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Saturday Morning Flashback 1979 - Embarrassing automobiles and malaise

The Wall Street Journal has just published a review of Kevin Mattson's new book, "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" The title, taken from a New York Post headline, looks back at America in 1979, and specifically focuses on President Jimmy Carter's now infamous "malaise speech." Frank Gannon, the WSJ's book reviewer, writes:

On July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter spoke to the nation from the Oval Office about the energy crisis then gripping America. The address has become known as "the malaise speech" even though Mr. Carter never once spoke the "m" word ...

Mr. Carter had already tried to raise consciousness about energy with a speech two years earlier, in April 1977. "This difficult effort," he said then, "will be the moral equivalent of war." Moral equivalent of war led to the unfortunate acronym MEOW, which seemed especially apt when neither congressional action nor ­public mobilization ensued.


Jimmy Carter was elected largely because he promised never to lie to the American people. Of all the ­un-Nixons on offer in 1976--the ­Democratic primary field included Sens. Frank Church and "Scoop" ­Jackson--Mr. Carter was the most convincing. But his administration never seemed to gel managerially; most of his programs went nowhere legislatively; and he turned out to be aloof and a little prickly. (He confided to his diary: "It's not easy for me to accept criticism and to reassess my ways of doing things.") Democratic leaders worried that Mr. Carter was turning into Nixon, but without the charm. By 1978, a movement to draft Ted Kennedy for the 1980 presidential race was flourishing. By May 1979, Vice President Walter Mondale was contemplating resigning.


The national TV address was ­delivered on a Sunday night. The ­initial reaction was positive. Mr. Carter 's approval ratings--which had been lower than Nixon's during ­Watergate--rose 11% overnight. But only two days later, having conveyed the impression that he was on top of things, the president peremptorily fired most of his cabinet. Washington was agog and America was aghast at this Tuesday Morning Massacre. By the end of July, 71% of Americans polled agreed with the statement that President Carter "may well not have the basic competence to do the job."


How did the word "malaise" come to be attached to Mr. Carter's speech and somehow to sum up this sorry period? While the address was being formulated, numerous policy wonks and public moralists were consulted. Among them was the ultimate Washington insider, Clark Clifford. Several days before the speech was finalized and delivered, Clifford told an interviewer that Mr. Carter had been worried about a national "malaise." That word--so resonant, so unusual, so profound-sounding--was immediately fastened on by reporters and pundits.

A President who seems to be "aloof and a little prickly." Sound familiar? And we can only pray that much of our current President's agenda, specifically nationalized, single-payer health care, or anything that further balloons our already gargantuan national debt, goes "nowhere" legislatively. Anyway, here is the "malaise" speech, officially entitled the "Crisis of Confidence" speech, delivered on July 15, 1979:


With all the talk about "new GM" and "new Chrysler", new fuel efficiency standards, hybrids, electric cars, and everything else that seems to have created a rather dense cloud of uncertainty about exactly what kind of vehicles we will be able to buy in five years, I thought it also might be fun to turn the time machine back to 1979 and take a look at the compromises Detroit was having to make in order to keep Americans from defecting to Toyota and Honda and Datsun and Volkswagen, whose cars were selling like hotcakes at the time.

Cheaper materials (especially plastics and vinyls), thin body metal, emissions controls that suffocated engines and killed performance, and grossly undersized power plants were just some of the problems that plagued the poorly-constructed, downsized vehicles that a seemingly clueless Detroit began to turn out during the mid to late 1970's.

Advertisements for American-made cars seemed to fall into two distinct categories -- fuel efficiency (unbelievably optimistic gas mileage estimates for bigger cars, newly-downsized versions of popular models, or new mid-sized and compact models) and luxury (over-styled full-size automobiles whose ads always featured beautiful, smartly-dressed models or actors in picturesque or elite locales, and never mentioned gas mileage). American car manufacturers still dominated the market for enormous, gas-guzzling land yachts, but even those automobiles suffered from severe under-powering (like GM's anemic small-block V-8 that, in an Oldsmobile Delta 88, could get you from 0 to 60 in just under 15 minutes, or their failed attempt at refitting their gasoline V-8's as diesel engines).

So, for your enjoyment, here are a couple of vintage 1979 car ads. Enjoy the memories ... and ask yourself if what we will be driving in five years will be better or worse than what we had to put up with 30 years ago -- "Malaisemobiles."




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Comments (8)

I was riding my bicycle and... (Below threshold)

I was riding my bicycle and driving a Volvo then. I also voted for Carter. I learned from that experience. Looking back is not a pretty reminder for what followed into the economy of the early 80's.

The Cadillac Seville and Li... (Below threshold)
Paul Hooson:

The Cadillac Seville and Lincoln Versailles were two interesting examples of problematic luxury cars back then. The Cadillac Seville used a complicated V8-6-4 technology that was supposed to shut down cylinders once the car got moving, however this was a very controversial technology among consumers. However, the Seville had a very intriguing styling with a sloping back roof-line. The Lincoln Versailles was a less good experiment. The compact Ford Grenada body was used as a basis for the Versailles, which became like a luxury version of the Versailles for a huge price tag. But besides that, the car used a troublesome four wheel disc brake system that was very expensive to repair and these cars often spent much time at the dealers for this repair work, costing owners a great deal of money.

I once had an opportunity to buy a Versailles for a very good price, however my brother had extensive experience working at two Ford dealerships and strongly urged me to not buy the car, and to look to most any other Ford product instead.

The Cadillac Cimarron was not mentioned here. But this car came a few years later, and was basically a Chevy Cavalier at three times the price. Not everything represented as a Cadillac or Lincoln product was always worthy of those grand nameplates. We once owned a fine 1972 Lincoln Continental and a 1967 Chrysler New Yorker. Either of those huge land-yachts were indeed true luxury cars compared to some econobox nonsense sometimes bearing a Lincoln or Cadillac nameplate.

Hi Paul,You're rig... (Below threshold)

Hi Paul,

You're right, there were a lot of misfires back in those days, and I plan on posting more of these old car ads in the future. I've got more diesel GM car ads, Chrysler ads, station wagon ads, Honda and Toyota ads, and some Cadillac ads hyping V-8-6-4. Found 'em in some old National Geographic magazines.

The Cadillac Cimmaron was introduced in 1981 for the 1982 model year, so they came a little after the Carter era. They were not bad cars, but Cadillac buyers had no difficulty figuring out that they were nothing more than overpriced Chevy Cavaliers loaded down with expensive extras and powered by a puny inline 4 cylinder engine.

I still remember my Delta 88, inherited from my dad, with its sad little 307 V8. It's the only car I've ever owned where you could push the accelerator all the way to the floor, and ... nothing. Literally nothing, except a soft lunge forward and a gradual (about 1 mph per second) climb in speed. You had to start accelerating a mile ahead if you wanted to pass another car on the highway. Other than the engine, it was a nice car, and never gave me any mechanical trouble.

One more thing, that Cadillac ad is the first one (chronologically) I've come across that features a photo of a family posing with the car. The older ads featured just the car (always from the side, so they looked as long as possible) or the car with an elegantly dressed 40-something couple standing nearby. It's interesting that by 1979, Detroit was forced to market the Cadillac as a family travel car, rather as a luxury sedan for the country club crowd.

Thanks for the trip down me... (Below threshold)
Jeff Blogworthy:

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. B.O. fancies himself a Lincoln (no pun intended) but there is no doubt he is Carter two, squared. He is well on his way to going down as one of history's worst presidents.

> ... their failed attem... (Below threshold)

> ... their failed attempt at refitting their gasoline V-8's as diesel engines).

Wanna clarify something for those of you who weren't around at the time. He's not talking about GM installing diesel engines in cars that normally took gasoline engines. GM tried to convert or rebuild gasoline engines into diesel engines.

It did not work well...

Paul, speaking of the Ford ... (Below threshold)

Paul, speaking of the Ford Granada, do you remember those ridiculous commercials that challenged viewers to tell the difference between a Ford Granada and a Mercedes-Benz 280SE? American car company idiocy at its finest. Watch:


By the end of July, 1979, 7... (Below threshold)

By the end of July, 1979, 71% of Americans polled agreed with the premise that the room-temerature IQ equipped Jimmah Carter lacked the basic competence to do "the job."

And compared to the moronic marijuana-mumbling barely out of diapers dunce now besquatting and bemanuring our once most hallowed house, the hapless Jimmah Carter was/is intelligent.

Brian Richard Allen
Los Angeles Califobambicated 90028
And the Far Abroad

Can anyone remeber the AMY ... (Below threshold)

Can anyone remeber the AMY DEBATES about his duaghter AMY and what about his encounter with the savage rabbit? CARTER was a stupid bumbbling incompetent and a idiot as well






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