In the last State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proclaimed that the automotive industry in the U.S.A. is "back." Some may argue that the industry's return to prominence has not been fully realized, but there are signs that it is on the upswing.
However, this is not the same automotive industry of my childhood. Nor is it the same industry of my ancestors. Progress in manufacturing and an emphasis on globalization changed the way we view the manufacture of automobiles. On one hand, it had helped North America by the opening of production centers by non-Detroit-based automobile corporations.
On the flip side, the strategy of bringing the automobile closer to its marketplace through localized manufacturing plants evolved to accommodate a wider offering of products and advances in transportation and technology to eliminate the need for extra production capacity. Since the 1970s, this meant losses in manufacturing jobs and idle facilities – some reborn into other uses.
There are now generations of Americans who have forgotten that there was a mighty production facility in their community. Though some of them have not seen the wrecking ball, others either resemble a lay of wasteland or have been built to unrecognizable specifications.
There are some manufacturing facilities that continue to produce automobiles. They are imposing sites, sprawling for acres with telltale signs of industrial might. These continue to fuel the engine of the American economy.
A tour of these facilities – operational or otherwise – is in order. I will start just a few miles from home…
Captive imports…and why did they exist anyway?
At a time when the call was to tune down the horsepower and prepare for an oil crisis, a recession and a never ending war overseas, domestic automakers figured it was high time to build another round of compact cars. By going smaller, there were two routes to take: Build them domestically or import them from a global partner somewhere. Three out of the four North American automakers chose the latter.
Chrysler had been selling Simcas and Sunbeams alongside Barracudas and Imperials through the 1960s. Simca and Sunbeam were a part of growing European operation for the Pentastar. In turn, Chrysler looked high and low to match the incoming compacts from General Motors, Ford and American Motors. They went across both the Atlantic and Pacific for their answers. Ford sold some European products at their dealerships in the past – the Cortina was the most popular and the Capri was a mainstay at Lincoln-Mercury dealerships. GM sold Opels at Buick dealers, but would soon play the captive import game as early as 1976.
You could also stretch the captive import involvement to AMC – that is if you include the subcompact Metropolitan that was jointly developed between Nash and Austin. They actually sold Metropolitans with the Hudson badge for a bit. At one time, Mitsubishi imported the Hyundai Excel for some of its dealers in the USA.
Prior to 2002, Top Gear was a bit boring and stuffy. It was so stiff that even Jeremy Clarkson was a bit restrained compared to today's show. Well, there was an older version of MotorGeek, and before that, my articles appeared on two other online magazines I either contributed to or edited for. The following article was from that Plasticine Era…a few moves ago. There is some relevance as the Mitsubishi Endeavor is still in production…but, not for long.
Enough boring set-up…read on…