Terry Golway

Have you seen the nation’s latest status symbol on wheels? You may have, but you perhaps didn’t recognize its significance. You simply may have thought, as I did, how odd it is to see a military vehicle painted yellow, operated by a civilian and patrolling your local mall’s parking lot.

 

I caught my first glimpse of this monstrosity on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan, and I assumed it was on its way to the National Guard unit based in the famous Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue and East 66th Street. As for the yellow paint, well, that was tough to figure out: a new kind of camouflage for a new kind of war?

Then, of course, I discovered to my horror that this armored personnel carrier from the days of the Persian Gulf war has been adapted for civilian use—that is, for the use of civilians willing and able to pay more than $50,000 for a vehicle formerly known as a Humvee. Now, in all its yellow glory, it has been rebranded as the Hummer. It burns fuel at the rate of 10 to 13 miles per gallon, and it’s all the rage among affluent Americans who apparently have tired of their pipsqueak sport utility vehicles. It is, in fact, an S.U.V. on steroids.

This particular vehicle sensation—a combination of conspicuous consumption and military chic—comes at a time when soldiers by the thousands are behind the wheels of real-life armored vehicles, preparing for another war in the Persian Gulf. It comes at a time when the people who control our most important source of oil—the House of Saud—have been accused of playing fast and loose with our terrorist enemies. It comes at a time when we are more dependent than ever on oil from the Middle East, which is ground zero for Islamic extremism.

And yet America’s patriotic auto companies, having long ago lost the battle to produce safe, inexpensive and fuel-efficient sedans, continue to churn out oversized gas-guzzlers that not only make the nation’s highways more dangerous, but make us ever more dependent on our undependable friends and bloodthirsty enemies in the Middle East. General Motors is the villain behind the Hummer, but all three U.S. automakers are to blame for flooding the marketplace with terrorist-friendly sport utility vehicles.

How in the world did it come to this? As some of us of a certain age will remember, twice during the 1970’s we saw just how vulnerable we were to oil blackmail. An Arab-led embargo of oil exports to the United States led to gasoline rationing, hours spent in line at the gas station and a depressed economy. For a time, we acted as though we had learned from that dreadful experience. The days of Cadillacs the size of boats were over. Americans sought out smaller cars that burned less gas, vehicles that would allow America to reclaim its independence from duplicitous oil producers.

Unfortunately, American car companies were ill prepared for this new, and apparently un-American, emphasis on fuel efficiency and safety. But Japan’s car companies were, as any short drive on America’s highways will demonstrate. (Personal disclosure: I drive a Honda and my wife, a Toyota. We shopped around, sampled the American products, but chose cars made in America by foreign companies because they seemed safer and less expensive.)

Rather than compete with the mid-sized sedans and compacts from Japan, G.M., Ford and Chrysler went back to their glory days of cheap oil and big, dangerous cars. And thus was born the sport utility vehicle, the bane of America’s highways, the killer of drivers and passengers in saner and smaller cars, the greatest homegrown threat to national security.

The Hummer is the ironic climax of S.U.V. social irresponsibility. It was designed to transport soldiers safely, but now it is a threat to civilian drivers too poor or too enlightened to be similarly equipped. And it celebrates attitudes (reckless individualism for starters) and grotesque choices (who cares how much gas it burns?) that may make a war over oil supplies inevitable.

A new book describes how the S.U.V. became a staple on the American highway despite its dangers and its downright treasonous gas consumption. In High and Mighty, the writer Keith Bradsher states plainly what he thinks of S.U.V.’s. The book’s subtitle calls them “the world’s most dangerous vehicles.”

The American auto companies used their money and political clout in Washington to create the S.U.V. market. This is not a story of the free marketplace run amok with too many choices. It’s a story of political chicanery and corruption. Congress went along with Detroit’s absurd contention that the S.U.V.’s were not cars but lightweight trucks. Thus, the S.U.V. was exempted from fuel efficiency standards imposed on other automobiles.

The automakers designed their monstrosities not for safety, but to make them look and feel menacing. Their market research, Bradsher reports, showed that affluent buyers wanted to feel more powerful on the road. They wanted the little people looking up at them, in awe of them. And so, with the blessings of Congress, the American automakers gave us such atrocities as the Ford Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator.

These vehicles have gotten millions of Americans addicted to cheap oil. And that addiction may yet get us into a war to make the world safe for self-indulgence.

Terry Golway, a writer for The New York Observer, is author of The Irish in America, Irish Rebel and Full of Grace: An Oral Biography of John Cardinal O'Connor.

Comments

Dan McGrath | 12/24/2002 - 12:35pm
I enjoyed your piece on SUVs, particularly the inflammatory language you used to describe the vehicles and their manufacturers. Social criticism is always more fun when imbued with fiery rhetoric.

I am as guilty as many Americans who claim ownership of an SUV, but in my case, the dangerous vehicle in question is Japanese--a Nissan. I also owned a Japanse pick-up truck, but sold it when my commute became longer and my gas bills much higher. And yes, I did feel guilty filling it up all the time. It boasted an impressive 16 miles per gallon.

While American companies may have been the first to take advantage of Americans' love affair with sheer size, horsepower and the often unnecessary 4-wheel drive, the Japanese, Germans and Swedes have been just as happy to grab their share of the market--albeit with much safer, car-like versions.

The real "guilt" here is with the people whose self image is improved by owning whatever the American marketing machine is peddling at any given moment. Right now, they're busy persuading us that we need large off-road vehicles in a Nation with perhaps the best highway system in the world. It's sad, really. And, in my view, the appropriate emotional response is compassion, not anger.

Larry Peplinski | 12/19/2002 - 2:20pm
Sir: It’s columns like this one by Mr. Golway that make my head explode. I know I’ve been told to never argue with idiots, I’m sorry, I meant reality challenged individuals. You never win because they have experience on their side and you’ll end up just looking bad. His tirade against the evils of SUV’s and their owners was all I could stand. He could have approached the subject in a much saner manner rather than with hysterical ravings. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, “Can’t we drive simply so that others can simply drive”. But no, he chooses to go off the deep end. Let me quote, “I discovered to my horror that this armored personnel carrier…” I believe you’ll find that a Hummer is no more “armored” than his beloved econoboxes. Then he places the blame for SUV’s at the feet of the three U.S. automakers when in fact there are more than just three companies building cars in America, not to mention Europe, and all of them build some model of SUV or a derivative of one. Then he goes on to say that G.M. Ford and Chrysler couldn’t compete with Japan so they created the SUV market. Guess what, G.M. introduced the Suburban in 1947. SUV’s became popular because they served a purpose. They carry more people or stuff than a simple car will. It’s that utility thing. Not to mention that a big vehicle is often times the only one that a big person can fit into. Anyway, then he calls the SUV, “the bane of America’s highways, the killer of drivers and passengers in saner and smaller cars, the greatest homegrown threat to national security”. As is the case of such people, they misdirect the result of an action from the person using or operating an inanimate object to the inanimate object itself. Just the other day I was walking through a mall parking lot and was attacked by a SUV. It didn’t even use a gun. It didn’t need to. It was after all, an SUV. I feared for my life. Oh please won’t some political agency save us. Think about the children. Come on now. I also found the intent of his statement towards Hummer ownership, and in effect, SUV ownership of any kind funny, “I’m too enlightened to have such a vehicle as you have so your ownership of one is threatening to me. Oh yeah, you’re exhibiting reckless individualism and you make grotesque choices”. I also wish he had explained his notion about how gas consumption, in a legal fashion, can be treasonous. So much of his misdirection seems to be based on a book by someone with a political axe to grind. Let me ask you, if you were to build a vehicle based on a light truck frame or platform, what else would you call it? It all boils down to a matter of choice in a free market society. And power. People like Mr. Golway would appear to want the power to limit or deny your choices in the market place. Limiting what you can freely buy because he doesn’t approve. And oh, by the way, I don’t even own a SUV if one was to assume I’m being overly protective and I also sat and waited in so many lines at the gas pumps during the seventies because of the so-called gas shortage.
Dan McGrath | 12/24/2002 - 12:35pm
I enjoyed your piece on SUVs, particularly the inflammatory language you used to describe the vehicles and their manufacturers. Social criticism is always more fun when imbued with fiery rhetoric.

I am as guilty as many Americans who claim ownership of an SUV, but in my case, the dangerous vehicle in question is Japanese--a Nissan. I also owned a Japanse pick-up truck, but sold it when my commute became longer and my gas bills much higher. And yes, I did feel guilty filling it up all the time. It boasted an impressive 16 miles per gallon.

While American companies may have been the first to take advantage of Americans' love affair with sheer size, horsepower and the often unnecessary 4-wheel drive, the Japanese, Germans and Swedes have been just as happy to grab their share of the market--albeit with much safer, car-like versions.

The real "guilt" here is with the people whose self image is improved by owning whatever the American marketing machine is peddling at any given moment. Right now, they're busy persuading us that we need large off-road vehicles in a Nation with perhaps the best highway system in the world. It's sad, really. And, in my view, the appropriate emotional response is compassion, not anger.

Larry Peplinski | 12/19/2002 - 2:20pm
Sir: It’s columns like this one by Mr. Golway that make my head explode. I know I’ve been told to never argue with idiots, I’m sorry, I meant reality challenged individuals. You never win because they have experience on their side and you’ll end up just looking bad. His tirade against the evils of SUV’s and their owners was all I could stand. He could have approached the subject in a much saner manner rather than with hysterical ravings. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, “Can’t we drive simply so that others can simply drive”. But no, he chooses to go off the deep end. Let me quote, “I discovered to my horror that this armored personnel carrier…” I believe you’ll find that a Hummer is no more “armored” than his beloved econoboxes. Then he places the blame for SUV’s at the feet of the three U.S. automakers when in fact there are more than just three companies building cars in America, not to mention Europe, and all of them build some model of SUV or a derivative of one. Then he goes on to say that G.M. Ford and Chrysler couldn’t compete with Japan so they created the SUV market. Guess what, G.M. introduced the Suburban in 1947. SUV’s became popular because they served a purpose. They carry more people or stuff than a simple car will. It’s that utility thing. Not to mention that a big vehicle is often times the only one that a big person can fit into. Anyway, then he calls the SUV, “the bane of America’s highways, the killer of drivers and passengers in saner and smaller cars, the greatest homegrown threat to national security”. As is the case of such people, they misdirect the result of an action from the person using or operating an inanimate object to the inanimate object itself. Just the other day I was walking through a mall parking lot and was attacked by a SUV. It didn’t even use a gun. It didn’t need to. It was after all, an SUV. I feared for my life. Oh please won’t some political agency save us. Think about the children. Come on now. I also found the intent of his statement towards Hummer ownership, and in effect, SUV ownership of any kind funny, “I’m too enlightened to have such a vehicle as you have so your ownership of one is threatening to me. Oh yeah, you’re exhibiting reckless individualism and you make grotesque choices”. I also wish he had explained his notion about how gas consumption, in a legal fashion, can be treasonous. So much of his misdirection seems to be based on a book by someone with a political axe to grind. Let me ask you, if you were to build a vehicle based on a light truck frame or platform, what else would you call it? It all boils down to a matter of choice in a free market society. And power. People like Mr. Golway would appear to want the power to limit or deny your choices in the market place. Limiting what you can freely buy because he doesn’t approve. And oh, by the way, I don’t even own a SUV if one was to assume I’m being overly protective and I also sat and waited in so many lines at the gas pumps during the seventies because of the so-called gas shortage.
Peter J. Kennedy Jr. | 1/31/2007 - 9:37am
Terry Golway’s attack on the “Humvee” phenomenon (“An S.U.V. on Steroids,” 12/23/02) hits close to the mark. But while (rightfully) criticizing the makers of S.U.V.’s and their enablers in Congress, Mr. Golway unfortunately neglects the demand side of the equation: U.S. consumers who have been happily buying these vehicles in large numbers for the last decade. That includes U.S. Catholics. Check out the parking lot of your average suburban parish on any Sunday morning. Needless to say, if consumers stopped buying these behemoths the market would disappear, and Detroit would get the message in good time.

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