April 1990

American Driver

In memory of our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., Automobile Magazine editors are choosing our ten favorite American Driver columns and will be posting one each day over the next two weeks.

Today I flew to Dallas from Ann Arbor and got a shoeshine. I’ll be flying home again in a couple of hours. Not even I am ordinarily that extravagant. I was supposed to fly on to Los Angeles, where I would have had lunch with Nissan’s senior management and presented them with the unprecedented three awards that they garnered in our 1990 All-Stars competition, but my American Airlines DC-10 suffered a mechanical, and lunch in L.A. went on without me. I faxed some remarks suitable for the occasion and hoped that they’d get read, but except for that–and a very good shoeshine–I was in danger of blowing a whole day. Fortunately, the Dallas Admiral’s Club provided me with a desk, and I had one of my trusty yellow legal pads in my briefcase, so I decided to write down my thoughts on the occasion of Automobile Magazine’s fourth birthday.

As Mr. Dickens said: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a difficult time for the automotive industry, but that made it a terrific time to launch a new automotive magazine. Never has there been so much going on in our automotive universe. There’s real tragedy, real suspense. Real heroes, real goats. Imagine yourself coming to work tomorrow morning, knowing that you had to make the final decision as to whether your company would gamble a couple of billion dollars on a new product. Bet wrong, and your company will probably go out of business or be absorbed by another. Bet right, and your company will barely survive. Those are not great odds, and the automobile business in 1990 is no place for sissies.

Automobile Magazine has benefited hugely from all that and from the fact that there have never been so many really good cars available to the public. Perhaps even more important, we seem to be living in a golden age for car enthusiasts. David Holls, of the General Motors Design Staff, brought that to my attention at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance last year. It was first morning light, and we were standing together watching one extraordinary car after another roll across that beautiful lawn to its assigned place on the Pebble Beach golf course. An incredibly noisy, very low Scaglietti coupe came blatting in. Not a Ferrari, what was it? Oh, wow! It was one of three running Corvette chassis that Texan Gary Laughlin shipped to Scaglietti in 1957 for special bodies, saying that he was sick and tired of paying Luigi Chinetti’s prices for Ferrari parts and he wanted to build a high-performance GT car around a $54 crankshaft.

We marveled at its percussive progress, and David, a concours judge, said: “There’s never been a better time to be a car nut. When you and I started out, we could look at pictures of great cars in the books and magazines, and that was about it. How many great Ferraris or Bugattis or Hispano-Suizas did anybody see in the Fifties or Sixties? Today–with concours like this one or Meadowbrook, and vintage-car races all over the country, and museums, and even the auctions–a guy can see cars that you and I never dreamed of. Half the great cars that were ever built are alive and well today and accessible to anybody who can afford an airplane ticket.”

David Holls is right, of course. There was a period, last summer, when I was away from home on five weekends in succession, attending one automotive event or another. I missed the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, but I made it to the Meadowbrook Concours d’Elegance, the Rolls-Royce Owners’ and Bentley Drivers’ annual affair at Newport, Rhode Island, the Monterey Historic Automobile Races and the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, a Porsche Owners’ Club convention in Baltimore, and the national convention of the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing Group here in Michigan. During that same period I could have attended two dozen other events in various parts of the country and probably had the time of my life. North America is a beehive of automotive activity, and we seem to be right in the middle of it all.

The most important development in the four years we’ve been doing business at the corner of Liberty and Fourth is the steady decline of Detroit. The imports, especially the Japanese cars, are clearly dominating the public’s automotive consciousness and coming ever closer to dominating the North American marketplace. Lest we forget, the Honda Accord was the best-selling car in the United States in 1989. How long will it be before a Japanese company takes a controlling interest in one of the American Big Three? What if Lee Iacocca succeeds in his dream of marrying Chrysler off to Fiat?

A disproportionate share of Ford and GM profits comes from their overseas operations, and as the bad news piles up month after month, their core business in Detroit finds its situation more and more perilous. Many have expressed the notion that Ford is immune just because it looks so strong right now. Don’t believe it. Ford has to navigate the same American-market reefs and shoals as the other two, and it was only ten years ago that those same soothsayers were wondering if Ford could survive at all.

In Automobile Magazine’s next four years, it will be essential that we see the dawn of the Great Car Era in Detroit. By the year 2000, Detroit has to be building some of the best cars in the world, and must be launched on an unalterable course to build the best cars in the world. Our government must take this fundamental fact into consideration when it considers further regulation of what is still the nation’s largest industry. When Toyota’s Lexus people had to announce that they were recalling the first few months’ worth of LS400s for some minor fixes, they were sharply rebuked by the Japanese government. I wonder if President Bush shouldn’t simply order up a couple of new official limousines, let’s say a stretch Lexus and a stretch Infiniti. Maybe, while he’s at it, he should announce that he intends to invite the Japanese truck manufacturers to bid on all military contracts from now on. Perhaps a little of that sort of presidential rebuke might be the burr under Detroit’s saddle that would make some stuff happen.

In the meantime, of course, America has to keep the Japanese government’s feet to the fair-trade fire. What’s happened to the Detroit automobile industry is more Detroit’s fault that Japan’s, but nonetheless, our government must do what it can to help the home team, whether we’re talking about cars or textiles or agriculture. South Korea ought to give some thought to its trade relationship with this country, as well. As Eastern Europe begins to get its act together in the next decade, our trade officials just might lose interest in putting up with any more South Korean posturing. Robert Eaton, GM’s president in Europe, is dashing around like a dervish orchestrating pan-European arrangements. BMW’s chairman, Eberhard von Kuenheim, suggests that in a few years, BMWs will still be assembled in West Germany, but of parts manufactured almost entirely in the East. Germany has found its own Mexico, and everybody in the West has a new potential source of low-cost manufactured goods. If I were South Korea’s trade minister, I’d be trying to find new ways to make America love me.

We have, for years, bitched about the fact that Ford and General Motors sold much better cars overseas that they sold here. We applauded Ford’s attempt with the imported Merkur line, particularly with the Scorpio, which was without question the nicest sedan one could buy from Ford. We have to agree that the retail effort was no better than half-hearted, and now the Scorpio has gone away—just when we were about to get a four-by-four Scorpio with power by Cosworth. But all is not lost. General Motors has engineered a buy-in arrangement with Saab, and now the best sedan an American can buy from General Motors is a Saab 9000 Turbo. Saabs will not be for sale in Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, or GMC dealerships, but they will be, sort of, General Motors products. Now it is essential that the General resist any temptation to run Saab through the corporate blanderizer. Saab could teach General Motors a great deal about building cars with vivid character and personality, and it’s a lesson the General could use.

So, GM buys Lotus and half of Saab. Ford buys Jaguar and Aston Martin. Chrysler buys American Motors. The Corvette ZR-1 comes to market, as does the even more wonderful Mazda MX-5 Miata. Infiniti and Lexus go head-on against the traditional European and American makers of luxury cars. Japanese factories pop up like mushrooms on the American greensward, even as a Volkswagen factory closes its door in Pennsylvania. The Evil Empire begins to self-destruct, the Iron Curtain is drawn back, and a vast new automotive market is revealed, probably changing the entire equation for the European Economic Community and its neatly laid plans for 1992. It has not been boring. All of this has occurred while Automobile Magazine was reaching the ripe old age of four. The alarums and diversions that beset Detroit have cut advertising budgets and delayed our march to profitability, but our circulation has reached 400,000 and continues to grow. You, and all the people, products, and corporations I’ve mentioned here, have combined to make us what we are. One should not wish one’s life away, but I cannot wait to report all the things that will have taken place in our field in another four years.