By on January 5, 2009

You’ve all heard that the Domestics might go belly up, right? I think Autoblog might have mentioned it at some point. Anyhow, over on Autofiends we’ve been working on a new little featurette called “Domestic Bliss.” What is it you ask? Well, it’s a look back at when the domestics were totally killer cool. When a Caddy was a mofo’n Caddy. And, to quote Ice-T’s old band Body Count, “Shit Ain’t Like That!!!!” But just maybe… You seen Fight Club? You know, the Brad Pitt, Ed Norton post-punk, post-slacker flick about the sexiest case of delusional schizophrenia ever? Well, one of my favorite parts is the very end when Mr. Durden and Marla Singer are standing hand in hand as the TRW building and all the other credit bureaus are blown up, sending everybody “back to zero” as the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” blares over it all. Quite nice. I’m bringing this up because it would take the equivalent of a terrorist attack for GM to build anything like the Corvair in 2009. What a lateral move. My question? If Chapter 11 and the Great Depression 2.0 smashes Detroit, could America once again build the best cars in the world?

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27 Comments on “Question Of The Day: Can The American Car Industry Go Back To Zero?...”


  • avatar
    davey49

    Have we ever built “the best cars in the world”?
    It wouldn’t do us much good anyway, no one buys the “best car in the world”.

  • avatar

    I don’t think there’s any question that there’s enough engineering and design talent in Detroit to build world class cars and light trucks. The question is whether the managers and marketers who tell the engineers and designers what to do will accurately assess what consumers will want.

    For everything bad you can say about GM and Ford, those are companies with great technical resources. Chrysler’s been hollowed out so I don’t know if they still have enough talented staff to develop new products. Still, there’s a lot of talent in Detroit.

    Detroit was nicknamed the Arsenal of Democracy for the way the auto industry switched to munitions production to help win World War II. I think the industry has to have the same sense of existential danger if it has a prayer of surviving.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    No. No one country ever built “the best cars in the world”. It’s a myth from more innocent times, a childhood fantasy. At anytime in history, I could show how “the best cars in the world” were being built in various countries, at the same time. And now, more than ever, car technology is so convergent, that cars are increasingly similar.

  • avatar
    skor

    Pixies? I remember them. I fell in love with Kim Deal back in the day. I’ve seen her recently; unfortunately, she ain’t what she used to be — just like the auto industry I guess.

  • avatar
    63CorvairSpyder

    @Jonnie Lieberman:

    Nice shot of the Monza. My ’63 Spyder was a Convertible, 4-speed. Loved it.

    Thanks,

    Johnnie Herman(aka-63CorvairSpyder)

  • avatar
    pharmer

    The idea of a bygone era of “great American cars” is a fantasy. The Big 3 enjoyed their 20 or so year golden era because they were, basically, a monopoly of 3 in a rapidly growing captive market. For many years, an American car was all you could buy!

    Once the rest of the world got over WWII and started sending us cars, their market shares started to slowly erode. The Big 3 sat on their laurels while the imports focused on building cars that people wanted to buy with real money.

    That said, I think the answer to your question is an unqualified yes, but I don’t think it’s likely right now. They could very easily go back to zero if the government let them slide into a carefully managed bankruptcy, threw out the top 10 or so layers of management, and dumped their ridiculous labor contracts.

    With the slate wiped clean, new management could focus on rationalizing and retooling their manufacturing plants (some of which are the best in the industry, efficiency-wise), listening to customers, and building cars that people will buy.

  • avatar
    mcs

    Take a look at the US Bicycle industry for an example. The Asians totally overran the entrenched US low end manufacturers years ago. No bailout money back then. Now when you buy a low end bicycle from a department store or bike shop, chances are that it was made in China.

    Companies that had been around for decades like Columbia, Huffy, and Schwinn were replaced by new companies like Waterford (founded by ex-Schwinn employees), Parlee Cycles, Seven Cycles, and Trek. These manufacturers now produce the best bikes in the world – bikes that everyone dreams about owning.

    I you want the Bugatti Veyron or Ferrari Enzo of the Bike world, you go American and to a high end manufacturer like Parlee Cycles of Massachusetts. At the high end of their price range, they can cost more than a new Camry, but you’re getting the best in the world and it’s hand made in the USA.

    I think that we have great engineers and talented craftsmen that are the best in the automotive world, but the fetid rotted corpse of the D2.8 management is holding them back. Get rid of the cruft and fantastic world beating products will be the end result – just like the bike industry.

  • avatar
    dubtee1480

    Even if they go back to zero via C11 they have a lot of work throwing off the shackles of their past reputation – this coming from someone who has 2 cars in my name and both of them GM (an ’04 Impala SS and a ’93 GMC Sonoma) – perception is everything and the general public’s perception is that even if not all D3 cars are bad, it may be a risky business to buy them anyway. Detroit does build a few world class cars and trucks now, but their reputation, perceived or not, precedes them. If the slate is wiped clean after C11 the first decades worth of cars they sell are going to have to be near flawless… or if they aren’t, the way they handle recalls and warranties are going to have to show that there’s a new sheriff in town. Aside from that, any new startup companies will have a long uphill battle to gain market share as “unproven” automakers with either entries in the budget car market or making supercars as the mainstream car market will be firmly held by the Japanese, Koreans and Germans.

  • avatar
    thoots

    No, you don’t need to buy or have “the best car in the world.” That mainly means “lots of money” in today’s world.

    Really, you just need to “compete.” Indeed, the Big 3 just had a near-monopoly in the past, and the world has moved on from those days. In today’s world, they just need to compete with the best that every other manufacturer brings to market.

    Oh, you’ll hear a certain amount of “They already do that!” But, quite very obviously, the average US car buyer just doesn’t think so. Indeed, you can’t just take one JD Powers “initial quality” survey, and say “We’re just as good as Toyota” or whoever — no, you’ve got to be that good for DECADES. Buyers moved away from the US cars because THEY GOT BURNED, and a handful of marketing hype won’t bring them back. Let the flag-wavers risk their money on these cars, and if the Big 3 can truly build a reputation for quality, refinement, and durability, then other folks will start risking their money, too.

    Still, I think that’s really the case here: Buying a Big 3 vehicle is a risky proposition — what shape will that thing be in once it’s paid off, and how much grief will you have to go through getting there? Very simply, the manufacturers that have actually been making profits selling vehicles have built reputations for quality and durability over decades. That’s really all the Big 3 need to do.

    Just compete.

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    If it wasn’t for the door-handles you could almost convince yourself that the Monza could be driven forwards or backwards. Which end is the front?? LOL

  • avatar
    Runfromcheney

    That is half the reason why I just want GM and Chrysler to go under. So we can start back over from scratch and hopefully not make the same mistakes.

  • avatar

    They need a different way of operating based on teams of experts rather than the traditional corporate model. I don’t know if it’s possible for an organization to make this transition.

  • avatar

    To answer your question from a different angle, American cars of the 1950s and 1960s had a presence, a bravado that is rarely attempted much less achieved in the mainstream auto market these days.

    The only recent exception: the Chrysler 300.

    I look at those old cars and can see why the people who built them couldn’t bring themselves to develop small cars. It’d be like getting someone used to breeding race horses to run a chicken farm. From that, to this? A totally different concept of what a car is, and of what a special car is.

    Those classic cars were a reflection of an America that felt like it was on top of the world, and that everyone could have a large piece of the pie. America isn’t so much wealthier than the rest of the world anymore, and we no longer feel so invincible. Large SUVs represnted a revival of the feeling, but they’ve now also passed.

    Instead, we’re moving to the European model, where only the very rich get to drive cars with a great deal of road presence.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    but you’re getting the best in the world and it’s hand made in the USA. …

    America has no problem with competition in the cost no object arena. It is here America excels.

  • avatar
    red60r

    My first new car was a 1961 Corvair coupe — no Monza buckets, just the “big” 110-hp dual-carb engine and 4 on the floor. Aftermarket sway bar and transverse rear leaf spring (Camber Compensator, it was called), made it handle better than most of its contemporaries from across the pond. Really scary brakes, though. Also a passenger-side seat back that kept falling off the hinge. No parts available to make up for the capnut that was left off at the factory. Not in the catalog. The dealership just gave me the upward palms and the “wuddaya expect from a cheap car” attitude. I finally drilled through the hinge pin on the seat and put a bent nail in lieu of a big cotter pin through the hole. Problem solved. A much later experience with a GM cheapie showed that they had learned nothing in the ensuing 36 years about heaters in small cars — our 1997 Saturn couldn’t warm much above ambient temperatures. At least the brakes were better than the Poor Man’s Porsche’s.

  • avatar
    kovachian

    To answer your question from a different angle, American cars of the 1950s and 1960s had a presence, a bravado that is rarely attempted much less achieved in the mainstream auto market these days.

    The only recent exception: the Chrysler 300.

    I look at those old cars and can see why the people who built them couldn’t bring themselves to develop small cars. It’d be like getting someone used to breeding race horses to run a chicken farm. From that, to this? A totally different concept of what a car is, and of what a special car is.

    This much is true, but you must also bear in mind that foreign competition in the 50s and 60s was merely a tiny fraction of what it is today. A typical Mercedes and Ferrari was unaffordable for all but the wealthiest, the few extraneous European brands that made it here sold ok but weren’t that desirable for one reason or another, and Japanese cars weren’t even available until I believe 1969.

    Most Americans drove American cars because for the most part, that’s all there was to choose from!

  • avatar
    reclusive_in_nature

    Little off topic (but not too much!). I still love Kim Deal and her twin sister Kelley. I own every Breeder album made and side projects. Nice knowing I’m not the only one.

  • avatar
    findude

    Hey! I had a 1963 Corvair Turbo Coupe too!

    To answer the question, the goal, I think is to build a really good car in these key price points: 12-17k, 18-27k, 28-35k, 36-50k, and 50-75k (go ahead, tweak the dollar amounts; you get the idea). Benchmark to the best cars in those categories and beat them. Continue to own the pickup market, both small and full size (that market may get smaller but it is really important to defend the king of the hill title).

    Five really good cars and two good pickups. Yes, they can go through C11 and do it. Ford and GM can do this. Let Cerberus keep Chrysler and feed the scraps to their three-headed dog.

  • avatar
    geeber

    kovichian: A typical Mercedes and Ferrari was unaffordable for all but the wealthiest, the few extraneous European brands that made it here sold ok but weren’t that desirable for one reason or another, and Japanese cars weren’t even available until I believe 1969.

    There were less-expensive Mercedes models available in the U.S. during the late 1950s and early 1960s. They weren’t cheap, but they weren’t super-expensive, either. If you could afford a big Buick or Oldsmobile, you could afford a Mercedes. In those days, most people preferred the big Buicks and Oldsmobiles.

    Japanese cars were initially introduced to the American market in 1958 (Toyota), but then hastily withdrawn, because they were completely inadequate for American driving conditions. Both Toyota and Nissan (its cars and trucks were sold under the Datsun nameplate at that time) re-entered the American market in 1964, if I recall correctly.

    The world – and America’s position in it – has changed too much for the American automobile industry to produce the products with the presence and style that it did in the 1950s and 1960s. And the market is just too competitive for any one nation to claim that its vehicles are “the best.”

    What the Americans need is more consistent leadership – leadership that understands the importance of keeping the entire lineup up-to-date; that stops “dumbing down” new models for the American market; that realizes the importance of nameplate continuity; and that works to build and preserve brand equity for the long-term, not just for the short-term.

  • avatar
    zerofoo

    @ Ronnie Schreiber

    The new “Arsenal of Democracy” is composed of the following members:

    Boeing, United Technologies, Lockheed Martin, GE, General Dynamics, and a host of smaller arms manufacturers.

    Detroit is not really a part of the modern military machine. Detroit would have a very hard time tooling up to build the massively complicated war machines we now produce in the event of a large conflict.

    -ted

  • avatar
    200k-min

    I say NO, America doesn’t have the ability to make the best cars in the world. Why? In engineering school everyone was only interested in getting in 1-5 years with a major company, getting an MBA, then settling into a cush six figure management job. Nobody ever talked about developing, inventing….engineering. Everyone knew that they key to a good life wasn’t work, per se, but rising to the same management level that is killing the Detroit. Until the engineer is paid more than his manager nobody will give a whit about making the best car because all they’ll be doing is working for that next promotion.

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    @ zerofoo (aka Ted)

    Can I add those that would be forced to join in; Caterpillar, John Deere, Terex, Cummins, Harley Davidson (well, not really), etc.

    Factories that would be immediately nationalised; Toyota, Honda etc, Mack, Freightliner, Western Star, etc etc.

    The “military” argument was always a distraction. It seemed to appeal for a while, but as it was a wafer thin borderline scare tactic, it has vanished from apologist talking points.

    The USA would have trouble producing a decent computer in the event of war I would think.

    Oh, and Australia would let you have access to Metal Storm just in case.

  • avatar
    radimus

    I think Americans love cars too much to be without some kind of auto industry even if the D3 go C7 and disappear.

    Like was said earlier foreign companies took over our bicycle industry once, but new US companies arose and rebuilt it. The same thing almost happened to our domestic motorcycle inustry. At one time all that was left was Harley-Davidson and they were on the verge of death. Now in addition to Harley we have Victory, Buell, and Indian has since returned.

    For the most part, if we are going to see true change in the US auto industry the status quo needs to come down. GM, Ford, and Chrysler need to either die completely or be so totally transformed that they are nothing like what they once were. We need a smaller domestic auto industry so other players can enter the fray and bring some real innovation to the table. Innovation that can’t happen very much right now with the D3 sucking up most of the money for “green cars” into their bottomless pits.

    As screwed up as they are, I think Tesla is something of a pioneer of what will be the new US auto industry. They may totally fail, but someone will look at what they did, try to learn from their mistakes, and try again.

  • avatar
    red60r

    @ kovachian:
    “…and Japanese cars weren’t even available until I believe 1969.”
    I got my wife a ’68 Toyota Corona hardtop coupe, and that was at least the second year of availability. Cute car, 2-speed slush. Reasonable reliability; mediocre mileage for 1900cc.

  • avatar
    windswords

    zerofoo:

    “@ Ronnie Schreiber

    The new “Arsenal of Democracy” is composed of the following members:

    Boeing, United Technologies, Lockheed Martin, GE, General Dynamics, and a host of smaller arms manufacturers.

    Detroit is not really a part of the modern military machine. Detroit would have a very hard time tooling up to build the massively complicated war machines we now produce in the event of a large conflict.

    -ted”

    You are making the mistake in your analysis that the only thing the US needs to manufacture in the case of a large scale war is $50,000,000 F-22 Raptor air superiority fighters or $15,000,000 M1A1 Abram main battle tanks. Wars need other things produced that are not nearly so high tech.

    Like bullets.
    Or tank treads.
    Or aircraft tires.
    Or amunition clips.
    Here’s one that is not thought about much – MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) – you can’t field an Army/Navy/Air Force if you can’t feed them.

    And all of these things will be needed AND WILL NOT be met by current defense suppliers if we find ourselves in a really big fur-ball.

    Complete anti-air or anti-shipping missle too complicated for a Detroit automaker or other industrial firm like Catepiller to make? Maybe – but not the missile casing. If you can build a CTS, Flex, 300, or a front-end loader you could do that. Or artillery shells. Or, I don’t know, tank transmissions?

    This is like the auto supply chain that everyone forgets about. You just focus on the auto factory.
    Same thing here. You’re just focussing on the fanciest complete weapons system.

  • avatar
    davey49

    windswords- I’m sure people had just the same thoughts and claims before WWII that zerofoo wrote.
    Seemed to work out OK then.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    I wonder if Detroit ever sends their people to read this website…

    Probably not b/c if the minion assigned this duty reads more than a few articles they’ll begin mentally questioning the whole Detroit house of cards…. VBG!


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