Grumpy Old Man: Wheel of misfortune

We’ve come a long way from those simpler times, when prime ministers rode around in Chevys and cabinet ministers made do with Volvos. But BMWs?

BMW (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Everyone seems to be telling Yitzhak Shamir stories of late, so here’s one of mine.
In the spring of 1990, with family having come from the US for my wedding, the prime minister’s vehicle pulled up next to us at a Jerusalem intersection. I pointed this out to my nephews and they gaped as the diminutive Shamir, sitting low in the back seat, looked in our direction, smiled and waved.
“Wow!” exclaimed Robert, age seven, after being told what a prime minister was.
“Wait till I tell my class!” gushed Josh, age 11. Precocious Jason, 13, just wanted to know why the leader of a powerful Western nation was riding around in an old Chevy.
“This a loaner or something?” To a young American teen a Chevrolet Caprice was something mom drove to the supermarket. Here it was a stretch limo.
I was reminded of this vignette when I read last week that following a government tender our cabinet ministers might soon be tooling around in the BMW 528i, a midsize German luxury car. Farther down in the news item it said the tender would allow the ministers to choose, should they wish, the more sedate Citroen C5, a French make of the same size.
Also buried in the newsprint was the fact that both importers had agreed to give the State of Israel a discount – 13 percent for the Citroen, meaning a final unit cost of NIS 178,000, and a whopping 48% for the BMW, putting each of the Bimmers, as aficionados call them, on the road at a mere NIS 206,000.
BACK WHEN I worked at the Jerusalem Municipality, mayor Teddy Kollek rode around in a stodgy Peugeot 405. It wasn’t the cheapest car on the road but it certainly was not expensive. Yet apparently even this was too much for Teddy, who on a day the 405 was in the garage for maintenance turned to his driver and said the much smaller and simpler Peugeot 205 loaner he had been given would be good enough when it was time for a new car. (Of course, the mayor wasn’t sitting in back.) But after Ehud Olmert defeated Kollek, the 405 was traded in for a Honda Accord, a new import on Israel’s roads that cost far more and was considered quite snazzy and upscale. Say of Olmert what you will, but the municipal upgrade came at roughly the same time the people in charge of wheels over at the Prime Minister’s Office decided to jump from Caprice to Cadillac for Yitzhak Rabin. Theoretically, therefore, were there to be an Accord Affair in addition to all of Olmert’s other legal headaches, his lawyers would be able to use the Rabin Defense (which in essence is what most of the rest of us use when we see the guy in the next lane driving a car that’s nicer than ours).
So we’ve come a long way since those simpler times, when prime ministers rode around in Chevys (and their drivers actually stopped at traffic lights), and cabinet ministers made do with Volvos. But BMWs? UNLIKE IN business, where it’s the bottom line that’s important, what counts in news reporting is what appears in the headline and the first few paragraphs. And very high up in just about all the stories about the tender was the 528i’s sticker price: almost NIS 400,000.
Your average Israeli family would have to work for well over three years to earn this kind of money. In addition, we’re all too aware that the current government is the largest we’ve ever seen, with more than a few ministers wandering the halls with portfolios of no real consequence and others without portfolios at all – meaning it’s probably the most wasteful government we’ve ever seen, too.
Also, there’s the little matter of the BMW’s image. Just mention that name in this country and a lot of eyes will roll. People will tell you that those who want true German precision and reliability buy a Mercedes; BMWs are for those looking for flash. At one time there even was a joke about why a BMW’s steering wheel was so small. For the punch line the person telling the joke held out his arms, joined at the wrists, and explained that it was a car you could drive while wearing handcuffs.
Some Israeli politicians might find the steering-wheel part quite attractive. But the story broke just when social justice protesters were coming out of hibernation and early elections started looking like a real possibility in light of all the difficulties over the Tal Law, so no cabinet minister (at least within earshot of a journalist) had any plans to choose the BMW.
“There is no justification for government ministers not to make do with a vehicle that is less expensive and eye-catching,” Minister of Whatever Yossi Peled told Yediot Aharonot. Shaul Mofaz, whose now ex-job as a cabinet minister was not exactly clear either, loudly agreed. Even Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is chauffeured the few steps between his home and synagogue in a BMW that makes the 528 look decidedly tiny and low-rent, called for the tender to be canceled.
NUMBER CRUNCHERS at the Treasury’s Motor Vehicle Administration, which issued the tender and signed the contracts, are not paid to take into account appearances or the way journalists write stories.
That’s for their boss, a politician. Therefore, the question must be asked: What was Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz thinking? Seeing his fellow cabinet ministers now diving for cover, though, Steinitz quickly woke up and said the agreement would be reviewed. The winners of the tender, however, were of a different mind; Yediot reported them as saying they would take the state to court if the finance minister tried to wuss out.
Clearly, Steinitz is in a jam. If he cancels the deal for the BMWs the importer apparently will sue and the finance minister will probably be out quite a few shekels, leaving a lot less to spend on his colleagues’ cars. If he goes ahead with the deal he won’t have anyone to take the 528s – which I’m sure come with a little provision in the contract saying they cannot be resold within a set amount of time lest the government see the light and go into the automobile business.
As a patriotic taxpayer I’d like to help out.
I drive a 12-year-old Subaru B-4. Reaching for the Rabin Defense I’ll admit I’d rather have a newer model, but on a journalist’s salary I’ve learned to make do. So I keep it in great shape because I maintain it properly. It has a high collision-protection rating and its all-wheel drive means not only a smooth ride, but one that is stable and safe on wet, slippery roads. It’s roomy and comfortable. What’s more, it hasn’t even passed 100,000 kilometers, meaning there’s a lot more life in the engine and transmission.
The blue book probably says my B-4 is worth somewhere around NIS 25,000, but the used car market is sluggish and no one is getting anywhere near the asking price.
So listen up, Mr. Steinitz: Go ahead and renege on the deal. You’ll lose your shirt, perhaps not leaving enough even for the C5s. But I would be willing to part with a great car for a relatively low price, and I think there are a lot of others out there who feel the same way about their own cars.
Taking them off our hands would do wonders for the used car market, which, when you think about it, is another area under your purview. So we’d all come out ahead. It’s either that or ending up with a flashy parking lot full of Bimmers.
Your choice, sir. You can reach me care of this newspaper.