When asked what prompted the decision to start producing quality products, Lil Rhedd-Korvet, an industry spokesperson, said, "Every January, we come to the Auto Show intent on building anticipation, excitement, buzz among potential buyers. So we trot out flashy new models, cutting edge designs, concept cars. We incorporate the hottest wowie-zowie, whiz-bang technology into our vehicles. We launch the year's catchy new theme and/or initiative, like Year of the Car or whatever. The following January, right before the next Auto Show kicks off, we get the sales numbers for the previous model year and ... thud! Nothing. Worse than nothing. Our share of the market is down, imports are up. After 30 years of that, we asked ourselves: 'Why?' "
Pausing dramatically, she added, flatly, "Of course, it was rhetorical. Everyone knew the answer."
The fact that car giants GM, Ford and Chrysler (a division of DaimlerChrysler) would even entertain the idea of such a drastic paradigm shift is, to many, astonishing. That they've already agreed to adopt and implement such a plan is a clear indication of just how desperate Detroit is. But turning out well-made vehicles at fair prices -- long ago abandoned by domestic carmakers as a "strategy for losers and former Axis powers"-- might be the only way left to shake up and shore up their decades long sales decline, a decline that stretches back to the 1960s; it was in the '60s that solid, dependable foreign cars became widely available to and popular with American motorists.
Industry experts seem to be encouraged by the joint announcement. Most agree that by finally identifying and admitting their chronic inferiority to Japanese and German makes, the Big Three at least gives the impression they're in touch with reality. But questions loom. Not the least of which is, do these monolithic, smug, lumbering multinational corporations really have the will and the know-how to produce a dramatically improved car that Americans will trust? That depends on whom you ask.
"Certainly, we've been producing poorly made, substandard vehicles no one could be proud of for quite some time. So, sure, we face a stiff challenge," said H. Ed Room, Chrysler's executive vice president of marketing. "But don't forget, American car companies are responsible for some of the greatest automotive innovations and advances of the last 30 years: zero percent financing, balloon lease payments, annual sales events held every month. Believe me, if we can come up with great stuff like that, we can beat a little thing like 'My neighbor's '86 Accord looks and runs better than my 2003 Malibu."
Hans Ondaveal, an industry analyst at BearStearns, doesn't agree. "Look, the Japanese and Germans have always taken an unorthodox, you might even say un-American approach, to the car business: build a superior product and sell it at a competitive price. If you think American carmakers are ready to embrace that, I've got a '94 Geo Metro with no rust and 20,000 original miles I'd like to sell you."
So what does Ondaveal see happening? "Detroit'll be back to leaks, rattles and rebates by the time convertible weather comes to Southfield."
Should the Big Three actually make good on their promise to produce significantly better cars in all price levels, it would mark the first time the American automobile industry has produced a vehicle worth what customers will pay for it since the late-1950s. In the most recent J.D. Power & Associates ranking of overall quality, American manufacturers were clustered just above the French Citroén ("Citroén. The opposite of driving.") and just below the Disneyworld parking lot tram.
But before the next recall is averted, before any fit and trim even begins to approach being well fit or precisely trimmed, before a single gas tank is repositioned so as not to explode in a collision and incinerate everyone on board, Detroit must prepare for and take on another, equally difficult job: convincing the public it's serious. Clearly, their work is cut out for them.
"We've been lying and crying to consumers for as long as I can remember. Dicking and tricking them here, there and everywhere. That's probably why the only loyal customers we have left are the unwitting, the gullible, the occasional masochist and lots and lots of old farts," said Ford Chairman and CEO Henry Ford XLVIII in an unusually candid and earthy press conference. "So now, if we're going to win back the informed, discerning consumer, not only do we have to make cars that are equal to or surpass the best Japanese and German vehicles, we have to communicate plainly, honestly, even bluntly, about the products we've sold and hope to sell. Regardless of the consequences."
In the spirit of good faith, Ford added, "Owners of 1997-2001 Tauruses should know that their steering wheels are forged from solid radioactive waste." He then brought the press conference to a close with a simple, "Sayonara."
Bob Woodiwiss's column appears here the last issue of each month. His book, Keys to Uncomfortable Living, a collection of humorous and satirical essays, is in bookstores now.