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The sad fall of the American car industry

Sunday, November 30, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 11:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The chairman of General Motors, Rick Waggoner, recently gave testimony before Congress about bailing out the Big Three of America’s auto industry.

He made clear – or tried to – that the industry’s troubles were not of its own making but were caused by the current recession. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Isn’t it reminiscent of another quote from a former GM CEO? Remember “Engine Charlie’s” remark that what’s good for GM is good for the country? That’s not exactly what he said, but people knew what he meant.

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I worked for GM’s advertising agencies during the company’s “glory days” in the 1950s. Some may remember Chevy’s “Hot Car,” the Pontiac Wide Track, the sleek lines of Zora Arkus Duntov’s Corvette. Like the New York Yankees of the same era, GM was three deep in good players. The press and public spoke approvingly of “good car men” like Ed Cole, Bunkie Knudson and Lee Iacocca. It was also the era of Harley Earl, who embellished cars with those absurd tailfins. But the public liked them, especially on those imperial Cadillacs, and who wanted to argue with success?

GM was so successful that the company suspended its advertising and promotion efforts whenever sales volume approached 60 percent of the industry mark. They feared the government would blow the whistle on the company’s monopolistic practices. So, in fairness, it could be said that GM was partially a victim of its own success. But how could a company of such wealth and even popularity go so bad and end up in Congress, hat in hand, looking for a handout? Better they should have come with a plan. Shocking they didn’t. The Congress had to tell them what to do.

The Oil Crisis of the 1970s tells us a lot about the failures of the American auto industry. Oil was scarce, prices were high, and General Motors, in its self-satisfied arrogance, continued doing what it did best – building cars that were long on size and gas, short on quality, inspiration and safety. (Remember the Nova, the Falcon? Valiant was among a poor crop). Their defense was that their customers would not stand for the extra cost of improvements.

Meanwhile, the Japanese landed on our shores with their economical, sensibly sized, quality designed cars. Our American automakers didn’t know and didn’t want to know what hit them. In the matter of a decade our car makers had surrendered more than 30 percent of the market to our friends from overseas. Today, our most admired, best-selling cars come from Japan and Europe. My students at MU wouldn’t be caught dead in an American car. Are they disloyal? Not at all. Meanwhile, our unrepentant industry has fought every progressive idea on how to improve their products.

So can The Big Three – and GM in particular – be trusted to be good stewards of public money? Should America bail them out? Or maybe a better way of looking at it is "Should we Americans support our fellow Americans who make up the industry’s enormous labor pool?" Me, personally, I would hold my nose, take my chances and hope to hell my vote for a bailout isn’t an expression of confidence in the current management.

As of this writing, there is talk about a czar for the industry. If so, let it be Lee Iacocca. He’s a good car man and he knows people. He saved Chrysler once. But isn’t it a shame that matters have come to this?

Henry Hager is a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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