Introduction This story I custom wrote for aPrism short story contest. A story about Ford cars, in which the only characters are middle-aged white men, should not, of course, have been sent to Prism. I get that now. I also have a short story about soccer, in which a group of hard-drinking but well-intended Voyageurs (Canada men’s national soccer team ultra-fans) runs into trouble on an away trip to Honduras. I sent that one to This Magazine. Oh, yes, I know it—I make terrible, inexplicable choices as a matter of course. Seldom are my bad calls the result of a paucity of thought, that’s the worst part. I thought a lot about what I should write for that Prism contest.
I’d just bought a new used car: it was a manual transmission, Mercury, the first American car I’d ever owned. I found it a superior piece of machinery to anything I’d driven before: it unsettled some prejudices. At the same time I was listening to a lot of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. I was reading about their British tour. Mania. Marc Bolan is one of the coolest people who has ever lived, and even he shrieked and stood in line to see Gene and Eddie. It’s still unbelievable a little bit how the U.S.A. had it all, and then threw it all away. The land-yachts, those wastefully enormous cars that came to define American autos, seem to me to have been prophetic: everything in that country, the people included, was about to get bigger and worse. The whole culture became a car crash. The car industry itself seemed like a good backdrop for that sort of story.
Along the interstate from St. Louis to the Ford Assembly Plant at Claycomo, the alphabet has become the apologia of girth. Bigger burgers! King-sized beds of comfort sublime. Throughout the continental USA, all the roads which for five years I drove, had ways and means to make it seem like you weren’t alone. No, you were alone alright, you were always alone and somehow the cornfields that stretched to places long emptied, and the AM/FM dial with the twang of its preachers and its geetah pickin’ cheaters, scattered your thoughts until the scorch of this ruin ached like vertigo and it was the acres themselves, every forgotten bluff, that seemed to screech in vengeful anticipation of the rot of the metal sarcophagi, the leather seats where we sought Mercury repose; oh! you think you will escape this sentence with revolutions per minute? So come charge through your desecration, towards extinction with the power of hundreds of horses, scythe.
I arrived on these shores in 1994, hired by my countryman Alexander Trotman. A visionary, Trotman and I shared for you the same fascination. To us you were a mystery, the source of all of the world’s magic and when we designed for you, your own version of Ford Europe’s Mondeo, it was more than a homage to the heroes in whose honour we hoped millions would ride, it was the unthrottling of our love, and in a world in which plenty has proven capable of expiry, we’d used your own sorcery for the salvation of a way of life we assumed you also wanted to save. Why didn’t you? Why don’t you? In fifth, I throw the steel through each corner but the squeal of rubber is rage, nothing more.
Alex Trotman and I came up together, lads too young for the last war but in that same youth easily impressed by the American servicemen who in saving us from a foreign foe, saved us from one more perilous, the future of underpowered tedium towards which we slumbered unawares. On nightly passes, airmen from the 447th Bombardment Group of the United States 8th Air Force – the Mighty 8th – stationed at R.A.F. Rattlesden walked or hitched rides into Stowmarket, the town where I was born, the town where everyone I’d ever known was born. I lurked outside the local pub with my mates, perfecting my diffidence, my peripheral vision. They were better, these Yanks, better by far than the movie stars they bequeathed to us after they’d gone, and in their absence they became stronger, mightier than the Flying Fortresses they’d flown until all I ever dreamt of was their pursuit, my whole life geared now towards the great escape from the vacuum they’d left, them with their lined leather coats, their chewing gum, their easy grinning.
Trotman, you could tell by the way his back never bent, and by his clipped mustache, a foreshadowing of the delivery of his vowels, had been an R.A.F. man. We met in Dagenham, each of us successful respondents to a newspaper ad from Ford, looking for new British management trainees. I’d grown into a dapper hand with any sort of engine while, Alex, well Alex was just genius, you could tell straightaway. Of our little group, Alex and I came from the humblest beginnings. His Dad laid carpets while mine laid bricks, and it was that, coupled to my enthusiasm for the mechanics of the Avro Anson, which he’d piloted during his four year stint after the Second War, which bonded us together. The ambition of Alex was the envy of us all, and while I showed aptitude for nuts and bolts, Trotman’s star was magnificent to behold. When, at the age of 34, he was appointed executive director of car product planning for Ford of Europe, I think we understood then that this was only the beginning, and that in Alex we had a man who wanted the world, and who would get the world. When he left my sphere he did so with my hopes and aspirations welded to his for when he succeeded, it was my triumph every bit as much as his, and I knew the joy in my heart was a thrust he must feel, a turbo charge to his heart.
You existed as a map in our heads, the contours of the Pacific Coast Highway, the baked concrete of your route 66, which, years before I ever drove it, I knew with my eyes closed, like a recitation, but me, with what schooling did I come equipped? In you was I versed, and whatever I lacked in aptitude I made up for in gumption, a word your flying pioneers taught me, along with the slouch and the shrug which I understood to be armour, and accordingly I’ve suited myself ever since. When Gene Vincent came to London in 1969, I was a bit old for it, but I went to the Palladium and I sang myself hoarse thinking of you. I cannot forget this: Gene with his eyes closed and the sweat of death to come, one line repeating: Oh I’ve drove a lonesome, lonesome road.
That was a good night. I drove to the concert in a Ford Cortina MK III. We didn’t bring that model out to the public until 1970, but it was November, production had already begun, and I took that car straight from the assembly plant into the city. Not until I arrived in Missouri, some two decades later, did I marry, and although London was swinging, I wasn’t, it never crossed my mind. I dreamt not of girls, but of Wyoming and Michigan and I worked most mornings at 6 a.m. The design of the Cortina wasn’t mine, not exclusively, but I’d had input into the fluted design of the hood – intended to look like a bottle of Coca Cola. There were those in Ford Europe who pressed for something more British, but I said – and so did Alex – let Detroit show us the way. I felt entitled to the pride I displayed when I lingered after the show, smoking four or five cigarettes leaned back like you’d shown me, the sole of my right foot pressed up against the fender, my free hand pressed deep into my pocket. Long after you’d neglected Gene, we remembered; when you’d forgotten how to make a car properly, wasn’t it us who tried to show you the way back?
We were right about that car. It became a source of amusement to a good many of at the plant that, in 1972, at the height of Rule Brittania, it was the Ford Cortina – not anything by Vauxhall or Aston Morris – that began a near decade-long stretch as the best-selling car in Great Britain. We served you well, my friends, we remembered your Flying Fortresses, but we didn’t know, not until it was too late, that you’d forgotten all of this yourselves.
We were stupid first, I guess – stupid to believe you. The films you sent us, the music. We never realized until it was too late that all those who had done the transmitting were long gone. They existed exclusively within us so that we knew you better than you knew yourselves. I came to Claycomo because you called me, but time is crueler than distance, crueler by far, and I think you knew this because no matter the increase in torque, all of your improvements were always hopeless entries in a contest of no value, a series of improved disqualifications. You were gone ages before I’d ever left.
We were stupid, but you were stupider, stupider by far – everything you did, you did to yourselves. Look at what you did to Gene, look at how you made of Elvis, the one and always King, something ghoulish and white! You tried (how could you even think the thought!), you actually planned to consign the Mustang to the scrap heap. After subjecting it to a series of indignities and humiliations throughout the 70s and 80s you pencilled it in for discontinuation, and well might you have were it not for Alex. It was a man educated in Scotland, for heaven’s sake, who refused to allow it. The motors in your muscle cars had grown soft, so had you, and without any substance what use was your sullen, couldn’t you anticipate how ridiculous you were soon to look? Wasn’t it we, in a London suburb, who provided your most iconic vehicle safe harbour, wasn’t it we who remembered its triple tail lights, and insisted that without a chrome horse on its hood it could ever only be a Mustang in name only? The gall of you to discard icons more sacred to us than anything in St. Paul’s. The way you litter your roads with hamburger wrappers and the bones of fried chicken, you so cavalier that you can hold onto nothing dear, you fools, you imps. For three decades we funnelled you the profits of our success, and for three decades you did nothing but build bulkier and clunkier cars and you rushed to fill them, too, with your waistlines, all that possibility wasted, as though junk was your purpose, the creation of it, the collection of the discards, obsolescence infinita, the new born to tarnish, headlong into rust.
I say this now, but I did not say it then, for I understood not the falseness of our union. Boyhood-blinded by my own admiration for your famous men, I did not comprehend that your allotment was to rescue, never to be rescued, and that nowhere along the line had you learned the graciousness of mercy received. You did not want the favour returned. The perks of your perch were never having to say thank you, and when gas prices rose to knock you down you knew only to lash out. Sure, you hated the Japanese and their reliability, the Germans and their precision, but these were your historic enemies, you could make the case. But what had we ever done to you, except fight and die alongside you, except give you our language and our spirit? What threat to you did Alex and I ever pose?
Yes, I loved you once and I love you still, but there is no requite, I know this now, I know it as I drive this road one final time to receive confirmation of what you’ve whispered for so long. It means the end for me, in so many ways, but it means the end for you too – you will not understand this, you do not want to. So much promise when I came to you, hope unbounded come to scamper and to join. But you, you were guarded, you were fearful; with everything to dream for, you dreamt of nothing and so it all came to fall in on you, until your corruption became a virtue and every out quickened your blood – the nerve of alternatives!
So long had I dreamed of coming to America, that when Alex was named Chairman and C.E.O. of the Ford Motor Company – the first ever foreign born – satisfaction and restlessness surged through me, the competing impulses of wanting to wind down, but wound up with the certainty that soon my phone would ring. I was 58 years old in 1994, two years younger than Alex, and I knew that when it came I would answer that call, and so I did.
I never viewed my appointment as patronage, like everyone later said. Hadn’t I been on the Mondeo design team? Hadn’t it been my enthusiasm for the odyssey, my quest to see an American-inspired European car return to its spiritual home, the impetus that proved the chassis for Trotman’s Ford 2000 initiative, the plan on which a small band of us had staked so much more than our reputations? Did it not make sense that one of us would be sent to the Ford plant at Claycomo, Missouri to oversee the production of the Mercury Mystique? Wasn’t it my child?
For five years I commuted from Saint Louis to Claycomo. You can’t know what that meant to me, that I made it here, me a lad from East Anglia who just liked to tinker. Sometimes now, when I think of it, I miss that drive like I would my own legs.
In October of 1994 I drove from the plant the very first Mystique, a LS Sport Sedan with a V6 engine tuned to produce 170 horsepower paired to a 5-speed manual transmission. An astonishing car, two decades ahead of its time. We invested over 6 billion dollars in designing the CDW-27 platform which would become the Mondeo, the Mystique and also the Ford Contour. It wasn’t just our reputations on the line, it was Ford’s, it was all of America’s, and more even than this. Pinned to the Porsche-designed Duratec engine was the hopes of two empires, the possibility for parity, for peace, even for some semblance of mutual understanding for this car was strong in a way uniquely American, but handled with the sort of precision that the ancient winding of Europe demanded, fury and finesse, it was my life in this car, my life given to me by you.
And for awhile it succeeded; or, at least, its glory travelled so surely that failure travelled an arduous road to catch up to its rumouring. Three years from 1994 to 1997, the Contour and the Mystique were named in the Top 10 by Car and Driver magazine. I turned 60 in 1996 and with the bonus Ford gave me for my success, I decided to do something that in my secret heart I’d always knew I would. On Christmas Eve of that year I married an American girl.
A native of Saint Louis, Jane Marie came from a Ford family. Freddie Greaves, her widowed father, worked in my division as a Maintenance Supervisor, as his father had before him. Jane Marie had studied Nursing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but had returned home after graduation, disinclined to pursue the profession. She was 36 years my junior, but we married with Freddie’s blessing, even though he himself was younger than me by a few years, and took to calling me Sonny. He meant it as a term of endearment, I suppose, so I bore it with a grin even though it stung my pride, and I wished he wouldn’t. I was an eligible bachelor, and much of the wood trim in the Mystique had been my idea, an automotive mimicry of my own sartorial leanings. I loathed ostentation – the Cadillac, that barge, was the mark against which I aimed – but taste, in its refinement, was everything, and I think that that, as much as my position, was the quality to which Jane Marie responded.
Our son was christened Gregory Frederick. We named Alex Trotman his godfather, though he was in meetings at the plant in Cuautitlan, Mexico all that week, and unable to attend, which was just as well since I felt remiss, in some way, that we hadn’t named our boy after him. But Gregory Peck had starred in Twelve O’Clock High and whenever I wanted to see in my mind’s eye those brave boys from The Mighty 8th it was this film I turned to, for years it had been Gregory Peck’s face I saw. Greg was born to us in 1998, and I wish I could say the event moved me, that it defined me, that it filled me full of something, but 1998 was the beginning of the end for me, it was that year the chatter first reached my ears. I love Gregory Frederick, as I once did Jane Marie, but the Mystique was my first child, and when your first child is stricken with something that might prove fatal, isn’t it a father’s obligation to drop everything and kneel by the bedside?
Larded asses, you were too big to fit inside the backseat. In 1996 we expanded the legroom for you, in 1998 we did so again and in 1999, in our last and our final act, we increased the headroom. In Britain they complained that the Mondeo was too big, but here, oh no, you in your enormity, in your greasy and bibbed excess, to you it was dinky, it was tiny. Wherefore gone are your svelte soldiers, your men of steel? For, can I tell you this, all around me in Saint Louis all I ever saw was gross parodies of what you once were, incredible tubs of flesh, with chins the size of front-impact airbags. You can’t even drive stick anymore. You lack the mental acuity and your hands, rolled with chub, can hardly form the shape to perform the shift.
You stopped meeting my eyes, yours sunken inside your impossibly fat faces, as I strolled the assembly floor, for to you I had become a dead man walking, and when we aired no television commercials for the Mystique in 1999, the silence seemed to emanate from my own grave, that and the one of Alex beside me, for we were doomed, all of us Ford Europeans with our cars engineered for fuel economy and handling performance. Not for you conservation. Bigger remained your only measure and even though all around us the world groaned under so much pressure, and your cars, aerodynamic like a carcass, heaved between the indistinguishable bland of mapped dots on the land for which you expressed such pride, never understanding that even this concept, like everything else you touched, had bottomed out, only the name remaining the same. I drove those dots, hundreds of them, for two years, so many Ford and Lincoln dealers, and each of them with the same lie. The seats are too small they say. Americans want something bigger.
At the end, I spent 62 consecutive weeks on the road, over 400 days fighting against a pre-ordained fate and this I know: you did not want us to succeed. The choice between failure of your design or success from abroad seemed to you like no choice at all, and there is still some admiration in me for you as I acknowledge this. The Mystique sat in your showrooms, but you didn’t see it, you let no one see it for its popularity would have seemed to you a repudiation of what you’d built, and though what you’d built was a monstrosity with a reputation for mediocrity – by now you must have known this – at least it was one of your own, and I guess in the end we all choose our own babies, come what may.
Alex was fired on the last day of 1998. I rang in the new year in a motel outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and after my Executive Assistant phoned with the news I rang up for a bottle of Scotch. Glenmorangie was the best they could do. I tried Jane Marie with every glass until it was finished, but she never answered, and I knew that she knew too.
I returned to Claycomo the next day. Officially, Alex had resigned, and his replacement, an Australian, had already been appointed the new C.E.O., but there was continuity on paper only, the interregnum tore my shop asunder. Ennui, a sussurus had settled over everything, fine and dull all at once, and I’d never imagined that Balkanization could descend like a curtain, I’d always thought it took time. My team, loyal to the end, waited for me in the management parking lot – like a graveyard for beached whales, so many Grand Marquises and Crown Victorias, good God, you may as well put wheels on a blimp. They walked me upstairs, a phalanx of invisibles, everyone knew what was coming, and no one wanted it to touch them, so they averted their eyes with the logic of a child.
I don’t remember the name of the man who passes me the pen to sign my own resignation letter, a letter Head Office had written for me. I’ve never seen him before. His handshake marks him as American, the last grasp of power squeezed from bodies representing a decline already come, the passing pulsing of force no longer there. He thanks me for my service, but says Ford has chosen to go in another direction. I say I assume he knows this means down, but the humour is too understated for him, and it’s like I said nothing, maybe I didn’t. Americans don’t want the Mystique, they don’t want the Contour. Trucks are the future, apparently; the F-150, those mothers sell like hotcakes. There’s an energy crisis! I remind him. Not in the United States there isn’t, he tells me, that is not what the American people want to hear. “You needed to wrap your head around that one a little earlier,” he says.
Freddie’s waiting for me by my Mystique. “Sorry, sonny,” he says and he hands me a letter. So I know before I pull into the driveway of our home that Jane Marie is gone, and along with her little Gregory. None of this surprises me – if there’s one thing America will not abide it’s a loser, and that’s what I’ve become, a foreign loser at that.
Alex died a Baron in 2005, the same year the Mondeo became the best-selling car in its class in the United Kingdom. But that was always the way, wasn’t it? I wonder why it took me so long to catch on. No matter how much you loved America, it didn’t have it in itself to love you back. I drove to his funeral in a 1967 Alvis TF21, the last model the British manufacturer sold. Gorgeous straight-six engine, and when the top’s down I laugh like a little boy. You can make of it whatever you will, but you’d have been surprised how many of the cars alongside the cemetery that day were not Fords. I thought I saw a Mystique, but I see one everywhere I look now, like the ghost of my dreams, and every time it is or it isn’t, my throat knots just the same.