The first car I ever purchased was a 1988 Chevrolet Nova hatchback. It was the “hybrid” of it’s day — a Chevy body with an engine manufactured by Toyota. I spoiled that car. Took it in for its oil changes on time; tune ups. It wasn’t long before every oil change became a diagnosis for some other mechanical problem. Brakes, suspension, and a host of things, I can’t even pronounce. By 1994 the car had starter problems or would cut off while I was waiting for a light change. The car was becoming a money pit. Had I been more mindful of the Spanish language, I would’ve have figured out “No-Va” means “no go.” This made the Nova a marketing disaster for GM in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

The following year I bought a Honda Civic. I’ve shamelessly abused this car. I constantly forget to change the oil, and twice the red light has blinked to remind me it’s time to do so. That Honda’s had a few major repairs, maybe 4 total. I left it outside during the blizzard. And it still runs.

My elders used to tell me, if a car name has more than one syllable, it isn’t a real car. This was the Ford generation (who would gladly break their own rule and hop into a Mercedes). Nevertheless, looking in hindsight at my Chevy Nova experience makes me chuckle. GM and Toyota have both been on the hot seat. The Toyota mechanical failure has probably done greater damage to the reputation of the Japanese car industry than GM’s mishaps and business miscalculations have done to the American car industry. Perhaps now both are on equal footing at least for today. (India, China, and even some start ups companies inside garages are ready for a test drive.)

The American automobile industry, with its assembly line genius, was falling behind the engineering creds of the Japanese passenger car industry. Yet, American cars depended on being the sentimental favorite. “Buy American” was the call to action. The American car and the American dream became both legend and mantra. But as Americans became more independently mobile especially in densely populated areas, they seemed to want their cars to be the same. Toyota, Honda, and Subaru could get you where you wanted to go faster, further, and even size-wise you could squeeze into a parking space. American cars were great for special occasions like proms, weddings, and funerals. Or picking up the elders from church who just hated squeezing into the back seat of your little car. The green movement gave added value to buying more gas efficient cars with its lighter metals that would flatten on impact against an old 70s Cadillac.

The consumer was driving the industry then as it did now when the GM bailout was announced (not the first government intervention in the last 20+ years for GM/Chrysler). Layoffs from the plants came in the 1980s as they did in the last several years. Hostilities rose towards the Japanese automakers. Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was murdered in Detroit in 1982 by Ronald Ebens a laid off white auto worker who presumed Chin was Japanese. Ebens was charged but did no jail time and hasn’t paid the $1.5 million won by Chin’s mother in a civil suit since 1989. No one knows Nitz’s whereabouts to this day. What happens to a dream deferred?

Toyota could not compete with the American dream model, but built its reputation on a new generation wanting to take that big leap in the air — “I love what you do for me.” Toyota drivers were “moving forward.” Hey but not this fast! Perhaps the marriage in 1988 between Toyota and GM was intended to be a Rodney King “can we get along” moment joining the sentimental American dream with the forward moving engineering of the new era. I bought it. I thought my Nova was the best of both worlds. But maybe the signs of things to come were in the making.

For me, Toyota’s reputation was built on product, and customer approval; not Hollywood images, dreams, or consumer patriotism. But that’s where Toyota may have left it — moving forward but not sticking with what made Toyota popular among customers: dependability. And above all else for any automaker – safety! Toyota won’t be getting the GM treatment; they’ve got some paying to do – $16.4 million in fines for not reporting defects.

I don’t know much about cars, but dependability and safety are key for me in that I don’t know much about cars. Ford managed to stay in the game financially and there’s been a lot of switching and selling off. But jobs on the assembly lines aren’t what they used to be. Jury’s still out on the impact of the new market on workers. It may be time to retool the American dream as well. The customer is going to determine what will sink or swim.

Now that GM is off the government payroll ($5.8 billion paid in full), and is ready to start their engines again, this time they can’t bank on sentimentality – quality is the place to start. Sure customers attach meaning to their cars. GM, Toyota and others should listen to them seriously and not their CFOs or marketers. It’s the memory of the first car that sets all standards.