Friday, October 30, 2009

Chrysler Looks Better in the Rearview Mirror

My first car was a 1970 Buick Gran Sport with four on the floor and 400 ponies—a Pontiac GTO incognito essentially.  From then on, I continued to buy “American-made” cars.  My Jeep CJ-5 was an off-road blast.  I’d take my Lincoln Versailles over a Mercedes any day. 

When I moved to the country, I switched to Fords—a Bronco II, two pickups, and an Explorer.  And when I moved back to town, I bought vans—a Ford Econoline and two Dodge Caravans.

My car-buying habits changed on September 30th.  I traded my Caravan for a Honda Odyssey.  I told the salesman that he should feel ashamed for taking a commission on the sale.  He asked why I would say that, so I replied, “The Honda sold itself.”

I actually considered trading for a new Caravan in 2008.  But when the economy turned, I thought it prudent to wait and see.  At the time, I figured that I would get a better deal the longer I waited.  As we now know, Chrysler was bust and on the verge of shutting down completely.

Chrysler’s recent failure brought back old memories.  I really wanted to buy a Plymouth Barracuda in 1970.  But the first one I saw in a showroom had a big hole in the carpet.  The carpet had been pre-cut (in the wrong place) for the gear shift.  Even though you could see the bare metal of the floorboard, that flaw did not stop Chrysler and its Plymouth dealer from showing the car.

It never surprised me when Chrysler asked for a bailout in 1979.  I was surprised, however, that Lee Iacocca was able to save the company given its culture at the time.

Here we are thirty years later, and history has repeated itself.  The doubling of the price of a gallon of gasoline from fifty cents to one dollar in 1979 put a terrible strain on Detroit’s automakers.  When gasoline hit $4.00 per gallon in June 2008, it had doubled in price in eighteen months.  As in 1979, Detroit was caught flat-footed trying to sell gas guzzlers.

I think I made up my mind to buy a “foreign” car when President Obama married Miss Chrysler to Mr. Fiat last spring.  The dowry needed to carry out such an arranged marriage is always proportionate to the bride’s homeliness.  In this case, the dowry amounted to the full faith and credit of the United States Treasury.

Daimler Benz thought it could make Miss Chrysler into a desirable bride.  In the end, Benz had spent $30 billion on lipstick and makeovers and was absolutely giddy to palm her off on another suitor.  If Daimler Benz couldn’t transform Chrysler, then there’s no way anyone else can either. 

Chrysler’s downfall has a West Virginia connection.  If you’ll recall, a Putnam county couple sued the company a few years ago over problems with their Dodge Intrepid.  The case went to trial, and the jury awarded them $6,950.  Since Chrysler lost, it had to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees which totaled $143,026.  Chrysler’s own attorney fees were more than that.  The company was out-of-pocket about $300,000 when all was said and done.

Whether this expense was due to a management blunder or to a legal system gone haywire matters little at this point.  Courtroom battles take their toll on a company.  While it may take a ton of straws to break the camel’s back, each one, however slight, takes a measurable toll.

What sold me on the Honda were its buttons—the big buttons on the dashboard.  When I saw that Honda’s engineers had gotten over their “How many buttons can we place on the head of a pin?” design mentality, I said to myself: “This is an American car!”

On September 30th, Detroit lost a long-time, repeat customer.  Most likely forever.