Monday, December 01, 2008

Saving Detroit

When I was a kid, there were many big name American television brands: Zeinith, Motorola, Magnavox, GE, RCA. Most simply quit making consumer electronics because they could make more money building stuff for the Pentagon. They took a hit when Japanese TVs first came to this country, but instead of buckling down and building better stuff, they simply left the market.

Our auto industry did the same thing. When VW first came over, Detroit got out of the small, cheap car market. When Toyota and Honda came over, they didn't care because they were only making small cars. As Toyota and Honda built bigger cars, Detroit concentrated on making even bigger cars.

Soon, foreign companies built cars from sub-compact to family sedans, and GM and Ford simply ignored those markets. Instead, they concentrated on the truck market and the SUV market.

Tell me one decent car made by the big three that can compete against a Toyota or Honda car? The Chevy Malibu? The Ford Taurus. Heck, does Ford make a Taurus still? I think they just came out with a new one last year after a decade of hiatus.

Look at fit and finish. For the past two decades, maybe longer, GM cars were berated because their dashboards were composed of cheap shiny plastic and had big gaps in them. So, is a Toyota dashboard made from exotic hardwoods, or somehow can Toyota take the same cheap plastic and make it look nicer? It isn't that Detroit can't make decent cars, they simply didn't because they'd rather not compete.

I also don't believe that the consumer truck market simply was a stroke of luck for Detroit. They actively created it. People wouldn't buy trucks if they didn't have 18 speaker Bose speaker stereos, automatic climate control, and leather seats. I use to drive a Ford trunk back in the 1970s, and I would never have bought one unless I really, really needed a pickup truck.

I am convinced that Detroit would have left the automobile industry long ago if they could take the safe haven of building vehicles just for the military -- just like almost all the other American industrial base did.

Maybe that's our problem. Our overly large military industry gave our companies a safe haven away from the tough world of consumer competition. After all, Japan and Germany have no real military to speak of. If you were a German or Japanese company, you had to build what the civilian population wanted to buy and not what your military would buy.

I, Cringely . Pulpit . Saving Detroit . Comments | PBS

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