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February 20, 2009

Automotive Wreckage And Crash’s Law

By Robert Hariman.

Close your eyes, think Big Three auto companies, and open them again.

Just about perfect, isn’t it? An out-of-date vehicle with crappy decor designed to distract you from substandard engineering has been wrecked by a head-on collision. And what do we see now that the barrier between the car and the outside world has caved in? Utter darkness.

Even if you stagger away from the wreck, head-on collisions are particularly awful because you know you should have seen it coming. Although the crash explodes in an instant, it was developing well before: when people weren’t paying attention, when merely adequate brakes were installed, or barely adequate regulations enacted. The long aftermath of an accident is the other side of a long winding of the spring beforehand. Emily Dickinson said it best:

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow –
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crash’s law.

The Big Three didn’t collide with market reality overnight. They had been warned and warned, but they looked the other way, as did a lot of other people. The result is broken glass, broken dreams, and a dark future.

The photograph is by Nicolai Howalt, from his series Car Crash Studies. I found the series at Amy Stein’s blog on photography. The poem is an excerpt from “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act.”

Cross posted from No Caption Needed.

  • Batocchio

    An out-of-date vehicle with crappy decor…
    Ahem. The Big Three call that styling “classic.” ;-)

  • cenoxo

    It’s not so much what’s crashing in through the windshield, but all the poor dummies that will be going out.
    From CBS News, February 17, 2009: GM, Chrysler Boost Aid Requests — Companies Announce 50,000 Additional Job Cuts, Reach Agreement With Auto Workers Union On Concessions.

    Image © Rick Gayle/CORBIS

    I think we all saw it coming sooner or later — Did we really expect to keep building cars, highways, shopping malls, suburbs, homes, and the sheer quantities of stuff that fills them forever? — but nobody on any side of the aisle wanted to awaken from the American Dream.
    Perhaps it’s time for the Chinese Dream to take over.

  • Eliot

    Looks like a late 70s or early 80s Mercedes.

  • Tony Borroz

    “An out-of-date vehicle with crappy decor designed to distract you from substandard engineering has been wrecked by a head-on collision.”
    Actually, the car pictured looks like a mid-80s Mercedes, a W124 chassis to be specific, and the damage is indicative of hitting a large animal, something along the lines of a deer or a moose.
    Note how the windshield, and windshield header are caved in TOWARDS the passenger cell, and there is little to no damage of the scuttle.
    A head on collision, even in a vehicle as robust as a Mercedes, looks much much worse, and much different than that.

  • cenoxo

    That sure looks like how a 1982 Mercedes 240D Benz, all right…

    …but even Daimler Says Market Poses ‘Substantial Burdens’.
    American financial fallout knows no borders.

  • Hariman

    Well, I’m not surprised that the readers at the BAG want the technical details right. I had to make some guesses about the car and the crash since I didn’t know anything beyond what I saw in the photograph itself. Here’s what I was thinking: “head-on” doesn’t have to mean two cars hitting each other head-on at high speed, which would cause far worse damage than what we see in this photo; it can mean a lower speed impact or hitting a stationary object, both of which might blow in a windshield or damage it enough that it later would fall or be pushed into the vehicle. It certainly wasn’t a rear-end collision, and both sides look intact. I thought the vehicle might have hit a large animal (which still would be a head-on collision), but if the animal had hit the windshield there probably would be traces of blood and fur in front seat. It seemed best to not speculate any more than was necessary. As for the make, it could well be a Mercedes, but there is nothing about the decor that distinguishes it as such. I’ve seen exactly the same stick shift, kitschy wooden veneer, and cloth paneling (if that is what it is) on hundreds of American cars. In any case, I was reading the photograph not as a documentary record of a single accident but rather as a parable of the decline of the auto-industrial age.

  • Eliot

    Not to go overboard but its a four speed automatic. A manual would have a gaiter around the shifter :) The Mercedes of that era were actually quite well built. They used high grade steel and were built to specfications that often exceeded the strength and durabilty requirements of commercial aircraft. The safest cars in that era were often Mercedes.

  • DennisQ

    Actually, this Mercedes was parked in the driveway when D.B. Cooper landed on it. Hundreds of $20 bills have been removed from the crash site.

  • joe2pointoh

    For over two decades they’ve been sacrificing the jobs of common workers via lay-off and outsourcing combined with increasing prices in order to maximize ever dwindling profits to share among the CEO’s and shareholders all the while ignoring the fact that sooner or later it meant they’d run out of consumers. None of it was accidental.

  • momo

    The current problems of the domestic auto industry have nothing to do with quality, and everything to do with the financial mess, the freeze in the credit markets, and the slowdown of consumer auto purchases throughout the world.
    Few seem to notice that the manufacturers perceived as providing high quality vehicles are suffering, too. Note this from the Wall Street Journal dated 2/2/09… “HONG KONG (MarketWatch) — Domestic sales of Japanese automakers extended their slump in January, dropping 27.9% from the same month a year earlier, as weak economic conditions continued to weigh on demand. Monthly automobile sales, excluding vehicles with engines smaller than 660 cubic centimeters, dropped to 174,281 units from 241,629 units. The drop marks the sixth straight month of decline in domestic sales for the Japanese auto firms.”
    To me, this photo is a metaphor for the world economy, which has come to a crashing halt, thanks to the hedge funds and banks and credit default swaps and the derivatives that Warren Buffet called “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

  • cenoxo

    Decades of pursuing the American Dream, exemplified by the automobile, fueled by free trade (usually defined by how willing the target country is to accept our terms of sale), ever-expanding debt, and the exploitation of that debt via new ‘financial instruments’, have demonstrated the crashworthiness of our economy.
    Many other countries — at our insistence to follow our obvious success — have gone down the same path to the same sudden Stop. Unfortunately, like a chain reaction crash on a foggy highway, there’s a lot more traffic coming up full speed behind us.
    Instead of trying to jump-start America’s remaining (financial services) engine back into forward — and ever-upward — motion again, the world’s money chauffeurs should be looking to detour their economies around the crash scene via a safer route. To mangle a line from No Country For Old Men, “If the financial route you followed led you to this, of what use was the map?”
    Time to diversify and change direction. Now that Obama and Race Team O have a learner’s permit, do they also have a better road map, or are they just driving us down the same old Street?

  • Mike

    My first thought when I saw the pic was – that dash looks very familiar and it’s not a big 3.
    My 1982 240D still runs quite nicely – although not very fast. Doesn’t look quite as nice as the pic from cenoxo above though.

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