Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kaul: Enjoy American cars while you can


Packard, Studebaker, Hudson, Auburn, Oldsmobile, DeSoto, Pierce-Arrow, Stutz, Cord, Mammon, Dusenberg, Nash, Franklin, Edsel, LaSalle, Essex, Stanley, Graham, Reo, Crosley, Kaiser---the pages of automotive history are heavy with the obituaries of car nameplates that have gone on to that Great Junkyard in the Sky.

Why should Pontiac be any different, or Chrysler for that matter? It’s no great tragedy, at least not one that we haven’t experienced time and time again. It’s been obvious for some time that the global auto industry was overstocked in production capacity and understocked in customers. Some winnowing was inevitable.

Right now it seems that American manufacturers are the ones being winnowed. Chrysler is CURRENTLY on life-support, Italian style, and General Motors is undergoing a series of painful amputations. Whether either can survive remains an open question. It would be a tragedy to lose them. Not the bogus tragedy referred to earlier---an automotive icon of your youth disappears, so what? -- -but a real, practical tragedy; hundreds of thousands of jobs gone, whole towns dead.

It was and is worth trying to save these companies but there comes a time when the situation becomes hopeless and it’s time to cut your losses and move on. We’re not there yet, but you can see it from here. To one who grew up in mid-Twentieth Century Detroit the thought of GM collapsing is almost unimaginable. It was the all-powerful Ozymandias of the auto industry---“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” it seemed to say.

But now we’ve moved to the close of that Shelley poem:

“Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

“The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Or, as we like to call it these days: Detroit.

Actually, downtown Detroit doesn’t look too bad; it’s got a pulse. Like so many center cities these days it exists primarily as an entertainment center, with extravagant athletic and cultural facilities as well as fine hotels, restaurants and casinos. But move off into the neighborhoods---former neighborhoods really---and Shelley’s desolate vision is made flesh. Much of the city is a wasteland of vacant lots and derelict buildings framed by weeds growing through long-unused sidewalks.

There’ll be dozens of other cities joining Detroit in the urban ash-heap if the automakers go down.

Car companies die for a variety of reasons, only sometimes because they make bad cars. More often it’s mismanagement that does them in. That’s pretty much been the case here in recent years. Our auto executives have been locked in a mindset that believed a decent profit could be turned only by making big cars, trucks and vans. Which was fine so long as the American public loved big, not so fine now with $4-a-gallon gas a recent memory. When the mood turned to small, the Japanese manufacturers moved in and ate their lunch.

You could make a case that Chrysler stopped being a car company years ago, that it invented the van and was content to make its money on them, with cars as an afterthought. Now it’s going to be run by an Italian company that makes its money on small cars, very small. We’ll see. General Motors was conceived nearly as century ago as an automotive giant that would have a specific car for every income class. Cadillac and Buick were the luxury brands with Chevrolet and Oldsmobile for the common man. Then they decided there was a hole to be filled in the luxury field and the LaSalle was born. The Pontiac was developed to fit between Olds and Chevy.

All of this demanded a huge dealer network and a vast bureaucratic superstructure. It worked, but to keep people buying cars they had to make cars that wore out quickly and “planned obsolescence” became the watchword. That was when old Ozymandias started to crumble.

I wish our car companies well, I really do. If they go away we will feel the pain in places we didn’t know we had places.

Distributed by Minuteman Media.

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