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Pontiacs and global ethics

The blue '59 Pontiac barely managed to make the twisting climb up into the heart of the Black Hills along the narrow Elk Creek Canyon Road.

The blue ‘59 Pontiac barely managed to make the twisting climb up into the heart of the Black Hills along the narrow Elk Creek Canyon Road. A steady foot on the accelerator coaxed it to a rest at Bethlehem Cave after a 2,400-some kilometer marathon beginning in Montreal. When I turned the engine off it would be the last time this once brassy representative of the Detroit ideal of the good life ever moved again except to be towed to a final resting place in a South Dakota dump.

That Pontiac had carried kids from their Pointe St. Charles tenements on outings around Montreal during the summer of Expo ‘67. It hauled our Project Christopher youth teams to service projects across Quebec. Finally, it took six of us to a wrap-up retreat at Bethlehem, South Dakota.

At the beginning of that summer when I picked up the car at Broadway Ford near the very eastern tip of the island of Montreal the auguries would not have pointed to getting that much mileage out of the hulk. Neither the salesman nor I could open the hood of the Pontiac. It would, I later found out, fly up unexpectedly when the right combination of speed and wind currents lifted the latch free on the highway . The trunk was another matter. The hinges had been cut so its lid lifted on and off too easily.

Despite other failings like a missing rear driver-side window we knew it had a decent engine, because the ignition caught without a problem. The dealer sold us the car for $49 with the pledge that he would give us our money back if the Pontiac could be driven back on the lot at the end of the summer. A near serious accident when all the bolts on a rear wheel except one snapped just as we turned off the high speed Metropolitan Expressway in Montreal or the time when a strap on the gas tank broke causing it to bump hazardously along the road fortunately didn’t prematurely ended our Pontiac odyssey. In any event the generous used car dealer didn’t have to honour his promise.

The 1,800-plus kilograms of that four-door Bonneville hardtop took, it seemed at times, as much oil as gas to keep pushing it down the road. However, gas then at 40 cents a gallon and jugs of cheap, recycled oil kept us motoring. We didn’t even question any of the myriad implications of how that car and the legions like it had and were affecting our world.

Last week General Motors in an effort to staunch the billions of dollars it is losing decided to scrap its Pontiac line. Its history can be traced back over a hundred years to when, in 1907, the Oakland Motor Company started making cars in Pontiac, Michigan. Two years later General Motors bought it out but didn’t begin branding the cars under the Pontiac name until 1926. Initially, the Pontiac fit General Motor’s mid-price niche, slightly upscale from Chevrolet but not as pricey as an Oldsmobile or Cadillac.

Pontiac established its own mark in the late ‘50’s when the later ill-starred John De Lorean took over as its head of engineering. He initiated a stream of muscle cars with the GTO. The Firebird and Gran Am would follow. These models are true artifacts of the perigee of a culture of unbridled excess.

Seduced by speed and flash, our consumer culture has hurled us towards the economic and environmental precipice we teeter on right now. We need a new ethic to help us find the road back to sanity and global health. Just eliminating the Pontiac or throwing more dollars at ailing corporations or the banking system doesn’t address the fundamental shift needed in the values that underpin them and continue to threaten our collective welfare.

Namaste Notes

Saturday, May 9 - Vesak or Visakha Puja marks the Buddhist observance of the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha who is acclaimed as one of the greatest spiritual benefactors of humanity.

Sunday, May 10 - Fifth Sunday of Easter. A suggested reading is John 15: 1-8.

Monday, May 11 - Bob Marley, Jamaican musician and humanitarian, died in 1981.

Tuesday, May 12 - Lag B’Omer, 33 days from the Passover, is a festive Jewish holiday linking the Pesach with Shavout.

Thursday, May 14 - Over 600 die at the Rio Sumpul in 1980 when US backed Honduran and El Salvadoran military attack refugees fleeing the violence in El Salvador.

Friday, May 15 - International Family Day aims to encourage equality and a fuller sharing of domestic responsibilities within the basic unit of society, the family.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact