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Op-Ed

A noisy, boxy clunker

Memories of a junky car cause one vet to ponder whether George Romney's son, Mitt, would do any better serving the nation's poorer classes.

February 23, 2012|Jeff Danziger | Jeff Danziger's editorial cartoons appear in The Times and other newspapers
(RDA/Getty Images )

I was stationed at Ft. Bliss, Texas, in 1968 for a year at an Army language school learning Vietnamese. During the breaks in the endless memorization of the endless monosyllabic vocabulary, we would escape over the border to Juarez, Mexico, or out into the wasteland of west Texas to reclaim a bit of sanity. I met a family through a church group that invited me to their ranch on weekends. And I still bless them for their thoughtfulness.

The grand dame of the family was a wonderful Texas horsewoman who always needed work done around the place. I recruited one or two fellow soldiers, and we spent the weekends building hay shelters and fixing the barns and exercising her quarter horses. She had a garden where fresh chili peppers grew in abundance the year around, and she made the best chili rellenos on the planet.

I was fairly good at the language school, but many of the other troops were not. Vietnamese is a tonal language, spoken in a sing-song, up-and-down sort of way. One wrong tone and you've changed the meaning completely. It's a hard language for Americans. For draftees, hoping to forestall reassignment to the infantry, it was a struggle. I helped some of the other soldiers, not always for charitable reasons. One hopeless fellow turned out to be passable barber; another had family in El Paso that would feed us dinner; a third had the best of all trading materials: a car.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, February 24, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 17 Editorial Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
American Motors: The photo caption that ran with a Feb. 23 Op-Ed article about George Romney and an American Motors car described the vehicle pictured as a Rambler American. It was a Nash Metropolitan.

Which brings me to Mitt Romney. The car I borrowed frequently, in return for keeping its owner out of the infantry, was a Rambler American; a 1962 model, if I remember correctly. It was made by the worst carmaker in the country, and at the head of this disastrous corporation of seemingly blind designers and nonexistent quality control was Mitt's old man, George. It now makes sense to me. George Romney was a huckster and corporate juggler. He knew nothing about producing actual things, and he didn't care that he didn't know.

My friend's Rambler was a noisy, boxy clunker. The seats were shredded; the steering was nearly metaphysical. And then there was oil. It burned oil. It dripped oil. Lots of it. We would drive out to the ranch leaving a blue cloud of smoke legal only in Texas. The cloud swelled in a huge belch every time the engine slowed. This was a huge, threatening offshore fog of blue unburnt oil mist that could have been used to control tsetse infestations in Buganda. The fault was obviously that the engine was poorly made, of cheap alloys and assembled to tolerances of "looks OK to me," the standard at American Motors. As a consequence, the plugs fouled and the car started only with a four-man push or a roll down a steep hill, of which there were none in old El Paso.

George Romney's American Motors Corp. was a stitched-together mess of the Nash and Hudson car companies, neither brand bringing anything to the table but the embarrassment and loathing of its customers. To Romney's corporate mind the buyers of Ramblers -- people without much money -- were responsible for their own mistakes. Beyond the ability to move out of the showroom under their own power, the Ramblers promised no further miracles. Their resale value fell so quickly that the only people who wound up with them were people like my friend, whose father had given it to him to get it out of the driveway.

But the poor bedraggled old thing, light blue as I remember, would wobble out to the ranch on weekends, wheezing and groaning. We could eat chilies and ride horses and sleep outside on the mesa, and the war would be a world away. The Rambler's crankcase had to be constantly refilled.

Ah, but this was in west Texas, where oil and gas were cheap.

In mitigation, it must be pointed out that the Rambler did get us to the ranch and back many times. Without those weekends, I think I would have lost my mind. And the owner of the car, with my helpful tutoring, was able to complete the year and wasn't transferred to the infantry.

I hope he gave the car a decent burial. I personally believe that cars have souls and even the least favored among them, like many of us humans, deserve better ends than they get. They aren't responsible for their producers.

Studying Vietnamese focused my mind and made me think about the war in my future. Curiously, by that time old-man Romney had announced that he was against the war in Vietnam, something he had previously been much in favor of. He came back from a trip to the war zone and announced that he previously had been "brainwashed." That Freudian slippage cost him his run for the presidential nomination, and serious consideration for anything else. President Nixon disliked Romney so intensely that he appointed him secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

I have to side with Nixon on Romney. I had voted for Nixon, believing him when he promised a secret plan for ending the war. He was lying, of course, and by the time I figured it out, I was knee-deep in the rice paddies. But Bob Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, said that Nixon had given him explicit instructions concerning Romney. "Keep [him] away from me," Nixon growled.

In fact, most people remember George Romney with minimum high regard, and not only those who got stuck with his junky cars.

Mitt Romney tells us admiringly of scenes from his father's formative years. Maybe it is only for the political audience, and maybe Mitt would actually make better products for the poorer classes. You can believe that if you want. But when you had to drive a Rambler, you knew what class you were in. Automotive memories die hard.

Of course, you have to make your own decisions. Remember, I voted for Nixon.

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