Friday, May 15, 2009

Automotive Apocalypse Now

Detroit wins...

The race to the bottom....a term used in recent years to predict the outcome of the direction we've been heading. For Detroit, we are on the brink of announcing "Houston, we have touchdown." I'd say we are there, except there is still a part of me that believes the worst is yet to come. It was over a year ago that I first asked the question "Is it the beginning of the end?" while writing about just how good the automotive lineup was, though not forgetting that gas was also $4 a gallon. Man what a year can do!

I believe Ford had already put everything up for collateral, and I mean everything! Their buildings, equipment, and even the Ford name itself. Ford was desperate, they needed money, and were seeing their own demise if things didn't work out. Fortunately for them, things have turned around, as they were the only one of the Big 3 who didn't require bailout money.

Chrysler soon began talks about the possibility of joining forces with GM as a means to survive, a plan that looking back, may have been no worse off than Chrysler joining up with Fiat.

GM, well, GM seems to be about 2 steps behind Chrysler. GM, for whatever reason, seems to be more to the governements liking though. Why else would the government force out the guy running the show and take control of the company? There is a name for when a government takes control of corporations, most notably when it was the largest company in the world, it's called Communism.

Who is to blame? I have a difficult time saying it's Obama's fault, as he's really no more to blame for the troubles than the past presidents, or Republicans for that matter. Our Federal government has failed us for decades, leading our country down a path that only rewards us with failure.

The United States of America: A country that rose to power through the age of Industrial Revolution. An era, that had we been without, would not be where we are today. Yet somewhere along the way, in the interest of "globalization," it was deemed unimportant to produce the products here any longer. It was found to be more economical to build the products in third world countries, where the labor was cheap, and the profits for corporate America was greater, and here we are.

Though the auto industry is the main focus, it goes way beyond that, it goes so far as one can paint all manufacturing with a broad brush stroke. I buy made in the USA products when I can, and when I say that, I don't mean when it's practical. I mean "Whenever I can find products made in the USA, I buy that product." I'll spend the extra money, money that myself and most others don't have. I do so because I realize the result of not doing so, more Americans lose jobs.

There is no doubt in my mind, this is the worst the economy has been during my 32 year life. Though perhaps not quite to the level of The Great Depression, it is definately the direction we are heading. Our politicians fail to comprehend what the failure of the auto industry means, just how many jobs are truly effected by shutdowns. It goes way beyond the industry itself. It goes way beyond the suppliers. There automotive industries reach is lengthy enough that it touches almost every other industry out there, manufacturing or not.

As I said, Obama is not to blame for the problems before us. They have been coming to light for decades, as the dismantling of the manufacturing sector, exporting it to other countries, has become the norm. I can however question whether taking over GM was the right move. I can also question how telling an American company, Chrysler, "Merge with Fiat or go out of business" is in the country's best interest. With Fiat having the option to own up to 55%, it undoubtedly will once again be a foreign company. This time however, it won't lead to American vehicles designed here with German influence. This time around, the American vehicles are on the chopping block, and an Italian company will simply use the American company's dealer network to force small, economical, fuel efficient cars that most of us don't want, directly down our throats.

What does America want?

There is always going to be a market for the small, often tiny, fuel efficient cars. This market however is not as big as those in charge right now seem to believe. Myself, and most others I know, laugh at SMART cars, and even cars the size of a Ford Focus isn't even on their radar. Arguably, maybe bigger is simply the American way. This isn't Europe, we don't have troubles parking our cars on narrow streets. Gas isn't $8 a gallon either, and however much it does go up, will always probably be significantly lower than our European friends. Make the vehicles we like more efficient. Stop making our cars so damn heavy! 40 years ago cars weighed a little over 3,000 lbs, with the full frame, full size heavy hitters tipping the scales at about 3,800 lbs. Today, most all of our cars tip the scales at 4,000 lbs or more. Mind you, this is even with lighter materials, such as aluminum, used throughout. It's a losing battle trying to gain increased mpg when you keep tacking on more weight year after year.

Here is a concept: Let's build cars for the sole purpose of transportation. Do we really need all the electronics being placed in cars? Is a paper map really that much of an inconvenience? Do we really need 6 or 8-way power seats? Heated seats? Cooled seats? In my mind, a 3,000 lb car should be the target, and I'm not willing to sacrifice mid-car size either. Go back to the basics, even to the point that I'd be willing to roll up my own windows in a new Camaro, Challenger, or Mustang. I can reach over and lock my own doors too! A back to the basics approach is what is needed.

It's truly a shame, as to this automotive enthusiast, these are the best of times in my life as far as vehicle selection. Sadly, we'll likely lose the Challenger in a few years. The Camaro may stick around for it's life cycle, perhaps 7-10 years, then disappear once again. The Mustang will likely be the lone survivor, but what fun is a musclecar without any competition? I think a repeat of the 1970's will be in order, one in which deminishing horsepower numbers, year after year, will be the norm. This time however, instead of emissions/gas shortages as the culprit, it will be a government that wants us all driving econoboxes.

Me, I'll simply make due with what is already out there. Hopefully, I'll be able to get a new Camaro in a year or two. Perhaps get a winter beater to drive, to lessen the salt impact on the Camaro. For me, I have about 80 years worth of cars to choose from, including fiberglass replicas, and steel reproduction musclecars. If worse comes to worse, I'd rather drop $30,000-$40,000 in building a superlight reproduction musclecar that gets 30 mpg and puts out 400 hp than be forced to drive a small car that I didn't enjoy.

I question whether or not it's too late for change. We've lost so many companies along the way. I'm guessing there were literally 100's of automotive companies around 1900. 100 years later, the numbers continue to dwindle. Maybe companies got too large, perhaps our anti-trust laws have failed us. Why is it that built in to the bailout loan to the auto industry they weren't told "From here on out, until this loan is paid in full, all new production will be inside the United States!" Instead, more Americans will lose their jobs, more production will be outside our borders, and prices will remain the same. The only remaining question, with middle class America quickly becoming extinct, who will be left to buy these foreign made products?