Riding in Style? Not So Much

Illustration: Chris Pyle

After I read the profile of Mary Barra, product chief at General Motors, I wondered what I could write about that related to auto executives, or car companies, or GM. And then I remembered the Oldsmobile Delta 88 I had when I was 19.

It was a 1970 model, robin egg blue, with a V8 engine and a backseat that could have doubled as a couch. I bought it for $250 from the father of a friend who, while cataloging its list of charms, noted its spaciousness. I believe his exact words were, "It seats eight comfortably." He left out a few things.

First, he neglected to say that a couple of trips to work and back was usually enough to require another fill-up. This was 1978, and gas was 69 cents, so it wasn't such a big deal that the car got 10 miles per gallon in city driving. (Thirty-three years later, GM makes some cars that require no gas at all.)

It also didn't occur to me that a beat-up, high-mileage Oldsmobile Delta 88 whose previous owner was a middle-aged banker would not inspire lustful glances from girls, but instead might evoke uncomfortable questions like, "Did you borrow this from your grandpa?"

Never one to shirk a challenge, I installed an 8-track tape player, blasted Aerosmith and tooled around with my elbow casually hanging out the driver's window like the guys in American Graffiti. Pretending, all the time, that I was not driving a giant, lumbering boat on wheels. Fortunately, no photos have survived.

Soon after I unloaded my Delta 88 and headed off to college, the U.S. government instituted stricter fuel economy standards, which prompted a move toward smaller vehicles and a steady decline in market share for American carmakers. It took 30 years of tough lessons but GM, Ford and Chrysler have finally figured out what European and Japanese manufacturers already knew: Big is not necessarily better.

The "blue bomb," as my friends referred to it, was everything a car should not be: over-built, under-engineered, inefficient and ugly as sin. We're now in a time when car buyers won't settle for that. Along with economy, drivers want a dash of panache and a dashboard brimming with gizmos. That's the challenge for Barra and her contemporaries at the Big Three—marrying technology and style, efficiency and élan.

Research at Stanford has led to breakthroughs that may change the very nature of driving—autonomous vehicles aren't too far off—but I think we can assume that cars will be around for a long time. Who will make the cars of the future? It would be nice to think American companies will be in that mix, and GM's comeback is a hopeful signal.

And even if the car of the future runs on something other than gas, as we suppose it will, please don't send us any more Delta 88s. There might be an unsuspecting 19-year-old out there. 

Kevin Cool is the former executive editor of Stanford.

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