As readers may know, my Dad worked for Ford for almost 50 years. When I was young, he always worked the Detroit Auto Show. I really don’t know if Ford actually paid him to work the show or whether he just went for the buzz. He was a car guy.
On at least a couple of days during the show, I would go along and spend the entire day sitting in cars and soaking up whatever kind of entertainment and tsotchkes were being offered. I saw a whole lot of magicians and, of course, suggestively attired young women.
I hadn’t been to a big Auto Show in several years. I had heard that things were pretty subdued since the meltdown, but to be honest the only real differences I noticed were the absence of some of the European exotics, a few less wild-eyed “concept” cars, and the appearance of vehicles that were very conspicuously plugged into electrical outlets. (The supply of pretty young women seems to be holding up well.)
But clearly, the American auto industry is in the midst of a historical transition.
Just to tote it up, General Motors, which to someone from Detroit is like, say, the sky – it’s always been there and always will be – is really a shell of itself, inflated by taxpayer money and bereft of brands that have inspired loyalty in millions of Americans – Oldsmobile and Pontiac. The nineties strategy of accreting market share by buying niche brands like Saab and Hummer is now dust. Even the brand that GM created in a transparent effort to reinvent its business model – Saturn – has fallen from its orbit.
Chrysler, of course, is also now also a ward of the state. But in Detroit, Chrysler was always the problem child, always trying something weird (a turbine car!) and always falling just short of great success. Despite flashes of brilliant engineering, the company has rarely excelled at building or selling cars. Its purchase of American Motors seemed pathetic to me at the time, but Lee Iacocca apparently had a vision that Americans would swarm to a properly marketed Jeep (Sport! Utility! Vehicle!) That precious brand even reeled in Daimler-Benz, who ultimately failed to synthesize the two corporate cultures and bailed, leaving the company in the hands of money men instead of car guys.
“My” brand, Ford, seems to stand alone as the U.S. car company that – for the moment - has each of the highly complex processes of engineering, designing, building and marketing automobiles all firing together, and its products really shine.
Over the next few posts, I will be publishing some of my photos from the show.