The days of Walter P. Chrysler and Henry Ford are long gone. They were car builders, men dedicated to the development of such stalwarts as the Model T and the Chrysler Airflow. Lincoln came out of the staid Ford assembly lines with probably the most beautiful American car ever made, the 1940 Lincoln Continental.
My old daddy was a Packard and Cadillac man, not the bar-of-soap designs that finally polished off the heyday of those brands, but the real thing. “Ask the man who owns one,” was the Packard motto and said all that there was to say about style and excellence.
Not that this is a trip down memory lane, but we used to lead the world in the automotive business and, like so many other American industries, it all changed very quickly after the 2nd World War. Steel is gone, we are no longer a shipbuilder and are left with Boeing fighting Airbus on the last battleground of the transportation industry. One wonders if it weren’t for the military research and development fostering Boeing, if we’d have a place at the table.
And that, I suppose, sums up the demise of our auto-building industry. Henry and Walter, in their day, were ferocious innovators who pushed the limits of product development and then went back to push some more. Automatic transmissions, unibody technology, power steering and brakes and a host of other innovations such as ABS were all developed in this country.
But the eye of management was not on R&D, it was myopically fixed on Wall Street.
We are said to be paying the cost today of unrealistic contracts with the unions and it’s true the unions argued for unsustainable wage and benefit packages. But that’s what unions do and what they have done elsewhere in the world. What caught American auto management off guard was the glitter of Wall Street and the need to push quarterly earnings. Thereby Ford, American Motors, Hudson, Packard and General Motors were scissored
- Giving in to whatever union contract would keep the lines open in good times
- Bargaining by industry standard, which allowed unions to run down the weak like deer in the snow, picking off manufacturers one by one
- Savaging their parts suppliers in years when times were bad
Gone or merged and then gone
And for what? For the desperate need of investor capital that has savaged and/or sent offshore our most proud possessions; the steel mills, shipyards, cotton and woolen mills, railroads and manufacturing industries of all kinds. Henry and Walter went to their bankers, now all the world is at the feet of Wall Street, beholden to the quarterly dividend and an increase in share value.
That’s not a complaint. To whom would one complain? Old daddy would probably drive a Mercedes or Jaguar today and not enjoy it all that much, but he wouldn’t complain.
We Americans are no longer builders. We are innovators and managers of goods built elsewhere and Henry, Walter and my old daddy would have a hard time understanding that.
In the depression, my father built a road. He had never built a road before, but that was all the work he could find available, so he and a friend bid on building a county road. They got the contract. They towed an engineless truck onto the site, with their names painted on the doors, in order to show their intent, like dogs marking a territory. Then they went out to find subcontractors. The road is still there. It was a hell of a road, but then my old daddy was a hell of a man.
Men like that are gone from this country.
The heads of industry today don’t build roads or automobiles. They bankrupt and merge, fire off and wiggle out, whine and complain about the position in which they find themselves. They beg for help and conspire to negotiate their golden parachutes. Along with our president, they are graduates of business management courses and they have managed us out of one industry after another.
You will never see their names, like Chrysler’s or Ford’s on a company. They couldn’t build a road if their lives depended on it.
They are the new Americans.