Leland Teschler's Editorial: Back to the future of the 1970s

June 5, 2008
For our anniversary my wife wanted to go someplace expensive, so we went to a gas station.

When that joke made the rounds recently it dawned on me that I’d heard it before — in the 1970s. It was then that the inflation-adjusted price of crude oil was well on its way toward the same altitude it occupies today. In the intervening years, the economy has become more energy efficient. We now get a greater output per unit of crude oil consumed, but the jokes are still with us.

On that score, readers who were not around to experience the 70s don’t know what they missed. Looking back, it is easy to find unintentional humor in the news stories of those days. For example, consider a passage from a 1974 edition of the Wall Street Journal that said, “The rapid growth of nuclear power over the next two decades is viewed as virtually assured.” Then there’s Treasury Secretary William Simon who was met with incredulity when he stated his belief that world oil prices would someday come down.

There are a lot of things about the 1970s besides jokes that would have a familiar ring. For example, take the well-known straits of the U.S. automakers. It’s nothing new. Consider this from the same WSJ edition by an auto analyst wringing his hands over car sales: “It looks as though half the dealerships in the country have stopped selling cars,” and, “You have to go all the way back to the 1930s to find it like this. I don’t know how long things can go on deteriorating.”

Little did he know that things would continue to deteriorate over the next 35 years for U.S. automakers, at least in terms of their U.S. market share.

Nor were politicians of the day any better at dealing with energy issues than their counterparts in 2008. One of the big legislative debates was whether to raise the 4-cent/gallon federal gas excise tax as a means to cut energy consumption. (It is now at 18.4 cents.) This idea was part of something called Project Independence which was aimed at severing the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Yeah, that really worked.

The experience of buying a car in the 1970s was not what it is today, at least if you were interested in a fuel-efficient model. The only high mpg vehicles back then were hatchbacks from foreign automakers. Unfortunately, dealers for Honda, Toyota, and the like knew they had a lock on the fuel-efficient market. That’s why my own experience trying to purchase a fuel-efficient car was less than pleasant. Not only was the dealer uninterested in negotiating, his whole take-it-orleave- it attitude about the transaction was downright snotty.

Of course, arrogance in auto dealers are still with us. Perhaps the most visible indication of this comes from dealerships handling the Smart USA fortwo coup now reaching American shores. Getting in line to buy the little 1,800-lb, 41-mpg car costs $99. The fee gets applied to the purchase price. Of course, the waiting list is up to a year and a half long. Chalk it up to lessons not learned in the 1970s.

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