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06/16/2010 12:01 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Cars: If "Buy American" Were History

Two years ago, while shopping for a new car, my father's conviction to buy American played daily in my head. For him, buying a U.S.-made car is dogma - an incontrovertible matter of principle that even sub-par road performance (often unrecognized in a non-car person) or the arrival of zippy foreign cars to our shores could not shake. In my childhood driveways there always sat great hunks of Detroit steel - a Ford LTD station wagon, an Oldsmobile 88, a Chevy Nova, and even a Corvair, pre-Nader, presumably. I learned to drive in a white Chevy Impala, an unwieldy boat of a car that seemed to fishtail even on dry, sunny roads. Today, my father drives a Buick Park Avenue - an ironic name for a car unlikely to be found on the street of the same name. Even with its touching lack of cachet, it has my vote for the most comfortable car in the world, with that upholstered expanse of front seat, a couch on wheels. Nevertheless, I wonder if he and the car rental companies are the only people in the world still buying Buicks and Pontiacs. Name one person you know that drives a red Dodge Neon sedan, like the one I got from Avis the last time I was in Phoenix.

This "Buy American" mantra, familiar to many post-war baby boomers, is why it is almost impossible to comprehend the collapse of the American auto industry. From abandoned car lots still festooned with flag garland, to a Super Bowl denuded of car ads, the effects will be felt literally everywhere. One expert quoted in the Observer (UK) estimates the loss of three million jobs. That means that not only the backbone of what remains of the United States' once-great manufacturing economy will be shattered, but the collateral damage could be boundless. Looking at it not only economically, but symbolically, we can't sit back and watch the biggest car crash in history.

The auto industry suffered from that particular American affliction: optimism. This defining quality makes hope's eternal promise the lens through which we look at our country and its possibilities. There is no Indian Dream, or Icelandic Dream. On this earth there is only the American one, and its power lies in its ability, for one example, to elect Barack Obama for President. But when optimism is a euphemism for arrogant disregard for facts, analysis or research, or for barreling through an agenda without a reality check - as if nothing bad can ever happen - this can be catastrophic. (see: Iraq War) Too many U.S. resources have been put into securing petroleum supply (see again: Iraq War). This gave - optimistic - Americans reason to believe that driving habits don't have to change and that the punchbowl would flow forever. This gave carmakers license to churn out and market the behemoths that trumpet their 16-18 mpg as if this is a good thing. They were derelict, lacked vision. They sued states who wanted to change their emission standards. And if you did not have a visceral reaction to those anthemic Humvee ads still running when gas cost $4.50 a gallon, you must have been dozing.

All of this doesn't mean we deprive the carmakers of a shot in the arm to keep them alive, even if they have themselves to blame for this debacle. But millions of people should not have to pay. It would be tragic to bury the car industry. The American landscape is littered with remains of a great manufacturing past. If you drive through Waterbury, Connecticut, abandoned brick buildings - many with For Lease signs posted on them for years - remind us how industry flourishes, changes, and falters inevitably over the years. In Waterbury, still called the Brass City, smokestacks dot the banks of the Naugatuck River, monuments to a thriving industrial hub that is no more. Sad but true, this is how the market and the global economy work. Innovation streamlines the process, production shifts and as industry gravitates towards efficiency and cost-effectiveness, jobs move south and overseas. Or, consumer tastes change and demand dries up.

But this is Ford, GM and Chrysler. Imagine the empty factories and abandoned dealerships that will line highways from coast to coast if they shut down. It will forever be a reminder that we neglected to give them another chance to rethink and restructure and redo the U.S.'s last big industrial bastion. The one which has my father's loyalty because it switched gears during World War II to produce weapons instead of cars, and if the need should ever arise again, it would behoove us to be self-sufficient.

So whither the American car? My father's Buick may be a Smithsonian-bound relic. But the car's mere serviceability and lack of consumer appeal is beside the point. His philosophy was always, "It gets me where I want to be just fine." In his view, every American lawmaker - read Senator and Congressman and woman - should be required to drive an American brand. For those of us raised on "Buy American," it was never about jingoistic claptrap, but about duty - accepting the limits of Detroit's cars to support American manufacturing and jobs. This might not square with sound economic theory (and it might even look protectionist), but the car industry has an exalted place - and one that the carmakers took for granted. Maybe this helped lead unions to believe that they were untouchable, too. And maybe the cars lacked the good sense of a Honda, the flash of a BMW. But for the loyal, American cars were not about snob appeal, or nano-second acceleration, but about optimism.

When my loyalty was tested, I found that big practical concerns mattered too much. My car search ended with a Toyota, a few years too soon to have been manufactured in the facility being built in Princeton, Indiana. I love my car, but I loved the Chrysler Pacifica I test drove too - the fine lines and roomy back seat. I avoided the Chrysler dealer's calls for weeks after I had bought the Toyota, chickening out of telling him that I had gone with the Japanese. Finally, he reached me in an unguarded moment and I had to tell him: I needed to go with a hybrid, and a car with side airbags. The new models will have all of the above, he offered. That conversation telegraphed for me the problems with the U.S. auto industry. It was too late.

I hope for all of our sake that it is not too late for the carmakers, and that Washington comes up with a solution which will allow them to fix, listen, create, atone and blow us away with new ideas and innovative products that built the industry in the first place. Then maybe next time, like my father, I'd really rather have a Buick.

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