Every Blue Moon or so, comes another heretofore unfathomable, unthinkable, damn near frightening moment that causes me to come to the stark realization that life as we know it has very likely just changed forever — and nothing will ever be the same.
The first of these moments I remember came in the Seventies when somebody came up with the bright idea you could actually charge people fees for stuff that had previously been free forever: bank checking accounts, airline seat selection, air for automobile tires, television, etc. The next tipping moment came very quickly thereafter when somebody else figured out that you could actually get away with this ‘fee instead of free’ gambit! Thus was the beginning of a bumpy slide down a slippery slope and life really hasn’t been the same since. We learned the best things in life ain’t free after all.
Tipping point moments are not always immediately obvious. Oftentimes you can tell something’s afoot though, because as part of the ambient noise in the immediate vicinity you hear “Well, I NEVER thought I’d see the day when ….” Tipping points are often better seen in hindsight. Long after they are over, historians point back and say “This was one moment that things changed.” Or that “…an era is over.”
Methinks another of these historic moments may have come quietly last week. The Ford Motor Company, the same folks who have used the slogan “Ford Tough” announced the F-150 pick-up truck will no longer be made mostly of steel but rather mostly of aluminum.
If you’ve purchased – or even tried to secure long term financing for– a pack of razor blades lately, you have to believe the rising cost of steel to be a chief reason for Ford’s decision. Ford swears this is not the case, however. Instead, the company insists the exchange of aluminum for steel is because the former is lighter and the new design shaves a whopping 700 pounds of weight off the new vehicle. The aluminum vehicle should see a 20% increase in gasoline efficiency, they say.
I get it. I do – but 700 pounds is a lot of weight and you can’t help but wonder whether the thing will stay upright when driving through one of those notorious I-285 30 mph Spring crosswinds. Or maybe you figure Ford is going to offer a Mast and Mainsail Option Package so you can increase gas mileage by hoisting sail and tacking the pick-up truck down the causeway even in light winds! ‘Avast thar ye matey’!
Tipping point moments are not without some peril. They invariably cause me to have to re-think the way I relate to the thing that’s just been tipped over– -or to re-think whether or not I buy what the ‘tipster’ is selling at all. Tipping point moments also cause me to have temporary ‘dinosaur-itis’. Said differently, they sometimes temporarily turn me into a codger who complains about how things were so much better way back when. And while I know that many things — except Congress and customer service — is better today than it ever was, I still can’t help but wax nostalgic at these times.
Take this situation with Ford and steel. When I was a small boy, steel, like death and taxes, was a certainty! Steel was in everything — from construction hats to steel-toed boots to freight car wheels and even to plates in people’s heads. Galvanized steel was in backyard fences, stainless steel in innocuous kitchen appliances and even Superman was nicknamed ‘the Man of Steel’. In those days, when it seemed everybody –even doctors and other role models– smoked like chimneys, some company might have even offered stainless steel cigarettes. (OK, steel ‘loosies’ is a bit over the top, but the reader gets the point: steel components in every thing was a fact of life in the Fifties and Sixties.)
An example of the ‘certainty of steel’ was my Aunt Vera’s 1950’s era cake mixer. It was a large, solid, heavy affair that surely must have been carved out of heavy gauge, extruded steel ingots. The contraption’s whirring blades were relentless, ominous and ‘steely’ strong – strong enough that you figured Aunt Vera could mix concrete with them if she ever wanted. With all that steel, the mixer seemingly weighed a ton, so much so that when decades later, Vera and Uncle Roosevelt moved into a retirement home, it took two big burly moving men to get it into the moving van. (OK, another bit of an exaggeration, but you’ll understand that the thing was sturdy, heavy and since no one had invented planned obsolescence yet, built to last.)
The main thing made out of steel in those same days was automobiles. Cars! American families traveled the new Eisenhower National Highway system inside a wraparound steel car body mounted on a steel chassis rolling along on steel belted tires. Every car on the road was a gas-guzzling, air-polluting, 48 monthly payment rolling shrine to the U.S. steel industry and the American way of life.
Like most other American families of the time, our family had it’s own steel bucket on wheels. My mother was an extremely loving parent, a great conversationalist and a more than compatible housemate. Despite these qualities, it turns out she was not a great driver — or even a good one. Riding in the car with my Mom at the wheel could be a hair-raising, ‘life flashing in front of your eyes’ cinematic experience. On a few occasions, you got to see a ‘Double Feature’, proof that you could routinely cheat death even if your last name wasn’t Knievel or Wallenda. My mother had a leading role in making shrapnel out of three different steel bodied Fords in four years in the late Fifties– but there was nary scratch on us. And while luck may have had involvement in these episodes, the plain truth, I still believe, is that it was the tensile strength of the steel ––all those closely packed atoms — in the car that helped to keep me and the ol’ lady in one piece.
I’m sure the Ford design engineers know what the are doing (though I am reminded that while aluminum has long been the chief material used to build airplanes, the aircraft’s black boxes are made of steel). Nevertheless I’m betting Ford’s idea will catch on, be copied by other folks and we’ll all be driving heavy-duty foil convertibles soon enough.
Who knows? Tin-foil sails for pick-up trucks might even become vogue. I just hope the trend doesn’t go viral right away though and we Americans do the one thing that we do better than anyone — i.e. take what seems like a good idea and run it into the ground! Next thing you know, the Land of Oz’s Tin Man will have become a fashion icon, the rest of us will be sporting aluminum hats and tin shoes; and the fans of the NFL Pittsburgh franchise will be cheering for the Alumineers.
Better steel yourself.