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Essay: The End Of the Affair
By P.J. O'Rourke
30 May 2009
The Wall Street Journal
Horsepower is a unit of power. An article on America's love of cars in Saturday's Weekend Journal
incorrectly said that horsepower is a unit of energy.
(WSJ June 3, 2009)
(See related letters: "Letters to the Editor: It Was Fun, Fun, Fun but Now It Is Time to Grow Up" -- WSJ June
[The fate of Detroit isn't a matter of economics. It's a tragic romance, whose magic was killed by
bureaucrats, bad taste and busy-bodies. P.J. O'Rourke on why Americans fell out of love with the
The phrase "bankrupt General Motors," which we expect to hear uttered on Monday, leaves Americans my
age in economic shock. The words are as melodramatic as "Mom's nude photos." And, indeed, if we want to
understand what doomed the American automobile, we should give up on economics and turn to
Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a
convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn't a matter of financial
crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of
the footprints in the carbon. It's a tragic romance -- unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild
Foremost are the horses. Cars can't be comprehended without them. A hundred and some years ago
Rudyard Kipling wrote "The Ballad of the King's Jest," in which an Afghan tribesman avers:
Four things greater than all things are, --
Women and Horses and Power and War.
Insert another "power" after the horse and the verse was as true in the suburbs of my 1950s boyhood as it
was in the Khyber Pass.
Horsepower is not a quaint leftover of linguistics or a vague metaphoric anachronism. James Watt, father of
the steam engine and progenitor of the industrial revolution, lacked a measurement for the movement of
weight over distance in time -- what we call energy. (What we call energy wasn't even an intellectual concept
in the late 18th century -- in case you think the recent collapse of global capitalism was history's most
transformative moment.) Mr. Watt did research using draft animals and found that, under optimal conditions,
a dray horse could lift 33,000 pounds one foot off the ground in one minute. Mr. Watt -- the eponymous watt
not yet existing -- called this unit of energy "1 horse-power."
In 1970 a Pontiac GTO (may the brand name rest in peace) had horsepower to the number of 370. In the
time of one minute, for the space of one foot, it could move 12,210,000 pounds. And it could move those