Sunday, January 25, 2009

To all Ford Executives

Dear Sir or Madam,

I wish to make my opinions regarding the 1991 Mercury Sable station wagon currently owned by myself and my fiancée known to its’ creators and their business successors. It is a burgundy-colored vehicle with a 3.0 liter engine, automatic transmission, power locks and windows, the original cassette player and seats which, despite nearly two decades of use, remain attractive and comfortable. It seats six people, seven if some of them are small, and on several occasions I have employed its’ generous rear capacity for moving from one residence to the next and picking up large items.

In November of 2007, for example, I acquired a secondhand clothes washer and dryer, both of which fit in the back of the Sable at the same time, allowing my fiancée and I to pick up the items in only one short trip. One month previously, we drove the Sable from Morgantown, West Virginia to the South Park area of Pittsburgh to visit a haunted house. Three of our friends and my fiancée’s two siblings joined us for the trip, and despite the vehicle’s age and low roof, everyone had a lovely time. (It helped to have two friends of comparatively short stature who agreed to use the rear ‘jump’ seats.) Despite several opportunities, I have declined to replace my Sable with a more modern SUV –as an industrial engineer, I have come to believe that the higher ground clearance is a factor in rollover crashes and that lower cars are safer cars. I have also measured the interiors of some SUVs belonging to friends, and the inside capacity of the Sable defeats them all.

These are the positive opinions I have to offer you. I present them partly in the interest of fairness and partly because of the old maxim ‘if you can’t say something nice, best not to say anything at all.’

For the past four months, my fiancée and I have been struggling with a level of designer incompetence to rival the Tacoma Narrows Bridge as we have repaired our 1991 Mercury Sable’s brakes. The initial failure took place in mid-October, as we were returning with my fiancée’s godson and his mother from the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois to our apartment in Morgantown. With no prior warning, at night, in the middle of Ohio, our Sable lost all brake pressure and almost its’ entire capacity to stop. This was at highway speed, and it was only by virtue of my fiancée’s alertness and ability to downshift that three adults and a five-year-old child were not killed. After ascertaining that there was some kind of fluid leak, we managed to limp the vehicle to a service station, where, after three hours, we succeeded only in having a temporary ‘plug’ fitted for the rear right line. We made it home to Morgantown just as the sun rose and began the process of repairs the next day.

I am not a stupid man. I realize that many Americans would rather go deeply into debt, replace cars with the frequency of computers and trust the gaggle of grease-covered mechanics who do nothing but replace parts until something works. I am not the type of person who does this, however. When my car breaks down, I repair it myself; asking my fiancée for help if needed and consulting a mechanic only when the job requires tools I do not own (a category that dwindles in size every Christmas and birthday,) a full hydraulic lift, or more man-hours than I can comfortably spare in present circumstances. Engineers and college students tend to work on weekdays, and since my fiancée and I have yet to start a family, we usually find ourselves with more than enough time for our cars’ maintenance and repair. I’m lucky in that she shares my interest in automobiles, and at times she exceeds my capacity for patience with stubborn parts, persistent difficulties in diagnosis or frozen bolts.

This was not the case with the Sable’s brake repair this past afternoon. An otherwise polite and calm 22-year-old female, my fiancée lost patience with the Sable’s designers and their executive superiors and demanded a profoundly obscene retribution (using anatomical and mechanical terminology I had not been aware she possessed,) be extracted from their persons by means of a procedure I believe she invented on the spot out of sheer pique. I will not detail much of her remarkable expletive, except to remark that she seems certain that all Ford designers and executives are male, given the method of redress she described. I found this outburst alarming, to say the least (she has a gift for description which has more than once been the downfall of my mind’s eye,) but, given the situation which the Sable presented, perfectly understandable.

The frustration encountered this afternoon was the culmination of four months’ work, countless hours lost and more inconvenience than the vast majority of drivers would tolerate. After having made a complete and careful replacement of both rear brake lines (including innumerable blistered thumbs and the abject frustration that comes with the available flaring tools,) the master cylinder, both rear pressure cylinders and the rear brake shoes (I had the cover off and figured it would be a good time to do so,) it became patently clear that air remained somewhere in the Sable’s hydraulic system. We had bled the rear brakes to perfection, replaced every possible component in the system, and the conclusion reached was that the only possible place for air to hide was in the calipers of the front disc brakes.

Naturally, we had tried to bleed the front brake lines four months ago in Ohio. The obstacle to this was the fact that the Ford Motor Company, in an attempt to save some thirty cents per wheel eighteen years ago, had manufactured the bleed screws out of the preposterously soft and cheap alloy engineers in my trade know as ‘pig metal.’ Any and all attempts to loosen these nefarious products of executive greed and quality-cutting parsimony resulted in stripping, bits of metal and frustration. We had bled the brakes at the flexible line instead, and after exhausting all other locations from which air could possibly be bled out, we concluded, correctly, that the air lay within the caliper, trapped by the obstreperous pig-metal bleed screw that no power on Earth could move.

We tried everything. Conventional wrenches, specially-made hex nuts for the removal of stripped bolts, a drill-bit set intended for not only stripped bolts but headless ones, a welding torch…and this, of course, in the middle of a West Virginian January of some seventeen degrees Fahrenheit! We had worked constantly, at a minimum of three evenings a week on this repellent problem, waiting for parts to ship, flaring brake lines and threading steel tubing under a vehicle with “the approximate ground clearance of a golf cart, with the jack stands!” (my fiancée’s phrase,) all with increasing cold, frequent rain and now a persistent amount of snow. After replacing every other component in the brake system with the sole exception of the pedal, a thirty-cent bleed screw was the culprit. This same thirty-cent bleed screw which we could neither move, nor drill, nor cut away, was going to cost us thirty dollars per wheel and three hours more for a caliper replacement. Just for our car to stop and pass one of the easiest inspections in the United States, we had wasted months, and finally, at the moment when the Sable absolutely had to be repaired, a thirty-cent bleed screw?!

My good sir or madam, even if we allow you sixty cents’ cost for the screw by considering inflation, was it really so critical to your holy of holies, so obscenely offensive to your bottom line, that an extra thirty cents for steel wasn’t warranted? Have you never, in the course of what are undoubtedly happy lives, had to repair a car? Is there no snow where you live, and does it never rain? Are your finances so very lush that cars need only last as long as their mayfly-like warranty or do you somehow own slaves to do this kind of mechanical dirty work?

You who persist in maintaining that American cars are just as good as the Japanese, that the reason for the industry’s current appalling state is the failure of the American people to realize that your cars are just as good, I wish you well in your ignorance. The reason why the American people are turning their backs on you has nothing to do with gas prices or Union wages or even the fact that your ilk have worked harder against progress in the past fifty years and with more success than the Americans who invented the personal computer, cured forms of cancer and won world wars! The American people are not angry about the way electric vehicles were treated, the complete dismissal of biodiesel or the utter failure to consider their market preferences for the better part of a century. No, I tell you the American people have dismissed you because you have completely failed. Where it matters, you have cut off your noses to spite your face.

You created cars with wonderful longevity, excellent features and splendid looks –and so long as nobody dared require the cars to work or to last longer than the average cellular phone, your company did all right. There were enough people willing to sacrifice resale value, reliability, even safety for the patriotic smugness of ‘buying American’ even after you shipped the work out to Mexico. There were even people who liked your ungainly engines, your bizarre lines and the complete failures of basic engineering that have plagued your products since the Model T. Americans still liked you, even with all your faults.

But then you got crafty. You knew you couldn’t beat Toyota for reliability or Honda for quality, so you decided to go for price. You realized that the Bubba Joe git-er-done crowd was your best bet for the ‘buy American’ myth to work, so you priced your cars for the common man and designed your pickups to compensate for a Southern boy’s every shortcoming. You invested so heavily in aftermarket accessories with the house logo, in NASCAR sponsorships and in commercials so jingoistic that the propaganda artists of World War II were seen to have turned them off, that it was a miracle any American who wasn’t a Commie or a queer didn’t buy your cars –and you tried your damnedest to imply that anyone who didn’t was one of the above.

And in all that marketing, you loused up. You cut the costs on little, insignificant parts like brake bleeder screws, engine-mounting bolts, and spark plugs. You took the cheap shot on everything you thought a minivan mom from the suburbs wouldn’t see. Under all the shiny chrome, you built bumpers that could no more withstand a 5 mph crash than a canary could beat the Concorde. Behind all the talk of airbags and safety, you had a crash rate that compared unfavorably to that of military fatalities.

And what you neglected to remember, in your neurotic haste to please the Southern boys who still bought your junk, that some of us buy cars to work on ‘em. You forgot that your biggest fans were the guys who like when a tire blows and ask the wife to time them like it’s the pits at Daytona, the guys who rebuild engines, and the guys who replace their own damn brake lines. You didn’t consider what it would be like for a guy just a little while out of college who needs his old station wagon to run so his new-graduate fiancée can drive it to her first job. You didn’t think that a thirty-cent screw could destroy four months of a couple’s life, and you certainly didn’t think about the mechanics who always clean up your mess.

Well, this is one West Virginia boy who is done with Fords and their Mercury upgrades that fail when you need them most. I bought the Sable from my folks when I turned twenty and I hoped one day to teach my son how to work on it. I did manage to teach the woman who will quite shortly be my wife, and unfortunately for you, she’s angrier than I am.

She’s twenty-two and I’m twenty-seven. You do the math. We will probably live well into our nineties, and even assuming we quit driving at eighty-five, at an average of one new car every decade, you have lost ten potential sales. Considering that I will never be so abusive as to stick my kid with a Ford, I’d say more like twelve. That’s twelve times an average of thirty thousand dollars that your company has just lost, all because you tried to save a quarter per wheel on a stupid screw.

More than that, I’d say; you seem to have bought yourself a negative ad campaign for the next seventy-odd sale years. My fiancée’s already called her best friend to dish about the nightmare we’ve had today, and while her friend has a Mercury Mountaineer right now, after listening to the story, she’s thinking a Toyota sounds pretty good -another thirty thousand dollars you’ve flushed down the commode. Perhaps I didn’t mention that my fiancée is in advertising and one of the most persuasive, outgoing and funny women I’ve ever met. She’ll stop a stranger from buying a product she thinks is junk, just as she’ll tell a stranger to try something she thinks is great. I listened for five minutes to how she told her friend about your stupid brake-bleed screw before I had to leave the room and bite a towel to stop laughing. The way she tells a story, it sticks with you, and I have a nasty feeling she’s going to tell every friend and stranger from West Virginia to Doomsday just what she thinks of Fords.

It is not a pretty tale.

Now, some people would blame me for this whole mess, say it’s my fault I didn’t just by a newer car –and I’d agree, if my 1987 Honda weren’t easier than a kid’s toy to fix, as reliable as a new clock and so fun to drive, I took up pizza delivery for the lark of it. It’s brake cables are internal, I might add, and I’ve never had a moment’s trouble with the bleeder screws.

Other people might say this is just me trying to make you fix what you’ve already done screwed up, that an offer of new parts or a break on the price of a new Sable will shut my mouth and turn my fiancée into a regular flag-waving fan of Ford –if not their cars, then definitely their customer service. That’s generally how customer service works, you see, with the best companies taking complaint letters as an opportunity to get the best word of mouth for cheap. Beefing up the customer service or extending and expanding the warranty is a time-honored trick of American car makers for boosting sales when reliability reports or sales fall short of hopes.

And the Asian makes do it too. When Lexus had a recall in 1990 for their LS400 line, they went to the trouble of personally calling every owner and making the arrangements for the repairs. They also washed each car and filled the tank, so that when the owners picked their cars up, it felt like a ‘bonus’ instead of an inconvenience. Lexus was banking on the fact that the LS400, as a luxury car that was new on the market, would only be owned by the type of car enthusiasts that regular people would tend to listen to. They were right; Lexus has a great reputation for customer service to this day.

I don’t think the 1991 Mercury Sable is the type of car enthusiasts rave about, nor do I consider myself all that influential, but if you felt like sending me a pair of decent bleed screws, maybe my fiancée would be impressed that you tried, but it’s not likely. I’ve resigned myself to getting Hondas or Toyotas from now on, and she’s grudgingly agreed not to use the language she used while working on the Sable for describing its’ creators, at least when there’s the possibility of children or old people hearing it. As far as I’m concerned, your company is now irretrievable. If I didn’t need the Sable to last another three months, I’d gut the interior, put the comfy seats on eBay and sell the shell for scrap. (Shoot, if I wasn’t afraid of some other poor slob getting stuck with it, I’d donate it to charity.) If I owned any shares in your company, I would get the paper certificates printed and then sell them to my mother-in-law for $5 and a batch of brownies just to be rid of them.

The only reason I bothered to write you this letter and tell you what the real impact of your shabby design, shoddy parts and incomprehensibly bad products have been on a real customer and his family is so that you might have a snowball’s chance of changing your ways before they screw over someone else. After all, the economy’s getting worse, the bailout has a lot of hackles raised, and maybe the next guy who has to put up with your thirty-cent pig-metal bleed screws won’t have the sense to keep chocolate near his fiancée and anecdotes about American cars out of Congressional dinner parties –if only because of the language. I pity him the trouble and pain that I’ve just gone through, but if he decides to do more than write an angry letter, well, that’s his prerogative, your problem, and quite probably the best mix of justified vigilantism and schadenfreude since Catwoman fried Max Schreck.

I can promise you won’t meet any harm from my personal Selina Kyle, but unless you do a much better job in the future, I don’t have anything to look forward to but hilarious headlines, pity for your families and a sense of peace in my little red Honda.

Pig-metal bleed screws. Honestly!