There is growing talk on the interwebs and amongst certain circles that Steve Job, Apple CEO, should be running one of , if not all of, the Big 3 American automobile makers. At first thought, this could make a lot of sense: take the America’s hottest CEO with an impeccable track record would make a lot of sense. Couple that with the design savant of Jonathan Ives, the man behind all the cool new iPods, iPhones and MacBooks and you would have a winning team for sure. Right? …I’m afraid not.
You see the problem behind the BIG 3 is not one of poor leadership or bad design. The European arms of the GM, Vauxhall and Opel, are making some great cars. No, that’s not true, they are making some stunning cars. Think about the Opel GT which was eventually imported as the Saturn Sky and then as the Pontiac Solstice. And then there is the all new Vauxhall Insignia which gives the Nissan Altima and the Infiniti G35 a run for it’s Stylin’ money. Both of these cars look great, sure they still have some GM engineering issues, but one thing for sure is that they are a step in the right direction. This is in fact one of the big issues with hot Euro design that finally make it to the North American market. Take the Ford Focus… Seriously, just take it back to and give us the German design that won all the Rally Car title with Collin MacRae at the wheel. For once Ford had found the winning formula to counter VW and Honda’s stronghold on the hot hatch market. The German made Focus was an affordable and good looking car with bona fide racing pedigree. But then for brought it America and tried to sell it as a sedan… Sure they eventually brought in the hot Zx-3 and the Zx-5 but the damage had already been done. Truing to keep the cost down, the Yanks tried to build it themselves and of course this meant that they would start to make design modifications to it in order to make it “more appealing to the American market”.
Asking an American car designer to better a European design is the like asking a prisoner of war his input on making Chef Boyardee taste less like dog food.
Whenever I hear this, I automatically think of the Simpson’s episode when Homer is asked to design the perfect family car. Asking an American car designer to better a European designer is the like asking a prisoner of war his input on making Chef Boyardee taste less like dog food. The truth is he can’t because he’s only ever eaten dog food. The big three bring Euro Designers all the time to try and make the cars better, for example the original Malibu was based on a Vauxhall, but when they took the lead designer aside to give him his green card, they castrated him and forced him to drive Dodge Sebring from Ellis Island to Detroit. By the time he got to Pittsburgh, the poor guy was convinced that it wouldn’t matter whatever he built it wouldn’t matter because American will anything. The Sebring being the perfect example and the Pontiac Aztek being the nail in the coffin.
The real issue at the bottom of this whole economic melt-down and Big 3 crisis, is the same issue that has plagued Corporate American since the Great Depression: Short Term Memory! Corporate America has a serious RAM to ROM issue. They are completely unable to learn from past mistakes. In the depression, U$ government bailed out the automotive industry in order to prevent the country from sinking even further. As is the case today, the automotive industry was responsible for keeping many many support industries alive. Think about what it takes to make a car and where all the parts get fed from. Letting the Big 3 die, would of meant certain death for it’s entire support structure as well. So Uncle Sam bailed everyone out, and then we went to war and everyone went from making wheel rims for the Model T to making Nazi busting shells for the sake of liberty. After the war the Big 3 went back to making silly motors inside large square boxes with big fins. Hey life was great, right? But the European where still making small cars with nicer engines and fine quality leather seats. While the Big 3 where putting bigger and bigger blocks into over sized barges, the Germans sent to little cars on a boat to the U$: The Beetle and the MicroBus. There was a fuel crisis looming and the Yanks couldn’t fill their cars anymore. So after kicking German but in the WW’s, they were suddenly getting schooled by these people’s wagons! The Japanese caught on to this and started to flood the market with their own Civic wagons. Once again the Big 3 were being taught a lesson by a former military adversary. The short term memory loss became a chronic condition after the Japanese did it in the 70’s and 80’s the Korean’s did it again in the nineties. Rather than just let the foreign car makers take over entirely, the Big 3 lobbied Washington until they passed a law that would restrict the number of models any one manufacturer could import. So the Japanese created luxury brands and started to eat away at the luxury market as well as the economy class. Eventually setting up shop in the U$ and making foreign domestic cars that where made with the same Japanese work ethic and some highly skilled American labour.
The nail in the coffin had to be when Toyota won permission to compete in Nascar. The Big 3 showcase of engineering that has pushed along sales of Lumina’s, Intrepid, Malibu’s and Fusion’s over the years had just been cracked by the Camry. You would think that this should have been a big enough warning. Yet no one in Detroit took notice, probably because Toyota never won a race last year, as of this writing Toyota has 10 wins and is only 12 points behind Chevy. I don’t profess to even understand Nascar, but I’m pretty sure this has something to do with drivers like Scott Speed and Joey Logano. The way Japanese are making better American cars in the U$ than the Americans is nothing new new, in typical Japanese fashion, they have taken tried and tested processes from around the world and improved the model making it their own. Volkswagen did this with the original Beatle in Mexico and then Brasil as well as how they revived the Seat and Skoda brands in their own markets. Seat had a small rally car following until VW revamped the Ibiza and made it the car all UK Chavs wanted to pimp out. And Skoda went from the being the laughing stock of the Eastern block to a very respectable company car, sure it has a bit a work to do before with can ever compete with Renault and Peugeot for the fleet market but it is making quality cars that people want to drive.
American People don’t buy American Cars, American Corporations buy American cars.
When you stop for second and look at who is driving the American car these days, you start to understand what the real problem is. Chrysler, Ford and Chevrolet have all become the default standard for company cars, rental cars, taxi services, police and other security forces. Not one of these drivers has had a say in what they drive. The finance firms are the ones that decide what to include in what package, not the drivers. I sitting in my freinds BOX on wheels that he calls the Chrysler Voyager, and after the usual volley of WHY? questioning, I suddenly understood American cars suck so much: American People don’t buy them, American Corporations buy American cars. The supposed brand loyalty my grandfather had for Buicks died about the same time he did. Everyone I have ever known that has driven a company car has swapped brands whenever a new deal is made. The Big 3 are constantly undercutting each other and making the cars cheaper and cheaper in order to lock in another deal. Of course this fails, it makes complete sense that it should fail. Why would I feel any attachment to something that is built cheaper than a KIA and is being forced down my throat.
So should Steve Jobs run the Big 3. NO! HELL NO! And …. Oh… NO! Let Steve Jobs make beautiful computers, phones and mp3 players and other innovative technology; let him continue to dabble in animated movies that make us laugh at lovable characters like Lightning McQueen and Wall-E. The Japanese and the Germans have a pretty track record when it come to making cars people like and want to buy, so let them break up the Big 3 and take over all of the operations. Yes, some people will get hurt in the process, let’s just make sure it’s anyone who sits on a board or has the word executive in the title. Supply lines will survive whether they are working for Uncle Sam or Herr Benz and Mr Honda. Things will be bad for a while, but we might just stave off a great depression if we just cut off the dead weight and focus on what works. The Steve Jobs, the BMW and the Tesla’s of the world will continue to show us what to aim for. Hint: The $14,000.00 Chrysler Voyager is not it.