy cars that guzzled gas like kids swilling beer, and were only slightly more reliable on cold mornings. Sorry, but when I got behind the wheel, I trusted the technology Made in Japan.

Rising fuel prices and dwindling oil reserves made the 2007 Honda hybrid seem a natural choice. I picked out a gray Civic, a car that looked like the better-educated grandson of my favorite 1986 Civic.

At 7,000 miles, my new hybrid was disturbingly noisy at highway speeds. Cupped tires, my mechanic told me. Reluctantly, the Oshkosh Bergstrom Honda dealership replaced the tires. The service department manager cautioned that the new ones might not be guaranteed should problems develop.

Which at 14,000 miles they did. Once again the tires roared on the interstate, and the problem, cupping. An Internet search revealed that my problem was not unique, although the Honda service department responded as if it were, and after long conversations, the sway arms were replaced along with the tires.

This solution was partially successful; the new tires I was given lasted 14,000 miles before they cupped and roared. Bill, the Bergstrom Honda Service Department Manager, advised me to contact the Honda corporation complaint department where I would be given a customer number that would speed the process of fixing the problem. He explained that the dealership and the corporation would negotiate matters of blame and restitution.

Meanwhile, as weeks passed, family health crises required us to make frequent lengthy trips over icy and snowy roads. As I struggled to keep my Honda stable in the slow lane while other vehicles whizzed by me, I worried that I had lost my driving skills.

Until I went back on the Internet and learned that one more problem that the 2007 Honda Civic hybrid faced was stability during winter driving conditions.

“I estimate the tire problem affects about 10 to 15 percent of Honda Civics,” Bergstrom Honda General Manager Schott Stealow said, “but it’s a problem with Civics, not necessarily the hybrids.”

Because the tires are provided by a company independent of the Honda Corporation and subsequently carry their own warrantees, the liability issue becomes more complicated, as the possibility for owner negligence also exists. He was skeptical of the winter driving concerns I had found on the Internet.

Eventually I received four new tires and found that the old ones had not only cupped, but had gone out of balance, an explanation for winter driving instability. Two of the Honda representatives we had talked to earlier were no longer with the company, victims of corporate layoffs.

The dealership hopes that the problem is fixed, but my confidence is shaken. I find myself looking at the Big Three Automakers differently.

While Detroit certainly made mistakes in automotive design and engineering as well as in financial management, they also made a product that was uniquely American and through the labor unions that operated within their corporations contributed to the growth and prosperity of a significant portion of America’s middle class.

One of the secrets of Honda’s success in this country is the fact that their automobiles are manufactured in non-union factories that pay workers lower wages and offer fewer quality of life benefits.

Barack Obama became president in part because he opposes out-sourcing of manufacturing, because he believes in well-paying jobs for Americans, because he believes in rebuilding the infrastructure of this country.

His message resonates because Wal-Mart has taught many of us a valuable lesson. Cheap products are often offered at a cost that is hidden from consumers.

The Wall Street government bailout has shown us excesses of corporate welfare, while the government treatment of the Big Three Automakers has shown us official contempt for labor unions and a disregard for the middle class.

Something good may ultimately come from all of this. Public sentiment might well change toward the manufacturing of automobiles in this country. I, for one, have learned that a “perfect” car is only as perfect as the corporation that produces it. And I have decided that my next car will probably be a Ford or a Chevy.