Submitted by Dmitri Davydov on Sun, 2007-05-27 07:37.
Posted in:

By Ben Stein

I AM an American, and therefore I love cars. I am an American and, in America, you are what you drive, and here are some memories.

This is the only dream I remember from all of high school: Instead of my light blue, miserable 1955 Chevrolet, I had a white 1962 Corvette like the one my pal Calvin Kline (not the designer) had, and Gay Patlen, my high school dream girl, kissed me on the lips (in the dream). You are what you drive. Even in your dreams.

In 1972, my friend Arthur Best and I went from my boring job as a bureaucrat in Washington down to a small town in Virginia. There, for $1,750, I bought a cherry red, customized, startlingly powerful 1962 Corvette. In an instant, catching rubber as I shifted from third to fourth at 100 miles an hour on Route 95, I was Elvis Presley and Juan Manuel Fangio all at once. You are what you drive. I even took out Gay Patlen in that car.

Yesterday, driving from Beverly Hills to Rancho Mirage, Calif., I was trying to merge in heavy traffic on Route 10 and a huge truck was bearing down on me, not letting me in. I hit the boost phase on my Cadillac STS-V and flew onto the road, well ahead of that behemoth. Superman. Rocket man. Blasting off.

A car is what you aspire to, what you dream of, who you want to be. A car is the bigger, better, badder you.

Detroit is bleeding. Tiny profits or huge losses at the Big Three. Immense buyouts and cutbacks affecting employees. Bankruptcies at auto parts makers. Toyota passing General Motors on the superhighway of auto sales. Chrysler being given away — worse than that, Daimler paying to give it away — to a private equity fund. Knowing a bit about how private equity works, I have the horrible feeling that whatever the United Automobile Workers has faced so far, it’s going to become a lot worse when a group of private equity players with no responsibility to public stockholders is sitting across from the union at the negotiating table.

The decline of the auto business at the Big Three is tearing the guts out of the upper Midwest. When the workers are laid off or their pay is cut, their doctors suffer, and their retailers and their pharmacists and everyone else.

Why is it happening? The answer that everyone gives is excessive wages and health and retirement benefits. But is that all of it? American auto workers make barely more than their counterparts in Japan and less than those in Germany. Yes, there are “legacy costs” of retirement pay and health care for workers in Detroit. Other countries’ workers have pensions, too, although those pensions are more highly socialized than in the United States. But the cost of labor in a car or truck is barely more than a tenth of the price of an average vehicle, according to research done by my alter ego and genius finance-whiz, Phil DeMuth. (The average labor costs of a car or truck are slightly above $2,000, and an average car or truck costs about $24,000. These are rough numbers. If you add in the labor on the parts that go into the car, the number is higher, but it is higher abroad as well.)

THE legacy costs may mean a slight premium in the price of a Detroit-made car as compared with a Japanese or German car. But think about it: when was the last time you heard a buyer of a new car say that she bought her last car because it was 5 percent cheaper than another model she was considering?

I am sure some economists say that somewhere, but what I hear is that buyers choose a car because it looks better or handles better or seems to be better made or — in the case of us insecure men — goes faster. Fit and finish. Reputation for being well-made. Quality of the “feel” when you’re behind the wheel. Sexy good looks. That’s how cars are sold.

And this is where American cars used to rule the world. The Cars of the Fabulous ’50s (there is a book with that name; look at it and be amazed at what Detroit used to make) and the early 1960s were gorgeous, powerful, lush. You had the feeling you were a commodore of the proudest highway fleet in history. Buicks, Pontiacs, Dodges, Oldsmobiles, Chevys, Fords, Mercurys, Lincolns and, above all, Caddys, all looked and felt great. You didn’t need a Mercedes. The American product, Detroit iron, was the stuff of which dreams were made.

“Ye shall be as gods.” That’s what Detroit told us. “Ye shall be as gods.” And Detroit was Parnassus.

Then it all fell apart. Starting in the late 1960s (except for the Corvette, always the design leader in North America), American cars became shapeless blobs. When the cool sport utility vehicles and pickups and the late-’90s Caddys came along — reversing a bad spell for the Cadillac nameplate — there was a slight uptick. But even now, look at the style, feel the feel of the Nissan Altima or the Toyota Camry (often designed and made in America) compared with most of the Big Three’s offerings, and the comparison is pathetic.

(I vividly recall that when I bought a 1997 Cadillac STS, I noticed that the chrome line along the side was uneven. The salesman said blithely, “Detroit isn’t that good on fit and finish.”)

In other words, the problem is not the U.A.W. The problem is not so much legacy costs. The problem is that management stopped making cars that Americans wanted to buy and drive. The Japanese and German models, even if made in Kentucky, just look, drive and feel better, offer more of a thrill and are more reliable than what Ford and G.M. and Chrysler generally turn out. But look what happens when Detroit offers a model that consumers want, like the Chrysler 300C or the wholly redesigned Cadillac STS-V. The dealers can barely keep them in stock. They blow out the dealers’ doors.

How can Detroit revive? Find the people who make the Corvette. Find the people who created the 300C and the Cadillac Escalade and have them design new cars. Hire the quality-control people from Toyota and Nissan and have them supervise the plants around Detroit, just the way the Japanese hired W. Edwards Deming to teach them American quality control after World War II.

It’s not the workers’ fault, even though they will be blamed for it because they are the punching bag at this point. It’s management’s fault. Time to put the bean counters out to pasture and to install people who will design and make cars that dreams are made of. It’s not too late. If Cadillac can do it, everyone can do it. Yes, Detroit, some of us still have faith in you.

[Via NYTimes.Com

How to Ruin Your Life by Ben Stein

Germany Hopes To Raise 1.4 Billion Euros Through More Efficient Tax On Prostitution


Syndicate content