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Steve Hansen: Lack of quality control may have brought down Detroit

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Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 12:00 am

How did Detroit go from one of the greatest and most productive cities in the world to the bankrupt disaster that it is today? How did it end up with $18 billion in debt?

The reasons are many, but one was the demise of its best asset — the American automobile industry. In the 1950s and early 1960s, General Motors had more than 50 percent of car sales in the U.S. The federal government considered breaking up the company as an alleged monopoly. That didn’t happen, but today, GM only has about 18 percent of the business.

So, what shrunk the American car companies? Again, reasons vary from high labor costs to government emission and safety standards. But the primary issues for losing the competitive race were inferior cost-cutting parts and poor quality control caused by annual model changes.

The game of “planned obsolescence” gathered momentum in the 1930s and reached its apex in the mid-1950s and early ‘60s. People who were around back then remember the anticipated annual fall announcements for the following year’s models. Manufacturers always promised cars would be longer, lower, wider, more powerful and coupled with the latest gadgetry developed by the minds of Detroit designers and engineers. Cars were dazzled with multiple pastel colors. The amount of chrome trim increased every year — reaching a ridiculous extreme with the 1958 Buick.

But there was a price to pay for all this annual glitz and glamour. With so many changes happening so quickly, quality suffered. It affected all U.S. manufacturers, but some worse than others.

I remember my family’s new 1960 Plymouth. The list of problems was lengthy. The inside door handles fell off. The right side door would not close properly. Scratches caused by sloppy assembly were common. Some minor parts were actually missing!

Cheap components took their toll as well. Peeling paint and chrome were everywhere. The turn signal lever snapped off. The trunk key split in half!

The first-year production engine in that car suffered from excessive oil consumption to stalling during inclement weather. Unfortunately, factory warranties back then were only good for about 90 days or 4,000 miles. There was no lemon law.

It was a beautiful thing to look at from its sculptured front end to its silver fighter-jet tailfins. But Mom hated the Plymouth’s poor quality and wanted my father to buy something else.

However, Dad had other ideas. He didn’t want to take a huge hit in depreciation, which is the highest cost of owning an automobile — far more than the price of gas. So, they stuck it out with that lemon for five more years until my father finally gave in.

On an cold, overcast winter day in 1966, Dad took Mom to the Washington, D.C., Auto Show. He told her to pick out any car she wanted.

Now to some, that might have seemed like a high-stakes gamble. What if she had picked out a Bentley, a Cadillac Eldorado or a top-of-the-line Mercedes? But Pop was betting on his wife’s history of frugality. He was right. Of all the cars she could have chosen, Mom selected a dull and boring Rambler American!

Yes, it had bucket seats and a flashy red paint job, but to a young man like me, that was about as exciting as putting Recaro racing seats in a farmer’s flatbed Ford!

Although it was assembled by a different car company in Wisconsin, her luck with the Rambler wasn’t much better than the Plymouth. Many of the parts came from Detroit-based vendors. Due to years of production, the engine was reliable, but the body was another story. Her favorite tale was when the entire gearshift lever came off in her hand while parking! (Note that Plymouths and Ramblers are no longer built today.)

After those two experiences, my folks only bought German, Japanese and Swedish-made cars. They experienced no quality control issues with any of them.

Unfortunately for American manufacturers, by the time they had awakened to the problem, it was too late. Foreign automakers were dominating the market, with the Japanese on top.

There’s no doubt that over the years, American cars have drastically improved. But according to the leading consumer magazine, some Japanese makes and models continue to have a slight edge in reliability and quality control.

As a final comment, one has to ask the following question: If the U.S. manufacturers had been more diligent about the quality of their cars, would Detroit have continued to be the world’s leader in transportation, or would the tragic tale of this once-great city still have unraveled to the point where it has today?

I suppose we’ll never know.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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