Before that cataclysmic event, it had been smooth sailing for American automakers. From year to year, market share among the Big 3 would vary, perhaps, 1 percent. Everyone was doing well, especially dealers. No one worried about the Japanese.
The muscle car from Detroit was king. It didn't matter that it got less than 10 mpg. Those were the times of Sunoco 260, the highest octane fuel you could find, and it fed those high-compression engines from Detroit.
Washington was barely noticed by the automakers. The new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seemed mainly concerned with protecting Americans from unsafe cars brought in from places like Italy and Japan.
Safety regulation was just emerging as an issue. I recall our Washington editor, Helen Kahn, telling me about a young lawyer named Ralph Nader who came by her office a few years earlier. He was working on a book about safety.
And then there was a war.
They called it the Yom Kippur War. It was fought by Egypt and Syria against Israel from Oct. 6 to 25, 1973. Although we might have given Israel some help, it wasn't our war. At least we didn't think so. Still, the Arabs got angry, and OPEC stopped selling oil to the United States.
And the world and the car industry changed forever.
The price of gasoline skyrocketed, and when consumers panicked so did Detroit. Little engines were installed in big cars, and they were not very good.
The Japanese began to import cars that had not seemed right for Americans but suddenly were. And now those little cars, with their high quality and, most important, high gas mileage, began to appear on the lots of used-car dealers and Japanese motorcycle dealers -- because those guys became new-car dealers for import brands.
After a few years, gasoline prices stabilized, and the U.S. companies felt confident again, as if the old days were back. Only they weren't. A second oil shock touched off by the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 caused gasoline prices to shoot up again.
This time the government decided to take over distribution of gasoline, and it was a disaster. There were long lines at filling stations as the government worked out a system in which some people could buy gasoline on even-numbered days and the rest on odd-numbered days.