Wed May 30th, 2007 at 05:36:16 PM EST
When I was at the University of Minnesota, I had a job working in a consumer-level auto parts store--batteries, starters, exhaust systems, shocks, and other automotive consumables. But it was 1969-70, the heyday of automotive muscle-car exuberance, so we also sold "speed" parts like oversized carburetors.
To get hired, I had lied a bit about my automotive knowledge, so I spent those quiet winter evenings wandering through the parts catalogues to see what I could learn. It was an astonishing experience. The size and complexity of the automotive industry is simply mind-blowing.
My brother-in-law was an engineer for Boeing and tends to disparage the automobile industry as a "bunch of blacksmiths." Not me. Car makers may not work with such exotic materials as the flyboys, but their manufacturing scale is orders of magnitude larger and more complex. Just the problem of moving all those parts around and keeping track of them gives much credence to the idea that making cars is still the hardest manufacturing problem on earth. As I discovered, merely selling the right part so the guy lying under his car in the snow has a starter that fits is a big enough problem.
I DID learn enough to cover my job interview statements in a few months and by then, I had started a lifelong infatuation with the art of automotive production. Eventually, I would discover that solving such an impossibly difficult problem had all sorts of ramifications from city planning to resource depletion to economics.
Cars are also expensive. They may be wonderful things to have but making a wrong car decision can literally lead to financial ruin. Since we Nordics seem to have a predisposition towards taking care of our mechanical devices, that became my strategy for low-cost transportation. I came into possession of a 1984 Saab in 1991 that seemed to have been especially well-assembled. It already had 125,000 miles on the odometer but I figured it could last me until 500,000 with some enlightened attention.
But last August, it was caught in the hailstorm that hit my home town. I wanted to fix my old friend but my significant other insisted it was time for something else and it took until April to consider a replacement. But you have to have a car in Minnesota just to EAT. 35 years of agitating for alternatives has not gotten me an alternative. So I now have a 1996 Lexus 400 LS with 117k on the clock. It is in MINT condition. And it cost a LOT less than the new compact cars you see these days. AND I got 28.1 mpg on the third tank of gas.
We will see if this is a low-cost form of transportation. We will see if I can replicate my last long-lasting automobile. Did a lot of searching to find this gem.
In Veblenian terms, this was an affordable car because the price for status emulation has disappeared and what remains is a Japanese manifestation of the instinct of workmanship. But it is still very much a rich man's car. A woman I know, who used to write for the Minneapolis Tribune, says I look like an "industrial baron" in my Lexus. Probably would have made a good one too if the times had been right. Oh well, at least now I know why the rich are so arrogant.
Us lifelong environmentalists must have a BUNCH of reasons to drive a big Lexus. Of course, being 190 cm tall sort of dictates driving a big car. No matter--enjoy the rationalizations. I LIKE being mistaken for a man of substance.
By FAR the best part of the Lexus is the silence. 52 db at 62 mph (100 kph). This means a person can actually listen to classical music in a CAR!!! Of course it helps to have Nakamichi do the sound system. I was listening to Dvorak's tone poems from his stay in Spillville Iowa on the first drive. These compositions have a very wide dynamic range and it was possible to hear every note. And this on an 11 year old car!!! They sure don't make cars like they used to--THANK GOD!
Of course, a '96 will not play MP3 discs but will play computer-burned CDs. And with an inexpensive adapter, my iPod plugs into the cassette deck. In freaking credible. The 400 LS benefits from the very low background noise, but considering how difficult the space inside a car is to fill with sound, the presence is beyond WOW. Nice toy for your basic 240 kph, 7.1 sec 0-100 kph, car.
Of course, the REAL reason I want this car to be excellent is that it proves both Institutional Analysis as a methodology and my ability to do it. In Elegant Technology, I outlined the institutional reasons why a Toyota was superior in every meaningful way to a Rolls Royce in the notes for Chapter Eight on Tools. I wrote in 1986, "Toyota has also proven that once it has learned how to make a cheap car better than an expensive car, making an expensive car better than anything on the planet is only a matter of time." There was NO way I could have known that Toyota was designing the top secret Lexus 400 LS--it didn't go on sale until 1990. Yet Institutional Analysis predicted that it would happen.
Keep in mind that Lexus as an operation offering cars for sale is younger than Elegant Technology (in Finnish). Toyota went up against the finest auto makers in the world including the oldest in Mercedes with only one weapon--superior build quality. It was an astonishing gamble. But it was a gamble they believed they could win because of things like the flagship Tahara plant.
So now they are cheap enough so a starving writer can own one. I drove about a dozen--what magnificent automobiles! I am NOT afraid of high-mileage cars. If I could get a Saab to run 296,000 miles, I think I should little trouble getting a 400 LS to last me the rest of my days. IF I got the right one. I think the 95-97 models are the best long-term prospects. The trick to making them affordable is to NEVER have anything go wrong that only can be fixed at the Lexus dealership.
I love the idea that I will be surrounded by these almost absurd levels of mechanical brilliance and I can justify it because it is rolling proof that I already knew how to do Institutional Analysis by the mid 1980s. Now I hope that I.A. plus the shopping tools of the "Intertubes" steered me to an excellent example.
When I wrote Elegant Technology in 1980s, I HAD answers to the complex problems of transportation and other resource / environmental dilemmas. Now I am becoming convinced there are none. The solutions I proposed were FAR too complex to be executed by the individual initiative crowd and most certainly not by clowns like Jack Welch. Then, Katrina proved beyond any reasonable doubt that governments--at least in USA--are utterly incompetent to undertake difficult tasks. Imagine not being able to maintain something as simple as a levee!!!?
So I must take whatever pleasure I can spending my old age saying "I told you so" over and over. Oh, and burning the remains of the fossil fuels in style. The 1996 400 LS has exactly the same EPA ratings as my good friend's Volvo. So it's a V8 with a top speed over double the freeway speed limit--this is about style points. If the apocalypse is inevitable, the concerned citizens have to organize the kiss-your-ass-goodbye parties. I know someone who is writing the party music.
The Saab the day I sold it--hail dents and all. This car made it through 23 Minnesota winters and was driven the eqivilent of almost 12 trips around the world. Taking good care of machinery has its rewards.