“Real Americans Buy American.” Growing up in the Motor City in the 1970s, that ubiquitous message, proudly displayed on the rear bumpers of so many Mustangs, Caddies and Pontiacs led this young man to wonder what the problem was. If the red, white and blue declarative were true, why would the Detroit Free Press be running what seemed to be a serialized front-page obituary for our town and our industry? Why would that big black number in The News’ headline have so many zeros after it? (How many people were laid off yesterday?) As near as I could tell, there were plenty of Americans around, and if they did what those bumper stickers told me they do, why was Detroit blight central rather than the boomtown my parents grew up in?
Eventually I learned the truth: Real Americans don’t buy American. Real Americans buy what they want.
This bitter truth periodically hits Detroit hard, and each time one has to wonder if the American auto industry’s hubris has led to its final death knell. I watched firsthand the slow motion response of the Big Three to real world energy and design challenges and the resulting economic devastation of the mid- and late-70s, and again in the late-80s and early-90s (when my parents lost their home and the family’s electrical supply business). Today, watching from my safe haven of California, I read stories of urban dystopia and (literally) scorched earth, the only hope being an unusually creative, industrious and determined population.
But once again, and like always it seems, there’s a blip in the flatline. Could there be life?
As Detroit’s North American International Auto Show enters its 23rd year as an international event, the city’s hometown industry isn’t looking so bad. Last year, reports Business Insider , saw Ford get back its number-two U.S. automaker slot after having lost that position to decelerating Toyota, while the top three fastest-growing brands were from General Motors. “Even Chrysler — a company once left for dead — gained U.S. market share and closed the gap with Honda, despite having a dearth of new models versus its well-stocked Japanese competitors.” (Tangentially, Business Insider, probably a good idea to can the “Pearl Harbor in reverse” rhetoric. It’s a bad week for kill-the-enemy hyperbole.)
Here’s more good news from the Wall Street Journal: Ford announced that it’s going to hire 7,000 workers and is expected to report that 2010 was one of the most profitable years in its 100-plus-year history. Meanwhile, GM says it had a strong end to the year, finishing with more than $20 billion in liquidity and that it expects to hire more U.S. workers if annual sales meet their expected forecasts. As for offerings, reports the Journal, the “40 new vehicles that will be unveiled represent an increase from 27 new models that debuted at the 2010 edition of the show… Chrysler will show off 13 models in addition to the 300 that have been completely redesigned or significantly overhauled. GM will show the Sonic and a compact Buick. Ford will feature a compact minivan based on the European C-Max model, as well as a battery-powered version of its Focus.”
Could the Big Three be getting it? Are they finally giving Americans what they want? Consider that this better-than-okay news is emerging from a horrifying industry free fall that began in 2008 and featured the bankruptcy reorganizations of GM and Chrysler in 2009. “Last year’s show had a funereal feel—spartan displays, sparse attendance, few of the lights, loud music and theatrical unveilings that had become the show’s trademark,” reports the WSJ. So keep in mind from where this upbeat news is coming from. When there’s nowhere to go but up, you won’t be penalized for thinking that any movement is good movement.
It also remains to be seen if this upswing is the result of a slow but sure economic surge that has buyers beginning to make those big purchases they put off for so long. Whether or not new offerings and reconfigured corporate structures will have the impact everyone hopes for won’t be determined in the immediate future. But one thing’s for certain; the old adage is true: “when the nation catches a cold, Detroit gets pneumonia.” The thing is, for the infirm, pneumonia can be fatal. And for Detroit, that adage isn’t funny anymore.