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Auto industry on the ropes

In my adult lifetime, I have bought four houses. The three that I’ve sold are still standing, families living in them. When sold, they brought more than I paid for them.

In that same period, I have purchased I don’t know how many automobiles — probably 20 or more (including those for my kids), and I’d be vastly surprised if any, other than those I currently own, are still running. They’re likely either rusting away in junkyards or have been crushed and converted to Made in China toys/gadgets.

I’ve spent far more purchasing cars that had limited useful life spans than for houses that have lasted for decades.

We just don’t expect much in terms of longevity from our vehicles; for most of my driving life, the expectation has been that a new car would last only three to five years without major problems. A lot of models made a laughingstock of even that limited expectation.

From the time Henry Ford started his assembly line, turning out Model Ts in “any color, as long as it’s black,” for much of the 20th century U.S. manufacturers owned the automobile business in this country. Even into the 1960s, foreign cars were an oddity. When the first VW dealer opened in Memphis, advertising the Beetle for $1,599, the cars were pretty much a laughingstock. But they were the door-opener to what would become a flood of imported autos and, as it turned out, also the beginning of the long downfall of the U.S. industry, which couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see the handwriting on the wall, and kept cranking out shoddy products.

There was a period in the 1970s when almost everything that came out of Detroit was a disgrace — poor materials, poor workmanship, nonexistent reliability. I had a couple of GM products in that era that spent more days in the shop than on the road. Another, a 1980s Ford product, was so poorly made that, after months of fruitless attempts at corrective repairs, I ended up suing the company to make them take it back.

It was the monumental indifference by U.S. auto companies to their failures in quality and dependability that sent unhappy buyers into the showrooms of Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, VW, and other foreign manufacturers that had quickly overcome their early errors in the American market and were turning out well-made, reliable products, usually at prices that undercut Detroit models.

Confronted with sharp declines in market share, U.S. auto manufacturers knuckled down, took some cues from the Japanese, and finally began improving the quality and reliability of their vehicles. But too many buyers had a lingering sour taste for Detroit models, and market share kept declining until the advent of SUVs and big pickup trucks, which turned into a goldmine.

That boom went bust with $4-plus gasoline and U.S. and world economies in ruins, neither of which was foreseen in the auto companies’ five-year-or-more planning timetables. Now GM and Chrysler are on government life support, and even mighty Toyota has suffered huge losses worldwide.

All face much the same dilemma: no clear direction about the kind of vehicles buyers will be wanting in whatever economy and fuel-cost scenario lies ahead. When gas prices dropped by half, sales of hybrids and other fuel-efficient models plummeted. A new $2 billion Toyota plant in Mississippi — intended for its Prius hybrid — is sitting empty because the company can’t get a clear picture of which model it will need to make there.

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