RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Sell Me a Car, Detroit

With all my bombast about buying local, I have trouble when it comes to the big products like computers, refrigerators, farm equipment and the like. After all, I admit that my neighbor can’t build me, say, a telephone or even a radio, and I use them every day, so how to decide where to vote with my dollars?

And, most majorly, there’s the automotive issue. If I lived in a place that had good public transportation, problem solved. But we’re miles from a good paved road and hundreds of miles from a city.

So you’d think I’d be in line for a new American car. And by American I mean one made by one of Detroit’s big three—GM, Ford or Chrysler. I know there are plenty of “foreign” assembly plants in the South, and maybe they’ve even got labor unions, but we should look at manufactured goods the same way we look at food and fiber. How much loyalty do the producers have to the principles, people and places we care about? Where are the decisions made about what goes into the product, how the workers are treated? What about the environment? And how far do the products travel to get here?

What if there’s a deep, global recession, God forbid, and they need to downsize? Who gets cut? What communities suffer? Well, what would you cut if you were making the decisions?

And, if there’s just a shallow, local recession and they have to just cut a little? What would you cut?

And, who gets “their” profits? Who holds “their” shares?

When it comes to the big industries, I think we need to keep them. So, you can call me protectionist, and how did that word get such a bad rap? But, for the purpose of this column “American car” means one of the big three.

Wait: Can we still call Chrysler one, now that Chrysler’s half Italian? OK, you win, one of the big two.

So let’s say I need a new car, and I’ve decided to shop for a GM or Ford. First, they need to build one for me. They need to show they’re listening, and not just to the NASCAR set. Me: the mom, grandma and errand runner.

Back in 2001, I bought a Japanese car, trading a Ford Explorer for a Honda Insight hybrid. It has been a trouble-free ride. We just rolled over 100,000 miles and celebrated her eighth birthday. With an average of 57.8 miles per gallon, I won’t trade her in for a long time. The batteries are guaranteed for another 25,000 miles and, according to other Insight owners, shouldn’t be a problem for miles after that.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I have another ride. My other vehicle is a Ford F-150 that gets slightly better mileage than the old Explorer got. We bought it for the farm because we need to haul stuff and pull trailers. And it has a club cab, so that’s the four-seater I need now and then. We got it used and have added about 5,000 miles a year to the speedometer.

In purchasing the F-150, we tried every American truck available and studiously avoided the Honda and Toyotas because, yes, we were being protectionists. But Detroit made it as hard as possible, rolling out ever more behemoth vehicles. There was, under the Bush administration, a big tax credit for folks that bought ridiculously large trucks, even trucks with extra sets of wheels.

Call it the midlife crisis era of the American auto industry, when I see one of those parked on the street, I can’t help but giggle at the way it sticks out from the curb. I couldn’t get into one without a ladder. And forget about pulling something out of the truck bed without climbing into it! With women farmers the only healthy growth sector in the USDA’s incessant surveys, you’d think Detroit would get a clue and make something we can use!

Over the lifetime of my Honda, we’ve burned about 1,730 gallons of gasoline. I always fill up at the 10% ethanol pump, so I guess it’s really been 170 gallons ethanol and the balance in fossil fuel, and there’s that unanswerable question about how much fossil fuel goes into each gallon of ethanol, but you get the picture.

Since about one-third of a car’s lifetime energy use goes into building the thing, there’s a point where it doesn’t make sense, energy wise, to trade at all. I see a few of those old Ford Explorers on the road, but they haven’t aged well. If I’d stayed in the Ford Explorer, getting around 15 mpg, I’d have burned 6,900 gallons of gas. So, I’ve saved 5,100 gallons, more or less. The price of gas was hovering around $1.25 in 2001, but then it started to creep up, and then to soar. Looking at the Department of Energy averages for each year, the lifetime average has been $2.17 per gallon, so, dollar-wise, I’ve saved more than $10,000.

Not bad for a car that invoiced at $19,000. So, Detroit, come and get me. Make a car that beats what I’ve got, and I’ll sign on the dotted line.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2009

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