Genetically modified, government-monitered GM needs an energy policy.
To think some once worried about havoc being wrought upon General Motors and Chrysler as the U.S. government officially attached its creeping socialist self, like some kind of alien pod, to the automakers' brains. But now that the government control unit is in action - new directors named, executive committees reformed, and product plans laid out - we're starting to see there's no new cause for alarm.
Rather, it's looking like some variation on the same old cause for alarm. The federales have let familiar faces guide Chrysler and GM in and out of bankruptcy, passing through the courts like they were the high banks at Talladega. They've helped the companies legally ditch their creditors, workers, dealers, and retirees. And now, thanks to us taxpayers, these firms are back to the exciting business of selling Grand Cherokees and Silverados in the middle of a grand recession.
Not much has changed yet in the age of Government Motors.
For example, two things made the headlines recently: Chrysler's Dodge Viper was given a new lease on life, and the retirement of GM's Bob Lutz was canceled. Neither sounded like change we need, the thing standing between the nation and 40-mpg cars. But they sort of lessen the gloom and post-bankruptcy austerity, lending a sense of cheer to the recovery.
Maximum Bob rings the right bells. He knows a good car when he sees one, he's experienced, and we're all for giving seniors a chance. The 77-year-old's new brief is fixing GM marketing, and he can't lose because it can't get any worse. MC Bob exudes the confidence GM is going to need, but he'll want to avoid calling global warming "a total crock of *** again if he plans to participate in Chevy Volt online events. Web marketing is but one part of this tough senior statesman's new brief. The other is to seem tough and senior statesman-like.
By amusing coincidence, Lutz had a hand in creating the original Viper when he was at Chrysler in the early 1990s. As Chrysler hurtled toward bankruptcy last year with Cerberus Capital Management at the wheel, the Viper brand was put up for sale. Yet it proved unsalable, with potential buyers questioning the relevance, in a dust-bowl economy, of a V-10-engined, rude and crude roadster that left the rails in its Mark 2 iteration as part of Daimler's "We're Building Chryslers As Bad As We Can" campaign.
So why bother saving the Viper, now that the money's run out and resources are scarce? Good question. Except one remembers Chrysler's connection through Fiat to Ferrari, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo - and suddenly imagines a Viper made of last-generation Ferrari parts. Or an electric Viper. There could be worse calling cards for Dodge. However, what Chrysler really needs is a decent mid-size sedan and somebody to engineer a 300 replacement while dramatically altering its powertrains in favor of electric, hybrid, and smaller engines. The real question for Chrysler: is Fiat up to it?
The government's plan is to hustle, not sprint, the two no-longer-bankrupt American carmakers into more-fuel-efficient-car mode. Ironically, Ford, which has not gone bankrupt or taken bailout money but which has some big loans coming due, is moving faster, betting the farm of its own volition on smaller, more efficient cars, retooling several American plants to build formerly Europe-only models.
Ford based its strategic plan on expectations of high gas prices. And the government's own longer-term plans for more economical GM and Chrysler products will succeed only if there is a powerful incentive to buy fuel-efficient cars. High gasoline prices move the market, as has been demonstrated several times. But gas prices collapse and rise, without warning or apparent reason, when it serves the oil oligarchs' interest.
It follows that if the government is going to fix the auto industry, it has to close the deal with a serious national energy policy, which must include a price floor below which a gallon of gas will not go. Only surety here will sustain the new technologies needed.
Don't worry about the free market. There is no free market - except for oil companies, which play governments and the public like regular patsies, free to do whatever they please.
Ford's right-minded investment deserves to succeed. And if GM and Chrysler aren't going to build different kinds of cars, what was the point?
Where are those soul-sucking socialist pod people when you need them?
By Jamie Kitman Illustration: Tim Marrs