Sunday, May 31, 2009

General Motors Executives Had Little Use for History

Hi folks -- It looks like tomorrow GM will declare bankruptcy. Business historians will look back at this time as one of the most significant in American industrial and organizational history, and plenty of blame will be shared among various executives, UAW leadership, the blue-collar workforce, and federal government. Ironically, perhaps, GM has had little use for history until recently, and indeed has avoided releasing documents that would have provided historians with the raw material to write a thorough and useful 20th century history of America's greatest firm. One can cautiously learn from history.

For example, the last time that GM had its back to the wall, in 1932, Barons magazine reported renewed efforts to sell cars in the wake of a 35 % decline (note in April, 2009, the decline was more than 40% from 2008).

The headline from the April 4, 1932, issue of Barron’s proclaimed, “General Motor’s Sales Off About 35%” followed by the next headline, which read, “Super Sales Force to Distribute Buick, Olds, and Pontiac to be Headed by Richard H. Grant.” The latter article reads, in part:
Formation of the Buick-Olds-Pontiac Sales Company, a super sales organization for the distribution of Buick, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile cars, is announced in Detroit by Richard H. Grant, vice-president of General Motors. Mr. Grant, in addition to his activities as general supervisor of sales, advertising, and service for General Motors, will have active charge of the new organization. “The new organization is planned to intensify and improve the operating efficiency of our distributing outlets for these three lines of cars,” Mr. Grant said. “The present field organizations for the three brands will be combed for the best talent available and their united efforts under one directing organization will, we feel, form the strongest and most efficient sales force ever assembled in the automobile industry. The three cars will continue to be merchandised through the present dealer and distributorship organizations and the management expects to increase materially their sales through the new organization.” Richard H. Grant, under whom the new organization will function, says: “The great middle class ground from $500 to $1,500 is in need of special attention. It would be economic folly to offer only one car. The public demands, and we shall continue to offer, three cars in this class. All talk of a discontinuance of any line as a result of this move is utter nonsense.” “The nation is junking more cars than it is buying. Auto buying has been at a low level for two years and something must turn soon to bring the public back in the market for new cars. People who have had automobiles and who can afford them will never deprive themselves of this modern luxury.”
Richard(1877-1957) and Laura Grant, about 1955

Now perhaps we can see why the announcement of GM's ending the Pontiac brand makes no real sense today, just as it would have in 1932. Same with the fate of Oldsmobile. These were cars for everyday people, and it is the purchases of everyday folks that will take us out of the auto recession. Both brands had a very loyal following.

Richard Grant remains one of my auto history heroes. I live on property that was once a part of his Normandy Farms estate located in Washington Township, Ohio, near Centerville and Dayton. But that is not why I value his professional life. Grant was both very smart and very practical; he took life by the horns and shaped his world.

For more on Grant, see my The Automobile and American Life, pages 54, 59-61.

Pick-Up Trucks of the Future and Revised CAFE Standards

Gretchen Wilson, also known as the "red-neck woman," posing on the bed of a Chevy truck

Hi folks -- this is a response to an inquiry I just received from a reporter who writes for the Christian Science Monitor:

Hi Patrik -- You have asked a complex and important question about the future of light trucks given 2012/2016 CAFE standards. Until now, the bundling of trucks and SUVs under CAFE was a travesty. SUVs are for the most part a luxury and a consumer choice used primarily for the convenience of the owner and family. Light pick-up trucks are not, however. They work as hard as their many owners. If P.J. O'Rourke, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, is right that the greens and elitist bureaucrats are now disproportionately influencing Washington legislation and Detroit manufacturers, then the pick-up as we know it is in trouble. And while April, 2009, sales statistics suggest that pick-up sales are really no different than passenger sales in terms of the large downturn (about 40%), smaller, lighter, and less powerful trucks in our future may be shunned by the "authentic" pick-up buyer, who does want a large bed to haul all kinds of stuff, room on the inside for his overweight body, wife and children, and a menacing front bumper guard that could push my old Porsche into a ditch with minimal effort.

If models do change to become more energy efficient and less powerful, the good old boys and girls who do not live in the Virgina suburbs will keep their old trucks forever. And they need to, for many are small craftsmen and repair folks who don't have the money to buy new every two to four years. If they cared what people thought about what they drove, they wouldn't be in a truck to begin with!

I have a good friend, Cliff Brockman, who lives in Xenia, Ohio, on a small farmette. He has an old 1975 Chevrolet Silverado with enough miles on it that it probably could have gone to Mars by now. I can't tell you how many engines, transmissions, body parts, etc. have been put on this truck over the years. Doors rust, rocker panels fall off, and yet the truck still goes, and probably would make it to California today, although with its oil leaks you would need to take a couple of cases of 20w-50 oil along. The truck is painted primer black, except for sections that have faded off on the hood, and with its gun rack, looks like something someone would keep in an Aryan Nations or Taliban compound. But boy, does it get the job done! Cliff doesn't make a ton of money, but he hauls wood, scrap parts, old GM engines, etc. in it, and it doesn't fail him. Consequently, with his supplementary income and activities, he does just fine. And it is often weighed down beyond capacity.

I think what Cliff has done for years is what many Americans will do, if pick-ups become more expensive, less powerful, lighter and with less capacity. They will say the hell with Washington and the bureaucrats, even if they tax gasoline or force stricter emissions controls.

To: John Heitmann
Subject: cs monitor story on 'truck of the future'

Hi John, I'm working on a story about how the new fuel efficiency standards will affect America's love affair with the truck. I'm focusing particularly on the vast legions of small contractors who make their livings off the beds of trucks, and how higher costs, different configurations, etc., will affect them. Will we see a surge in rebuild shops so they can keep their old trucks on the road longer? Since they often operate on small margins, will they be unduly punished by higher standards, and will their trucks even be able to do the job? I'm setting this against the backdrop of the truck's unique role in American society and work culture. Curious to get your thoughts. An email response would be fine on this end, since I know you're in Germany at the moment. Many thanks! best, Patrik.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

P.J. O'Rourke on "The End of the Affair"

Thanks again to Ed Garten , who pointed out to me O'Rourke's elegantly written and thoughtful article that appeared in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. Here is the link for those who want to read it.

O'Rourke's essay should be read not only by folks who lived the love affair with the automobile during the 1950s and1960s, but also their children who continue to wonder why Dad loves a car more than Mother! O'Rourke pulls no punches in this essay, and here are a few choice quotes:
"Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn't a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in the carbon. It’s a tragic romance—unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses."
O'Rourke goes on to discuss horses and horsepower and the significance of mechanical power, which elevated our status, enabled us to be cool and "ennobled us." But subsequently, Americans moved to the suburbs, where the mundane tasks we pursued unwittingly turned the object of desire into an appliance. But despite this dilemma, we chose the car, the car didn't choose us, and perhaps there is a very faint hope on the part of O'Rourke that we can still choose to keep it in our hearts:
"But cars didn't shape our existence; cars let us escape with our lives. We're way the heck out here in Valley Bottom Heights and Trout Antler Estates because we were at war with the cities. We fought rotten public schools, idiot municipal bureaucracies, corrupt political machines, rampant criminality and the pointy-headed busybodies. Cars gave us our dragoons and hussars, lent us speed and mobility, let us scout the terrain and probe the enemy's lines. And thanks to our cars, when we lost the cities we weren't forced to surrender, we were able to retreat."
O'Rourke doesn't like what he sees right now happening to the automobile industry and the American automobile. Ultimately, what he fears, is the loss of freedom and liberty, orchestrated by pointed-head government bureaucrats and green environmentalists who are taking away from us something distinctly American. And here he is right on, for as long as Americans are on wheels, no government can monitor and control us adequately. The car remains our freedom machine, and hopefully we will stand up to keep it that way.

Opel Goes its Own Way

Alfred P. Sloan (6th from right) in Russelheim. 1929.

Eighty years ago, Alfred P. Sloan travelled to Russelheim, Germany, to formalize the General Motors Acquisition of Adam Opel AG. Unlike Ford Motor Company, which had set up its own establishments overseas, GM acquired a number of companies -- including Opel, Vauxhall, and Holden -- to become a true multinational corporation by the end of the 1920s. The relationship was far from a happy one at times-- particularly during the years of WWII, when the German Government used the Russelheim plant to manufacture critical components needed for the conflict ( i.e. Ju 88 Bomber parts) -- but in more recent times, Opel was one of the brightest units within GM, and a place where talent was groomed before coming to Detroit. All that is now apparently over, the result of GM's inability to sustain Opel, and the intervention of General Motors and the parts manufacture MAGNA.

Opel workers embraced Adolph Hitler during the 1930s.

I was never a big fan of Opels when they were imported into the U.S. during the late 1960s and early 1970s, sold on the lots of Buick dealers. To me, there seemed to be something cheap about them, but I am sure fans of the brand would roast me if they could catch me right now for saying those criticisms. It also happened that when I had my Unfall last Friday night, the car that hit me was an Opel, so I still see that insignia as the hood of the Opel made impact on the side of my VW. Opel cars and I simply do not get along.

1973 Opel GT, in my opinion the best post-WWII Opel

As Opel goes its own way, however, I wonder if GM's contraction in the world marketplace, and specifically Europe, actually parallels America's loss in influence in economic markets overseas as we battle recession and unemployment at home. Government officials and economists project an upbeat end to our recession after the next several quarters , but I wonder if something more lasting and significant is happening that will affect future generations of Americans in their search for the American Dream.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Unvarnished Truth about the Current Automobile Crisis in America

Thanks to Dr. Ed Garten for forwarding me this letter. It is must reading for anyone interested in dissipating the "smoke" and getting at the heart of our current crisis:

Auto Supplier Tells GM Where to GO (and HOW to get there)!

This message says a lot about our need to stand up and be responsible. Hopefully it will get a wide distribution. This is one of the greatest responses to the requests for bailout money I have seen thus far.

As a supplier for the Big 3, this man from Franklin, Ohio, received a letter from the President of GM North America requesting support for the bail out program. His response is well written, and has to make you proud of a local guy who tells it like it is. This letter and Mr. Knox are real. Check it out at


This is GM's letter:

Dear Employees & Suppliers,
Congress and the current Administration will soon determine whether to provide immediate support to the domestic auto industry to help it through one of the most difficult economic times in our nation's history. Your elected officials must hear from all of us now on why this support is critical to our continuing the progress we began prior to the global financial crisis.
As an employee or supplier, you have a lot at stake and continue to be one of our most effective and passionate voices. I know GM can count on you to have your voice heard. Thank you for your urgent action and ongoing support.
Troy Clarke
President, General Motors North America


Response from Gregory Knox, President, Knox Machinery Company, Franklin, Ohio

Gentlemen: In response to your request to contact legislators and ask for a bailout for the Big Three automakers please consider the following, and please pass my thoughts on to Troy Clarke, President of General Motors North America.

Politicians and Management of the Big 3 are both infected with the same entitlement mentality that has spread like cancerous germs in UAW halls for the last countless decades, and whose plague is now sweeping this nation, awaiting our new "messiah," Pres. Obama, to wave his magic wand and make all our problems go away, while at the same time allowing our once great nation to keep "living the dream." Believe me folks, The dream is over! This dream where we can ignore the consumer for years while management myopically focuses on its personal rewards packages at the same time that our factories have been filled with the world's most overpaid, arrogant, ignorant and laziest entitlement minded "laborers" without paying the price for these atrocities. This dream where you still think the masses will line up to buy our products for ever and ever. Don't even think about telling me I'm wrong. Don't accuse me of not knowing of what I speak. I have called on Ford, GM, Chrysler, TRW, Delphi, Kelsey Hayes, American Axle and countless other automotive OEM's throughout the Midwest during the past 30 years, and what I've seen over those years in these union shops can only be described as disgusting. Troy Clarke, President of General Motors North America, states: "There is widespread sentiment throughout this country, and our government, and especially via the news media, that the current crisis is completely the result of bad management which it certainly is not." You're right Mr. Clarke, it's not JUST management. How about the electricians who walk around the plants like lords in feudal times, making people wait on them for countless hours while they drag ass so they can come in on the weekend and make double and triple time for a job they easily could have done within their normal 40 hour work week. How about the line workers who threaten newbies with all kinds of scare tactics for putting out too many parts on a shift and for being too productive. (We certainly must not expose those lazy bums who have been getting overpaid for decades for their horrific underproduction, must we?!?) Do you folks really not know about this stuff? How about this great sentiment abridged from Mr. Clarke's sad plea: "over the last few years we have closed the quality and efficiency gaps with our competitors." What the hell has Detroit been doing for the last 40 years?!? Did we really JUST wake up to the gaps in quality and efficiency between us and them? The K car vs. the Accord? The Pinto vs. the Civic?!? Do I need to go on? What a joke! We are living through the inevitable outcome of the actions of the United States auto industry for decades. It's time to pay for your sins, Detroit. I attended an economic summit last week where brilliant economist, Alan Beaulieu, from the Institute of Trend Research, surprised the crowd when he said he would not have given the banks a penny of "bailout money." "Yes, he said, this would cause short term problems," but despite what people like politicians and corporate magnates would have us believe, the sun would in fact rise the next day and the following very important thing would happen. Where there had been greedy and sloppy banks, new efficient ones would pop up. That is how a free market system works. It does work if we would only let it work." But for some nondescript reason, we are now deciding that the rest of the world is right and that capitalism doesn't work - that we need the government to step in and "save us." Save us my ass, Hell - we're nationalizing and unfortunately too many of our once fine nation's citizens don't even have a clue that this is what is really happening. But, they sure can tell you the stats on their favorite sports teams. Yeah - THAT'S really important, isn't it? Does it ever occur to ANYONE that the "competition" has been producing vehicles, EXTREMELY PROFITABLY, for decades in this country? How can that be??? Let's see. Fuel efficient. Listening to customers. Investing in the proper tooling and automation for the long haul. Not being too complacent or arrogant to listen to Dr. W Edwards Deming four decades ago when he taught that by adopting appropriate principles of management, organizations could increase quality and simultaneously reduce costs. Ever increased productivity through quality and intelligent planning. Treating vendors like strategic partners, rather than like "the enemy." Efficient front and back offices. Non-union environment. Again, I could go on and on, but I really wouldn't be telling anyone anything they really don't already know down deep in their hearts. I have six children, so I am not unfamiliar with the concept of wanting someone to bail you out of a mess that you have gotten yourself into - my children do this on a weekly, if not daily basis, as I did when I was their age. I do for them what my parents did for me (one of their greatest gifts, by the way) - I make them stand on their own two feet and accept the consequences of their actions and work through it. Radical concept, huh. Am I there for them in the wings? Of course - but only until such time as they need to be fully on their own as adults. I don't want to oversimplify a complex situation, but there certainly are unmistakable parallels here between the proper role of parenting and government. Detroit and the United States need to pay for their sins. Bad news people - it's coming whether we like it or not. The newly elected Messiah really doesn't have a magic wand big enough to "make it all go away." I laughed as I heard Obama "reeling it back in" almost immediately after the final vote count was tallied. "We really might not do it in a year or in four." Where the Hell was that kind of talk when he was RUNNING for office. Stop trying to put off the inevitable folks. That house in Florida really isn't worth $750,000. People who jump across a border really don't deserve free health care benefits. That job driving that forklift for the Big 3 really isn't worth $85,000 a year. We really shouldn't allow Wal-Mart to stock their shelves with products acquired from a country that unfairly manipulates their currency and has the most atrocious human rights infractions on the face of the globe. That couple whose combined income is less than $50,000 really shouldn't be living in that $485,000 home. Let the market correct itself folks - it will. Yes it will be painful, but it's gonna' be painful either way, and the bright side of my proposal is that on the other side of it all, is a nation that appreciates what it has and doesn't live beyond its means and gets back to basics and redevelops the patriotic work ethic that made it the greatest nation in the history of the world and probably turns back to God. Sorry - don't cut my head off, I'm just the messenger sharing with you the "bad news." I hope you take it to heart.
Gregory J. Knox, President
Knox Machinery, Inc.
Franklin , Ohio 45005

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Reporter Asks Me Questions About Ford

Occasionally reporters contact me about contemporary auto issues. This morning, David Kaplan, a business reporter for the Houston Chronicle, asked me some questions about Ford. I have attached the questions from David and my brief answers:

Is there any overall thought you have about Ford in the context of the struggling auto industry?

"In my opinion, Ford is in the best shape of all the carmakers, despite the very real challenges in terms of finance and reduced consumer demand. They have the best product line, and most importantly, the government is not involved in their business. So all the compexity of trying to please multiple constituencies is not a problem at Ford the way it is at GM and Chrysler. Put another way, they have their autonomy, the most important aspect related to any large business, and that is critical."

Historically, how has Ford been perceived by the American consumer, if one can generalize?

"Until the recent past, Ford was seen as #2, behind GM in terms of breadth of product. But for some time, savvy consumers have recognized that Ford quality — all in all — has exceeded that of GM, and both the F150 and Mustang have a brand loyalty that is the envy of the industry. Above all — and especially now in times of crisis — Ford stands for "American Made" and America."

Do consumers still want trucks and SUVs? I know the Ford F-150 is hugely successful. Any thoughts on its future?

"Yes, Americans still want trucks. The F-150 is a workhorse for the farmer, jack-of-all-trades, and homeowner who takes care of the yard and the home. It reflects our ability to 'get it done.' Even if gas is $4.50 or more, many Americans will stick to their trucks and SUVs, because we like added room and the perception of enhanced safety if involved in an accident."

Do you think Ford is concerned that Chrysler and GM have advantages from either bailout funding or bankruptcy?

"I don't think that Ford executives perceive that GM and Chrysler have any advantages because of government intervention and financial support. Those two companies are just beginning to experience the confusion that comes from having too many cooks to stir the broth, so to speak. And who wants the UAW to hold a stake in the firm?"

Anything else you'd want to say Ford related?

"Ford should survive this crisis intact and will be a player in the global auto market for years to come. What the upheaval means for the future of our country, however, is the key question, and its outcome will do much to determine the place of the U.S. in the global economy during the 21st century."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The worst cars from GM, post-WWII

The Chevy Vega -- Clean Lines, but beneath the skin....

I have to start out this account by sharing with you the reason why I have ill-will towards GM. It wasn't always this way. My family -- displaced from Germany after WWII and just getting on our feet again -- began buying used Chevrolets in the 1950s, and our experiences were quite good. The first car I remember is a 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster, and particularly the interior and dash of that car, and the radio plate where a radio should have been. We followed up with a 1954 tw0-tone blue and white Bel Air, and then after a brief and disasterous flirtation with a 1958 yellow and white Plymouth, settled into a 1962 Chevy II.

Later my father purchased a 1972 Mailbu that was by all accounts a great car, and then as he approached retirement, he bought a 1979 Malibu Classic. It was that car that turned me against GM, because it had a THM-200 transmission in it that was far too small to be coupled to a small block V-8. Consequently, the car kept on blowing tansmissions, one after another, and GM never made it right it with my father. They kept ducking the problem, and thus my father, who had purchased this car to travel during retirement, was greatly disappointed. I owned it for a while after my father died, and ultimately solved the problem on my own by replacing the the THM-200 with a more durable and appropriate tranny. And it had other issues, including weak springs and valve guides that wore out way too soon, given the care it received.
So after that experience I resolved never to buy GM again, and thus shed no tears with GM's current problems.

For what it is worth, and given my bias, here is the list of the 5 worst GM cars, compiled with the help of Sean Falkowski and Rebecca Blust.

1. Chevrolet Beretta -- Sean Falkowski owned one of these cars and vigorously claims it was "the biggest piece of crap" ever. I have no details as to why, but since Sean is a graduate of General Motors Institute (GMI), I have to believe him.

1988 Beretta

2. The Chevrolet Vega -- books and articles have been written about his car, and the workers at the Lordstown plant who made them. This was GM's answer to VW and the Japanese competition of the early 1970s, and we should have known then that the reckoning we are now facing was imminent. They rattled, burned oil and were cheap. Sort of like a Capitalist Trabant. Superceded by the Chevette, which is a car analgous to the East German Wartburg.

1981 Caddy -- or is it a Citation in disguise?

3. The J Body Cadillac Cimmaron -- This early 1980s model was a response to the 1979 oil shock and subsequent recession. GM decision-makers took a brand that was the standard of the industry and degraded it to such depths that Cadillac only recovered from this insult during the past 5 years. Old ladies drove this car in the 1980s, thinking it was their final luxury car. As it turned out, their last ride was in a Cadillac hearse, which remained of high quality only because undertakers would not settle for vehicles anything less than the best.

4. The HT-4100 Cadillac of the early 1980s. Another failure for Cadillac was due to the hasty introduction of an engine that could be run on either 4, 6, or 8 cylinders depending on the need to do so. It deactivated cylinders via solenoids, but overall was an engine that lacked power, and torque. The engine was thrashed in just keeping up with traffic, and consequently rod bearings failed and its coolant leaked.

5. The Pontiac Aztek -- some of its owners swear by these incredibly ugly vehicles. I just hope the owners posess a better appearance than their cars! Technology should be beautiful as well as functional. This "thing" looks like some sort of a mutant, altered by a burst of radiation.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Our Students, My Book, and a Trip to Berlin

Hi folks -- I have yet to mention the students in our Leipzig Study Abroad program. All 16 are great people, and I very much enjoy being around them. I doubt, however, that they will be quite so positive about me when they have to deal with their first quiz this week!
Since we had a shorter weekend off, students generally stayed in Leipzig or took trips to nearby places. One group went to Berlin and much to my surprise took a copy of my book with them. The two photos attached are of University of Dayton students James Benze, Troy Oldfied, and Frank Hiti holding my book at Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate. I never thought my work would go quite so far! Thanks, guys!

The Best and the Worst from GM, Post-WWII

Hi folks, last evening, in an effort to get my mind off my accident and back pain, I decided to start a series on the best and worst cars made by Big Three auto manufacturers post-WWII. With the help of my Leipzig colleagues, -- Sean Falkowski, Art Mosher, and Becky Blust -- I will develop over the next few posts lists of the best and worst, starting with General Motors.

This list is only OUR top and bottom five, and you may have a different list of vehicles. I invite you to comment!

General Motors Best Include:

1. The 1963 Corvette Sting-Ray Split-Window Coupe. If you ever sat in one of these in the early to mid 1960s, you had to think you were about to take off to outer space. Designer Bill Mitchell's finest car.

2. The 1964 Pontiac GTO. The consequence of the genius of John DeLorean, who took a Pontiac Lemans and stuffed a 389 cubic inch engine into it. My cousin, Fred Schroth, whom I dedicated my Automobile and American Life to, bought one of these new in 1964 -- Midnight Blue, a convertible, with a white top and white interior. Much later, when I was in college, he gave me the keys to this car and let me drive it, an experience I remember vividly to this day.

3. The 1955 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible. During the first decade of prosperity after WWII, the Cadillac was the symbol of success in American life, and the 1953 Cadillac convertible represented everything positive related to capitalism and the American Dream. This car was QUALITY, and its lines were clean. To ride in one of these with the top down on a warm evening was just short of entering heaven.

I wrote this about post-WWII Cadillacs in Chapter 9 in my The Automobile and American Life:
Throughout the twentieth century, Cadillac was a distinguished American marque, although like almost all American cars, its luster was diminished by the early 1970s. It was only one of a number of cars that were purchased by the wealthy elite in America before World War II. Other makes of the so-called "Olympian Age" of the 1930s included Dusenberg, Cord, Auburn, Pierce-Arrow, Packard and Lincoln. The Depression-era forced these manufacturers one by one to either close their doors or change their pricing strategies. But even then Cadillac had a mystique, a name – "the standard of the world." It was a symbol of hard-earned success.

Under the leadership of German-born mechanic Nick Dreystadt, Cadillac emerged as a force to be reckoned with during the late 1930s. The division invested heavily in new and efficient production facilities and sleek designs that foreshadowed the post-WWII era. However, after the war Cadillac moved to center stage in America with new designs featuring gently upturned fins, a bathtub profile, and an influential advertising campaign. The Cadillac was more than flash, however, for it was a true technology leader; its high compression engine, power accessories, and hardtops far outstripped the competition in the early 1950s. It was a machine superior to anything else built, but more importantly, it became a symbol to the increasing numbers of well-to-do in post–WWII America. Jewish businessmen drove Cadillacs as a result of their desire to enjoy the good life. African-Americans, often unable to live in affluent neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s because of covenants, saw the Cadillac as the symbol of the end of Jim Crow, and the rise of a Black middle class. They too could be a part of the American Dream.

The architects of Cadillac’s success were advertising executives from the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, agency of McManus, John & Adams. Jim Adams’ copy lines fostered an intangible spiritual desire for something that was more than a car. In a 1955 article published in Fortune, author William H. Whyte, Jr. summarized Adams’ advertising campaign by bringing together a number of the latter’s copy lines:

Let's say it was thirty-one years ago, on a beautiful morning in June. A boy stood by a rack of papers on a busy street and heard the friendly horn of a Cadillac. “Keep the change,” the driver grunted, as he took his paper and rolled out into traffic. “There,” thought the boy, as he clutched his coin, “is the car for me.”

And since this is America, where dreams make sense in the heart of the boy, he is now an industrialist. He has fought – without interruption – for a place in the world he wants his family to occupy. Few would deny him some taste of the fruits of his labor. No compromise this time! The papers are all in order . . . and the car of his dreams is waiting for him. It’s his!

It’s Junetime – and the top is down – and he’s going halfway up the hill, to a spot where a lane strays into the wildwood and he can glimpse the top of a fieldstone chimney above the trees. The family rushes out with the final voice of confirmation. “Hi there neighbor, isn’t it a lovely day?”

There’s the first trip to the office with a waiting delegation to admire his choice. He’ll get those quick glances of approval that tell him the dream he dreamed for so many years is still in the heart of others.

Let him arrive at the door of a distinguished hotel or a famous restaurant . . . and he has the courtesy that goes with respect. “Here is a man,” the Cadillac says – almost as plainly as the words are written here—“who has earned the right to sit at the wheel.”

The Cadillac is no longer the symbol of success in America that it once was. Now the Lexus, BMW, Mercedes and Jaguar are more popular in county club parking lots, although of late, Cadillac has experienced a resurgence of sorts. Yet it had its place in twentieth century history, as it was a proud product at a time when “American Made” was the standard of the world.
4. The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. One of the great muscle cars of the era, this ZR1 was relatively light, blindingly fast, and very good looking. I'll never forget seeing a car like this in a used car lot in 1972. I shied away from it, and instead bought a good-looking 1969 VW Karmann-Ghia that turned out to be a rust-bucket in disguise!

5. The 1955 Chevrolet V-8 convertible. How can I leave Ed Cole's best work off the list! This car epitomized the Golden Age of the 1950s. It was relatively inexpensive, performed well due to a 265 cubic inch engine, and due to new paint colors, looked great with its two-tones. I'll never forget some distant Geman relatives, who were at the time living in Oakville, Ontario, came to visit us in a 1956 Chevy convertible. I was probably about 9 or 10 years old, and it was my first ride in a convertible. Ever since then I have been a top-down guy!


Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Unfall (Accident)

A strange looking limo in Dresden

It started out as a great evening. The two engineers who are teaching with me in our Study Abroad -Leipzig program (Professors Becky Blaust and Sean Falkowski) and I took a 1 hour road trip to Dresden that ended with a great dinner at the Brauhaus am Waldschlosschen. Light traffic was encountered on the way back to Leipzig, and after dropping off Sean and Becky I was very close to home when the accident took place. I was about 25 yards from my apartment and parking places when I had to make a left turn. Coming my way was a car way too fast, and consequently my rear door and quarterpanel were smashed and the car was turned around. Both side airbags deployed and I came out of the car confused and in shock. The other driver was OK, but his airbags also deployed.

As of now, I am OK with the exception of a stiff back muscle. My car was eventually hauled off -- "abgeschlepped" and I finally made it to bed by 12:30 a.m. The long and the short of it is be very careful because drivers can go well beyond normal speeds in cities, and also know the laws of the host country as well. I did not know that at an intersection that is not marked, you cannot make a left turn. That resulted in a warning on top of all the other bad stuff.

For the short haul I'll be seeing you on the tram, bus, or train! More will follow.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In search of a lowly Trabant

I've had some busy days lately, since our class met Monday and Tuesday of this week at the BMW-Leipzig factory, and then today we had a full day of class-time. Whenever I do get time alone in a city I am visiting, however, I like to walk the streets, on the look-out for interesting cars. Some cities have interesting cars parked on virtually every block, like San Francisco. In Vienna, it was a bit more difficult to locate cars that I like -- generally unrestored older vehicles with "patina"-- but I must confess that Leipzig has to be one of the toughest urban areas to uncover almost anything that vaguely resembles a car that merits my attention.

The folks of Leipzig have had a time digging out from the legacy of communism, and so over the past 20 years, they have slowly emerged with more wealth and the ability to buy better cars. One can definitely find newer Mercedes or BMWs, but Porsches are still rare, and collectible cars are almost non-existent. And the majority of cars parked in my neighborhood, the "Sud-Vorstadt," are basic, utilitarian VWs, Renaults, Fiats, Kias and Opels. Volvos seem to be popular as well, but my neighborhood is considered "trendy" and popular with folks who move here from Western Germany. At any rate, the mix of cars is quite unlike what you would find in a Western Germany city like Manneheim, Stuttgart, or Munich.

During one of my first days of wanderings through the neighborhood, I came across a Trabant 601 wagon, made between 1963 and 1991. I am including a few photos of this preserved "driveable classic," precisely because it is the ONLY one I have found in my neighborhood. Yet more than 3 million of these vehicles were made between 1959 and 1991!

They were slow, made of plastic (duroplast, made from recycled cotton waste and phenolic resins), propelled by a two-cycle engine that polluted the environment beyond anything comparable for its cubic inch displacement then or now (like a Lawnboy mower engine on its last legs), yet its average lifespan in the GDR was 28 years, and the usual waiting time to get one was 15 years.

Folks in eastern Germany collect them now, and swap engines and tune them in some instances.

The bigger question about the Trabant transcends its place and time, however. The Trabant was the result of centralized state planning at its worst. Yet the GDR was the one place where Marxism had the best chance to succeed. Given how the federal government in the U.S. is currently moving towards an automobile industry with strong controls over what will be made for our consumption, will the U.S. end up with its own "Traveler," or Trabant, this time featuring a plug-in electric configuration?
For an excellent article on the Trabant and the GDR, see Jonathan R. Zatlin, "The Vehicle of Desire," German History, 15 (1997), 358-80.

Monday, May 18, 2009

When Working for a Company is an Honor -- Visit to BMW - Leipzig

Today was the first day of a four-day visit to the BMW facility located in Leipzig, Germany for our 16 students from the University of Dayton study abroad program. We were given the rather unique opportunity for faculty and students from an American institution to explore how BMW's corporate culture has taken root in the former DDR. The manufacturing facility consists of a stamping and fabrication plant, a paint plant, and assembly unit that produces the 1 and 3 series of BMWs. It opened several years ago and may well be the most modern and sophisticated operation in Europe. Currently, due to the world-wide downturn in demand, the plant runs one shift only, although it has the capacity to run two shifts at about 45 cars per hour.

After an introduction from human resources and quality staff, and a brief historical review, several hours in the afternoon were spent in touring the plant. If you want to see lean production methods in practice, this plant is a very good example. And the paint shop area does remarkable things, particularly in terms of the recycling of the final clear coat materials. Indeed this a "green," energy-efficient plant in numerous aspects, including lighting, heating, and cooling.

What struck me about this visit, however, was something I had also heard at Porsche in Stuttgart during my journey last week. Namely, employees at BMW feel honored to work for their employer. How many American auto workers of the past two generations have felt that way? I doubt there are many, although I am sure some workers at all levels did hold to that positive view of work at their particular company. It is an attitude that leads to excellence and quality workmanship, no matter how lowly or important the task. And our failure to honor our work and source of our earnings certainly has contributed to our decline as a competitive economic power. The call to vocation may be seen as an old-fashioned value, but it does have considerable merit in today's world.

At the end of the day I gave an hour lecture on the Golden Age of the automobile in America, the 1950s. In addition to a survey of designers and designs, manufacturers that included the various independents, and corporate sales strategies, I emphasized the importance of culture in terms of how a society makes decisions about technologies. You can get this story by reading chapter 8 of my book The Automobile and American Life. My point to the folks at BMW is that if you are to capture the market of a particular nation, you must penetrate its culture, and become an integral part of it. That is what happened in the 1950s as the American car industry was at the heart of film, music, and important writing.

Yet this Golden Age was not all that golden -- the decade marked the rise of the first serious wave of automobile critics. Also, safety became an issue, as well as dealer abuses. And in California, smog began to emerge as a serious public health matter. Further, with a relaxing of credit requirements after 1953 and the shift in corporate leadership at GM away from engineering to finance and accounting, the seeds were sown for what we now reap as our industry faces tremendous challenges to maintain its autonomy in the global automotive industry.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The American Automobile Dealer in Crisis

The employees of Garten Motors, Hinton, West Virginia, mid-1950s.

Carlos Garten, a Hinton, West Virginia Ford dealer, handing over the keys of a drivers' education car to the local school superintendent, 1946.

Today (May 14, 2009), nearly 800 Chrysler dealers received letters ordering them to shut their doors. Coupled with the shuttering of Ford and GM dealers due to the credit-induced recession, the ending of brands like Pontiac, and the lack of consumer confidence due to the fears of bankruptcy, the loss of so many dealerships will result in increased levels of unemployment and a decline in the economy equal to the job-losses that are the consequence of closing the factories.

In larger cities, consumers will have a harder time cutting good deals in which they play one dealer against another. And the effect on small towns is most alarming. It was those dealers who sponsored little league teams, furnished driver eductation vehicles and were key to the economic vibrancy of the community.

Certainly as a result of this tumult, we as Americans have lost something of value within our society. The following is my description of the small town dealer from the past, taken from The Automobile and American Life (pages 147-49):

An example from the Mid-South serves to illustrate both the entrepreneurial spirit and integration into the social life of the community that characterized the late 1940s and early 1950s automobile boom. In 1946, Carlos Bryant Garten, already a successful local businessman in Summers and Raleigh Counties, West Virginia, obtained one of the first postwar Ford Motor Company dealer franchises. Clearly, for Ford Motor Company the period immediately following the war was a make or break time. Henry Ford II himself spent portions of 1945 and 1946 traveling extensively to visit dealerships around the country. Ford wanted to meet established and new dealers personally, wander showrooms and listen to concerns.

Meeting Mr. Ford in one of those forays outside of Dearborn was Carlos Garten, who in late 1945 built a small dealership to Ford Motor Company specifications and later in 1946 took delivery of some of the first new Fords to be shipped to dealers since the end of wartime production. Given demand, those first two Ford coupes pushed off a C & O railcar at Hinton, West Virginia, were driven to Garten Motors Ford a few miles away and already had a dozen potential buyers standing in line. Over the next decade, Mr. Garten would sell hundreds of new Ford and Mercury cars in addition to taking extensive orders for profitable mine and timber trucks. By the mid-1950s, Garten had become among the wealthiest businessmen in the community.

While Chevrolet, Dodge, and Pontiac dealerships were established later, in the early 1950s in Summers County, Garten’s dealership became a trusted mainstay within an Appalachian community of 5,460. Garten Motors Ford, not unlike many new small town dealerships in the postwar period, was a family affair. Garten’s son Magee was vice-president, son-in-law Damon was senior salesperson, son Johnny drove the company’s wrecker and managed the parts department, and the women in the family were often called upon for secretarial services and advice in ordering paint colors and upholstery trim options on the assumption that females heavily influenced their husband’s car selection!

Like many of the post-war new small town “mom-and-pop” dealers, Garten Motors Ford became a fixture in the community, a place where men and their sons would sometimes go simply to hang out and talk cars with like-minded folks. As in many communities, early September of each year brought the new model year launch and Carlos Garten was never one to let that opportunity go by. Each year in the early ‘50s he would sponsor a parade through town with grandsons on horses and banners waving to advertise the new vehicles. From dealership sponsorship of little league softball teams to playing Santa Claus in the annual Christmas parades to chairing fund-raising projects to better the area, Garten quickly became influential within the social and political life of his community. As a strong supporter of education, Mr. Garten built trust within the community through such generous acts as contributing to the Board of Education its first drivers’ education car, serving as president of the Board of Education, and leading numerous civic organizations. Such community leadership was not unlike hundreds of other 1950s car dealers who, at the time, simply viewed the cultivation of strong community relations as part of good business.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Automobile and American Life

Watch me talk about my new book "The Automobile and American Life." I was interviewed at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio.

Audi Ingolstadt

Note how this late 1950s Audi is a close copy to the 1957 Thunderbird! The rear is just as close to the 'Bird in design.

Dash from a 1939 Audi

Dash from a 1939 Rennwagen -- this car was taken by the Soviets after WWII as reparations and only returned to Germany in 1995. It is the only surviving example.

While a slowdown in car sales has taken place in Germany to a lesser degree than perhaps in the U.S. (although I did hear an Opel ad yesterday over the radio that was touting the slash of 3000 Euros off list price of certain models), yesterday I was around dozens of new Audi buyers at the Audi Forum located at the factory in Ingolstadt. And they come as a family to pick up their new cars, whether they are from Dortmund in the Ruhr or Dresden in the former GDR. Ingolstadt is in Bavaria, halfway between Nurnburg and Munich. The Forum -- a combination museum and facility for the sales and delivery of cars -- was one of the most pleasant places I have visited so far. The facility has a cafeteria that serves excellent food and a very reasonable price -- far better than the ostentacious food service at Mercedes in Cannstadt. The staff is very helpful and friendly, parking was free (get that Mercedes and Porsche!), and the museum is excellent. This museum is different in one important respect -- careful attention has been paid to showing very large exhibit photographs that show how people in the past used the various Audi models. Terrific scenes are on the walls of women driving and riding during the 1920s, racing scenes during the 1930s, and post-WWII youth now enjoying automobility. At various points in the museum there are postcards to take along of some of the key images. The historical narratives that accompany the exhibits are extremely well done, both in terms of writing and analysis. Whoever did the research for this museum did a superior job.

I was also struck by the looming factory complex as I was driving in from the autobahn. You could see it for miles in the distance, as you are driving on a two lane highway with fields of yellow on both sides of the road. It was an awesome juxtaposition of agriculture and industry located on the rolling hills of northern Bavaria.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Porsche Museum Zuffenhausen -- the Best!

The new Porsche Museum in Zuffenhausen, near Stuttgart, is simply the best auto museum I have gone to. In terms of the setting, the exhibits, the ambiance, it outstrips the Petersen in Los Angeles, and that is no mean feat! If it has a weakness, however, the life of the everyday person -- although a Porsche owner is anything but common in many respects -- is a topic conspicuously absent, not only in this museum, but in virtually all automobile museums in Germany. Yet it is the people that are the most intesting to me.

With a PCA membership card the entrance fee is only four Euros, and there is also a modest charge for parking in an adjacent parking garage. Like everything Porsche does, from making their cars to racing, it is done just right. There are varied opportunities to eat here, from a snack bar to a full sit-down restaurant. And the cars! The first floor is dedicated to early Porsche cars, from autos Ferdinand Porsche designed in the 1920s to designs that ultimately crystallized as the Type 356. If you are intersted in 356s, early and later 911s, Porsche racing vehicles of every type, to water pumpers like the 924 and 928, they are here. The cars are well presented, and often you can go right up to the car and get as close as you want. Very careful attention to history takes place in this museum. Sadly, however, mention of the relationship with Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche's imprisonment after WWII is absent. Perhaps it is best forgotten, but beyond the history of technology it is the most interesting historical episode in the great man's life. I am including photos of some early Porsche designed vehicles, the 1939 Berlin to Rome vehicle -- the first car with the name Porsche on it, and several other car photos.

At the end of the visit I drove to the Mercedes Museum in nearby Cannstadt, although it took me far longer than I would have liked due to my poor map. The Mercedes Museum, in my opinion, is overly commercialized. Sure Porsche wants to sell you a car, but it seems that is all the Mercedes folks aim at doing. The Museum seems like mere gravy to them!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Trip to the Mercedes-Benz Museum, Ladenburg

This morning I rented a car and drove about 20 km or so from Mannheim to Ladenburg. There, Carl Benz and his two sons built cars after the elder Benz had been forced out of the business back in Mannheim. The Dr. Carl Benz Museum is a superb smaller museum, located in the factory where Benz later lived and built cars. A number of the vehicles are stunning, including several race cars that go all the way up to a 1991 Sauber-Mercedes. The memorabilia in the cases include some very rare ephemeral literature; automobilia; Carl Benz's wife's wedding dress!; badges; and timing equipment. This is a side trip well-worth taking if you are in the vicinity of Mannheim.
The point about Carl Benz and his second venture in Ladenburg points to some fundamentals in the sweep of automobile history. Namely, relationships in the auto industry are rarely static or stable for long. Key people coming and going, mergers, bankruptcies, global shifts, the drying up or expansion of markets, etc., have always been a part of the history of the industry, and there are indications these phenomena will continue. We in the U.S. were blessed with considerable stability in the decades after WWII, and recent events related to GM and Chrysler seem so foreign to us. That we escaped this turbulence for so long may be the real anomaly in history. However, we are entering a new world in the American auto industry, as both the new role of the federal government as stockholder and the ownership of a large percentage of stock by the UAW truly is a new departure with unknown consequences for the future.

Note the 1955 Porsche!

Lest you think that all I am interested in is auto history, I did want to digress for a moment and say that Mannheim is a fabulous medium-sized city. On Saturday night there was a marathon right by my hotel, followed by a major city celebration at the Wasserturm (Water Tower). The music was simply great. Mannheim has plenty going on, and I highly recommend experiencing it! Tomorrow morning I will move on to Stuttgart and the Porsche Museum.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mannheim -- the birth of the automobile industry

After landing at Frankfurt on May 8, I took a fast train to Mannheim, where the automobile was born. Incidentally, I have some origins there as well, since my mother came from Mannheim. Prior to the family's move to Mittlestrasse, her family had lived in a village within walking distance of the city going back to about 1650. My first task after getting into my hotel was to go to the Museum of Technik and Arbeit (technology and work), an excellent museum although seemingly under used and a bit ill kept. It was a further walk than I anticipated, and while the many, many exhibits on technology and industry in Baden-Wurttenburg were of value, I gravitated to the section on the automobile. I might add that while walking there I found a huge stone marker erected in honor of Benz.

If there is value in the museum it is in the material and exhibit on Felix Wankel, the inventor of the rotary engine that is still used in Mazda 8s despite their thirst for fuel. Two of his NSU vehicles with that engine were on display. The process of invention of the Wankel Rotary design is described at the Museum. Additionally there is a replica of Benz's 1886 three-wheel vehicle (how many are there over the face of the earth?). What I found of interest was an exhibit on the body fabrication of a 1989 Porsche 911 targa with automated welding equipment. Some photos are inclosed and more commentary may follow.

Why should you care about reading this Blog!

This blog will expand on themes and topics that were first mentioned in my book, although the first month and a half of my entries will comment on a trip I am taking to Germany, where I will be teaching American engineering students the history of the automobile in Leipzig. I hope to comment on recent developments in the automobile industry, reviews of my readings on the history of the automobile, descriptions of the museums and car shows that I attend, and anything else relevant that is worthwhile to a reader interested in automobiles and auto history.