I’m in the market for a new car. I don’t really need a new car or even a newer car. My current vehicle is 15 years old, but in near-new condition. I’m one of those people who takes meticulous care of my things, especially cars. I get all the maintenance done on time and I have broken things fixed as soon as they break. That last bit is the key. Leaving broken things unattended seems to age a car.
I’m a bit of a clean freak so I make sure my car is always spotless. My current vehicle lacks a new car shine and has a few paint chips, but is otherwise pretty much as I bought it new. Inside it is exactly as new, not even a smudge on the carpets. I’m a bit lucky there, I guess, but it really is quite remarkable how long a modern auto will last if properly maintained.
Even so, I figure I have one more new car in me before they take my keys away so I have been thinking about spoiling myself and getting a nice new ride. Here in the ghetto, having a nice ride is pretty much required if you want to be respected. I see guys who have never filed a tax form in their life rolling around in E-series Mercedes. Whenever I see one of the fellas riding around in a high end vehicle, I always imagine the scene at the dealership when L’Trelle pays cash in crumpled tens and twenties.
I have not settled on what I want or even if I want to go big or small. I’ve always liked the look of an the Audi, but I’m told they’re brutal to maintain. I know someone with an A6 and he tells me he spent close to a grand having the brakes done recently. My last brake job, which included brand new front rotors and an alignment, was $450. I think I’d have a stroke if I got a bill for brake pads that had a comma in it. Maybe the driving experience makes it all worth it, but I’m skeptical.
The other end of the spectrum for me is an SUV. I’ve always thought it would be fun to own a Jeep with a lift kit and big tires. Maybe do some off-roading. Every Jeep owner I’ve met loves the things. It’s probably a lifestyle thing that may or may not work for me, but it is something I’m considering. If not a Jeep then maybe a different model SUV. Too bad they stopped making the Hummer. That would work perfectly in my neighborhood. I’d be the top honky in the hood for sure.
A good way to understand how social institutions evolve, sometimes into dead-ends, is to spend time at car dealerships. If you were starting with a clean sheet of paper, designing a way to distribute and repair cars, the modern dealership system would not be the model. Instead, you would probably come up with something like CarMax or maybe Amazon Cars, where users spec their car on-line and it is delivered to their home.
This was not a possibility in the dawn of the automobile age in America. Instead, manufacturers sought out local businessmen to represent their brand in their part of the world. Even 50 years ago, America was a vast country with lots of local variation. People did business with people they knew and the local dealership model solved a problem for car makers. Buying a car from the guy who sponsored your kid’s little league team was the American thing to do.
Today, people prefer doing business with robots. Retail is dying all over the country as people would rather shop through their PC. I just bought a new bed frame through Amazon. It will be delivered next week. Rather than spend all weekend at furniture stores, I went on-line, relying on the reviews of strangers. The transaction required an hour or so of my time and I did not have to haggle with another human.
Go into a car dealership and it is an elaborate system of time wasting and confrontation. The car salesman immediately starts asking questions and trying to lead you to a car you are inclined to buy. He’s there to sell cars so he works to narrow your focus quickly, often making assumptions about people based on their age, sex, race and appearance. Car dealerships are the ultimate in profiling.
Of course, this system of selling cars evolved over a long period of time and the men who have millions committed to their dealerships are not about to let it be replaced by another system. In almost every state, dealers have bribed local pols into passing laws protecting them from alternative modes of selling new cars. Some states even have laws forbidding warranty work by independent repair shops, forcing you into dealership repair shops.
The car business is also an example of how automation can be minimized. The software systems used by car dealers are crude by modern standards. Even the Japanese and German dealers rely on clunky old software to manage the dealerships. There are still loads of people pushing paper around in order to buy and sell cars. That’s on top of the government bureaucracy for keeping track of your car and taxing it. The economy of spoons comes to mind.
Another thing that strikes me about the car buying experience is just how ugly modern cars have become in the last couple of decades. Walk around a car dealership and it is like being on the set of a film noir movie. The most popular colors are black, gray and white. The alternatives are muted, depressing metallics that strongly suggest the owner is suicidal. Interior colors range from black to gray. It’s as if all of our cars are designed by former East German bureaucrats.
Way back in the olden thymes when car makers first started using wind tunnels for design work, someone I knew at the time said eventually all cars will end up looking the same. That’s pretty much what has happened. To break out of this and get something funky and weird, you have to spend a king’s ransom. When I was a kid, cars said something about the owner. It was an extension of his personality so variety was everywhere.
That’s still true, except the guy driving is no longer a free man driving his own car. Instead, the car is leased to him and he is permitted to drive it by a gaggle of faceless bureaucrats, who spend their lives in committee meetings. That’s why our cars look like extras in a funeral procession. An optimistic people buy weird looking cars in bright colors. A society marking time leases gray sedans that go back to the dealer when they are done for.