The National Car of Texas

Friend of rancher, mother, and lobbyist, it’s the Suburban.

Have you ever found yourself in the grip of relentless historical forces, driven to actions that at previous stages of your life would have seemed totally out of character? Powerless to resist the spirit of the times, ordinary people find themselves doing the strangest things, like wearing punk haircuts or voting Republican. I found myself buying a Suburban.

Though the Suburban looks like a station wagon that has taken steroids, it is officially classified as a light truck. For most Texans, buying a truck is nothing unusual. Texas is the biggest truck market in the nation. Our ratio of trucks to cars is a third higher than the rest of the country’s. But I grew up in Galveston, where one acquires a very fine sense of such things as who should buy a truck and who should not. People from Texas City should. OKOP (an old Galveston acronym for Our Kind of People), never.

Never, that is, until the birth of our third child last fall precipitated a car crisis. The modern automobile is a response to two of those historical forces I was just talking about. One is the energy crisis of the seventies, which made smaller cars desirable. The other is zero population growth, which meant that as long as families produced no more than two children, smaller cars were practical. Pretty soon everybody was buying imports, General Motors was scaling down its fleet in a desperate attempt to compete, and the phrase “family car” had disappeared from the automotive sell.

Like millions of American driveways, ours was occupied by two products of the zeitgeist: a small Buick sedan and a Toyota station wagon that was even smaller than the Buick. The Toyota didn’t even pretend to seat five; it carried only four seat belts. But the Buick, at first glance, looked adequate for our enlarged family. At least it had a fifth belt. On closer inspection, however, I saw that one seat belt was inadequate. It covered the middle of the back seat, an area so closely set above the drive shaft that there was no room for springs between the seat and the floorboard. To sit there, even with the car at rest, was to reflect upon what it would have been like to ride in a buckboard wagon. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had started down the road to discovering the national car of Texas.

REQUIEM FOR A CADILLAC

You can tell a lot about a people by what they drive. The Rolls-Royce is priced so that no ordinary man can aspire to one; it identifies the British leisure class. Who but the Germans would create cars as solid as the Mercedes or as revealing in name as the Volkswagen, literally “the car of the people”? Californians, always ahead of the trends, embraced small Japanese cars even when oil was cheap. And naturally, the Italians make what the automotive magazines consider the sexiest car, the Ferrari Testarossa. It even sounds like a sex hormone.

In the fifties and sixties, the car that defined Texas was the Cadillac. Not just any Cadillac, either, but the biggest one money could buy, replete with chrome and tail fins. The Cadillac was the oilman’s car, and the oilman personified Texas to the nation. He was thought of as brash, unmannerly, nouveau riche, a social climber, but also as someone who had to be taken seriously. The Cadillac represented the instant respectability Texas craved. In the humor of the period, the rich Texan with a Cadillac was a staple joke. You’ve heard, of course, about the two oilmen who met for lunch and afterward went to look at Cadillacs. “I’ll take that one,” said the first oilman, reaching for his wallet. “No,” said his friend, reaching for his own wallet. “Let me pay for it. You picked up lunch.”

In the seventies, the era of the oil boom and Texas chic, the pickup supplanted the Caddy. We didn’t need cars for status symbols any more. We were the status symbol now, Texans and our blue jeans and our boots. The pickup was a rancher’s car, and everybody whose banker thought the oil business was a snap was going out and buying a ranch.

Then, as rich folks have a way of doing, we got uppity and forsook our roots. The Mercedes briefly became the national car of Texas—so briefly that the oil boom was over before most of them were paid for. The reign of the Mercedes was a dark chapter in the history of Texas. While the Cadillac had been a badge of wealth, the Mercedes was a badge of sophistication. It appealed to our worst side, the side of Texas that, deep down, harbors the fear that we are still small-time and backwater. How cultured it was to talk about 450 SLs and 380 SELs, to drive an automobile so coveted that it is the most stolen car in America, to ooze a little Continental polish. The Mercedes was a mechanical security blanket.

Now the Suburban has replaced them all, and for the best of reasons. It is the most Texan vehicle there is. It’s big, it’s strong, it’s fun, it doesn’t put on airs, but it doesn’t keep you from putting on a few.

Statistics aren’t necessary to prove the case, just a pair of eyes; but the numbers are overwhelming nonetheless. Of the ten biggest markets for Suburbans, five are in Texas. Houston and Dallas rank first and second Detroit and Chicago are next, then it’s back to San Antonio, fifth, and Fort Worth, sixth. Another interloper, Minneapolis, ranks seventh, but Austin is eighth. Phoenix and Los Angeles round out the list—but if only retail sales are counted, yet another Texas city Amarillo, replaces Phoenix in the top ten. In the first nine months of 1985, 9724 Suburbans were sold in Houston, compared with just 3384 in the California zone and just 1865 in the New York—New Jersey zone. Nationally, about one Suburban sale in every three occurs in Texas.

Tags: THE CULTURE

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