History says gas spike won't smother SUV love

WASHINGTON D.C.

– It can't be easy owning a Hummer these days.

If you're not being mocked in television ads, you're cut off by hostile drivers or harassed by environmentalists.

Jatinder Sehmi, owner of a junk-removal franchise in Maryland, had a hamburger thrown at his H2 recently.

"A friend of mine told me he had a car full of nuns give him the finger," chuckled Leo Karl, of Hummer by Karl in New Canaan, Conn.

And to add insult to injury, a tank of gasoline will now run you at least $60.

But are these much-maligned Hummer owners regretting their purchases?

"It hasn't slowed me down a bit," said Dan Johnson, an H2 owner in Rohrersville, Md.

"Nobody wants to see the price (of gasoline) at $2 a gallon, but you've got to take it with a grain of salt.

"You don't buy this vehicle and expect it's going to be cheap maintenance."

With gas prices spiking near record territory (an average of $2.04 per gallon after Sunday's survey showed the first nationwide decline recorded this year) and concern rising over oil imports from the volatile Middle East, it would stand to reason that Americans are about to ditch their Hummers and Suburbans for the modern equivalent of those oddities of the 1970s: the AMC Gremlin and Pacer, the Volkswagen Rabbit and the Datsun B210.

There has been an uptick in small-car interest, especially in gas-sippers such as the Toyota Prius, which runs on gasoline and electricity, and some dip in large SUV sales.

But more than likely, it's going to take much more than a $60 tank of gas to chase most drivers to a Mini Cooper.

Since the price shocks of the 1970s, driving patterns have changed, commutes have lengthened and family checkbooks have fattened.

Even child car seat laws have conspired to keep families out of tiny Honda Civics.

"There's a lot of consumer sentiment bound up in the car they want," said David Greene, a corporate fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Center for Transportation Analysis.

"If you have your heart set on a pickup truck to haul your mulch, it's going to be hard to get you into a Mazda Miata.

If you have six people in your family, it's going be hard to get you to buy a car that seats four."

Besides, Americans just like big.

"I am convinced Americans prefer to buy the largest car they can afford," said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

"If the largest car they can afford is a VW Rabbit, they will buy it, but if they can step up to something bigger, they will.

It gets repeated again and again."

The recent spike in gas prices is not trivial.

Only once before – during a bleak stretch from 1979 to 1984 – did the price of a gallon of regular gasoline top $2 (when adjusted for inflation).

But automotive industry analysts caution that circumstances today are fundamentally different from the oil shocks that stemmed from the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the 1979 Iranian revolution.

And even back then, the reasons for ditching a Chevrolet Impala for a Dodge Omni were more complicated than simply price.

Automotive historians look at the 1970s as a remarkable shift in consumer behavior, but the motivations were multiple.

What had been a monolithic market for outsized autos had begun fragmenting by the mid-1960s.

Pushed by the success of the Volkswagen Beetle, Chevrolet began selling its relatively small Corvair, Ford its Falcon, said Tom Libby, director of industry analysis at the Power Information Network, an affiliate of J.D.

Power and Associates.

By 1970 and 1971, Ford was ready with the Pinto, and Chevrolet had the Vega.

But the Japanese automakers, Toyota, Honda and Datsun, began arriving on the market with cars that had the appeal of novelty, Greene said.

Economy was secondary.

And they secured their toehold just when the Arab nations slapped an oil embargo on the United States.

It was not so much the price of gas that pushed buyers into small cars as the gas lines that ensued when the federal government tried to hold prices down, Libby said.

In today's dollars, prices crested at $1.74 in 1974, according to the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.

"Long gas lines were this visible evidence to the consumer," Libby said.

"There was like a panic.

People were going to the gas station with their tanks three-quarters full because they were afraid there wasn't going to be any gas left."

The power of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries proved to be ephemeral, but the cartel's actions were such a shock that people were convinced life at the gas pump would only get worse, Casey added.

Sales of "regular-size" Chevrolets – Impalas and Caprices – plunged from 857,204 in 1973 to 552,051 in 1974.

Ford sales of LTDs and other regular-size cars dropped from 693,084 to 408,192.

Small-car sales fell as well, but by much smaller numbers.

The Datsun B210 and Honda Civic – which could practically fit inside the passenger compartment of an LTD – actually shot skyward.