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My oldest daughter's first car.

 |  NCR Today

It's red. It's a Honda. It's got 50,000 miles on it -- and it is my oldest daughter's first car.

We got it last week, in one of those rites-of-passage for parents that brings memories flooding back. In my case -- having come of age in the 1970s -- the memories are not good. They are, to be kind, substandard. They are memories of a certain variety of Detroit steel called the 1974 Dodge Dart Swinger.

It was a two-door "sports coupe," which meant it was a slightly-less-unwieldy behemoth than the other cars on the road. It was beige, inside and out, with all the aero-dynamics of the step-in GMC van my father drove to deliver bread. No air-bags, no seat belt. I loved it, for sure -- but when I look back on it, I am not only stunned I survived in it, but that the American auto industry survived along with me.

Last week, to the amazement of many, General Motors announced it was not shutting down its plants for the traditional two week summer layoff period. Orders for automobiles were coming in too fast for the now-downsized manufacturing giant.

And just a week earlier, auto-owner survey company J.D. Power announced Ford had topped its "best initial quality" list for the first time ever.

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Maybe, just maybe, the American auto industry is coming back -- this would be a triumph, but for me, Detroit will always have the 1970s the live down. That was the era of the very first oil embargo and energy crisis. Gasoline prices skyrocketed, people waited in line to fill-up, and the Big Three decided to finally build some smaller cars.

It didn't do very well.

On Facebook, I put out the words to some friends - asked them about their first cars, and here's the list:

-- Two AMC Gremlins (one yellow, one red). If you're of a certain age, you can't help but remember this vehicle, no matter how hard you try. It looked like half a car and drove like, well, half a car.

-- A 1973 Chevy Vega. My high-school friend Patrick had one of these, too. Chevy advertised the price at a low $1,973 -- trust me, the car was overpriced.

-- A 1976 Ford Pinto Wagon. Enough said.

-- A 1980 Chevy Chevette. My friend Ian writes: "Going up hill...people used to have to get out so I could make it."

-- And a 1974 gold Plymouth Duster, cousin car to my beige Dodge Dart Swinger. The Duster had a little tornado insignia on the side, so you could tell the two cars apart.

Is it any wonder so many of us turned to Nissans (nee Datsun), Hondas and Toyotas?

Now, of course, it is Toyotas turn in the poor-quality hot seat - and Detroit, after it's brush with death early last year, smells the chance for a comeback. It has some decent mid-sized cars: the Ford Fusion has gotten rave reviews.

But, when it comes compact, the U.S. still turns out more than its share of clunkers, even today. Just as it announced it was keeping its busy plants open, GM this week also rang the death knell for it latest small car: the Chevy Cobalt is ending production. In quality, fit and finish, it was a clear successor to the lamentable Vega.

Chevy isn't giving up, tough. It has a new compact car, one it hopes will do better. They're calling it the "Cruze" -- and, unfortunately, I have spelled the name correctly. Not sure it sounds like the next big thing in the automotive world. But I'm hoping.

In the meantime, my daughter loves her red Civic.

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September 12-25, 2014

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