I Hate 1984

The music and movies were epochal. The politics were abysmal. A poison valentine to the year that won't go away.

not ask Donna Rice! (Oops, there's that sexual subtext again.)

Wendy's featured Clara in numerous commercials, even using her croaky, exasperated utterance on a 45 record, performed and recorded with a guy named Coyote McCloud on the Awesome Record Label.

It seemed the only thing America loved more than cute little kids sassing off to their less-intelligent parents were spit-fired old ladies who told it like it was. Dr. Ruth Westheimer, The Golden Girls, Angela Lansbury solving murders left and right: The mid-'80s was when the grannies threw down their knitting needles and kicked some TV ratings ass!

Sadly, America's love affair with Clara and her catchphrase waned when she did a commercial for Prego Plus spaghetti sauce and declared, "I found it!" (She was talking about the beef, of course.) Wendy's fired the beefeater, and their spokesperson sternly declared, "Clara can find the beef in only one place."

The four-foot, eleven-inch pitchwoman died two years later. In 1989, Wendy's folksy founder Dave Thomas began a 13-year ad campaign that ended with his death in 2002. On a happier note, you can still hear Coyote McCloud hosting the morning show on Oldies 96.3, a Nashville radio station.

 

The Minivan

Beth Hawkins

IN 1984, I WAS LIVING IN ST. PAUL, HOME FROM college on a year's break, trying to make some money. I waitressed the early shift in a diner not far from the Ford plant and suffered daily abuse from some swing-shift assembly line workers who had figured out that I drove a Honda Civic.

Every morning the same four guys came in, ate the same eggs-and-potatoes configurations, repeated the same harangue about how I was personally responsible for their lack of overtime, and stiffed me. I was too scared to stand up to them, or to the diner's skinflint owner, who kept finding creative ways to dip into our inadequate tips. It was a very long year.

But that Civic was great. Ten years old, it cost me a few hundred bucks and just chugged along despite its overabundance of personality. It was rusted to the point where the frame was exposed in several places, and featured a manual transmission that no longer matched up to the five-spoked map on the knob of the gearshift. Consequently, you had to shift by feel. I didn't have the goods to prove it, but I understood instinctively that Ford would never build anything as flat-out magical. I also understood that to the factory workers, I was a living token of something very bad indeed.

The gas shortages of the 1970s were fading from the public's consciousness, but Detroit was still depressed, and the Big Three were still avoiding the effort and expense of turning out well-designed, fuel-efficient compact cars. Nor were they doing much to comply with the Clean Air Act of 1974, which required that the average gas mileage of an automaker's entire fleet keep getting higher, and toxic emissions lower.

Instead, we got Pacers and Gremlins, Horizons, and the Dodge Aspen--rolling insults, not cars. Parts started falling off at 15,000 miles. Windows crashed down into window wells. Many still had rear-wheel drive, and consequently couldn't be driven two feet in the lightest of snowfalls.

You'd think that Lee Iacocca (the first of the name-brand CEOs, let's pause to note) would be up nights personally disassembling a Toyota Corolla to see how the thing held together. Clever Iacocca had moved on, though, and was instead banking on the minivan.

It was actually 1983 when the very first 1984 minivans rolled off Chrysler's assembly line in Windsor, Canada, directly across the river from Detroit. The vans were boxy, came in a narrow array of flat colors, and sported a front grill modeled on the ugly and doomed K-Car.

Ostensibly, the appeal of the minivan was its carlike feel, eight-person capacity, and ability to fit into a family garage. But its real genius was that it was essentially built onto a truck chassis, and for the most part trucks don't count toward an automaker's fuel efficiency statistics. When the Clean Air Act was first passed, there were only 20 million trucks on the road, and most of them were in commercial use, so Congress exempted them from the environmental standards imposed on cars. Somehow, Chrysler managed to convince regulators that the burgundy and sky-blue Voyagers and Caravans counted as trucks.

In the intervening 20 years, Detroit has figured out how to strap many, many things onto truck chassis, and has batted back what few attempts Washington has made to prop up the ailing Clean Air Act. It's not too far-fetched to think that without the demands of the large markets in California and Texas, which are under tremendous pressure to reduce smog, the American economy car would be as dead as a four-year-old Eagle Talon.

Which would suit Detroit just fine. In relative terms, there is no profit in economy cars. Their higher engineering costs, government-mandated safety features, and the expensive but lightweight aluminum parts that allow for their high gas mileage all make them comparatively costly to produce. And then they sell for tens of thousands less than a full-size luxury sedan.

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