Big Three, Part IIWritten by Jim Blue | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I expected to get a response following my column on the Big Three. And did I ever! A GM employee wrote to dispute my position that American cars don’t have the value of their Japanese counterparts.
He said GM has 18 models with 30 miles per gallon or better and that many domestic vehicles are above the industry average in quality.
He has some good points. Today’s American cars are much better built than the ones that turned me off back in the 1970s. But today’s cars followed years of arrogance and poor quality. And those expensive experiences are hard to forget. GM CEO Rick Wagoner even acknowledged his company’s many mistakes recently in his second appearance before Congress.
Detroit automakers are battling to win a huge bailout from Congress, but they will have to promise not to keep doing the same old things that got them in this pickle.
And I’m afraid it will be an empty promise. After all, scarcely anyone noticed when GM abandoned its first plug-in electric car back in the mid-1990s.
You might be familiar with GM’s brave experiment, the EV1. It was the subject of the documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car.” The EV1 was a largely successful trial in California that proved GM could build a plug-in car that would make consumers happy. Despite the program’s success, GM shut down the program, shredded almost all of the remaining cars and bought the rights to manufacture the consumer version of the Hummer. Film maker Chris Payne concluded that we all helped kill the electric car — consumers, GM, regulators, the oil companies, etc.
And the EV1 wasn’t the first time Detroit abandoned a promising technology for all of the wrong reasons.
Do you remember Chrysler’s turbine car of the 1960s?
Fifty of those sweet vehicles were extensively test driven by 200 lucky folks. When I was about 11 years old, I pestered my parents until they took me to see one of the turbine cars at a shopping mall. It was powered by what amounted to a small jet engine that turned the blades of its power plant. It was just like most helicopter engines of today. It could run on almost any flammable liquid — diesel, kerosene and alcohol — even tequila. Though it didn’t get very good mileage, the turbine car was extremely reliable. Some people complained that the engine noise wasn’t what they were accustomed to. It sounded kind of like a vacuum cleaner.
When the government bailed out Chrysler with loan guarantees in the late 1970s, the feds forced the automaker to abandon mass production of turbine cars. The government determined that the turbine program was just too risky. That should offer an object lesson about Washington’s expertise in managing car companies.
And the turbine car wasn’t just killed by the government. Fans of the Indy 500 will recall that Parnelli Jones almost won the 1967 race in a four-wheel-drive turbine car.
Changes in the rules effectively banned turbines and four-wheel drive as out of “the mainstream of automotive development.” I guess innovation wasn’t all that important to America’s most important auto race.
So now we are on the threshold of a new era in American auto making. Soon we will have a government “car czar” who will demand accountability from those folks in Detroit.
And if they don’t innovate and they don’t win back market share, then what? Whom do we blame next time?
Contact columnist Jim Blue at Jim@JimBlue.com.