This blog will expand on themes and topics first mentioned in my book, "The Automobile and American Life." I hope to comment on recent developments in the automobile industry, reviews of my readings on the history of the automobile, drafts of my new work, contributions from friends, descriptions of the museums and car shows I attend and anything else relevant to those interested in automobiles and auto history. Copyright 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 , 2016, 2017, by the author.
Friday, November 25, 2016
Oil Shock Shockwaves: A Brief History of Chrysler and American Motors Corporation during the Late 1970s and Early 1980s
Oil Shock Shockwaves:Chrysler and American Motors Corporation
economic consequences from Oil Shocks I and IIhit the Chrysler Corporation and American Motors Corporation
Under accountants Lynn Townshend and John Ricardo, Chrysler was at best
characterized by uninspired leadership until November of 1978 when Lee Iacocca,
recently fired at Ford, came on board. In 1975 Chrysler shut down a number of
plants in the U.S., and its European operations, small but not insignificant,
were in shambles. Needing to move a massive inventory, Chrysler was the first
car company to offer rebates in a commercial aired during the 1975 Super Bowl. Yet
at the time Chrysler’s story was not totally bleak: its 1976 Plymouth Volare
was awarded Motor Trend’s Car of the
Year. It sold well, but later became the most recalled vehicle of its era. And
no wonder, since the Volare’s defects included models without a necessary
muffler heat shield; failed seat belt retractors; corroded brake lines, and
upper control arms separating from the sub-frame assembly.But what the Volare was most known for, and
what brought Chrysler to near bankruptcy, was its non-galvanized front fenders,
which quickly rusted away. It was a visual testimony to Chrysler Corporation’s
lack of quality products.And the from
also sold the wrong products, as Iacocca later confessed: “The classic mistake
was to build all our production on speculation, carry those tremendous
inventories and let them get old on us. We weren’t meeting the market – we
always had the wrong stuff built.” By 1978
Chrysler was giving away its foreign subsidiaries – British Roots was sold for
$1 to Peugeot, and Spanish Barrieros truck operations went to Renault.
It remained for
Lee Iacocca to step in and save Chrysler with government assistance.
Preaching equality of sacrifice and accountability, Iacocca asked for
concessions from the UAW. On the corporate side, Iaccoca fired 51 of 52
Chrysler vice-presidents, thus eliminating a host of corporate fiefdoms. With a
leadership team he brought from Ford that included Hal Sperlich, Iacocca
gradually pulled the firm out of its death spiral with popular 1980s products
that included the K-Car and the minivan. Iacocca sold these vehicles personally
in television ads, and what could have been an economic disaster was at least
averted until a second major American manufacturing decline after 2007. In
part, Iacocca blamed Detroit’s problems in the early 1980s on Japanese imports
and preferential tariffs in Japan, and to that criticism the Japanese cleverly
responded by erecting transplants in the U.S.
a dorky K-Car
Corporation was hardly any better off than Chrysler by the mid-1970s.In 1975, AMC followed up on its relatively
successful Gremlin with the fishbowl looking Pacer, a car that was slow, heavy,
and got poor gas mileage. Its Jeep brand kept the company going, but AMC’s
Kenosha plant was old and outdated. In 1978, 1976 AMC cars were the subjects of
a massive pollution control recall that was costly and further tarnished the
A large percentage
of AMC was sold to Renault in 1982 (22.5%) and 1983 (49%).American consumers were now offered the AMC
Alliance, a reworked Renault 9. Stories of the Alliances’ poor quality abound,
as tears were shed then and laughter now. The end came in 1987, with Jeep being
sold to Chrysler; the last AMC Eagle left the Kenosha plant that same year. What
remained was the Detroit Big Three, and it was not so big given the onslaught
of Japanese and German brands. While European markets were largely inaccessible
to the Japanese, American politicians, including President Jimmy Carter, had
looked the other way to the Japanese and their unfair trade practices. The
French had not been so kind to the Japanese, who moved quickly to exploit
American markets. In the end it was the French who picked up some of the pieces
of the American industry after the economic storm of the 1970s and early 1980s had
done its damage.
Steven Parissien, The Life of the Automobile (New York:
St. Martins, 2013), pp. 285-7; Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded
Factories for Finance in the Seventies. (New Haven and London: Yale
University Press,2010), pp. 254 ff..
“Why Bail Chrysler,” U.S. News &
World Report, 87 (December 17, 1979), 64.
Lee A. Iacocca, with William Novak, Iacocca,
an Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984).