America's comeback in auto technology

Monday Book Reviews

March 09, 1992|By Garland L. Thompson

TAURUS: THE MAKING OF THE CAR THAT SAVED FORD. By Eric Taub. Dutton. 278 pages. $21.95. SUCCESS stories about American automobiles are rare these days. Everywhere the news is that Detroit has lost the second trans-Pacific war to Japan Inc. Even Americans regard U.S. products as distinctly inferior.

Eric Taub's "Taurus: The Making of the Car that Saved Ford," thus comes at an opportune time. It debunks the notion that American manufacturers cannot change the way they do business, while it tells an engaging story.

Ford's Taurus is everywhere now, but the people who made it a new standard have been mostly invisible to the buying public. Mr. Taub makes them visible, providing a succinct history of a company whose ups and downs symbolize the story of U.S. manufacturing.

Auto sales plummeted in 1991, cutting even Japanese automakers' profits. Made-in-Japan marques, transplant hybrids and Big Three captive imports are taking ever-bigger shares of the U.S. market. Japanese politicians, old men who should know better, keep kicking out stereotypes about U.S. workers as reasons for their success. Big Three profits are negative. And analysts' response to the recent Japan trip by President Bush and the automakers' leaders is mainly negative. What's going on?

Mr. Taub supplies some answers describing how Ford, headed for bankruptcy, gambled big on its ability to read the market. Ford won big, but success required reshaping its idea of efficiency. Taurus plants in Chicago and Atlanta now surpass even the Japanese at cost control.

What's happening is a painful reworking of U.S. automakers' basic assumptions. Auto writers have noted that Taurus did not come out defect-free, but that Ford was more than willing to fix the car's problems. Listening to the customers has become so internalized that Popular Science editors gave the re-skinned Taurus their vote for best instrument layout and convenience even after comparing it to Japan's top midsize models.

A recent New York Times story pointed out how much Chrysler, for one, depends on plants in Japan for Chrysler-label cars. Few analysts point out, however, that the designs that make Japanese cars so popular often come from Americans working on the California coast. Fewer still note that the "internationalized" car U.S. makers call their own nonetheless contains far more American-tooled parts than Japanese transplants do.

It is not a small distinction. America's automakers anchor the continued health of manufacturing in this country. Mr. Taub's careful reporting on the process by which a giant car company reshaped its outlook, labor relations and its products to compete is instructive for everyone, including General Motors, which until recently had felt immune to the need for fundamental change.

It is also worth noting that Europeans are snapping up American models after comparing them with their own brands. This is part of the reason the United States has a trade surplus with Western Europe, a fact often ignored in discussions of the current accounts deficit with the Far East.

Don't believe Detroit has learned? Look at the J.D. Power consumer study, on which two GM cars and a Ford Taurus climbed to the Top 10 quality list, displacing Japanese models. Purists note that Taurus SHO is Yamaha-powered, but Americans' true strength is integrating the whole system: drive train, chassis, body, suspension and controls, passenger tools and comforts. And Ford has new engines coming down the line. Cadillac's Baldridge Award was no fluke, either, as its newest El Dorado, Seville and Allante show.

Ford's boast of making five of the nation's 10 best-selling models is not idle, nor its claim that a Lincoln Town Car with its new overhead-cam V-8 and four-speed auto transmission gets better EPA mileage scores than the snazziest Hondas, Toyotas and Nissans.

What's happening is that Detroit's auto giants have decided to meet Japanese and European competitors head-on in engineering, in which Detroit has vast resources. Chrysler's sports Viper, knocked out in a state-of-the-art design center, is another example of that resurgence, even as oddsmakers wonder at Chrysler's future. Japan's automakers tacitly acknowledge this, shifting the contest to who can bring out new models and new features quickest.

Detroit has begun to move on that front, too. It'll be hard to tout overhead-cam engines, independent suspensions and ergonomic excellence selling a new, larger Camry against a Crown Victoria that already has these features. That's a far cry from the days imports had all the sophistication and Detroit's iron was old-fashioned. Check out Popular Mechanics' customer survey on the Crown Victoria for proof. That bigmobile won satisfaction points normally reserved for Hondas.

If Detroit's lords survive the next two bad years, their dealer networks and service muscle are capable of leveling the field their competitors have owned for so long. That's good, for Americans have not learned to get along without the push Detroit's shops and purchasing agents give this country's economy. Mr. Taub's book, which explains how it works when Detroit gets serious, thus makes fascinating reading.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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