It is so easy to excel when you are the only player on the field. Such was the case for the US Automobile Industry for decades.
World War II and the Korean War devastated European and Asian automobile capacity. The bombing and aggression left their manufacturing facilities in total disarray.
They were knocked back into the "stone ages." The Big 3 of the United States had virtually little competition during the 1950s through the mid-1970s. We foolishly thought it was our ingenuity and prowess, but the actual playing field wasn't level at all.
The conversion for our manufacturing from World War II equipment to automobiles was pretty seamless and the ready workforce was there and more willing and able than ever. The manufacturing counterparts of Europe and Asia such as BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and Mitsubishi were crumbled ruins and had to start step by step. It would take them decades to recover.
While our foreign competitors were slowly recovering, we were totally cavalier. Whatever "Detroit" would produce we would gobble up.
The advantages of those times were the cost and easiness of maintaining your vehicle personally. Consumers could upkeep their own car. Oh how simple it was to change your oil, tune up your car and — with a 9/16th wrench and screwdriver — do just about anything your ride needed.
It was fun adjusting the timing, cleaning the valves, changing the spark plugs in your drive way or garage. Young men would show off their ability by letting their machines publicly "purr" before their friends. The simonize wax job you personally put on it would keep it looking like new.
If something was remiss, you could be admonished by a friend who would, after listening to the engine say: "It's missing, can I help you?" You always kept your "ride" in perfect condition.
The car cost little and you accepted whatever Detroit would make it look like. It would run on gasoline that cost 25 – 40 cents per gallon. The gas mileage didn't even matter. I remember driving from my military post in Utah to my hometown in Southern California without a care in the world.
I personally had it in mint condition and would cross into Nevada that had no speed limit laws. I would go about 110 miles per hour and wave at the state troopers who would wave back.
There was no concept of a true luxury car. We accepted a Cadillac or Continental regardless of its look or mileage. Even when GM issued that ultra ugly Cadillac Seville we accepted it and took that box called a Continental as is. There was no alternative.
By the late 1970's things changed severely. Gasoline prices had become out of our control as foreign nations took charge of their own natural resources.
Gas mileage became a big factor. Germany, Sweden, Italy, Japan began making economical and good looking cars, even luxury models that were super slick. Also, and most importantly, cars started having electric ignitions and high tech engines that the common person could no longer manage.
Affordability, gas mileage, attractiveness and reliability became serious consumer factors. Detroit went into denial – BIG TIME.
At the same time, the cost of making a car became a disadvantageous proposition for U.S. automakers. The cost of US steel became prohibitive. The number two cost for Detroit was healthcare while European and Asian manufacturers had that covered by their nationalized healthcare delivery systems (their governments).
In addition to those two factors were the luxurious labor agreements made with the United Auto Workers union divisions over the decades. In essence, Detroit could no longer adequately compete with its foreign competitors.
Also, it could no longer conceive of what the consumer wanted in a car. Its marketing and design schemes were out of touch and the big demand for improved gas mileage just was not being met at all.
Mercedes and BMW became the true luxury cars and Toyota eventually produced the super slick Lexus. Detroit was heading south. It is still free falling without any end in sight.
The auto industry is down per se but our manufacturers are definitely the weaker component of this. The biggest insult is that the European and Asian manufacturers have come to this land, set up manufacturing facilities and are still running circles around us with slicker models, better gas mileage and lower labor costs. Worst of all is the reliability factor which they have mastered and we have yet to learn.
It is our entire fault. We had decades of a head start and the biggest captivated market in the world. We took it for granted and got whipped at our own game. It is time to reflect, regroup and bring back that good old Yankee ingenuity. Let us learn from these careless mistakes and malfeasance.
Harry Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, Inc. Website: www.nationalbcc.org.