Detroit's Seven Deadly Sins

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams
detroit s seven deadly sins

Way back in 602, the original Pope Gregory introduced the concept of the seven deadly sins. His text Moralia in Job was designed to help lay people differentiate between venial sins, which could be forgiven through confessions, and capital sins, which are Hell to pay. About a millennium and a half later it looks like the management at Detroit’s Big Two automakers should have paid more attention in their catechism classes. They seem to be harvesting a whole carload of karmic grief for their past corporate indiscretions, and wonder why it’s happening to them. Let’s run down the Big Seven in ascending order of purported theological severity and see how they stack up.

Lust – Year after year, Ford and GM both coveted the title “America’s Best Selling Car” so carnally they dumped cars into the rental and fleet markets to inflate their sales numbers. This succeeded in flooding the market with used cars, trashing resale values and destroying what reputation for quality they might have had. Now their products are associated so strongly with “rental car” and “fleet” many buyers won’t consider buying anything they make.

Gluttony – In an attempt to expand their worldwide empires they both hungrily bought up other companies around the globe, totally oblivious to what it could cost them down the road. As a result Ford keeps pouring piles of money into that black hole called the Premier Auto Group and GM is still reeling from the Fiat fiasco. You can’t post profits very long when your feeding frenzies culminate in flushing billions down the corporate toilet.

Greed – GM is the champion at stretching out product cycles to try to squeeze every dime out of an old design instead of investing money on product development (look up “hoary” in the dictionary and there’s a picture of the Cavalier). Ford puts all their best efforts into designing and producing high profit trucks and SUVs while ignoring and all but abandoning the much lower profit margin vehicles in the passenger car market. In the short term this kept expenditures down and the bottom line up. Today both have milked their cash cows dry and are standing by, watching helplessly as a whole bevy of modern subcompacts come ashore and roll into the awaiting arms of economy-minded consumers.

Sloth – Detroit has gotten lazy over the years. Domestic car makers spend much of their time whining, dragging their corporate feet, and having to be forced into complying with inevitable federal regulations and fuel standards. The manufacturers of imports quietly and industriously go about engineering innovative solutions to meet these requirements. Detroit was once the world leader in automotive technology and innovation. Now they license technology from the Japanese and bring out new models one product cycle behind the rest of the world.

Wrath – Since they seem to be incapable of beating the Japanese nameplates with competitive products consumers actually want to buy, execs from both companies are directing their vituperation towards those who purchase any vehicle not built by them. They’re out making flag-waving speeches and running ad campaigns designed to make anyone who drives anything "foreign" look anti-American and portray them as a threat to the very foundation of the economy. Most consumers see this for what it is – a last-gasp effort of an ailing industry and the backlash may cause more damage than the speech writers ever imagined.

Envy – The Japanese automakers are much better than either GM or Ford at producing and selling what was once Detroit’s bread and butter. Now they realize what they gave away and can’t stand someone else having it. They want it back very badly. But instead of working hard to retake it by producing competitive products, they cry “no fair” and go running to Uncle Sugar for government protection and corporate welfare.

Pride – Hubris reigns in Detroit. For years GM was smug in their belief “as goes General Motors, so goes America.” Ford went around thumping their chests about having the best selling vehicle in the country and resting on their laurels. Both totally ignored the warning signs of impending disaster, thinking they were immune to the basic economic principles of supply and demand. Sadly, both were wrong.

Well, it doesn’t look too good for the gang in Detroit, does it? The troubling part of all this is they won’t own up to their past behavior, confess their mistakes and do the necessary penance. With this much going against them even an Expedition’s worth of Our Fathers and an Escalade full of Hail Marys won’t be enough to bail them out. If they don’t change their ways soon, looks like both may have to spend time in Chapter 11 purgatory.

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  • Martinjmpr Martinjmpr on Jul 07, 2006

    Cpt T: You may be surprised to hear this, but my last vehicle was American: A Ford Ranger pickup. I bought it new in '99 and traded it for a Subaru when the Ranger hit about 93k. I actually had only one very minor problem with the Ranger, and that was fixed under warranty. Of course, I deliberately selected the most basic model, 2wd, manual transmission, no power windows or doors, so there were fewer opportunities for something to go wrong. While MPG was adequate (19-24, real world), it wasn't stellar, especially for a 2wd truck. Real-world MPG figures for the 4wd version were in the neighborhood of 13-18, which is pitiful for a small truck - I think the F150 4x4 can do at least that, and it has a V-8. The small (flex-fuel) V-6 put out a measly 150hp, meanwhile Toyota got that much HP from their less-thirsty 4-cyl. While it was a decent vehicle at the time (and only the second vehicle I've ever bought brand new) if I had to do it over again, I'd have gotten a second-hand Toyota for the same price and probably kept it until it had at least 150,000 on the odometer. Besides a 100k warranty, one thing the American companies could do to put themselves back on the radar of car buyers is to offer something the competition won't: Small TDi diesels. A 1.9 or 2.4l TDi can get decent mileage and still offer enough power for most buyers (especially in a truck, where drivers aren't expecting lightning accelleration anyway.) And your premise that it's a "close fight" between the imports and GM and Ford? I'm not buying it. Every time I turn on the TV or radio it seems I'm hearing about this or that "super sale" or "0% financing" or "employee pricing." How the hell are the American companies going to stay in business if they sell their products at or under cost? Plus, as Robert has pointed out in his GM Death Watch series, all the constant discounts cheapen the reputation, not to mention the resale value, of the brand. Chevy and Ford, then, have become the cars people buy because they can't afford anything better. Somehow I don't think that's going to be enough to pull them back from the brink of bankruptcy.

  • Tincanman99 Tincanman99 on Jul 09, 2006

    Detroit shows me nothing. Come on, get with the program. These people have not figured out since the 70's what the deal is. They have had 30+ years to get up to speed. But they havent. Why? Because like so many American businesses they are focused on the short term results. They dont do whats right for the company instead they are busy focusing on short term profits. Well the chicken has come home to roost once again. People keep focusing on metrics whether a Chevy Impala is equivalent on paper to a Camry or Accord. Here is an easy test. Go look at a Camry or Accord and than go look at the Chevy. Just from the look of the interior its not going to cut it. Never mind whats under the hood. Also at this time both Toyota and Honda have reputations as bullet proof cars. And Consumer Reports with their surveys adds fuel to the fire. As far as technology I am not seeing it either. Take the Corvette. Sure they have this fire breathing Z06 with a big block engine in it. Its pretty much the same big block engine they have always made. Where are the freakin modern engines? Same with all their other cars. Besides that how many of these things are they going to sell? This is a niche vehicle. Same with all these retro muscle cars. I got my license long after the muscle car people. My very first car was a muscle car (Ford Mustang) and it was the biggest piece of crap rolling. That car nearly bankrupted me. I have not owned a domestic car since than. Just German and Japanese and I wont be owning any time soon either. One last item we keep hearing about rampant corporate welfarism overseas, that they dont have pension obligations, blah, blah. Have you looked recently how much detroit has NOT paid in corporate income taxes. Thats a form of subsidy as well. Never mind all the goverment contracts they get and than piss the money away. Go cry for me Argentina. I dont want to hear about the whining that they cant be competitive because of their pension and medical obligations. To freakin bad. If a corporation provides no value to the society other than to make money than why is the society giving them perks? Detroits problem is not the employees but rather the executives who run them into the ground.

  • Tassos Neons, new, used, or junk like this one, were the right car to own if you wanted it advertised what a lame loser you were.
  • Damage My mother had a 78 with the FI motor. If you wound it out in first (not that she ever did) it would reward you with just a little tickle of torque steer. It was pretty reliable until water leaks from below the windshield found the fuse block. Once that was fixed, it was good for several more years. Eventually it got rusty and was sideswiped by a snowplow, and she sold it to my coworker who got several more years out of it. She traded it for a Mk2 Jetta, which was a fun little car. I don't miss the Rabbit but I'd love to find a clean Jetta again.
  • Tassos in the same league as Tim's so-called "used deathtrap of the day" today.Both emiently junkworthy,
  • 3SpeedAutomatic IIRC, the Deutschmark has appreciated significantly against the US dollar in the mid 70’s due to Nixon taking the US off the gold standard. VW was looking at any angle to reduce costs (cheap interior, broken door cranks, crappy carburetors) to hold the prices in line. That’s why it opened the US assembly plant. Yet, it alienated its clientele by Americanizing the Rabbit. To me, it never recovered in the US from the cost cutting and Americanized vehicles. I have never entertained the notion of buying a VW since.
  • Tassos worthless pile of crap econobox. THe bottom of the barrel, and 20 years old.I'd take $100 to drive it to the junkyard.Tim goes back to his old ways...