Stuart W. Leslie, a professor in the History of Science department at Johns Hopkins University, was surprised at the response when he offered a course on the history of the automobile this semester. More than 75 students signed up, a lot for an elective, non-introductory class.
The author of a book on Charles Kettering, one of the pioneers at General Motors Corp., Dr. Leslie has studied the automobile industry for much of the last two decades.
He was interviewed in his book-lined Gilman Hall office at Hopkins' Homewood campus.
QUESTION: Why were so many students interested in your automobile course?
ANSWER: Some of them are "gearheads," the type who would like you to come out in the parking lot and help tune up their old Oldsmobile 442. People were surprised that there were so many of them at a place like Hopkins.
But there's a realization of the importance of the automobile in our culture. It's changed the face of the country, our coming-of-age rituals. And it is really the place where high technology and the mass of people interface.
There's nowhere else that most people are going to get the feeling you get when you step on that accelerator.
Q.: How did you get interested in General Motors?
A.: I had been working on high-tech industries and was interested in how research and development had been institutionalized and how that changed the business structure.
GM was not the first to do this, but it was one of the leaders. For a while, in the early years of the industry, it was able to attract the best and the brightest of young American engineers.
In 1974 -- I was in graduate school -- I went out to Warren, Mich., the GM research center, to work on papers that had never been studied. I essentially spent the next two years there.
Earlier, I had done some work on defense contractors, and I can tell you that General Motors was more difficult to get access to, and more secretive, than defense industries.
Q.: That time was just as the Japanese were beginning to sell cars here, the first of the gas crises had hit. Did you find anything that foretold what would happen to the American automobile industry in the next 10 years?
A.: One thing General Motors had been good at throughout its history was not necessarily developing new technologies, but recognizing them when they were invented by others and buying them.
This is how they got Kettering, who had developed the self-starter. They bought his Delco Corp., and he eventually became the biggest single shareholder of GM stock and remained a gadfly on the board for decades, running the company with Alfred Sloan.
Somehow, over the years, they lost the knack for doing that.
Roger Smith, the GM chairman, tried to do it, buying Hughes aircraft, which was supposed to bring in all sorts of high technology, and that didn't work at all.
And then he bought Electronic Data Systems (EDS), Ross Perot's company.
Perot could have been a Kettering-type on the board, but he was so critical of everything that Smith couldn't take it, so they bought him out to get rid of him.
One thing I saw was that research and development were no longer integrated with the manufacturing and marketing process. They were separated physically and seemed to operate on a different mentality.
You could see it in the artwork that was displayed in the reception area, pictures of molecules of different metals they were working on. They were nice, but they didn't seem to have much to do with automobiles.
In earlier days, the research guys were going over to the assembly line with their ideas, saying "Why don't you try this new paint?" or something else they had come up with. That sort of stuff didn't seem to go on anymore.
Q.: Do you think, in general, GM and the entire American auto industry became fat and lazy and abandoned its heritage of innovation, allowing the Japanese to come in and capture the market?
A.: It is noteworthy that the last real innovations to come out of Detroit were around 1950, the short-stroke V-8 engine and the automatic transmission.
After that, everything came from overseas.
And the last person to run GM who came from the engineering side was Ed Cole in the '60s. His big project was the Corvair. Say what you will about it, but it was a real try at innovation, air-cooled, rear-engined, a good idea undermined by an attempt to cut costs.
I've seen figures of $40 per car it would have cost to fix its suspension problems that Ralph Nader revealed in "Unsafe at Any Speed," which GM eventually did. But after Cole, the people in charge came from the sales and marketing side.
In part, this is the natural evolution of any company.
The inventive types who start it get moved out by the marketing guys, like Steven Jobs losing out to John Sculley at Apple computers.
Usually this isn't a bad thing.
A lot more companies with good engineering ideas have gone broke because of bad financial and marketing advice than the other way around.
But from the late '50s on, GM became more and more isolated.