Car Books – Second Gear

Continued from Car Books – First Gear

But it is this most recent book that I read by David Halberstam that has given me the most comprehensive look into the modern automobile industry. I have to admit that I had an almost love-hate relationship with this book while reading it as some of the details it went into in its massive 760 page length I was just not that interested in. On more than one occasion I considered not finishing the book. But I kept on plugging and I am glad I did. In fact, after finishing the book and reflecting on the different interwoven stories, I now see that they were all critical parts leading to ultimately what happened to the US auto industry in the 1970s and 1980s.

This book mainly focuses on Nissan, Ford, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, the Japanese auto unions and several influential individuals inside and outside the auto industry, going back and forth between all of them on the same chronological timeline as they each enjoyed different successes over their history. The story traces its beginning all the way back to just after World War II when Douglass McArthur was in Japan helping the Japanese to resurrect their manufacturing industries. It was interesting to get more details of the story I was only aware of at a high level of how it was Americans, in particular Edwards Deming that taught the Japanese how to develop quality driven manufacturing processes that led to high quality vehicles (think of products made in Japan in the 1960s vs. the 1980s).

I enjoyed learning of the history of Nissan (Datsun in the US), which was thoroughly covered in the book, all new knowledge to me. But once the book began to describe the development of the Ford Mustang, my interest was particularly piqued. I can still recall as an adolescent in 1964 when the Mustang was launched. The details included helped clarify the controversy over who was ultimately responsible for bringing the Mustang out. While Lee Iacocca has been credited with its development, it was actually others who came up with the design. But it was no doubt Iacocca who shepherded the car through the Ford political morass and into production and his prescient foresight that ensured adequate manufacturing capability to keep up with the unprecedented demand.

It was also incredible to read how close the Mustang came to not being produced at all, for at the time, Ford was controlled by very conservative finance people who had Henry Ford II’s ear and who constantly impeded the product people, the “car guys” whose passion it was to design and build exciting cars. In fact over much of its history, Ford has been controlled not by car guys but rather finance guys who were always looking out for maintaining the wealth of the Ford descendants instead of bringing innovative automobiles to the market.

By 1970, all three US automakers were producing really big, highly profitable cars because they claimed they couldn’t make a decent profit on small cars. And US consumers kept buying these big cars in spite of their poor quality. But all of that was soon to change.

Superimposed on these automotive stories were the events surrounding the oil producing nations and how for so many years, oil was cheap (I can still remember from my childhood seeing gas selling for 29.9 cents per gallon). This storyline reached a climax in 1973 when the Yom Kippur War (Six Day War) led to the Oil Embargo against countries supporting Israel and resulted in the escalation of the price of gasoline and the end of cheap energy. It was at this time when the Big Three (Ford, GM, Chrysler) had no small fuel efficient cars but only large poor quality cars that on average got a mere 13 miles to the gallon. It was the turning point for the Japanese to gain a real foothold in the US auto industry with small fuel-efficient cars that had better quality. Interestingly it was at this time that I bought my first car, a 1973 American Motors (AMC) Gremlin.

As Ford, GM, and Chrysler scrambled to come out with small cars, it was this portion of the book that was of most interest to me as these were events I could readily recall from my teenage and early 20s, the times when GM came out with the ill-fated Chevy Vega and Ford, the maligned Pinto. Having previously read Iacocca’s book, I was quite familiar with his ouster from Ford and his very successfully saving of Chrysler. I can even vividly picture the commercials he starred in for Chrysler and the return of the convertible and the launch of the now ubiquitous mini-van.

The book also covered the development of the highly successful Ford Taurus, the riskiest product launch ever undertaken by Ford and the development of the Nissan plant in Smyrna, TN.

But the underlying theme of the book came to a climax in the chapter with the same name as the title of the book, The Reckoning. For while it was with great interest in the US automotive industry with which I read this book, the fact was that for the forty-year period from 1945 to 1985, that it was the Japanese that became the major producers of automobiles sold in the US. What started, as a very diminutive importing of Japanese cars became the major manufacturers that we know them as today. With the huge market share garnered by the Japanese, the “Big Three” became simply the “Detroit Three” since no longer were they the manufacturing behemoths they had once been. And I guess this reality is reflected in my own selection of cars as with the four cars I currently own, none of them are domestic but rather all are Japanese.

Reading this book has reignited a desire in me to read more books about the automotive industry. Until I read this book, I had not run across one in over four years. But now searching I will go on Amazon for more good car books to test drive.

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