Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Goodby to American Cars

Like many Americans, I am a certified car nut.

When I was young, I spent many a happy hour with pencil and paper doodling cars of my own design. When I got older, I'd ride my bike to the new car showrooms to pick up the glossy literature on the latest models every fall.

When I turned 16, my father bought what was charitably called a "business coupe" meaning one sun visor, no radio. It gave basic transportation a bad name. But I could get my fingernails dirty working on it to my great joy.

It is not surprising, therefore, that I've owned a lot of cars over the years. Among them: Fords, Chevys, Buicks and Chryslers.

Every one of them was a beauty in the eye of this beholder. And every one of them was flawed.

My first Ford burned oil by the barrel. The Chevy came equipped with a assembly line worker's coffee cup still wedged into the engine compartment. The Buick ran hot even when it was going downhill in neutral. The Chrysler was oversized and underpowered.

My experience was the rule rather than the exception. It didn't matter. We loved our cars. They meant freedom. They meant status.

We Americans were taught that if you worked hard you would get ahead and when you got ahead, you could reap life's rewards. What better way to show off those rewards than with some Big Iron from Detroit.

They were chromed, they were sleek. Even though they were built on the philosophy of planned obsolescence, we as a nation of automotive junkies kept coming back for another fix.

Now we stand on a precipice. The Big Three automakers, after years of mismanagement, are in Washington begging for money.

If they don't get a cash injection soon, they could fail, throwing millions out of work, something this economy can't tolerate.

Many experts put the price tag for saving Detroit at between $75 billion and $125 billion.

As dire as the consequences may be, many in Congress are taking the Rhett Butler approach. Frankly, they don't give a damn.

You could make the point that we should. Aside from the economic conseqeunces, Ford, General Motors and Chyrsler are American as apple pie. Preserving them is almost like preserving a part of our country's heritage. It seems like the patriotic thing to do.

Do I care enough to rush out and buy an American car? No. Most of them still don't measure up to the imports. Besides, it wouldn't make any difference.

The automakers are damned by their failure to innovate, cursed by a lack of vision, hogtied by outlandish union contracts.

Thomas L. Friedman, writing in the New York Times, gave another reason for the collapse of the industry.

"General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.s and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, GM threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers."

General Motors, for their part, bought a full-page ad in the trade publication Automotive News, apologizing for its failures.

"While we're still the U.S. sales leader, we acknowledge we have disappointed you," the ad says. "At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market."

GM also says it "biased" its product to too heavily favor trucks and SUVs, and "we made commitments to compensations plans" that are unsustainable in today's auto industry. "We have paid dearly for these decisions, learned from them and are working to correct them."

I'm guessing it's too late.

The Japanese and European automakers have been filling the void for more than 30 years by providing reliable, fuel efficient cars to American consumers.

The imports, not Detroit, have become part of the American fabric. Who's won the last five Indy 500s? Honda, that's who. Who's building factories throughout the South? The Japanese and Koreans.

I didn't bat an eye when I traded my big old Chrysler in on a Datsun. Somebody had offered me an alternative to costly repairs and shoddy workmanship and threw in fuel economy as a bonus. It wasn't a hard decision to make.

Now, Americans will will be introduced to car companies like Tata from India and SAIC Motor Corp. and Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. from China. Undoubtedly, they will likely follow the Japanese model and build factories in the United States because of the cost of transporting fleets of automobiles across the Pacific.

I'll miss American cars. They were the visible manifestation of America's manufacturing muscle.

But it's hard to shed a tear over an industry that became so bloated and self satisifed that it let it all slip through their fingers.

No comments: