Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NASCAR: Perception, Reality and the Hollywood Film -- a seminar paper by Dan Conway


Dan Conway
HST 485
13 December 2010
NASCAR vs. Hollywood
With the recent battle among race car drivers Jimmy Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick NASCAR has been a big subject of discussion. Johnson has dominated the Sprint Cup Series for four years winning the Sprint Cup each year. 2010 would prove to be his toughest test yet. Coming into the final race of the year Johnson was in a tight race, trailing Hamlin with Harvick hot on his heel. This was the closest the championship had been in recent years. When the checkered flag was waved, Johnson finished a second ahead of both Hamlin and Harvick. It was enough for the California boy to vault past Hamlin for his fifth straight championship. It is interesting to think that Californian-born Johnson could dominate what is traditionally thought of as a southern sport. The idea of NASCAR being a southern sport is a common misconception. In 2001, the organization had a reported 75 million fans all around the country in places such as New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan.[1]
If NASCAR is popular all around the country, then why does it have a reputation of being a Winston-smoking, beer-drinking, good-ol’ boy sport?[2] Even Hollywood represents its characters according to this profile in movies or scenes related to car racing. They are portrayed as a place for white southern people to gather, drink and show off their southern pride. No matter if the movie stars Annette Funicello (Fireball 500), Tom Cruise (Days of Thunder) or Will Farrell (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby), there is a sense that the south is the place for racing. What are the repetitive aspects in these movies that have contributed to the idea that only people from the South are NASCAR fans? Every movie portrays the profile of drivers as being southerners or invaders, quick to brawl outlaws and the events themselves as a place for violence, massive wrecks and promoter or owner greed. This paper will discuss the aspects of this profile and how the aspects are exemplified through movies.
NASCAR’s roots go deepest in the Piedmont region of the South. It is in this region from which the original myth of NASCAR comes. This myth states that NASCAR was born from bootleggers coming together in cow pastures to race their modified automobiles. Promoters realized the potential of this kind of entertainment and sold it to the nation. While some elements of this myth have some truth, overall it is just a myth. The real roots of NASCAR come from a cultural change in the daily life of the Piedmont area.[3]
In the early 1900s, the Piedmont region underwent a change from a primarily farm driven society to the new system of mills and mill town. Many farmers of the era could not keep their farms afloat. So they sold their land to corporations that combined the land and built new mills that did much the same as smaller farms but on a larger scale. The problem was that farmers were trading a job which had them working primarily outside in largely open spaces for a mill job that was in a loud, noisy, closed space. For twelve hours a day and six days a week, workers were confined to these mills and under the supervision of management.[4] If that was not hard enough, entertainment was also limited and many workers were in search for a new form of entertainment.
At the same time, the traditional cultural values of the mill workers were becoming strained. Dating back to the days before the Civil War, there were three values that were most important to the southern people: toughness, sense of freedom and a lack of dependence.[5] The new mill system severely limited the workers sense of freedom and made them very dependent on the mills to survive. Suddenly, finding a new form of entertainment became more than just a way to escape the everyday toil of mill life. It became away to express and reinforce their cultural values.
The rise of the automobile would become their new outlet. Like most new technologies, in the beginning, automobiles were a play thing for the wealthy. But like all technologies with time, and little help from Henry Ford’s Model T, automobiles became less expensive and the Piedmont working-class began to purchase them either new or used. Driving became the new past time of the working-class for the little free time they had. Being a good driver was seen as an essential part of owning an automobile. Equally as important was an owner’s ability to repair their vehicle, because early in its existence the automobile could be very unreliable.[6]
The automobile became the mill worker’s new sense of freedom. With this new machine mill workers had the ability to travel greater distances than ever before. While driving, the workers could escape the ever present watch of their mill supervisors. The ability to repair their automobile became a way to be less dependent. Being able to pull one’s automobile under a tree and fix whatever was the problem was seen as a way to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.
This idea of being self-sufficient and self-reliant is represented in the film, Days of Thunder. In the film, the California native rookie driver, Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise), joins a new NASCAR team with legendary crew chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), as the man who is supposed to get Trickle into stock car shape. In one of the bonding scenes between the two men, Hogge tells Trickle to feel out the car and tell him if anything needs to be corrected. Trickle’s response is that he has no idea what Hogge is talking about because he has no knowledge of the internal workings of a car. Hogge is stunned at Trickle’s admission and by his statement that he just got in the car and could drive.
Hogge just assumes that Trickle has at least the basic knowledge and vocabulary that goes along with being a stock car racer. Hogge, a southern man by birth and a builder of cars, would have known the importance of knowing how a car works from childhood as it would have made him more self-reliant. Trickle, being from California, could be seen as typical of non-southern Americans. He is just some invader to the sport that may have some skill driving but has no real appreciation of what it takes to be star in NASCAR.
The rise of the mill system is directly connected with the rise of another lifestyle system. When it became clear that many people were giving up the farm to join the working-class of the mills, many people were unwilling to quit on the life that they had come to love. But it was clear that they would need to find another way to supplement their income in order to keep their farm. In a strange twist of fate the American government in 1919 would indirectly provide these farmers with the answer to this question with the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment.[7] Like Al Capone in Chicago, Prohibition gave moonshiners in the Piedmont region the opportunity to make all the money they would need and more.
The passing of the Eighteenth Amendment made the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol illegal nationwide. But what it could not do was eliminate the desire of most of America to consume alcohol and according to economics when there is a demand a surplus will follow. Even before Prohibition, people in the Piedmont region were manufacturing their own whiskey. However, this was on a small scale operation. It is important to state that the image of moonshiners as backward hill people is incorrect. When the need to improve the quality of their product as well as the need to increase the amount made came around, moonshiners developed new ways, like triple distilling, to produce their liquid.[8] The increase in the production of illegal alcohol can be seen in the seizure reports. In 1935, one of the largest seizures of illegal alcohol occurred in North Carolina. On the farm of Glen Johnson, founder of famous bootlegger and NASCAR star Junior Johnson, officials seized “7100 gallons of whiskey, 9150 pounds of sugar, four copper condensers, five complete distilling plants having a combined capacity for the manufacturing of 2000 gallons of liquor each week”.[9] The manufacturing of moonshine was very profitable but making it was only part of the process. More important to the future of NASCAR was the transportation of the illegal alcohol.
With the emphasis on self-reliability, those who were interested in getting the highest performance out of their vehicles would often tinker with their vehicles to achieve this high performance. Early on their vehicle of choice was Ford’s Model T, because of its inexpensiveness and all the after-market products that came for it. When Ford introduced their flathead V8 engine, bootleggers were eager to get their hands on this motor with its potential of power. Also the emergence of the Hot Rod industry, especially in southern California, produced high quality aftermarket products to enhance many of the popular vehicles of the era.[10] These new high performance vehicles were capable of high speeds and avoiding pesky law enforcement.
Bootlegging was a highly lucrative business indeed. According to Junior Johnson a runner could make $350 to $450 a night hauling moonshine.[11] This gave the runners and moonshiners all the money that they would need to make improvements to their vehicles in order to stay ahead of law enforcement. The drive of the vehicles was the real appeal to the drivers. The thrill of outdriving law enforcement on country roads was something that either mill or farm life could not match. It connected the runners to their traditional values of freedom and self-reliance.
Another thing that the runners were known for was their toughness. Having a sense of freedom and being self-reliant was an important part of being seen as a man in the south. But it was equally important for a man to be tough. Like many cultures one way of proving how tough a man was through fighting. In some cases it was not enough to simply get into a fight. Winning the fight could be the difference between one being seen as a man or as a boy. When a man possessed all three values of freedom, self-reliance and toughness, some would characterize him as a “Hell of a Fellow”.[12]
How much this “Hell of a Fellow” description defined what is believed to be the typical NASCAR driver can be seen in the movie Fireball 500. In the film, Dave Owens (Frankie Avalon) is the new hot shot racer that comes to the South from California. Owens is a fast talker and an even faster driver. After winner a race against the unbeaten local hero, Sonny “Leander” Fox, Owens is approached by the race’s promoter, Martha Brian (Julie Parrish). Brian wants Owens to become her new runner of moonshine, which Owens did not even know was still occurring. Owens is against it originally but is forced to join the profession by the Internal Revenue (revenuers) in order to bring down big time bootlegger Charlie Bigg (Harvey Lembeck). Owens must now make a choice that can turn deadly.
Again in this film, a California born racer comes to the south to prove his worth on the track just as in, Days of Thunder. But this time Owens has all the appropriate qualities to be considered a “Hell of a Fellow”. Through racing Owens gives off a sense of freedom. When he turns down the opportunity to make a lot of money, Owens demonstrates that he does not need to depend on anyone to make a living. Several times during the film Owens’ toughness is tested. When Bigg finds out that Owens and Brian were having a romantic affair, he becomes insanely jealous and a fight breaks out between Owens and Bigg. When Leander forces Owens off the track in the final lap of a race, Owens takes exception and a fight breaks out. Owens even walks away when his car is forced off a cliff. Owens is definitely a “Hell of a Fellow”.
Having interest in a certain activity does not mean that it is going to translate into a sport. All major sports have one thing in common. It is not that they give people a chance to be the hero or that they even entertain those how watch them. The one thing that every sport has to do in order to survive is that they have to be able to produce a sufficient amount of money. The Piedmont region was the area where racing would produce the most amount of money along with the highest interest in racing.[13] It would take promoters to tap the newly found interest in the automobile racing before the sport could thrive. Unlike other major sport leagues today, NASCAR can thank most of its growth on one man.
William “Bill” Henry Getty France was born in 1909 in Washington D.C. This father was a bank clerk that tried to set a good foundation for his son. But young France had no interest in following in his father’s career choice. France instead was much more interested in cars and had skill as a mechanic. After just two years of high school, France dropped out and got a job working in a local garage.[14] While working on other’s cars France was able to pursue his dream of auto racing. He, along with his friends, would build cars and race them. This early exposure to racing gave young France some valuable experiences, which were good and bad. France married Anne Bledsoe, a Carolina girl who had connections with bootleggers. By the age of thirty, France was tired of repairing cars on a cold ground and so he decided to move his family down to Florida. France had every intention of settling in Miami, but this plan got derailed with he reached Daytona Beach.[15]
Daytona Beach has always attracted racing enthusiasts. Being in Florida, Daytona Beach has just one season and people tended to go there in the winter months to get away from the cold. But to racers it was a place for them to show off both their driving skills and powerful cars. Early racers would hold grudge matches and time trial with everyone wanting to be the best and have the fastest time or car. They would usually race along the beaches. It was a viable hotbed of drivers, mechanics, enthusiast and promoters.[16] In other words it was a racing Mecca.
France was in heaven when he reached Daytona Beach and quickly decided that it was there that he and his family would make their new home. He purchased a filling station and it became a place for local and traveling enthusiast could stop by, have a chat and get caught up on all the racing news. Mechanical work soon took a back seat to France’s passion for racing and promoting racing. In February 1936, Daytona Beach city official sponsored a 250-mile sand race. It was the first large scale race that the city had sponsored and it generated a lot of excitement from both fans and drivers. However the event was nothing but trouble. The sand track began to erode after the first few laps especially at the turns. Every car in the field had to be pulled out at least once. An inexperienced official even had difficulty determining who actually won the match. There was a controversy over who actually won the race. France finished fifth overall in the event. This disaster of a race ended up costing the city over twenty thousand dollars and put doubt on whether or not there would be any more like it in the city.[17]
France was not deterred from the challenge of having a race in Daytona Beach. He convinced the city council to let him hold another event at the track, but instead of just sand France used a new mixture to give the track more stability.[18] The mixture worked and France was able to hold three different races at this one event, which included a stock car event. What was imprinted on France during this early race was that there was money to be made from the working-class. He also learned that the best drivers were mainly the bootleggers and it was through them that France had his best shot at finding stars. This meant that France would have to be a master interpreter to deal with the bootleggers and businessmen. Plus he would have organize the bootleggers and make them follow a standard of racing, which was harder than it sounds because they often like to bend the rules as far as they could or they would just plainly cheat.[19]
It became apparent that the red-clay of the Piedmont area was the best place to hold racing events. Plus the working-class offered up the most excitement over the race and it was the best chance that France had to turn a profit. He began to promote races all over the region, but focused heavily on the areas of Atlanta and the Carolinas. Atlanta became the place to hold races, but its value was significantly hurt when the race banded bootleggers from competing in races.[20] That made the Carolinas more valuable to France because he was relying heavily on the bootleggers to help promote his interest. But France was interested in more than just having a successful string of racing events. He wanted to control the new sport that was developing and in order to help further his cause; France founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in December, 1947. Besides forming the corporation, the meeting accomplished only setting up three divisions: strictly stock car, modified and roadsters.[21]
France had extreme difficulty with pitching stock car racing to the rest of the nation. Even at this time it was seen as a southern sport that could not compete on a weekly basis. In addition to this view, those outside of the Piedmont area were turned off by the dirt tracks, and the rowdy nature of both competitors and fans. As cars would race by on dirt tracks they would kick up dust that would settle on the crowds. The bathrooms were nothing more than outhouses. Drinking was a real problem. Fans would drink heavily both before and after the races which led to the usual problems associated with alcohol (fights, belligerence, and stupidity). It was also common for drivers to have a few drinks before the race which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase drinking and driving. Fights would also break out between drivers and were quite common. Spectator safety was also an issue as some wrecks would go into the stands or the infield.[22] These races could be deadly but they were not lacking in excitement.
Still France was left with trying to sell the nation on his newly formed organization. To prove that stock car races could be both successful and profitable, in 1949 France started his Strictly Stock Car series at Charlotte Speedway. The qualifications were only 1946 model cars or newer without any modification. It was an uneventful race that was a real test of the drivers’ skill and the car’s ability to last. However, the race drew thirteen thousand spectators and proved to France that people would support this type of racing.[23] France promoted seven more strictly stock car races that year. Along with the strictly stock car series, NASCAR started promoting weekly races. This led to the development of Sportsmen races, which were amateur races that locals could join. It was a chance for amateurs to show their hometown people what they could do behind the wheel of a car. As a bonus for NASCAR, it was a new type of farm system where young drivers could be observed.[24]
The 1950s proved that stock car racing was at a national level. In 1950 alone NASCAR sponsored eighty-five races in Ohio. This was more than any other state and more than all races combined in 1949. Darlington International Raceway also began holding the annual Southern 500 race.[25] It would prove to be the most important race for stock cars besides the Daytona 500. But the Southern 500 was the first real test of the durability of stock cars. Until this point it was thought that a stock car would not be able to last a five hundred mile race. France was putting a lot on the line with even having this race. He was risking alienating auto manufactures because this grueling style of race would show the durability of their cars.[26] If cars broke down in the middle of the race then it would look bad for their manufactures. However the race was not so much a test on the cars, as was originally thought, but was more a test of tires. Every driver had to change his tires multiple times. France’s concern with making auto manufactures look bad was based on his desire to get them involved in the sport.
During the 1950s, NASCAR began imploring new methods of promotion designed to increase both profits and the sport’s popularity. The biggest method used was meant to draw in the auto manufactures. France realized that fans were identifying with what brand of car was winning races. So NASCAR began to publish the manufacture of the cars that finished in the top five of races. This allowed fans to monitor the durability of cars and manufactures to use the results as away to sell cars. But auto manufactures did not start to sponsor drivers until after Marshall Teague convinced the Hudson Motor Company to provide him with a car, spare parts and a technical support staff. The result was that Teague won five out of fifteen Grand National events. Good results on the race track translated into good result on the showroom floor with Hudson doubling their sales in 1954.[27]
Other methods that France and NASCAR tried using were having boxing matches at events. They would pay celebrities to come to their races in order to sell more tickets. Women drivers were also paid to enter in races. This was not a political step made by France in order to have equal right among men and women. It was just a way that for the promoter to try to fill more seats. As soon as the novelty wore off, the appearance money dried up and women were not allowed in the pit anymore.[28]
This style of promotion caught the eye of Hollywood as well. Talladega Night: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby is the story of Rick Bobby (Will Farrell), a moronic NASCAR driver and his love affair with stock car racing.[29] Ricky Bobby is a loveable idiot whose world is turned upside down when the owner of his racing team brings on a new sort of driver. Jean Girard (Sasha Baron Cohan) is a French formula one driver turned stock car racer. He is openly gay and is sponsored by Perrier, which are two things that are troubling to Ricky Bobby’s view of his sport. His world comes crashing down after a crash which results in Ricky Bobby losing his confidence. The movie is a hilarious spoof on the sport.
Talladega Nights can be seen as the way that Hollywood and the media view promoters. In the movie, the owner of Ricky Bobby’s team wants more than the steady stream of wins that Ricky Bobby brings him. He bring is Girard to replace Ricky Bobby as the number one driver of the team. This move was done out of greed and it completely disrupted the nature of the team. In the final race of the year at Talladega, Ricky Bobby is trying to earn back his place in NASCAR by defeating Girard. The owner demands that the driver Cal (John C. Reilly) take out Bobby, who was his best friend. When Cal helps Ricky Bobby instead, the owner has his other driver take out Cal. This creates a massive wreck which leaves only Ricky Bobby and Girard to compete all because of one man’s greed and pride. But to be fair to all owners and promoter, NASCAR is a corporation and corporations are formed to make money. The National Basketball Association runs commercial celebrating their charity work and how “the NBA cares”. While this charity work is a wonderful thing that comes from the NBA, do not forget that the commercial are a promotion method of trying to soften its image.
There are two other points that attempt to validate the profile of the NASCAR fan as a white southerner who loves the sport because of the brawls and excitement. Most of the racing took place in the south. The fans wore their T-shirts loyal to their favorite driver. They love the excitement, the roar of the race, the inherent dangers of racing, and, of course, the drinking and eating that goes on at the race. And, they love the brawls that occur. One of the most famous fights was the fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison at the Daytona 500 in 1979.They were fighting for the lead against each other until they ran into each other in the last lap. That fight, in addition to the race being the first 500 race to be televised on major TV from start to finish, did more to engage the fans in NASCAR than anything else in the 1980’s.[30]
When it comes to how Hollywood portrays NASCAR and its fans, there is a definite over exaggeration that race car driving is a southern sport and those that participate at any level are rowdy, red-neck individuals. They are portrayed as southerners that have to deal with the cocky invaders that have come to prove to the ignorant, red-neck southerners how driving is really done. When push comes to shove, drivers will always let their fists to the talking and promoters are greedy men who will do anything to make more money. If Hollywood’s portrayal of NASCAR is correct, then the only real appeal of the sport would be the crashes that are unavoidable. Some of these qualities do have a hint of truth still left in them, but overall NASCAR is not just a southern sport. It is the second most popular sport around the country and as promoter continues to find new ways to reach different audiences, it could become the most popular in the future. In the race to dominate the entertainment of America, to quote a famous NASCAR driver, “If you’re not first, you’re last”.
Bibliography
Gill, Matthew. 2008. Corporations brought to you by NASCAR: Rhetorical identification through sponsorship. International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship 9 (3) (04): 180-92.
Hembree, Michael. 2000. NASCAR :The definitive history of america's sport. New York: Harper Entertainment.
HUGENBERG, LAWRENCE W., and BARBARA S. HUGENBERG. 2008. If it ain't rubbin', it ain't racin': NASCAR, american values, and fandom. Journal of Popular Culture 41 (4) (08): 635-57.
Lucsko, David. 2008. The Business of Speed: the hot rod industry in America, 1915-1990. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
Menzer, Joe. 2009. The great american gamble :How the 1979 daytona 500 gave birth to a NASCAR nation. NASCAR library collection. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.
Nalley, Richard. 2006. Talladega nights. Forbes 178 (12/12): 174-.
Newland, Paul. 2009. Look past the violence: Automotive destruction in american movies. European Journal of American Culture 28 (1) (02): 5-20.
Newman, Joshua I. 2010. Full-throttle jesus: Toward a critical pedagogy of stockcar racing in theocratic america. Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies 32 (3) (Jul): 263-94.
Newman, Joshua I., and Michael D. Giardina. 2008. NASCAR and the "southernization" of america: Spectatorship, subjectivity, and the confederation of identity. Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies 8 (4) (11): 479-506.
Pierce, Daniel S. 2010. Real NASCAR :White lightning, red clay, and Big Bill France. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Puig, Claudia. 'Talladega nights': It's a winner. USA Today.
Rusz, Joe. 2003. NASCAR goes from moonshine to sake. Road & Track 54 (8) (04): 157.
Wasserman, Todd. 2005. Nascar, nextel hitch ride with herbie. Brandweek 46 (23) (06/06): 6-.
[1] Hugenberg p 635
[2] Ibid 636
[3] Pierce p 14
[4] Ibid 15
[5] Ibid 23
[6] Ibid 27
[7] Ibid 16
[8] Ibid 16
[9] Ibid 18
[10] Lucsko p 40
[11] Pierce p 16
[12] Ibid 21
[13] Ibid 55
[14] Ibid 36
[15] Ibid 37
[16] Ibid 34
[17] Ibid 43
[18] Ibid 44
[19] Ibid 60
[20] Ibid 75
[21] Ibid 101
[22] Ibid 109
[23] Ibid 114
[24] Ibid 120
[25] Ibid 133
[26] Ibid 133
[27] Ibid 144
[28] Ibid 37
[29] Puig p 1
[30] Menzer p 5

Racing films fo the 1960s and early 1970s -- a seminar paper by Andrew Hall











Andrew Hall
Heitmann
HST 485
12/13/10

Racing Films and the Emergence of the Action Thriller
The influence of 1960 auto racing films on the emerging genre of the action thriller cannot be understated. These films include Grand Prix, Le Mans, Winning and Red Line 7000. These titles feature many recognizable A-List Hollywood actors but are not distinguishable for today’s average cinema regular. All of these films were innovative in the techniques they utilized. These techniques mainly surrounded a revolutionary use of cinematography to film the race scenes, which are critical to each film. The development of these techniques represents an important piece of film history. What appears in action thrillers on screen today can be linked to these early racing films. That also is true for the common links that each plot shares. These films can tell the viewer a lot about auto racing, the surrounding society, and society in general during this time period. Many of the same plot elements that appear in these early auto racing films still appear today in films like Gone in 60 Seconds and The Fast and the Furious. Understanding the common links between these films is important to understanding the genre of action thrillers. Although these films are not well known by the average movie viewer, they are an important piece of cinema history because they are at the genesis of the action thriller. These films define what the action thriller is in today’s Hollywood.

Winning (1969)
Winning tells the story of Frank Capua, a rising star in auto racing, who dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500. However, to follow his dream of winning the Indianapolis 500, Capua risks losing his wife to his rival and alienating his stepson. Winning stars Paul Newman as Capua and Joanne Woodward as Capua’s wife, Elora. Joanne Woodward was Paul Newman’s wife and they were becoming an emerging power on Hollywood’s social scene at the time of the film’s release. According to William Wolf of Cue in a review of the film, “Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are zooming in stature as film world couple.” [1] The film was originally intended as a film that would be seen on NBC. However, changes were made to the original plans and it became a movie intended for theatrical release. The film benefited greatly from Paul Newman’s presence in the film. [2] Critics were very favorable towards the performances that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward put forth. Variety stated, “Newman underplays his part throughout, resulting in one of his better performances.” [3] Leo Mishkin in the New York Morning Telegraph stated, “Newman and Miss Woodward both invest this formula with the sensitivity and compassion of exquisitely fine performances, as honest, as real and as true as anything either, or both, have ever done.” [4] The film features unique filmmaking techniques and a compelling plot that make Winning a typical action thriller.
Winning benefits from the use of actual footage to help illustrate the film’s intense car scenes as well as excellent cinematography techniques of that time. In the one of the final scenes, Frank Capua is racing in the Indianapolis 500 against his rival, Luther Erding. This scene features a magnificent seventeen-car wreck that allows Capua to win the race. The importance of this scene to the film cannot be understated. Without this scene, Capua does not triumph and, furthermore, the film does not feature the wreck that is typical in many action thrillers. According to University of Dayton Historian John Heitmann, “it was necessary for any ‘real’ action film to contain at least on major chase scene that culminated in a major crash or explosion.” [5] This scene actually features a large amount of real footage that was filmed at the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day in 1968. [6] The 1968 Indianapolis 500 featured the seventeen-car crash that appeared in the film. The filmmakers performed a decent job at utilizing this footage and incorporating it into the plot of the film.
Using this footage has two positive benefits for the film. First, using actual footage gives the picture a very real feel. At the time this film was being created, CGI and computer designed stunts did not exist. Filming the actual event for many filmmakers was the most realistic option to achieve the look they desired. Second, filming an actual event instead of creating an event cuts down on the budget immensely. The only items that are costly when filming an actual event are the film and the individuals sent to film it. In this case, the Indianapolis 500 was going to run whether or not a film starring Paul Newman was going to film it or not. The only negative to using actual footage is that the creators of the film lose creative control over all aspects of the film. In Winning, the directors and producers were forced to adapt their plot to accommodate the actual footage they had shot. They may have been more than pleased to incorporate this crash, however, they were controlled by whatever footage they shot on Memorial Day 1968. Winning also utilized the most current techniques available in the late 1960s. According to J.A. Martin and Thomas F. Saal in American Auto Racing: The Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed, the techniques used in Winning “…showed the great race from the inside in a way unsurpassed until the advent of the on-board TV camera in the 1980s.” [7] Furthermore, Roger Ebert states in his review of Winning that “The production values are lush. The photography is the most expensive money can buy.” [8] These techniques make Winning extremely innovative for the time it was created. These techniques were influenced by previous films and influenced future films in the action thriller genre. The use of actual footage in Winning to create a large wreck scene demonstrates that it is at the foundation of all action thriller films.
Winning features the plot of an unfaithful marriage, a young man thirsting for a father and an undeniable need to win. At the beginning of the film, Frank Capua is an emerging star in auto racing when he meets Elora, a woman who has been divorced, and her son Charley. There is an instant connection between Capua and Elora. Because of this instant connection, the two marry and Capua offers to adopt Charley. However, the storybook ending is affected by Capua’s infatuation with his racing career. Despite Capua becoming a rising star, he cannot beat his rival Luther Erding. Capua becomes more and more absorbed in auto racing. In doing so, he overlooks his obligations as a husband and a father. Sad and lonely, Elora has a physical affair with Luther Erding, Capua’s rival. Capua discovers the two in bed together and moves to a motel. Sympathizing with his stepfather, Charley hitchhikes to Indianapolis to see Capua race in the Indianapolis 500. Noticing Charley’s love and affection, Frank is inspired to victory in the Indianapolis 500. Recognizing that it was his devotion to racing that made Elora commit adultery, he suggests that they reconcile their marriage. [9] This type of plot, although slightly more complicated than some, is typical in action thrillers. In a film review of Winning, Roger Ebert states, “Well of course he wins the race and gets the girl. You know that to begin with when you go to a movie named Winning that stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and is about the Indy 500. The only questions are how does he win the race, how does he get the girl and what difficulties does he have? The rest is familiar territory.” [10] Typically, the action thriller involves overcoming some type of problem and winning the girl over either directly or loosely based on the ability to overcome that problem. In this film, Capua wins the Indianapolis 500 and defeats his rival, Luther Erding. This victory is something that Capua has been attempting to achieve for the entire film. After this victory, Capua reconciles his marriage with Elora. Ebert argues that this plot is no different than thousands of films that have come before it. Winning’s plot is the prototype for the action thriller.
Red Line 7000 (1965)
Red Line 7000 also follows the same type of prototype of the action thriller. In Todd McCarthy’s biography Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, McCarthy states that Hawks wrote in a foreword to the screenplay of Red Line 7000 that, “Red Line 7000 is the story of three men and the women who love them. The three stories have little or no connection except that the men are race drivers. They are those prima donnas who handle incredibly fast combustions of steel and other metals and do it as a virtuoso plays a violin. Racing is the epitome of the dangerous professions, and while in some ways the men are similar in their abilities as men they are vastly different.” [11] Red Line 7000 stars James Caan as Mike Marsh. The film is the creation of Howard Hawks whose reasons for creating the film are under debate. One of the reasons for Howard Hawks creating Red Line 7000 was, “Hawks had been intrigued with the possibility of telling multiple stories in one overall narrative.” [12] According to Paul Helmick, he did this because he “wanted to show that he could make a film without paying John Wayne a million dollars.” [13] The final reason according to Crissy Wellman, who was in Red Line 7000, “he only did it because of his son. Gregg was ten and was into cars, and that’s the only reason he did it.” [14] Despite Hawks reasons for taking on Red Line 7000 as a project, Hawks agreed on a $1.35 million budget for the film. A December 31, 1964 Variety review of Red Line 7000 stated Hawks’ “…troubles lie in limning his various characters in their more intimate moments. Title refers to an engine speed beyond which it's dangerous to operate a race car, perhaps symbolic of what Hawks wanted to achieve in the emotions of his players.” [15] Hawks’ use of innovative filming techniques and creation of the film’s plot make Red Line 7000 an influential action thriller.
Red Line 7000 utilized a partnership with NASCAR to gain large amounts of principal photography. Hawks employed Bruce Kessler because of a short film he made called The Sound of Speed to film actual races. Beginning on July 4, 1964, Kessler began filming several different races. These races included the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, the Southern 500 in Darlington, the National 400 in Charlotte, and the Motor Trend 500 near Los Angeles. Other than a small amount of dialogue scenes, Kessler filmed almost all of the footage on location.[16] It can be argued that the reason for filming in this manner was because of Red Line 7000’s limited budget. Filming actual events creates a large amount of realism and saves thousands of dollars. Similar to Winning, Red Line 7000 properly uses actual footage to help create the real feel that is necessary for the action thriller.
Red Line 7000 features a plot of three racing drivers and the three women who constantly worry about their well-being. In the beginning of the film, Jim Loomis, a member of Pat Cassarian’s racing team, dies in a race before his fiancĂ©e arrives. James Caan’s character, Mike Marsh, and another womanizer Dan McCall are also part of Pat Cassarian’s racing team. The film is similar to the soap opera in the aspect that all characters in the film are involved with each other. All of the individuals in the film either are victorious or meet a deadly demise on the track. In the end of the film, the drivers by the sheer reality of being alive get whatever girl is available to them. The film featured sexual references that are worth noting because they are typical for action thrillers. Prior to filming, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) questioned some of the material that appeared in the original script. When dealing with a discussion surrounding sex, the MPAA stated “pages of dialogue which refer to the boy’s past sex experiences and Julie’s attitude that she desires to be the best sex companion possible. We do not wish to imply here that the problem is one of treatment. In our opinion, the fact that there is a sex relationship between the two could not be approved.” [17] These scenes were eventually altered to meet the MPAA’s demands. However, it is important to note both the original intention of the film and actual scene that appeared in the movie. The action-thriller constantly attempts to push the boundaries of what is accepted regarding sex. This can be viewed in action thrillers that appear on screen today.
Red Line 7000 also features extremely defined sexual gender roles. According to Sexual Sports Rhetoric: Global and Universal Contexts, the author states, “The women in Red Line 7000 never seem to gain respect from the drivers. Julie gets lectured about how she uses ‘bad’ language and is told to code her speech and actions as a ‘girl’ would.” [18] Most action thrillers have these types of gender roles in common. The men are always strong and masculine living their lives on the edge. The women are always beautiful, elegant and lady-like or at least desired to be that way. Red Line 7000 features these prototype roles. Red Line 7000, like Winning, has the same plot elements and proposition. If an individual wins on the track, he will undoubtedly win off the track as well. In this manner, Red Line 7000 is a typical action thriller.
Grand Prix (1966)
Grand Prix is the story of American Grand Prix driver Pete Anon who is fired from his Jordan-BRM racing team because a crash that injures his teammate Scott Stoddard. Grand Prix stars James Garner as Pete Aron. James Garner was one of the large stars during the mid-1960s. MGM released Grand Prix as reserved seat film. A reserved seat film required the customer to pay more for the film than the typical price. This was also referred to the 70mm or “the big picture” category.[19] This led to a great box office success for MGM. [20] Reviews for the film were positive for the technical aspects of Grand Prix. According to Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, Grand Prix “…is a smashing and thundering compilation of racing footage shot superbly at the scenes of the big meets around the circuit, jazzed up with some great photographic trickery.” [21] Grand Prix is extremely innovative in its portrayal of the European racing circuit. The plot follows the same elements that Red Line 7000 and Winning do.
Frankenheimer insistence on filming principally on location creates a realism that was unsurpassed at the time. Pictures About Extremes: The Films of John Frankenheimer author Stephen B. Armstrong writes, “…to intensify the viewers’ experience, to spare them the monotony of simply watching the automobiles speeding about the circuits, Frankenheimer and Lindon shot the races from a variety of angles and distances, using remote controlled cameras which they mounted to the fronts and mid-sections of the cars, as well as several aerial shots which they filmed with helicopters.” [22] These techniques were instrumental in making Grand Prix one of the most visually astounding movies of the mid-1960s. The variations of shots created a realistic feel that racing film prior to Grand Prix has failed to achieve. Frankenheimer and his director of photography Lionel Lindon also utilized the widescreen format to properly portrait life on the track. Stephen B. Armstrong writes, “…the Super Panavision 70 camera system, allowing the director to compose his shots with a super-wide aspect ratio, enabling him to cram the screen with a great deal of images and actions at once.” [23] The film also featured split screen views of the race sequences, which gave a unique view of racing that had not been seen prior to Grand Prix. J.A. Martin and Thomas F. Saal, authors of American Auto Racing: The Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed, wrote, “The quality of racing movies took a great step forward in 1966 with John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. The Cinemascope film with on-board cameras and stars like Jim Garner and Yves Montand doing their own driving brought the viewer into racing as never before.” [24] University of Dayton Historian John Heitmann offers further praise for Grand Prix’s technical achievements. He states, “…use of NASA-developed cameras and microwave systems, monster camera cars that were capable of 150 mph, and helicopters was imitated in other films, and set a benchmark in terms of realism.” [25] Clearly Grand Prix’s technical contributions are numerous and immense. Without the technical contributions of Grand Prix, the action thriller would have failed to evolve into the explosive and high paced films that viewers see in movie theaters world wide today.
The plot of Grand Prix is a typical action thriller plot. Moreover, all of the elements that have been seen in Winning and Red Line 7000 are featured in Grand Prix. However, this may have some foundation. Gerald Pratley, author of The Films of Frankenheimer, writes, “…lives of the drivers seem familiar—waiting women, affairs, broken marriages, the stiff upper lip of the Englishman living in the shadow of his dead brother—but, in view of Frankenheimer’s statement that all these things are based on actual happenings, we can only assume that this is one more case where what we think of as movie stereotypes are, in fact, real-life happenings and people.” [26] The film begins with the first race of the season. Pete Aron, played by James Garner, causes the crash and severe injury of his teammate, Scott Stoddard. Aron is fired due to this accident. However, Aron finds a new companion in Stoddard’s wife who is tired of her husband chasing the memory of his former world champion dead brother. A Japanese team eventually offers Aron a contract to race for them. Stoddard begins racing again despite his injuries. The two gentlemen are up for the championship at the conclusion of the film. Aron beats Stoddard in an extremely close finish. The consolation prize for Stoddard is his reconciliation with his wife. The plot features some type of love affair and intense desires for victory on the track. Although Frankenheimer’s comments about the basis of the story are interesting, they cannot altogether be verified. Bosley Crowther, New York Times film critic, writes, “It is too bad the auto racing drivers in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix aren’t as cool and sensible about their women as they are about their machines.” [27] This statement is not only true about Grand Prix but many action thrillers in general.
Le Mans (1971)
Although Grand Prix set the standard for auto racing films, Le Mans is a faster and more intense film. Obviously, the techniques utilized in Grand Prix, which was completed in 1966, were improved by the June 1971 release of Le Mans. It is the story of the 24-hour endurance race and two teams vying to win it. Le Mans was filmed primary on location. The production manager, Hubert Froehlich, erected what was known as Solar Village. Solar Village featured a restaurant for the cast and crew, offices and storage sheds. The film was a Solar Production and was financed by Cinema Center Films, the movie production branch of CBS. The budget was around $7.5 million. [28] Tim Satchell, author of McQueen, writes, “With $7.5 million invested in the movie, they weren’t having McQueen driving. He was furious, but his protests were in vain. They were a C.B.S. subsidiary, and couldn’t justify that kind of risk with shareholders’ money.” [29] This was obviously devastating for a car enthusiast like Steve McQueen. Like Grand Prix, Le Mans was hailed for its technical achievements but critics found the story lacking depth. A New York Times film review stated, “…the star’s [McQueen] exchange of monosyllabic utterances and long, meaningful stares with other drivers, and especially with Elga Andersen, a sensitive-faced blonde, add up to tepid, monotonous drama during the two-day race intervals.” However, the success of this film is not measured in the plot but in the cinematic excellence displayed in the racing sequences. Le Mans furthered on the technical success that Grand Prix had created.
Le Mans’ use of multiple cameras and car equipped with cameras to be used for point-of-view shots make the film the premiere cinematic piece of the early auto racing films. Casey St. Charnez, author of The Films of Steve McQueen, states that, “…using 19 cameras spread over the course and a Porsche 908 equipped with three cameras to shoot POV, both for the simulation and for the actual race.” [30] The use of nineteen cameras allowed for a variety of shots similar to Grand Prix. The number of camera gives Le Mans a much faster edge than Grand Prix. The use of the Porsche 908 is also influential in making Le Mans a technical achievement. The creation of the point-of-view (POV) also helped make Le Mans edgier than Grand Prix. The significance of the POV shot is the audience sees what the driver is seeing. This adds another layer to the already complex race sequences. Overall, Le Mans is a fantastic achievement in cinematography. St. Charnez writes, “The race footage is professional, knowledgeable, and exciting, edited with an razor-sharp blade. The crashes are thrilling, captured with 14 cameras, three of them running in slow-motion. And the POV shots are dazzling…” [31] Le Mans is the best of the auto racing films in the 1960s and early 1970s for its technical achievements.
The plot of Le Mans is no different than other auto racing films of this period. The film features a duel between the German Erich Stahler and the American Michael Delaney. Michael Delaney, played by Steve McQueen, is under colossal pressure because in the prior year’s race Delaney was responsible for the death of his friend Lisa’s husband. A long and almost documentary like break down of the race occurs. Delaney ends up placing second but ahead of the German Erich Stahler. At the conclusion of the film, Erich Stahler and Michael Delaney salute the crowd. Delaney then goes to Lisa after saluting the crowd. Le Mans, like Winning, Red Line 7000 and Grand Prix involve some type of the victory on the track. In this case, Delaney is able to defeat the German Erich Stahler. Like all of the other films, Delaney gets the girl in the end based on his on track performance. Also like many other action thrillers, the action overtakes the story completely. New York Daily News critic Kathleen Carroll writes, “Appears to be an excuse for Steve McQueen to indulge his passion for auto racing. There is no attempt at characterization. The dialogue is dreadful.” [32] Furthermore, New York Times film critic Howard Thompson states, “Dramatically, the picture is a bore. And neither the oblique approach to these time-out sequences nor a ripe score by Michel Legrand manages to juice things up.” [33] These two reviews are less than decent to Le Mans. The brilliance of Le Mans and other action thrillers is not in the story but the cars and action that always ensues because of the story.

Conclusion
The significance of these four films is found mainly in the technological advancements that each film made. The plots of these four films are all very similar. Both of these aspects can be seen today in action thrillers. The majority of action thrillers feature large action scenes. The use of on-board cameras by these four films undoubtedly influences how they film these scenes today. These films also have influenced writers. The plots of films today are definitely related to these four films. The plots are extremely simple. The stars of the film always have an attractive proper lady in love with them, do something to lose them and then eventually win them over again. The plight of the star and his love is always related to his performance in something. In these films, it is performance on the track. The impact that these films had on this genre is profound.














Armstrong, Stephen B. Pictures About Extremes: the Films of John Frankenheimer. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008.
Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: Flag Down At Warner for 'Grand Prix'." Dec. 22, 1966. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=82547023&sid=1&Fmt=1&clientId=3954&RQT=309&VName=HNP (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
Ebert, Roger. "Winning." May 20, 1969. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19690520/REVIEWS/905200301/1023 (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
Heitmann, John. The Automobile and American Life. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.
Keyser, Michael. A French Kiss With Death: Steve McQueen and the Making of LeMans The Man-The Race-The Cars-The Movie. Cambridge: Bentley, 1999.
Martin, J.A. American Auto Racing: the Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004.
McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
Pratley, Gerald. The Films of Frankenheimer. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1998.
Quirk, Lawrence A. The Films of Paul Newman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1981.
Satchell,Tim. McQueen. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1981.
St. Charnez, Casey. The Films of Steve McQueen. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1984.
Thompson, Howard. "Steve McQueen, a Racing-Car Buff, Sets Pace In 'Le Mans'." June 24, 1971.http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=81951998&sid=3&Fmt=2&clientId=3954&RQT=309&VName=HNP (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
Sexual Sports Rhetoric: Global and Universal Contexts. Linda K. Fuller. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.
"Red Line 7000." Variety, Dec. 31, 1964.

[1] Quirk, Lawrence A. The Films of Paul Newman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1981.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Heitmann, John. The Automobile and American Life. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.
[6] Quirk, Lawrence A. The Films of Paul Newman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1981.

[7] Martin, J.A. American Auto Racing: the Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004
[8] Ebert, Roger. "Winning." May 20, 1969. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19690520/REVIEWS/905200301/1023 (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
[9] Quirk, Lawrence A. The Films of Paul Newman. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1981.
[10] Ebert, Roger. "Winning." May 20, 1969. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19690520/REVIEWS/905200301/1023 (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
[11] McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] "Red Line 7000." Variety, Dec. 31, 1964.
[16] McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Sexual Sports Rhetoric: Global and Universal Contexts. Linda K. Fuller. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.
[19] Pratley, Gerald. The Films of Frankenheimer. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1998.
[20] Armstrong, Stephen B. Pictures About Extremes: the Films of John Frankenheimer. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008.
[21] Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: Flag Down At Warner for 'Grand Prix'." Dec. 22, 1966. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=82547023&sid=1&Fmt=1&clientId=3954&RQT=309&VName=HNP (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
[22] Armstrong, Stephen B. Pictures About Extremes: the Films of John Frankenheimer. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Martin, J.A. American Auto Racing: the Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004
[25] Heitmann, John. The Automobile and American Life. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.
[26] Pratley, Gerald. The Films of Frankenheimer. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1998.
[27] Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: Flag Down At Warner for 'Grand Prix'." Dec. 22, 1966. http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=82547023&sid=1&Fmt=1&clientId=3954&RQT=309&VName=HNP (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).
[28] Keyser, Michael. A French Kiss With Death: Steve McQueen and the Making of LeMans The Man-The Race-The Cars-The Movie. Cambridge: Bentley, 1999.
[29] Satchell, Tim. McQueen. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1981.
[30] St. Charnez, Casey. The Films of Steve McQueen. Secaucus: Citadel Press, 1984.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.

What Goes Around Comes Around: The Boom and Bust Cycles of the U.S. Auto Industry 1979-1989: A seminar paper by Anthony Porcelli





Anthony Porcelli

Dr. HeitmannHST 48512/11/10
What Goes Around Comes Around: The Boom and Bust Cycles of the U.S. Auto Industry 1979-1989
In 1979, the United States Auto Industry was bouncing back from a crisis that shook its foundations in the early 1970’s. The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 lead to gas shortages throughout the U.S. and placed a heavy toll on the U.S. auto industry. The price of gas skyrocketed, and driving American-made cars during the shortage meant that people had no choice but to spend the better part of their time in their cars on line at a gas station. Fuel economy in most U.S. cars during the Arab Oil Embargo was pitiful, but that all changed as U.S. car buyers began to opt for foreign, more fuel efficient and reliable cars. The American auto companies began to try to push increased production of their own small cars, compacts, such as the Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto, and AMC Gremlin. This did stabilize the industry for the time being, as their production of compacts competed with foreign small cars. However, in 1979 the industry was struck with another oil crisis. This time it was initiated due to the overthrow of the Iranian Shah. The 1979 oil shock did not last as long as the one in 1973, nor was it as wide spread, but its effect on the industry was much more crippling. Chrysler, one of “the Big Three” U.S. auto makers, filed for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy, sales at Ford and GM dwindled, hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off as U.S. factories were closed, and most frighteningly, GM would not post a profit for a financial calendar year. Yet, all the while, foreign car companies, especially Japanese companies, were seeing both the skyrocketing sales and the opening of their own factories in the U.S. It would take strong, disciplined leadership and production methods, with the desire for actual mechanical and design innovation, to lead the U.S. auto companies back from oblivion. Nevertheless, even if these miracles were granted to the U.S. auto companies, their true test would be to see if they would last.
Perhaps the crisis of the U.S. auto industry would have been averted if the U.S. had not developed such a dependence on foreign oil. Since 1970, the production of oil from the U.S. was declining, and in order to keep American cars on the road, large amounts of foreign oil had to be imported into the U.S.[1] This necessity for foreign oil meant that the U.S. was more vulnerable to the new, major source of oil in the world, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). A majority of these countries are located in the Middle East where government stability has not always been strong. Because of high tensions in Iran in 1979, they ceased their exportation of oil to the world market.[2] This restriction of oil lead to world shortages and the 1979 oil shock in the U.S. That same year, the World Watch Institute released a report titled: The Future of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World. The report covered the oil crisis and the looming news that no one wanted to acknowledge: the world’s supply of oil will one day expire. At the end of the 1970’s “the world’s annual use of oil began to exceed the discovery of new reserves.”[3] In the report, it is made clear that in order for the auto industry, especially in the U.S., to survive, major changes would have to take place. The report specifically mentions that U.S. cars were becoming heavier, more powerful, and have become “laden with such energy consuming devices such as automatic transmissions.”[4] The World Watch Institute found that it would be necessary for the U.S. auto industry to change with the times and not continue to make bad fuel economy decisions, such as installing V8 engines in ninety percent of its vehicles, as it did in the 1960’s[5]. The era of cheap gas was over, and Detroit was going to have to make changes to remain competitive with the tiny, once openly-mocked foreign imports.
Though the oil crisis was at the forefront of a siege against the U.S. auto industry, there were other domestic factors that threatened it. Chief among these threats were: the push for car safety by the U.S. government, pollution, tradition in auto manufacturing, and lack of innovation and foresight. According to author John Jerome, in his book The Death of the Automobile: The Fatal Effect of the Golden Era, 1955-1970, increased U.S. federal government intervention for the improved safety, and fuel emissions, of automobiles was costing the industry money. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, passed in 1966, was what put auto makers in their places. The passage of the Act allowed the government to hold the auto makers to higher standards for safety and pollution control.[6] This placed more financial strain to the U.S. auto makers because it added the expensed of installing new anti-pollution and safety devices on all of its cars. This lack of foresight and sluggish response to the new safety laws by the auto makers is an example of their loss of innovation and the desire to continue to produce a better product. Economist and Historian, Emma Rothschild, warned of this in her 1973 book Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age. Rothschild explains: “All the troubles and hopes of the automobile business lead back to a pattern of industrial inertia… the auto industry faces the direst and least tractable problems of social obsolescence.”[7]
With the auto industry being held accountable for its actions by the U.S. government, it was also losing popularity on another issue: its lack of innovation. As Rothschild explains, when the auto industry was in its youth, it was the cutting edge of technology, something of which nearly everyone wanted to be a part. By the early 1970’s, U.S. cars were getting bigger and consuming more gasoline, but they had not had any major design or mechanical changes. Their status in society as class symbols did not mean as much as they had in the 1940’s or 1950’s. However, by the end of the 1970’s it was becoming clear that foreign cars were of a much higher quality than American cars, thus attracting more American buyers. Author John Rae suggests that the American people have always had a predilection for larger cars as opposed to other countries.[8]
U.S. auto manufacturers pushed to keep American buyers buying big cars because the production of large cars is cheaper than smaller ones.[9] However, it took two oil shortages in the 1970’s for the industry to learn that the desires of the American market were turning away from large cars towards compact cars at an alarming rate. Rae explains that a possible explanation of the lack of response in the U.S. industry was that despite the surge in the purchases of foreign cars, “from 1945 until the oil crisis of 1979, sales of motor vehicles in the U.S. moved steadily upward.”[10] Therefore the “Big Three” in Detroit never saw foreign cars as a major threat to the selling of their cars to the American people. In essence, they were caught mercilessly off guard by the effects of the 1979 oil crisis and had no way of stopping the flow of imports until the intervention of the U.S. Federal government. In 1981 an agreement was made by the U.S. government and the Japanese auto makers, the Voluntary Export Restraints (VER). The agreement put a limit on the number of imported Japanese cars coming into the U.S. each year, with the intention of giving the struggling American auto companies a chance to get back on their feet.[11]
Chrysler, the smallest of the “Big Three” U.S. auto makers, was most in need of government interaction by the late 1970’s. Though Ford and GM were not immune to the external and internal threats to their companies, Chrysler’s problems were more dire than the other Detroit auto makers. To make matters worse for Chrysler, it not only had its own issues but was also subjected to all of the threats that Ford and GM faced. For example, while Ford and GM’s major issues were of a lack of innovation, efficiency, and the threat of imported cars, Chrysler’s major problems were a lack of organization, efficiency, and leadership. By 1978 Chrysler was nearly beyond all hope of lasting as a company.
It was that year that former Ford President, Lido Anthony Iacocca, became the CEO of Chrysler. In his book, Iacocca: an Autobiography, he explains just how bad things were at Chrysler when he took over. Chrysler had a surplus of 80,000 unsold cars sitting on the Michigan State Fairgrounds, in what was called a sales bank, “representing $600 million in finished inventory.”[12] Despite this massive inventory, Chrysler was still producing cars which had not been modified in years. Iacocca knew that there would have to be drastic changes made to the organization of business at Chrysler in order for it to survive. 1979 was the year in which Chrysler embarked on a complete overhaul of the way it conducted its business.
The 80,000 unsold cars in a sales bank, no change in the design of a Chrysler made car, a faulty business strategy with car rental companies, and massive debt all faced Lido Iacocca in his first year as CEO of Chrysler. Aside from the $600 million in unsold, finished Chrysler cars the other largest source for Chrysler’s deepening debt was how it made business with rental car companies. Instead of selling their cars to car rental companies Chrysler leased cars to companies such as Avis and Hertz. At the end of the lease contract, Chrysler would then buy back their cars and sell them at auction. According to Iacocca that practice lost $88 million for Chrysler in 1979.[13] These reckless practices, which cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, infuriated Iacocca. His first major hurdle was to eliminate the sales bank.
The sales bank operated as a wholesale dealer such as Costco. Chrysler would call its dealers from around the country at the end of every month with special offers to sell dealers multiple cars at a low price. Iacocca knew that it would not be easy to eliminate this practice because Chrysler’s dealers had become dependent on buying cars from the sales bank because of their low prices. He made it known that he was eliminating the sales bank because it needed to be eradicated to save money. Iacocca told Chrysler dealers that they had no choice but to buy Chrysler cars from the corporation, and that he had no choice but to sell cars to them. Therefore the elimination of the sales bank and halting of building cars without requests for them from dealers was established.[14] This, Iacocca explains, was not an immediate success. He had to get someone on his management team that would be able to work with the Chrysler dealers for their and Chrysler’s betterment. Gar Laux, a retired Ford executive and partner in a North Carolina Cadillac dealership, was perfect for the job.[15]
Hiring retired Ford executives was a key strategy for Iacocca. He knew most of them and knew that they were hard-working, intelligent men. It is then no surprise that when Iacocca decided to tackle Chrysler’s design issue he hired another retired Ford executive, Hans Matthias.[16] Matthias brought quality and harmony back to the production of Chrysler cars. Matthias and Iacocca made quality a top priority, and they even made a pact with the United Autoworkers (UAW) at Chrysler. According to the UAW-Chrysler Management Quality Program: “Quality cannot get mixed up with other bargaining and be compromised by the usual adversarial relationship between workers and management.”[17] This meant that Iacocca was getting Chrysler on the right track to once again producing a car that the American people would want to buy. Yet Chrysler’s massive debt was still putting a toll on the auto maker, and it was becoming increasingly clear that in order for them to survive they were going to go to the U.S. government for help.
As Iacocca was preparing to appear before Congress to request a massive federal loan, Ford and General Motors were having problems of their own. For the last half of the 1970’s Ford posted billion dollar losses after gaining a reputation for building the worst quality cars of the “Big Three.”[18] GM, in 1981, posted its first financial calendar year loss since the Great Depression losing $763 million.[19] The two larger Detroit auto makers were in need of innovation and new leadership of their own to guide them through the 1980’s foreign and domestic threats to their industry.
GM was able to hold off on taking drastic measures until the mid-1980’s, but Ford needed to take immediate action by as soon as 1980 to be able to continue being a major car producer. In that year, Ford’s market share went down to sixteen percent.[20] This was alarming because since the 1930’s, Ford had been able to keep a market share of around twenty five percent. Though 1980 may have started off as a year with terrible news for the Ford Motor Company, it was also a year for transition for Ford. Henry Ford II retired as the CEO of Ford that year, and the position was passed along to Philip Caldwell. Caldwell’s tenure at Ford brought back the modernization and innovation for which German and Japanese cars had become known and adored.
The President of Ford, Donald Peterson, was leading an effort to make new Fords have a different look than the boxy, sharpe-edged cars of the 1970’s. Peterson used the talents of the vice president of styling at Ford, Jack Telnack, to get the new look that he wanted.[21] The new cars which were scheduled to debut in 1982 were edgeless and did not resemble a box. Called the “aero look,” the design was made to actually be aerodynamic, thus improving fuel economy in Ford cars.[22] This new design strategy was just one way Ford was actively attempting to improve the quality of its cars which was something that Fords were not known for in the 1970’s. The best example of this would be the huge safety issues with the Ford Pinto its exploding gas tank.[23]
To further show that top executives were taking production quality Fords seriously, in 1980, while the company was still reeling from debt, Ford chose to close a modern factory in New Jersey because it was not producing a high enough quality product. The other factory which was under consideration for closure was an older one in Virginia. Ford decided to renovate the factory in Virginia and keep its doors open because the work environment there was strong and, as a result, so was their product.[24] This sent a message to Ford factories all across the U.S.; those producing poor quality products would be the first to close if needed.[25]
There were so many major changes to Ford in the early 1980’s that it hardly resembled the company it was in the previous decade. It was the only major U.S. auto maker to analyze carefully and use the reasons for the market shift to foreign cars to their advantage. The saving grace for the Ford Motor Company in the 1980s, for example, was the Ford Taurus. All of the executives who were responsible for the design and production of the Taurus had foreign experience with Ford.[26] They knew and understood what foreign car companies were doing to improve their vehicles. Author Douglas Brinkly puts it best in his book, Wheels for the World, “The 1986 Taurus was 1,600 pounds lighter than its 1970’s predecessor, the LTD, while delivering only slightly less horsepower from an engine one half as big.”[27] Ford was rebounding, finding better, cost-cutting ways to produce modern, efficient cars. One GM designer even said that the Taurus gave Ford a two year head start in design, and so by 1987 the Taurus was the most popular car in America.[28]
If the Taurus was the single saving grace for Ford, then the K-Car and minivan were the innovations that also saved Chrysler from collapsing. Lee Iacocca was successful in his case to receive a federal loan from the U.S. government, but that meant that the pressure was on for Chrysler to prove to the American people that they meant it when they promised to once again be a competitive auto manufacturer. Chrysler received an impressive, but necessary, $1.2 billion in loans from the U.S. government in 1979.[29] The loans were given with the requirements that Chrysler would have to reduce $3 billion in internal cost to prevent layoffs and a corporate wide pay freeze worth $622 million with concessions from UAW members and another $161 million from salaried workers.[30] Chrysler began to do all it could to save money, and cut costs all the while still managing to produce cars that Americans would actually want to buy.
In his autobiography, Lee Iacocca mentions just how important the success of the K-car was for pulling Chrysler out of the hole. It was the first American made car, he says, that was roomy enough to fit a family of six and light enough to get twenty five miles per gallon in city driving and forty one miles per gallon on the highway. For an American made car at the time, those numbers were quite impressive.[31] The K-car sold very well for Chrysler and by 1981 twenty percent of the compact market belonged to Chrysler.[32] Though the K-car may have saved Chrysler in the early 1980s, Iacocca makes an interesting comment in his autobiography which was written in 1984 and foreshadows one of the reasons for the decline of Chrysler in the late 1980s. “Today the K-car serves as the foundation for almost everything we do. Virtually all our other cars have been derived from its platform, including the LeBaron, Chrysler E Class, Dodge 600, the New Yorker, and to a lesser degree our sports cars.”[33]
Chrysler’s production of similar looking cars with different labels was also heavily practiced by GM. Author Paul Ingrassia calls them the “look alike cars.”[34] GM had been the better off of the “Big Three” until the mid-1980s, when finally the fluctuating auto market and poor leadership caught up with them. In 1981, GM executive Alex Mair released a study which he had just finished on the future of GM in an increasingly global auto market. Mair’s report showed that GM was incredibly wasteful in its production of automobiles, and the Japanese had surpassed them in efficiency. Mair’s report estimated that GM was wasting $681 million per year in inefficient practices such as producing and storing car parts when there were no orders for them to be placed on cars that were being manufactured.[35] That led to a surplus in auto parts which needed to be stored and cataloged.
Mair’s report also concluded that the Japanese automakers were not only producing more efficiently, but also better quality products. Mair and his team came to this conclusion because they took apart cars from their competitors, especially the German and Japanese cars, and compared the parts to those in GM cars. One of the finds that Mair’s team made was from a Honda. The connecting rods that Honda was using, which connect an engine’s piston head to the crankshaft, Mair found to be of a better quality than GM’s connecting rods. This was because Honda had their connecting rods made per order of cars, unlike GM’s custom of making only one kind of piston rod and then manually modifying them to fit each individual engine model, not only raising production time but cost.[36] Mair warned GM Chairman Roger Smith of the dangers of GM continuing to produce cars in the manner in which they had been doing for years. Smith’s responses were to modernize the corporation, update factories in the U.S., but not change production methods, only replacing workers with robots.[37]
In 1986, for the first time in over sixty years, Ford, one-third the size of GM, posted higher profits than GM.[38] Roger Smith’s response to this was to build up GM as a corporation. This was also done in the 1980s by each of the “Big Three” automakers, but Chrysler and Ford were making improvements in their cars and production process in a way that GM was nowhere near matching. Between 1984 and 1989, GM, Chrysler, and Ford bought $20 billion worth of acquisitions combined.[39] For GM, Roger Smith acquired Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a company which GM had been contracted with in the past for all of its electronic and robotic systems and software. With the acquisition of this company, GM also gained a new executive board member, Ross Perot, who was the founder of EDS and remained in charge of it under GM’s ownership.[40] The purchase of EDS worried UAW workers at GM because they thought that GM was going to use the technologies from EDS to replace human workers. The UAW and GM made a contract in which it was specified that if GM replaced a worker with a robot, the worker would be paid ninety five percent of his or her salary until GM found a new position for them.[41] Unnecessary acquisitions and bad business deals such as giving Ross Perot $700 million in 1987 to leave GM’s board and EDS and to stop criticizing GM in the media deepened their debt.
By 1987 Chrysler, which had paid back its loan from the government in 1983,[42] was returning to trouble. By the mid-1980s, the price of gas had once again become very low in the U.S., and Americans wanted to buy larger cars again. Chrysler’s answer to the American consumer’s desire was to stretch out the K-car horizontally.[43] Making the cars longer, but not wider was cheaper to do because it did not require any restructuring of the chassis or axels.[44] Author Paul Ingrassia writes in his book, Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry that a stretched out Chrysler Imperial was “so long and thin that it looked like a Virginia Slims cigarette on wheels.[45] This attempt to save money, a strategy that Iacocca used to save the company in the early 1980s, was now hurting Chrysler. There was no innovation coming from them to keep up with newer models from other car manufacturers. Ford suffered from the same lack of change. By 1988, the Ford Taurus, which had become the most popular car in America, did not change in appearance.
To make matters worse, Chrysler had bought the failing American Motors Company (AMC) in 1987 for $200 million. However, with their purchase they also bought $700 million in debt, and $3million in unpaid pensions.[46] The total amount that Chrysler was now involved in with AMC was $1.2 billion. That was the same amount of money that Lee Iacocca borrowed from the U.S. government in 1979. Chrysler had brought itself back to the brink of disaster less than ten years after government assistance.
Had the top executives of the U.S. auto industry read David Halberstam’s book The Reckoning when it came out in 1986, they may have been more prepared, and possibly able, to avoid their decline in the late 1980s. In chapter fifty of Halberstam’s book, he looks at and analyzes Harley Shaiken’s take on the U.S. auto industry. Shaiken is a MIT professor, and ex-GM assembly line worker. Shaiken, who was studying the decline of American heavy industry, thought that there were different reasons for the loss of U.S. jobs aside from Japanese competition. The focus was mostly on the Japanese, but Shaiken wanted to focus more on what the Americans were doing in response to the advances that the Japanese had been implementing.[47] Shaiken points out that the Japanese were hailed for their modernization by critics of the American auto industry, but that made sense because the Japanese auto manufacturing companies and their factories were not as old as those in the U.S.[48] One of the most amazing things that Shaiken points out is that the Japanese were able to move ahead of Americans when they were at a disadvantage technologically during the 1970s.[49] The reason for this was that the Japanese were being innovative when the Americans were not. Shaiken argues that the U.S. auto companies used the Japanese modernization as an excuse to close down their older factories in the U.S. and open new ones in South American or Eastern Asian countries.[50] The perks for doing this is that those companies did not have a UAW union and thus the automakers could pay them less, or they would push for placing robots in renovated U.S. factories as a way to eliminate human jobs in a process called “superautomation.”[51]
Shaiken believed that the U.S. auto executives used the Japanese modernization, and the U.S. industry’s lack of it, to pressure the UAW into agreeing to layoffs so that the U.S. companies could remain competitive with Japan.[52] Once U.S. factories were closed, U.S. auto makers opened factories abroad and in countries where there were workers with no skills. Thanks to superautomation, modern auto factories built in areas where there were no skilled workers did not need them because of the robots in the factories. Shaiken uses the example of Chrysler building an engine factory in Mexico in 1981.[53] These changes in the U.S. industry lead to permanent job loss.[54]
As the U.S. auto companies were closing their factories at home, the Japanese were opening auto factories in the U.S. The first Japanese auto factory to open in the U.S. was in Marrysville, Ohio in 1982.[55] There are several reasons that the Japanese were interested in opening factories in the U.S. First was as a way of fending off any type of trade restriction such as the Voluntary Export Restraint (VER).[56] Secondly, it promoted support for the Japanese industry because when they opened a new factory in a new area and created jobs, they often made alliances with the local populations and politicians.[57] Finally, the Japanese were, and have, been sure to open factories where there was no presence of labor unions. This, according to author David Halberstam, allowed the Japanese to “retain some of their cost advantages”[58] because they did not have to abide by union contracts. The Japanese transplant factories in the U.S. were becoming a success, and by 1990, they were producing 1.5 million cars.[59]
The U.S. auto industry barely survived the 1980s. The industry which was once known as the pinnacle of innovation and cutting edge technology became sluggish in incorporating much needed changes. The factory floor breakthroughs, which were celebrated in the early days of the industry, were eliminated as the industry grew larger and replaced skilled jobs with unskilled labor and automation. The tides turned, and the Japanese became what the U.S. once was in the production of automobiles. Though the U.S. would make a resurgence in the 1990s with the production of SUVs, it became clear that they had not learned their lessons from the late 1970s and 1980s. The automotive market is not a fixed one. Former GM Chairman Alfred Sloan’s practice of coming up with an improved model car every year at a higher cost has been abandoned by the U.S. auto industry and picked up by the technology industry, most prominently by Apple. In order to continue into the future, the U.S. auto makers must hold onto innovative thinking such as in the early days of the business and adhere to market fluctuations. If the U.S. auto makers hearken back to the days when they were the world leaders of technology and make the production of high quality, desirable cars a top priority, they would be able to win back the reputation and respect they once had.

















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[1] Brown, Lester R., Flavin, Christopher, and Colin, Norman. The Future of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World (New York: World Watch Institute, 1979), 19.
[2] Brown, Flavin, and Norman. The Future of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World, 19.
[3] Brown, Flavin, and Norman. The Future of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World, 21.
[4] Brown, Flavin, and Norman. The Future of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World, 29.
[5] Brown, Flavin, and Norman. The Future of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World, 29.
[6] Jerome, John. The Death of the Automobile: The Fatal Effect of the Golden Era, 1955-1970 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company INC, 1972), 200.
[7] Rothschild, Emma. Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age (New York: Random House, 1973), 245.
[8] Rae, John. The American Automobile Industry (Beverly: Twayne Publishers, 1984), 117.
[9] Rae, John. The American Automobile Industry, 117.
[10] Rae, John. The American Automobile Industry, 147.
[11] Denzau, Arthur. “Made in America: The Japanese Auto Cartel.” Society 24 (1987): 30-35. Accessed December 11, 2010, 30.
[12] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984), 163.
[13] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 165.
[14] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 164.
[15] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 172.
[16] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 174.
[17] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 175.
[18] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003 (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 682-683.
[19] Binder, Alan. General Motors in the 20th Century (Southfield MI: Ward’s Communications, 2000), 16.
[20] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003, 682.
[21] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003, 684.
[22] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003, 684.
[23] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 161.
[24] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003, 685.
[25] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003, 685.
[26] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003, 702.
[27] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003, 702.
[28] Brinkley, Douglas. Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003, 705.
[29] Moritz, Michael, and Seaman, Barrett. Going for Broke: Lee Iacocca’s Battle to Save Chrysler (Garden City: Anchor Press, 1984), 286.
[30] Moritz, Michael, and Seaman, Barrett. Going for Broke: Lee Iacocca’s Battle to Save Chrysler, 286.
[31] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 252.
[32] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 255.
[33] Iacocca, Lee. Iacocca: An Autobiography, 253.
[34] Ingrassia, Paul, and White, James B. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 93.
[35] Ingrassia, Paul, and White, Joseph B. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, 90-91.
[36] Ingrassia, Paul, and White, James B. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, 91.
[37] Ingrassia, Paul, and White, James B. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, 93.
[38] Ingrassia, Paul. Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster (New York: Random House, 2010), 86.
[39] Ingrassia, Paul. Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster, 90.
[40] Ingrassia, Paul. Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster, 87.
[41] Ingrassia, Paul. Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster, 87.
[42] Moritz, Michael, and Seaman, Barrett. Going for Broke: Lee Iacocca’s Battle to Save Chrysler, 292.
[43] Ingrassia, Paul, and White, James B. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, 188.
[44] Ingrassia, Paul, and White, James B. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, 188.
[45] Ingrassia, Paul, and White, James B. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, 188.
[46] Ingrassia, Paul, and White, James B. Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, 189.
[47] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986), 690.
[48] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 690.
[49] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 693.
[50] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 692.
[51] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 692.
[52] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 691.
[53] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 691.
[54] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 692.
[55] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 717.
[56] Denzau, Arthur. “Made in America: The Japanese Auto Cartel,” 30.
[57] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 715.
[58] Halberstam, David. The Reckoning, 716.
[59] Holshua, Hohn. “Auto Industry Adjusting to a Painful New Reality” The New York Times (1986): 4. Accessed November 1, 2010.