Last week, the news was full of stories about the demise of Detroit. General Motors went into bankruptcy, joining Chrysler, which was already there. Only Ford was still more or less OK, and that was only by comparison with its sickly brethren.
There was plenty of learned analysis about how all of this came to pass, but as far as I'm concerned, it all started when nobody wanted to sell my wife and me a 1973 Plymouth Duster.
Even if you're my age, you may not remember the Duster. It was a variant of and later successor to the Plymouth Valiant, Chrysler's entry in the early compact car sweepstakes. And like many of its competitors – the Ford Maverick, say – it's not on anybody's list of most memorable American automobiles. (That's not necessarily a bad thing. The most memorable early Detroit compact was the Chevrolet Corvair, and look how that turned out.)
But in 1973, our secondhand 1967 Opel Cadet – made in Germany and sold through GM's Buick dealerships, if memory serves – was on its last legs. A friend of ours had a Duster – slant-six engine, three-on-the-tree manual transmission – and while it was uncomfortable and ugly, it had also proved to be quite reliable and was more or less in our price range. So we limped over to the local Plymouth dealer in the Opel, seeking a Duster like his.
There we were greeted by a salesman, cigar clamped tightly in his teeth, who told us in so many words to get lost. They didn't have any basic Dusters on the lot, and they weren't interested in finding one for us. The salesman was interested in getting me to talk to his sales manager – my wife might as well have been invisible – and in extolling the virtues of various other vehicles (including Dusters with huge V-8 engines), all much more expensive.
After wasting a half-hour of his time and ours, we left and drove down the road, wondering what to do next. More or less on a whim, we stopped at a very small dealership that sold a Japanese brand we didn't know much about at the time: Toyota.
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