Huge General motors has only itself to blame


On the one hand, we have to feel for the tens of thousands of General Motors workers who are waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the families that will be wondering where the next paycheck will come from.

On the other hand, I think back to when General Motors and I parted company for good. And I wonder how many others there are like me.

It was 31 years ago and I was buying my first new car. Until then, I had bought nothing but used cars. Get a cheap beater, run it until it falls apart, and then find another one.

But I had finally landed a job on a good newspaper and did some moonlighting on weekends, so it was time to start the process.

The process in those days and before was to buy an inexpensive model. Something like a Chevy. Then, if your income grew, you might later move up to something like a Buick. The Century, if you wanted something to peel away from a light, or the Roadmaster, if you wanted the feel of a road yacht.

And there was the ultimate status symbol: the Caddy. Get behind the wheel, sink down into the plushness, stick a cigar in your mouth, pull into traffic, and you were telling the world that you had it, baby, and you were flaunting it.

I was at the first step. So I carefully and prudently picked out a two-door Chevy with a stick shift and a 6-cylinder engine. That was when a 6-cylinder was the mark of the real tightwad, since gas was so cheap.

It had few accessories. A radio, whitewalls, but no power anything. It was, however, new. And after 24 monthly payments, it would be mine.

A month after I bought it, I went on a vacation to Door County, Wis. Halfway there, the car did something strange. The gearshift made a noise, something like "boing?" and jumped from third gear into neutral.

I was traveling at highway speeds at the time, so the leaping stick shift was unnerving. Had it happened at the wrong moment, it could of got us killed.

I slammed it back into third. But a few miles later, it did the same thing.

By the end of the vacation, I was driving with one hand while holding the quivering stick shift in third. It was like an arm-wrestling match.

When I told the dealer's service department about it, they said they'd take care of the problem. A few days later, I had the car back. The next time I was on a highway, it did the same thing.

After several more trips to the dealer, with the same results,


tTC made what I thought was a reasonable suggestion. Since it was obvious that they couldn't solve the problem, I would return the car and they could give me a new car that didn't have a demented transmission.

They thought I was a funny guy and that was a funny idea. So they told me that it was simply a matter of time before they found and corrected the little glitch that made it impossible for me to drive more than 35 m.p.h. without risking death.

They didn't. And I finally gave up and traded the car in on something else. It was not a GM product. So the process ended right there. No upward mobility to a Buick or Olds or Caddy.

Not that it mattered to GM. I was one low-budget guy who bought one stripped-down model of their cheapest car. They were GM, king of the mountain, the biggest carmaker in the world, one of the great corporations of all time. What did the loss of a stiff like me matter?

But now, it turns out, it did matter. I wasn't the only one stuck with a lemon that year or in later years. Once I began writing a regular column, I'd hear from people who had similar experiences. They would send me stacks of frustrating correspondence they had with GM and other carmakers. And there was a sameness to the stories. The car was a clunker, the dealer couldn't make good, and somebody in Detroit would send a letter offering little more than sympathy, and not much of that.

And it has finally caught up with GM. It can blame the Japanese and the Germans for horning in on their market; or blame Washington for not protecting them from the foreign invaders; or the Baby Boom generation for not having American brand loyalty. But GM did it to itself.

If it had not been stiffing customers and had made quality products, there wouldn't have been much of a Japanese and European car invasion. But because of its arrogance and stupidity, General Motors opened the gates and made itself the great shrinking giant.

The pity is that those at fault, the top executives who made all the wrong decisions, aren't going to feel the pain. They've cashed in their stock options, invested their hefty year-end bonuses, and stashed their bundles. They won't be in the unemployment lines with the assembly line crowd and the low-level managers.

But I'm not one to hold a grudge. Maybe someday I'll buy a GM product again. Sure I will. The day they find that old Chevy and replace the transmission.

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