Noise, Vibration and Harshness: Domestic Automakers look Abroad

Bob Lutz has seen some heaping helpings of General Motors’ money since signing on with the corporation in 2001. But even if his turbocharged and intercooled pay packet bought GM only one thing – a reminder that the company had important engineering chops in places like Europe and Asia – it was worth it.

Lutz is no dummy. Although he’d publicly told everyone what they thought they wanted to hear – that GM would engineer cars in North America for North American consumption – he had long since wised up to the sad, simple fact: we don’t build ’em so well over here anymore. Somewhere along the way, the American industry’s fascination with easy money – the sort promised by pickup trucks and SUVs – had led it to take its eye off cars.

Cars were a competitive business; trucks weren’t – until recently – and Detroit chose to take a powder on the harder fight. Ask anyone who’s driven a Saturn ION. Surely GM didn’t mean for it to be an embarrassment. Yet it was so far from world-class, it made you wonder.

But it was worse than that. America had become, in the eyes of its own industry, a Third World country, a dumping ground where one might offer the citizenry second-quality goods, on the theory that they wouldn’t notice. You only need drive the excellent European Ford Focus – the one they don’t sell here – or ponder the impressive Dodge Sprinter (a Mercedes van in disguise) following a spin in Ford’s antediluvian E-series to know that American carmakers have played us for chumps.

Yes, chumps. They could have given us better cars and trucks – ones they were already building elsewhere – but didn’t. What are we to make, for instance, of the Chevy Cavalier, which throughout its twenty-three-year run was inferior to its Japanese competitors in almost every way imaginable?

Don’t insult our intelligence by saying you tried. Someone didn’t give a damn and, before long, Detroit had squandered its ability to design and engineer the world’s best cars. You can fool all of the people some of the time, but you’ll never fool enough of them to make Dodge’s Caliber a best-seller. A poorly conceived and built hatchback, it raises the question of whether the average Chinese shoe factory might not design and build ’em better.

An insider told me recently that Ford can no longer independently engineer state-of-the-art car transmissions. Henry Ford may spin in his grave over this deficiency, but the vibration will be checked by the counterrotational forces of GM engineering powerhouse Ed Cole twirling in his. The father of the Chevy small-block, the most successful V-8 in history, would be proud to learn that his masterpiece is alive and kicking fifty-three years on, but he also might wonder where all the really great new American GM powerplants are. It’s been awhile.

Lutz’s fix for what ails GM in America – taking better products from abroad – may seem obvious. But as any student of corporate decision-making will tell you, obvious doesn’t mean easy.

Today, much of America’s best new-car stuff is German GM. Saturn’s Astra and Vue are rebadged Opels. Along with the Aura, which is built on GM’s global Epsilon platform, they’ve vaulted Saturn, once the exclusive province of consumers who didn’t know cars, into the thick of informed choice. Ditto the Epsilon-based Chevy Malibu, which has the automotive press straining for adequate superlatives. GM has also tapped its resources in Korea, with Daewoo, and in Australia, where a new generation of large, rear-wheel-drive sedans is being designed by Holden.

Call it the measure of GM’s wealth. After degrading its U.S. engineering capability to the point where it couldn’t field competitive automobiles, it was still rich enough to look overseas and find that it already owned what it needed to solve many of its problems.

Ford boss Alan Mulally has similarly identified many superior products kicking around foreign subsidiaries. But Ford can’t afford to build them here, which explains spectacles like the for-America-only Focus, a once class-leading machine in dire need of a major redesign (this year’s reskin notwithstanding).

This is the auto industry’s version of poor person syndrome. You don’t borrow money at usurious rates because you’re stupid, but because it’s your only choice. Ford should build its great small car for America, but they simply can’t afford to.

GM and Ford may both be luckier than Chrysler when it comes to overseas talent, but decades of substandard domestic products haven’t helped any of these companies’ reputations. Fine new American cars now enter the box with two strikes against them as memories of gratuitous stinkers linger.

Many will say the American industry went wrong in the ’90s, but the seeds of its destruction were sown forty years ago when it chose to shunt aside overseas products, even when they surpassed homegrown offerings. Whether it was due to self-delusion, internal politics, or that supposed impossibility – underestimating the American public’s intelligence – we may never know. But two examples illustrate the corrosive force of engineering chauvinism.

GM sold Opels from Germany at Buick dealerships here in the 1960s and ’70s. Although the chintzy Kadett fairly blew, the nifty 1900 line that followed, including the sporty Manta coupe, was a true BMW competitor at about 75 percent of the price. It found an appreciative audience, but in 1976, GM chose to turn off the German Opel spigot, substituting Japan’s surprisingly vile Isuzu Gemini for a brief run as “Opel by Isuzu” and doing serious injury to all three brands’ reputations. Many of those old German Opels were still plying U.S. streets in the 1990s, their longevity proving just how good they really were.

GM, for whom Lutz toiled in Europe until 1971, didn’t invent Not Invented Here. Ford (for whom he later worked) sold more than 21,000 of its European-sourced Cortinas in America in 1969 without even trying. A neat-handling line of family cars with a tasty four-cylinder engine, the Cortina was spacious on the inside, compact on the outside, and economical. With characteristic wisdom, Ford killed it to make way for the larger (although still strangely cramped) and hopelessly backward Maverick. This cheap if hardly efficient economy car may have been American-engineered, but Stone Age mechanicals – including a boat anchor straight-six that did its best work abetting acts of criminal understeer – can be seen only as an act of disrespect for Americans’ powers of discernment. (Inexplicably, it was a huge sales success, with 451,000 units produced in 1970.)

That same year, the Cortina-derived Capri, a kind of more environmentally correct Mustang, was halfheartedly promoted out of flummoxed Mercury dealerships. It sold well, but in 1974, the big guns were brought out to better sell Ford’s Pinto-derived Mustang II. One of Detroit’s most unmistakable turd blossoms ever, the Mustang II will forever leave us wondering. When Detroit told us we made them best at home, were they lying to us, to themselves, or to everyone? n