“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!”
“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.”
“What do you want from me, Ed?” Burt asked miserably. “How am I supposed to face that here and now?”
“Settle in,” Ed commanded, and he reached to the side and pulled the three-point harness across his lap. Burt was confused but did the same on his side.
“Rev the engine, as far as it will go,” Ed instructed, and Burt started the ignition and pressed the gas pedal all the way to the floor. The car remained in park, but the engine hummed louder and louder until it was a tremendous roar.
“Now hold the wheel, close your eyes, and imagine yourself driving down the highway.”
Burt obeyed, and he saw himself cruising down the interstate in his mind’s eye.
“You’re going fifty-five miles per hour, you’re surrounded by other vehicles, completely at the mercy of their skill and the random chance of physics.”
Burt’s heart beat faster and faster. He was impossibly close to the traffic streaking back the other way. Each truck and car that hurtled by shook the entire Impala’s frame.
“Then, all at once, you come around a tight bend and are met by a wall of red taillights. There’s some accident up ahead and everyone has stopped. Slam on the brakes!”
Burt kicked his foot into the brake. In his mind he heard the sound of squealing tires and burning rubber. The roar of the engine came down, but much more slowly than he would have liked.
“You’re not sure if you’re going to stop in time! You’re checking the shoulder to see if you need to pull off to the side. But suddenly, it doesn’t matter what you think, because the car behind you didn’t react as quickly as you did. It comes slamming in through your trunk, and helplessly you pile forward into the rear bumper of the car ahead! Picture it!”
Burt deeply wished that he hadn’t spent the last hour watching in vivid detail how a 1977 Chevrolet Impala compressed like an accordion at speeds above forty miles per hour. He had seen those crash test dummies thrown to the limit of their seatbelts, then held there as the windshield shattered inward and the steel frame, buckled and jagged, pierced backwards into their bodies. Arms, legs, heads, they had all snapped off sooner or later. He pictured the same things happening to him.
Then came a most strange perspective. Burt was standing outside of the car, looking at himself inside. His head was laid back on the headrest, eyes closed. Something in the total relaxation of the face told him that he was not asleep, but dead. His body had bled out across the tan, leather seats, and the material wasn’t porous, so the river of red just kept running, covering the entire surface. Somewhere in the distance sirens were wailing and people were rushing out of their cars to come and see what had happened. And this was how they would find him. This was the final scene of his life.
Back in the real-world Burt’s fingertips were barely hanging onto the steering wheel as he sobbed uncontrollably, head sagging forward. He forgot entirely about the man sitting in the passenger seat next to him and the crash test facility workers sweeping up debris in the distance. He just let his body shake and tears flow until his head pressed into middle of the steering wheel and a loud HONK! brought him back to reality.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Burt mumbled to no one in particular, hastily drying his eyes. He dug furiously into his pocket for his handkerchief and loudly blew his nose on it.
“I’m sorry, son,” Ed Cole said heavily. “I know it probably doesn’t feel like I’m doing you a favor…but believe me it’s better this way. It’s better to know now. This isn’t a punishment for having done something wrong, you understand. It’s the burden of having done something right.”
“I get it, I get it,” Burt muttered.
He folded his handkerchief and dried his eyes once more. “It’s just…all I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”
“It still is beautiful, son, and there will be times that you’re reminded how beautiful it really is…the only question is whether you want to deal with the pain that inevitably comes with.”
“What other choice do I have?”
“To quit. I’m serious. There is nothing you need to feel guilty about if you continue with this project, but also there’s no shame if you were to ask Pete to hand it off to someone else. You could know the joy of having designed it, but not have to deal with the burden of managing a live product. That’s the reason I put you through all this, so you can make an informed decision. I gave this same speech to Pete back in the day, and I’ve given it to every man whose been on the cusp of great success. Some of them stayed on, some of them quit. It was their decision to make and now it’s yours, and no one is going to question what you choose.”
“Pete knows I’ll be thinking this over?”
“He does. He told me to tell you he won’t be looking for an answer sooner than next weekend.”
“I see.” Burt’s eyes slid back forward, and his fingers rubbed over the steering wheel as he lingered in his thoughts. “Of course, you decided to stay with it. Back when it was your choice.”
“Well, I don’t know that I really had much of a choice. No one told me what to expect until it already happened. I suppose I could have left then, but I felt that since I’d already had to face it, I might as well keep on doing so and spare someone else from having to.”
“Course I can’t spare everyone. Someone has to be behind the wheel after I left. But at least I can let them know what to expect.”
“I should be getting home soon. Was there anything else you needed?”
Burt flexed his fingers against the wheel. “You can tell Pete something for me next time you see him.”
“I don’t need to wait until next weekend to give my answer, Ed,” Burt leveled his eyes on the old man. “Thank you for your warning, but it’s still my car, and I’ll be the one behind the wheel!”