The phrase “bankrupt General Motors,” which we expect to hear uttered on Monday, leaves Americans my age in economic shock. The words are as melodramatic as “Mom’s nude photos.” And, indeed, if we want to understand what doomed the American automobile, we should give up on economics and turn to melodrama.
Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn’t a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in the carbon. It’s a tragic romance—unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses.
Foremost are the horses. Cars can’t be comprehended without them. A hundred and some years ago Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Ballad of the King’s Jest,” in which an Afghan tribesman avers: Four things greater than all things are,—Women and Horses and Power and War.
Insert another “power” after the horse and the verse was as true in the suburbs of my 1950s boyhood as it was in the Khyber Pass.
Horsepower is not a quaint leftover of linguistics or a vague metaphoric anachronism. James Watt, father of the steam engine and progenitor of the industrial revolution, lacked a measurement for the movement of weight over distance in time—what we call energy. (What we call energy wasn’t even an intellectual concept in the late 18th century—in case you think the recent collapse of global capitalism was history’s most transformative moment.) Mr. Watt did research using draft animals and found that, under optimal conditions, a dray horse could lift 33,000 pounds one foot off the ground in one minute. Mr. Watt—the eponymous watt not yet existing—called this unit of energy “1 horse-power.”
In 1970 a Pontiac GTO (may the brand name rest in peace) had horsepower to the number of 370. In the time of one minute, for the space of one foot, it could move 12,210,000 pounds. And it could move those pounds down every foot of every mile of all the roads to the ends of the earth for every minute of every hour until the driver nodded off at the wheel. Forty years ago the pimply kid down the block, using $3,500 in saved-up soda-jerking money, procured might and main beyond the wildest dreams of Genghis Khan, whose hordes went forth to pillage mounted upon less oomph than is in a modern leaf blower.
Horses and horsepower alike are about status and being cool. A knight in ancient Rome was bluntly called “guy on horseback,” Equesitis. Chevalier means the same, as does Cavalier. Lose the capitalization and the dictionary says, “insouciant and debonair; marked by a lofty disregard of others’ interests, rights, or feelings; high-handed and arrogant and supercilious.” How cool is that? Then there are cowboys—always cool—and the U.S. cavalry that coolly comes to their rescue plus the proverbially cool-handed “Man on Horseback” to whom we turn in troubled times.
Continue here (Wall Street Journal, dated 30 May 2009)