The Death Of The Automobile — Part 4


(OK, OK. Last excerpt, with a Book Club review coming soon. As I said earlier, back in the late-60s and early-70s, I think the book’s author, John Jerome, might’ve underestimated the auto industry’s hold on so many facets of North American life — the economy, culturally, how we designed neighbourhoods and cities — and overestimated our rational response to the adverse effects on our lives that car dependence had. 40+ years on, private vehicle use still rules, bowed for sure but unbroken.

I thought this segment was pertinent in light of the recent VW corporate fuck. Profits before people. What’s good for the auto industry isn’t good for the country or planet. Plus ça change… etc., etc.)

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The Desperate Men

It is not that these men don’t like the cars they build; they simply are not particularly interested in them. Cars are not, to them, engineering or even styling achievements; they are units of inventory. It is not that these men don’t understand their market. They perhaps understand it too well, to the extent its vagaries and whimsicalities can be known. They understand the bulk nature of the need, the base upon which they can rely, and, dismissing that, they focus in compulsively on the manipulable fringe, the margin where reputations are made and lost. In so doing they come to know as much as can be known about the market, and nothing of the people, of the nation that makes it up. It is not that these are evil men. They are aggressive, achievement-oriented, enormously competitive. And they are, in a pressure-ridden industry, desperate.

The desperation is endemic, fixed, irreducible; it flows naturally out of the multi-million-dollar fractions of percentage points, out of billions of capital investment risking idleness at the slightest waver in the economic construct. An ore train is an hour late to the mill, and 6000 workers go idle 700 miles away, at $4.50 an hour (and up) per man. A day’s wildcat strike and $60 million a day in gross receipts is irrevocably – in the eyes of the industry – lost.

The desperation surfaced early in the industry; it is well-documented in such curiosities as the celebrated exchange between Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., President of General Motors, and Lammot du Pont, President of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, in 1929, on the subject of safety glass. The invention was established, proven, making its way into American car windshields. Du Pont produced it, and was pushing its adoption from the comfortable position of making a profit on a demonstrably humanitarian product. He wanted GM to adopt the new glass immediately.

No, said Sloan, not yet; although “non-shatterable glass is bound to come,” GM was not to lead the way in making driving safer. To do so would “materially offset our profits.” General Motors leadership in the area would pull the competition into the same expense: “Our gain would be a purely temporary one and the net result would be that both competition and ourselves would have reduced the return on our capital and the public would have obtained still more value per dollar expended.” (Emphasis supplied. — by the author, not us…except for this part… these are our italics.)

Although the correspondence in question didn’t surface until 1952, other exposures and embarrassments kept the industry leaders blushing. From Charles F. “Boss” Kettering’s “It isn’t that we build such bad cars, it’s that they are such lousy customers,” to “Engine Charlie” Wilson’s infamous misquote, “What’s good for GM is good for the country,”* the leaders of the industry have demonstrated a consistent inability to conceal the industry’s own greed.

The accepted public stance of the industry is one of lip service to social responsibility. Internally, however, the mood is compounded of private agony at the business’ uncertainties, and vituperation at any interference with the ongoing profitability of the enterprise. Pressure builds; the manufacturers ricochet between the disasters of business downturns and the heady but nervous triumphs of the years of maximum production and matching sales. The captains who guide the industry are drawn wire-thin by the pressure. Slips are made; private intent becomes public outrage.

The most recent, most eloquent example is the case of James M. Roche. Roche was elevated to the presidency of General Motors in 1962, and ascended to the chairmanship in 1967. He led the corporation through more than half of the golden decade-and-a-half, presiding over the largest corporation in the world during the most profitable years in that corporation’s history. It is a bit difficult to grasp the size of General Motors and the size of its profits:

Its annual revenue is greater than that of any foreign government except the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and greater, as well, than the gross national product of Brazil or Sweden. In 1965 GM’s sales of $20.7 billion “exceeded the combined general revenues of the state and local governments of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, and the six New England states.” This figures out to $2.3 million per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (by 1969 it was $2.8 million). On the same hourly basis, its profit after taxes was $242,649.

Although a corporation presidency may be the most limited sort of monarchy, it was to a kind of kingship that Roche was named in 1962. His position in automotive history is secure, but not for his leadership. His reign will not be remembered for the size of its profits, nor for any of the products with which it flooded the American scene. James Roche will go down in the history of the industry as the man who was at the helm when the corporation hired private detectives to look for scandal in the private life of Ralph Nader. Roche was the man who was asked for, and made a public apology to Nader and to the U.S. Senate.

And if there was man-of-the-decade in the car business, a single figure who symbolizes the significance of the automotive sixties, it was Roche’s nemesis, Nader. No creative financier, no imaginative salesman, certainly no brilliant automotive designer emerged as the central figure of the automobile’s most prolific decade. The most important figure was not a member of the industry at all, but its most persistent critic. Ralph Nader discovered, with his book and its response – and with his subsequent leadership as the guiding intelligence behind the rise of consumer advocacy – a broad vein of public rage against the automobile industry and all it stood for. Nader forecast accurately, if perhaps inadvertently, the death of the automobile. He and he alone breached the insulation of Detroit.


(* What Wilson actually said was, “For years I have thought that what was good for the country was for General Motors, and vice versa.” The press leaped on the “vice versa” and there was no Spiro Agnew around to defend GM’s good name at the time.)

excerptly submitted by Cityslikr

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