Car Culture: Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night

Senior couple sitting in a convertible car smiling together

In the 1960s, when I was growing up in Windsor, across the river from Detroit, everything, and anything important was related to cars. Pretty well all landmark events in my adolescence happened in a car. It’s where I took my first drink of Canadian Club, smoked my first Kool menthol cigarette, listened to the Motown sound of the Supremes, Sam Cooke, the Temptations, and the Jackson Five. On a hot Saturday night in August, as we headed toward the Michigan State Fair, I whispered in my first boyfriend’s ear, and he bought me a cotton candy when we arrived at the fairgrounds.

Later that night, sitting close on the bench seat of his father’s gold-tinted Chrysler New Yorker, he asked me to go steady. I was fifteen, and he was sixteen, and we were both innocents. After graduating from high school, we figured that I’d enroll in teachers’ college. Only one year of training was required to teach elementary school in Ontario. The schools were desperate for more teachers with the tsunami of baby boomers hitting every school board in the province. We assumed he’d work at his father’s auto parts factory. We’d have two children, a girl, and a boy. Back then, everything seemed possible.

On that 1966 Saturday night in Detroit, gas was 39 cents a gallon, a pack of cigarettes about double. A Coney Island hotdog (a downtown Detroit specialty) covered with chili sauce, yellow mustard and chopped onions was less than three bucks. Both cities, Windsor and Detroit, were booming, riding the immense wave of the post-World War II culture based on fast cars, endless cheap oil reserves, big unions, burgeoning wages and the opportunity to make good if you worked hard and played fair.

Around my family’s home in suburban South Windsor lived a mixture of factory workers, shopkeepers and some doctors and lawyers in the nicer houses. Neighbours mingled because their kids played outside and walked to school together every week, rain, or shine. Driveways were wide enough for two cars, which almost every family owned, and many of the dads kept a powerboat or a motorcycle for R&R during the weekends.

By the close of the 20th century, almost everything I’ve just mentioned changed. My hometown of Windsor began to feel the global economic transformation by the early seventies. I first recall my neighbour driving home this strange automobile that resembled a bug. In fact, it was called the Volkswagen Beetle. All the kids on the block ran down the street to inspect this odd new species –and from that point on, foreign-made cars began flooding the North American market.

After the oil crisis in 1973, with the price of gas soaring, the growth at the Ford, Chrysler and GM factories in Windsor and Detroit began to shrink. Even Ford’s Mustang or GM’s Camaro couldn’t do much to halt the importation of well-engineered and better priced, small-sized cars from the East. Factory shifts were downsized or cut altogether, and Windsor went from boom to bust. Detroit’s fate was worse, consumed as it was by crime, discord, de-population, and the scarcity of jobs.

The situation continued to deteriorate as globalization swept manufacturing in North America. America’s aptly named rust belt became a centre of economic and social desolation with many out of work. By 2019, opioid overdoses hit epidemic proportions.

Now the situation is beginning to change again, and I’m glad of it. In this headline in the Toronto Star this January, “Never mind pipelines, Ontario automakers are showing us a greener way to create jobs now,” reporter Heather Scoffield writes, “Autoworkers at the General Motors plant were voting to ratify a new agreement that would see GM invest $1 billion to turn the CAMI plant into a manufacturer of commercial electric vehicles.”

The Ford Motor Co. is investing more than $2 billion in battery electric vehicle production mainly in Oakville, Ontario. Along with Ford, another $1.5 billion will be invested in battery vehicle factories by Fiat Chrysler. General Motors is focused on pick-up truck manufacturing, re-opening its plants in Oshawa.  GM intends to transition to electric vehicles and even autonomous vehicles with the profits it hopes to make in Oshawa.

The last time I visited Windsor in 2019, autoworkers were preparing for more factory shift shutdowns or complete plant closures. It appeared that cars, once the engine of North American prosperity, could collapse. Now everything is changing. The big three automakers, union leaders and three levels of government came together with a strategy to re-build by “re-orienting the industry towards a low-carbon economy.”

Municipal governments, the province of Ontario, Unifor and the federal government is working together with the big North American automakers to re-imagine a re-engineered North American-based auto industry geared toward producing electric vehicles en masse.

Let’s hope the accomplishments in the modernizing of the auto industry will rub off on other manufacturers.

It’s the first time, in half a century that jobs will be returning in significant numbers to manufacturing cities such as Windsor and Oshawa. Young couples, out on a Saturday night, might even be able to picture a bright future.

And perhaps my long-time search for the heart of Saturday night is becoming less nostalgic and more real than I ever dared to dream.

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