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Real Americans

What's really great about this country is that no matter how much may have already been said on any subject, you can always add your own two cents (if you have the yen). Many writers, including Bill howard and Brock Yates, have made their own comments on the American car crisis. At the risk of being redundant, here is my own addition.

Real Americans Buy American Cars
With our economy, and especially the automotive industry, hitting some hard times, it has become stylish to attack the foreign competition, leading the charge with our flag and patriotic rhetoric. The Japanese manufacturers are especially targeted as they have acquired the largest share of the American car market of all foreign-owned manufacturers. The U.A.W. is especially vocal as its members have born the brunt of layoffs caused by deceased domestic auto sales. At union halls, signs in the parking lots proclaim: "American cars only; all others will be towed".

The term "American car" has been bandied about as though it is some industrial icon of great purity. Some employers have lately offered cash rewards to employees that purchase "American cars", which they defined as being made in the United States, by Americans, using at least 75% American-made parts. By this definition, the Honda Accord, made in Ohio, and the Toyota Camry, made in Tenessee, two of Detroit's biggest headaches, are American cars.

Many Chrysler and GM models are assembled in Mexico or Canada, or are captive imports made in Japan and sold under American nameplates. If the definition is to include American ownership of the parent company, then we should also insist that investment of corporate profits remain on American soil. It would seem that GM and Chrysler are under no such obligation, since it pays wages to non-citizens of the U.S. with plants in Mexico, Canada and, recently, Poland, while closing factories at home. While it is the purpose of a business to expand its market and increase profits, the issue here is jobs, American jobs. And what are the Japanese doing with their profits? Yes, they are buying real estate, but they are also investing it in production facilities in this country that employ Americans.

What really bothers the U.A.W. is that Honda and Toyota are non-union plants. It would seem that production efficiency, and possibly product quality, increases when our traditional labor-management structure is bypassed. American labor relations have had unions and management confronting each other; Japanese carmakers have targeted the car buyer; production practices in Japan and in domestic Japanese plants stress cooperation between labor and management. Even GM is making bold moves in this area. The Saturn plant, although union, is run along Japanese management lines, with extensive cooperation between labor and management, and the cars it is turning out are very promising for new models. Where it would have been today if GM had started it ten years ago is anybody's guess. It is my guess that the UAW considers this "Reform" union, and worthy of suspicion. It will be interesting to see how well these workers fare without the usual confrontational style of settling problems.

It is traditionally American to favor domestic industry. History is full of examples of embargos and tariffs against goods from nations of which we disapprove. National policy can make foreign goods less desireable or even unobtainable, and can make economic warfare against nations that have embargos against American goods. In our trade disputes with Japan, it seems that we are barred from free access to Japanese customers, giving Japanese industry an unfair advantage in the United States. However, it would be difficult to sort out just who is who in the auto industry. As Pogo might have said, "some of them is us." It also increasingly difficult to make an educated public want to do something on just emotional grounds. People are learning to look beyond a fancy nameplate or bordello upholstery to real and perceived quality. They look for alignment of trim and body panels and flawless paint jobs. They appreciate logically placed controls and legible, informative instruments. They expect no squeaks or rattles, and prompt attention to problems. Buyers note and appreciate the feel of controls, the sense of precision in a switch that works with a well-researched "click". It is the perception of many that American car companies do not excel in these things. American cars have all too frequent use of chrome, obviously fake wood, and rows of identical buutons or switches that defy easy use, and usually show where the carmaker managed to shave another nickel from production costs. Then there was the enthusiast market, that wanted real performance and handling from their car, and could only find it in a foreign make. The right to have fun is a most basic American right, and if they don't have what you want, you must send out for it.

When Better Cars Are Built, Americans Will Buy Them
As far back as I can recall, at least in the fifties and sixties, the unveiling of new car models was a momentous occasion. The big three manufacturers would dictate styling changes and literally told us what we wanted, as if we hadn't a clue otherwise. In an era when making cars more efficient and safer whas not as profitable as big engines and vinyl roofs, there was no real competition against domestic models. Innovative independents like Studebaker and Tucker could not compete against the big three. The public had not been educated to appreciate what anyone else had to offer. We would buy what Detroit made us want, and they sold us big cars with planned obsolesence as standard equipment. Innovations like seat belts and high efficiency engines had to wait for government regulations to require them.

The American public has matured faster than the auto industry. Modern Americans want dependability, quality and value, and they will cross patriotic boundaries to get them. In the sixties, Japanese imported cars were sneered at by Detroit. Most buyers were not ready to accept leaving the massive confines of American cars to save some gas, largely because Detroit had "trained" Americans to think big. Yet even Detroit developed its own "compact" cars, although the emphasis, profit margin, and fancy options were still lavished on full-sized models. The Japanese and the Germans worked on their market niche, and with an eye to the future produced some of the first well-equipped compact models available. This attracted some of the potential buyers of higher-end domestic cars. Imported Japanese cars started to earn a reputation for dependability, and American compact cars were not on the same level.

It is not poor technology but poor long-range production planning that has American carmakers struggling to catch up. The only way to successfully compete with the Japanese is to plan and produce as they do. Japanese carmakers have studied what Americans like in their cars. They have looked at American and German cars, combining the most appealing features from them with their own. The success of this strategy can be seen in their increased share of the markets of the cars they emulate. They didn't wait for government regulations to impose pollution control, but produced new engines that were less polluting and more efficient by design. It is not true that all Japanese car have no problems, nor is it true that no American cars are free of them. It will be a goal of the domestic carmakers to overcome this perceived quality deficit, which all too often is born out in fact. For most people, American or not, charity begins at home, and they will tend to want the best quality and value for their money.

It is an axiom in a competitive marketplace to either be the best or the first with a product to sell. This requires some future analysis as to what people want and what circumstances will require them to buy. I feel that the first one to market an affordable, practical, hybrid electric vehicle will steal a long march on the competition. The response from Detroit has got to be better than its plan on compact cars. I wonder if anybody is planning on what a few hundred million Chinese are going to drive in a decade or two. They will need highways and incomes, but these things will come. Will Japan be ready with an affordable car for the masses of new customers? Is anybody here making any plans at all? It will be necessary to produce cars that people will want, not just produce what is profitable and make the buyers want it. There will also be the problem of using American labor to produce a profit making automobiles for a downscale society. The challenge will be enormous.

It is wrong to try and label a product as complex and diverse as an automobile as being purely any nationality. It is the nature of American business to be competitive and produce the best product it can at the best price. Manufacturers use components from many different countries in assembling their cars. Japanese engines and electronics are put in many "domestic" cars. Some expensive British cars use Chrysler and GM automatic transmissions. Many American parts wind up in Japanese cars. It is unfair to blame the buyer for crossing national lines when the manufacturer has already done just that.

To be American is to be a hybrid, made from a diversity of cultures. Unless we, as a nation, become able to do all things better and more cheaply than any other nation, we will be at a disadvantage. The American consumer, free to choose by being American, may vote with his conscience, but primarily with his wallet. American carmakers have worked, industrially and politically, mainly for what is good for the carmakers, not for the U.S. The auto industry workers, whose jobs have been safeguarded by the unions, have had little reason for concern over customer satisfaction, until recently. The security of the worker and the company that employs him depends on delivering satisfaction to the buyer. Unions and management must realize this if the American car industry is to prosper in the new world market. Whether they succeed or fail, American cars will never be quite the same.


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Last Modified December 25, 2000