My Story

Oil Embargo

Duped Into Buying A Compact Car

By James Donahue

The first alarm of a world oil shortage struck the United States in 1973 after members of organizations of Arab petroleum exporting countries, including OPEC, established an oil embargo because the U.S. supported the Israeli military in the Yom Kippur war against Egypt and Syria.

That was the year Americans became aware of just how dependent we had become to imported oil products from the Middle East. There was a shortage of gasoline, the price of gas went through the roof, we had news photos of cars lined up at service stations trying to buy gasoline that was in short supply, and there was a sudden call for the nation to fix the problem we found ourselves in.

Several interesting things happened. Strange machines moved through our farming area, thumping the ground with strange machines, apparently searching for new sources of crude oil Wildcat well drillers began buying up drilling rights everywhere and drilling rigs actually started drilling exploratory wells in hopes of finding a new source of crude. Car makers quickly shifted production from the big luxury sedans with eight cylinder engines to compact cars with four cylinder motors. Chevrolet was among the first to produce a small car. The company chopped one end off of its successful “Iron Duke” six-cylinder engine to make a four-cylinder version to fit in its new sub-compact.

The other thing that happened was that President Gerald Ford issued an executive order setting the national speed limit at 50 miles per hour. That is a very slow speed, especially for long distance travelers, especially when we still had those big luxury cars and were traveling the new Interstate highways designed for cars moving at speeds of 70 miles an hour or higher. It was a virtual nightmare for travelers, although the speed limit did cut national gas consumption and the number of lives lost in highway wrecks.

The news media jumped on the bandwagon and promoted the idea of a national effort to preserve fuel and cut America’s dependence on foreign oil. While caught up in this frenzy, I was persuaded to trade in our fine Plymouth station wagon that got 25 miles on a gallon of gas, for a compact Chevrolet that was so small we had a hard time getting the family packed into it.

The day I walked into the Chevrolet dealership to get our new car, I vividly remember one of the service men from the back room asking why I would do such a thing as trade my wagon in for the car I was buying. He said he thought I was nuts. I quickly learned why he said that. I had fallen prey to a big industry ploy to get us to buy small cars. And I had been ripped off.

The little Chevrolet was a terrible car. It only got 19 miles to the gallon. I went to various mechanics, and even tried a carburetor vapor-injection device invented by a man in Croswell that he claimed would increase my gas mileage. It raised my mileage up to 21 miles to a gallon. I had been better off with my station wagon.

After the first winter, the salt on the Michigan roads rusted the car’s fenders so badly I took the car back to the dealer to complain. They gave me new fenders and told me I had to find a body mechanic to install them. I was so mad I drove the car directly back to the Plymouth dealer and traded it in for another new car. This dealer also sold Fords and Mercury brands. I bought a Mercury which I really liked. It was a full sized car, got very good gas mileage, and everybody in the family fit into it nicely.

My lesson from all of this: Don’t trust the hucksters. Rely on your personal instincts and never fall prey to artificially generated fear systems. That oil crisis passed within the year, the embargo was lifted, and America went right back to buying all the crude oil it wanted from the Middle East.

That 1973 crisis was a shot across the bow. We should have started preparing for the mess we find ourselves in today. How quickly we fell back into our materialistic ways once the storm clouds passed.