A Talk in a Car: Part One

“Are you sure you don’t want to sit in the driver’s seat?” Burt Mackie asked again, happily running his fingers over the leather-wrapped wheel.

“No,” Ed Cole chuckled, “I’ve sat in enough driver’s seats in my time. You enjoy it.”

The two men were in the front of a 1977 Chevrolet Impala prototype, parked on the bare concrete of the General Motors Crash Test Facility. Fifty feet away the ground was strewn with the broken glass and twisted metal of several other Impala Coupe’s, the necessary sacrifices before the car could be greenlit for full production.

“Forty-five miles-per-hour in a head-on collision and still holding up decently,” Burt grinned, gesturing to the wreckage before them. “That was the real trick, keeping a decent safety rating even after downsizing the body so much. But I’m telling you we did it! Every test is coming in higher than what Pete was asking for.” Pete Estes, of course, was the current president of General Motors.

“It’s a marvel of modern engineering,” Ed nodded approvingly. “And I should know!”

Ed Cole had been the head of General Motors before Pete Estes, and before that he had been head of the engineering team. Under his leadership the company had made several ground-breaking innovations, such as aluminum engines, the addition of catalytic converters, and the shift from leaded gasoline. He had retired from the automobile business two years ago, but was still a welcome visitor at all of the new production pipelines.

“And it wasn’t just about shedding inches and weight while keeping things safe, either” Burt continued animatedly. “This car’s far more fuel efficient than anything we’ve done before, too! Hopefully we don’t see another oil embargo anytime soon, but if we do, we’re already ahead of the game!”

“I believe I saw a six-cylinder pop up in that last collision?”

“That’s right, and only 4.1 liters. But it’s no trouble because, again, we’re running eight hundred pounds lighter! I don’t know if you heard, but we got word the Ford LTD is coming with a 5.8-liter V8. Don’t get me wrong, I love power as much as the next guy, but we’re competing for the family garage here, not the racetrack, and the discerning customer is going to know which is the practical option.”

“You did an excellent job,” Ed clapped Burt on the shoulder. “It was a difficult design, with many different requirements, but somehow you pulled it off. You know I spent a lot of my career trying to get Chevrolet a proper foothold in the small-sized market, but I never did. I dare say you’re about to succeed where I failed.”

“That’s very kind of you to say.”

“Well and I’m not the only who’s saying it. I was talking with Pete earlier this week and he’s very bullish on next year’s lineup. He’s estimating as much as 500,000 in sales next year!”

“He is?!”

“Mm-hmm. Mark my words, Burt, you haven’t just made the win for this year, you’ve made the template for the entire next decade!”

Burt didn’t have a response to that. He merely slid his eyes forward and held the wheel firmly, an excited grin extending across his face.

“And that’s why he asked me to come and speak with you,” Ed added meaningfully.

“Pete asked you to talk to me?” Burt pulled his eyes back to the old man in the passenger seat.

“That’s right. He wanted me to come and give you the same speech I gave him when he took over the company. You see, I know, and he knows, that before a man becomes a terrific success, he deserves to understand the cost ahead of him.”

“The cost of success?”

“Success, yes, and the cost of creativity.”

Ed raised his hand to his mouth and cleared his throat. Burt didn’t try to ask any more questions. He didn’t understand what the old man meant, but he knew Ed would explain himself soon enough.

“500,000 in sales next year,” Ed repeated, “and the template for the entire next decade. Project 77 is going to put millions of cars all across the country by the mid-eighties. Every day when you drive home from the office, you’ll pass your work on the highway a dozen times over. It’s an incredible experience.

“But that’s not all that you’ll see,” Ed’s voice dropped low. “Millions of cars sold also means thousands upon thousands of accidents. People with broken legs and crushed skulls. People who are dead. And along with your glowing financial reports you’ll be seeing those accident claims. You’ll be seeing a chart of rising stock prices, but also a chart of rising fatalities. You’ll be reading congratulatory memos from the boss, but also letters from wives who lost their husband, husbands who lost their wives, and parents who lost their baby.”

“Ed, do you think we’re cutting corners on safety?” Burt said in shock. “We’ve followed all the regulations to the letter!”

“That’s not the point, Burt,” Ed returned forcefully. “I am not saying you did anything wrong. You did your job and it’s a fine car. It’s as safe as anything else out there. But that’s not the point. The point is that even when you do your job right, sometimes this car is going to be a coffin! Yeah, all these fatalities will be happening in the competitor’s cars, too, but some of them are inevitably going to be in yours. They’re going to be happening… Right…. Here!” Ed slammed his palm against the top of the driver’s seat with his last words, causing an involuntary shudder crawled down Burt’s spine. “And before you take on the responsibility that’s headed your way you need to appreciate that fact.”

Burt swallowed hard. His arms had gone limp, but his fingers still hung on at the wheel. Shaking his head, he faced forward once more.

“I’ve made a good car, Ed. I’ve made a good and safe car.”

“You’ve made a car that holds up admirably at collisions of forty miles per hour, but that car also has a top speed that’s more than eighty! This car is going to be sold to casual, Sunday drivers, but it’s also going to be sold to reckless teens who think the highway is their personal racetrack. And there’s no crime in what you’ve done. I am not trying to blame you for anything. But I am saying you owe it to yourself to face those facts. They’re not pleasant to think about, I know it, but if you don’t do it here and now, then you will face them when the stack of carnage fills up your inbox…and it will break you.”

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