AMC and the Dodo
AMC. American Motors Corporation. Does anybody remember that one?
They actually made some pretty cool cars. The Javelin and AMX come to mind. Forward thinking for the time, the AMX was a two-seat sports car with a 401 C.I.D. engine. Fast, good-handling. It actually competed well with GTOs, Camaros, Mustangs, Firebirds, Chargers, and other stallions from the muscle car era. Look it up. There’s a following.
Of course there was also the Pacer, the Matador, and who can forget the Gremlin – aka, the Garthmobile. I still can’t decide if it was the ugliest car ever made, or something that could be turned into the ultimate sleeper. But with declining sales in the seventies and AMC’s ill-fated merger with French manufacturer Renault, the company was doomed. In 1987 they were acquired by Chrysler, primarily to get their hands on Jeep, and that was the end of AMC.
I bought one of those Jeeps. It was a 1989 Grand Wagoneer. The one with the wood-grain. Jeep was owned by Chrysler then but the Grand Wagoneers were still manufactured in the same Kenosha facility formerly run by AMC and staffed by former AMC employees and using AMC parts. Still, the Grand Wagoneer was a pretty amazing vehicle. Designed in the early ‘60s, it was powerful, strong, and safe. My wife and two young sons walked away from being T-boned by a semi in one. After pounding the rear fender off the wheel I drove it home.
But the Wagoneer had its flaws. The design was post-World War II so didn’t take advantage of more modern manufacturing techniques. It was never upgraded and once while working on it, I found mounts for the original headlight configuration buried deep beneath the grill. Quality control was poor – always AMC’s Achilles heel. Aerodynamics weren’t part of the equation when it was designed so fuel efficiency was poor. Extremely poor. And it used an older engine design. Much older in fact.
The V8 family engine block used by AMC was originally a World War II-era Packard design. It had a high nickel content that minimized cylinder wear, which was good, but used antiquated casting techniques, which was bad. And it far pre-dated the concept of emissions controls. I don’t even think the original Wagoneer had a PCV valve. So as laws began to change in the late 60’s, placing ever tighter restrictions on automobile exhaust, AMC/Jeep attempted to comply by hanging ever more crap on their V8s to meet them.
By the time I bought my Wagoneer there was a veritable spaghetti explosion of vacuum lines, solenoids, EGR ports, and sensors under the hood. Troubleshooting even minor problems was nearly impossible given the labyrinthine maze of rubber, copper, and metal tubes. AMC, strapped for cash, had never invested in updating either the engine, or the control systems, simply patching and re-patching what was hanging on an already obsolete engine design. The result was disaster, and even pulling off every bit of smog control hardware resulted in a poorly performing vehicle. I know from painful experience that this is true.
Anyone who drove cars during the 70’s remembers that all four American car manufacturers had problems like this, hence the market penetration of better designed foreign automobiles during this period. Fortunately the advent of computer controlled engine management systems and redesigned engines allowed the other American manufacturers to begin competing again. AMC couldn’t make the capitol investment and the rest is history, along with the Grand Wagoneer.
So what’s the point? The point is, the American economy is that Grand Wagoneer. The economy itself is a World War II-era design. It depends on massive consumption by a rapidly expanding, export-based economy. And for many years, like AMC, it was functional and even profitable. But the world in which it formed no longer exists. And the US is no longer an export economy. So over the years, as our economic growth has sputtered, our government and corporate leaders have levied continually more restrictions, regulations, and stimulus plans in order to keep the pistons firing. And now, quite literally, in perhaps the most poignant part of the analogy, economies themselves have been levied with emissions controls. Instead of changing, our economy has become that Packard-based, AMC V8 hidden beneath layers of vacuum lines and marginally functional pollution-control hardware. The result is an economy that runs like crap, can’t be diagnosed, and is unresponsive to repair. Sure there are times when it seems to perform. Through vigorous maintenance and upgrades I kept my Wagoneer running for years. I replaced engines, transmission, carburetors, manifolds. I once redesigned the entire air conditioning system. You name it. But oh, the time I wasted lying on my back in the driveway. And the money I threw away. And the gas mileage was always crap. Life has been much better since I deep-sixed that puppy and went with something more modern. I have a life again.
How long will out politicians call for stimulus plans to revive the economy? How many trillions will we waste on vacuum lines, feedback carburetors, and exhaust gas recirculation before we retool the engine for modern times and redesign the control system from the ground up? AMC paid the ultimate corporate price for their refusal to upgrade. A refusal that turned into an impassable barrier. Has our refusal to fundamentally change our economic engine gone too far? Have we wasted so much capitol on upgrading an obsolete system that we lack the resources and will to build a new one? Have we passed the point of no return? I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know the answer to this one: Every day that passes without fundamental change is one day closer to the impossibility of change. And nature has shown without exception that when systems lose the ability to adapt they become extinct.