Fun with Detroit road signs.

The hard news arm of the automotive press has been cursed with the grim task of reporting on the disaster that is new car sales figures over the past two months. I don’t envy them their task. The words “Black Tuesday” have been used to describe the July 1st release of June, 2008 sales figures, and for good reason. Truck sales are flatter than the Olsen twins, Chrysler is in what could only be described as a free-fall, and Ford and GM are hanging on by their fingernails. Whispers of a new recession and a return to the gas crunch of the 70s have prompted journalists, automotive and mainstream alike, to draw parallels between today’s industry and that of the late 60s.

At 23 years old, I haven’t been alive long enough that I can wax nostalgic about Detroit’s “heyday” and the troublesome years that followed. For that, I’ll refer you to Old Man Jack and his wayback machine. No, my knowledge of (and concern for) the survival of the Big Three is founded entirely in the present day. What does that do for my perspective? It would take a wiser man than myself to say for sure, I suppose. To a casual observer though, it’s uncanny how many similarities exist between these four-decades-removed time frames. But there are thousands of e-conomists on the Internet who can tell you how right or wrong you are about domestic product planning, so I’ll side-step the argument over Detroit’s short-sightedness for the time being. What’s done is done, and there is much more yet to do. Nobody knows for sure where the market is going (If you’re an exception to that rule, however, you’d do well to start applying for jobs in Detroit), but one thing seems painfully obvious: The automotive landscape of 2015 will look very different from that of 2005. The times, they are a-changin’.

What bugs me is that so many are eager to cheer on the demise of American auto production as if they stand to gain from it. To paraphrase a character in one of my favorite TV shows, I think you folks are thinking the downturn in American manufacturing somehow means more “Euro” or “JDM” cars for you. With GM, ChryCo and Ford gone, Volkswagen, Fiat and Mazda would dominate the marketplace, right? Suddenly everybody will drive expensive, inflation-raped city cars with no features, 1.4L diesel engines and “premium” badges. There will be no trucks and everybody will slam their tyte rides on $3,500 wheels and stretch 185’s over staggered 8″ wides. 0-60 in 19.7s with the 1/4 complete by tomorrow. Dope, son. Nice and Euro… or is it JDM tyte?

No seriously, I get it. If the most prominent manufacturers of cars you don’t like go away, so too must the cars themselves, right? I mean, the Chrysler, Ford and GM are the only manufacturers of inefficient SUVs and trucks, right? Toyota Porsche Audi Volkswagen Land Rover BMW Mercedes Nissan Infiniti. It makes perfect sense. Now turn around so I can slap you back to reality with this here wooden spoon o’ wisdom: The SUV and truck bubble may have burst, but they still enjoy roughly 40% overall market share in the United States. If you tallied up all the cars and trucks sold in the U.S. by every import manufacturer, that number would still be smaller than the total yearly truck and SUVs sales accross manufacturers. And every bit of the market that the Big 3 abandon will be scooped up by everybody’s favorite manufacturer. That’s right folks, I’m talkin’ Toyota. Sure, Honda will scoop up a few here and there and some of the niche manufacturers will nab a straggler or two, but for the most part, it’s gonna be Corollas and Camrys and Venzas (Oh, my!). But deep down, every enthusiast really wants an Avalon Hybrid and a Vespa anyway, right? No biggie.

And then there’s that tricky little problem of used vehicles. Unwanted trucks don’t just go to that big dirt road in the sky. They get sold — even if it’s for pennies on the book value dollar — to people who, y’know, drive them. They’re becoming cheap and plentiful. As they crowd lots and dealers become more and more desperate to sell them, more and more will find their way onto the streets. That hulking behemoth obstructing the view from your second-floor window is going nowhere, like it or not. And what of the cars we love? Any enthusiast without his head up his hind-parts can recognize the perennial performers in the Detroit line-ups. They bring us the Corvette, the Viper, the Challenger (and the rest of the SRT line), the Sky/Solstice, the Mustang,  the Cobalt SS, the G8 and the CTS. Would life go on without these cars? Of course. But would we be any better for it? Anyone willing to argue that in the affirmative is welcome to try.

And there’s a part of me that becomes very uncomfortable at the thought of losing some of these brands. Just imagine going to a Nissan dealer to buy a Cummins-powered Ram 3500 or to a Hummer dealership to buy a Jeep. Envision a Viper made not by Dodge, but by a boutique tuner from Texas with a fondness for alcohol and e-thuggin’. Will there even be a Chrysler brand in five years? It genuinely frightens me that questions like this are met with shrugs, even from those far more in-the-know than myself.

It’s Chrysler that worries me. GM and Ford seem to have options. Ford is tapping its overseas project for domestic manufacturing — a good move given the weakness of the US dollar — and rumor has it GM is looking long and hard at trimming some of the redundant fat in their showrooms. As for Chrysler? Well, they have no money, inferior product, and no public plans for improvement. What little comes out does so in droplets, and none of it satisfies the thirst of onlookers. They’ve been hinting at lighty duty diesels and they claim to have a hybrid Ram in the pipeline “sometime after 2009,” but that’s all we seem to hear. The Sebring and Avenger will supposedly be improved, but no word on how or when (Kudos to Ford, by the way, for taking criticism of the new Focus and Escape to heart; the 2009s look like fantastic packages) or if they’ve even gotten the ball rolling with their design teams.  Chrysler is stuck in a painfully enlongated “what’s next?”.

So let me ask again: What does any enthusiast stand to gain from the current condition of the Big 3? Collectively, Ford, Chrysler and GM directly employ more than 400,000 Americans. That number increases dramatically when you include subsidiaries, suppliers and other support organizations. Add to that the hundreds of thousands of others who subsist on their retirement funds, and the ripple effect of a Big 3 implosion becomes positively staggering. Even more unfortunate is that many of those employees will likely lose their jobs and pensions regardless, as dramatic cost-cutting (or possibly even bankruptcy and restructuring) may be the only option for one or more of these enormous corporations. Like the cars, don’t like the cars, that’s entirely up to you, but there’s no reason to celebrate.

Don’t mistake this for a “Buy American!” spiel. It’s not my place to lecture you on what you should or shouldn’t be buying. All I ask is that you think before you mock the fate of these manufacturers. Buy whatever car speaks to you, but make sure your needs are covered first, then worry about your wants. Don’t be “that guy” dumping $18k of negative equity into a Yaris in two years because you can’t sell your whateveryoudidn’tneedmobile on the private market. Think ahead, buy smart, and be positive. Leave the peddling of negativity up to us journos. It’s what we’re good at.

                  

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Byron Hurd

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