National Geographic : 1983 Jul
After years of stagnation, something is hap pening in this country's automotive commu nity. Detroit is responding to the import challenge with sportier models of its own. Through such indicators as customer sur veys and declining warranty claims on new cars, American companies see improve ments in quality ranging as high as 59 per cent. An upturn in the economy, creating capital to make even more improvements in automation and plant design, say the auto makers, will make them more competitive. Can they do it? In a study prepared by a blue-ribbon pan el of business executives, labor leaders, economists, and scholars, three scenarios for the future of the auto industry were pro posed. Two had the U. S. continuing to slip in international markets. A third foresaw Psychedelic shades radiatefrom the hood of a 1956 Bentley used by the late John Lennon. Las Vegas doctor Lonnie Hammargrenpaid $325,000 at an auctionin Auburn, Indiana,for the former Beatle's car,establishinga world record at the time. the possibility of this country becoming once more a hotbed of invention and change, creating and exploiting markets by "out innovating" others. But the days of high, easy profits are gone, and the cars themselves will be cut increas ingly from an international fabric. An engine designed in Germany and built in Brazil powers a Buick. Electrical compo nents made in Taiwan end up in Fords. And GM transmissions are used by Isuzu. Partnerships and ownerships are creating an automotive United Nations. Ford owns a chunk of Toyo Kogyo (Mazda), General Mo tors owns parts of both Isuzu and Suzuki and has signed a car-building agreement with Toyota. Chrysler is in partnership with Mitsubishi and Peugeot, and American Mo tors is part of a dizzying corporate tangle. In 1980 the Renault company-owned 93 per cent by the French government and 7 per cent by the workers-bought 46 percent of AMC. Renault also owns 10 percent of Volvo Car in Sweden and 20 percent of Mack Trucks in America. Predictions are common that before the turn of the century, world car-making com panies will number ten or less. Cooperation and efficiency are the keys to survival. Management executives now visit with union officials in the labor headquarters called Solidarity House in Detroit, where they once dared not trespass. Ford has quality-control groups and regular forums for employees to participate in planning. At the new Cadillac engine plant in Livonia, Michigan, organized for more worker in volvement, "business teams" of employees meet to discuss progress. I attended the weekly session of the camshaft group in the shade of a mulberry tree near the plant park ing lot. Discussions included leaks in the cam bearings (and how to stop them), a re port on work-improvement programs, and plans for a party. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot!