Companies start 'buy American' drives


Maybe it was President Bush's mixed success in Japan, or the Japanese official who said that American auto workers were lazy and illiterate. Maybe it is the deep slump in Detroit.

But all of a sudden, companies around the United States are saying it would be good for America to be good to GM, and they are offering inducements to their employees to buy from General Motors, Chrysler or Ford.

Some, groping to define just what constitutes an American car, are authorizing employees to buy autos made at the Honda plant in Marysville, Ohio, or Nissan's factory in Smyrna, Tenn. But other companies have ruled out cars carrying American nameplates if they are manufactured in Canada or Japan.

The incentives to buy American come amid a continuing slump, with automakers reporting yesterday that sales of cars and light trucks built in the United States fell 1.9 percent in mid-January.

Yesterday, Monsanto Chemical Co. offered its 12,000 employees $1,000 each to buy an American car. Earlier this week, Tosco Corp., an oil-refining company based in Stamford, Conn., made the same offer.

Thomas D. O'Malley, the chairman of Tosco, who owns two Mercedes, said he came up with the idea after he told his children that he was thinking of buying a Ford Explorer. His 25-year-old son -- who drives a Mazda -- said to look at a Range Rover, an Isuzu and other imports.

"I got mad," Mr. O'Malley said. Young adults, he said, have "been in the syndrome that America makes junk." Besides, he said, if his program induces his employees to buy American, that will keep auto workers employed, and they can buy his gasoline. His program covers only those cars with 90 percent American content.

"I'm no believer in protectionism; I think it's absolute utter nonsense," Mr. O'Malley said. He added, however, that while his company sold gasoline in many other places in the Far East, it could not sell it to Japan.

Companies offering incentives are ambivalent about American branches of Japanese companies. James H. Gill, a Detroit-based spokesman for Nissan, pointed out that his company and Ford would soon start producing a compact family van from a factory near Cleveland.

All the vans will come off the same assembly line and be produced by the same workers, he said, but some will be labeled Nissan Quests while others will receive the Ford Villager nameplate.

Under some of the new corporate incentive programs, the Villagers would qualify and the Quests would not, Mr. Gill said, adding that Nissan employs more than 60,000 Americans.

At the company that says it started the subsidy movement, Brown Paper Co. of Greenwich, Conn., Douglas G. Brown, the owner, specified that the car must come from a plant that was at least half-owned by General Motors, Ford or Chrysler.

"One of the gals here was looking at a Geo Storm, and I told her N.G.," Mr. Brown said, because that car is imported from Japan even though it bears a General Motors emblem.

But should she cast her eye on a Geo Prizm, she'd be in the money: The car is made by Nummi Motors in California, a 50-50 venture of General Motors and Toyota.

Mr. Brown, who has been driving Audis for the last 10 years, is offering each of his 45 employees $1,000 to put themselves behind the wheel of a new American car. Shopping for a new model himself, he compared the Cadillac with a Lexus LS 400, an Acura Legend LS and an Audi V-6. He liked the American candidate.

"Some cars out there are certainly worth a look," he said, "but the attitude of the average American is, 'I'm not going to look at an American car.' " Simply getting Americans into the showroom will be a good start, he said, adding that it is up to U.S. businesses to provide the nudge.

At St. Louis-based Monsanto Chemical Co., the president, Robert G. Potter, announced "Project Get Rolling" yesterday, saying, "We're a major supplier of plastics, rubber chemicals, resins, fibers and other performance products to the North American auto industry. So, it's in our interest that the auto industry be healthy." The Get Rolling incentive covers any vehicle built in North America.

Near the buckle of the Auto Belt, meanwhile, the Franklin Savings Bank of Southfield, Mich., is also offering its employees, and the employees of all the companies carrying commercial accounts with Franklin, checks for $100 if they get rolling in a new American model.

Buying an import, said Rebecca J. Christian, senior vice president for communications and marketing at Franklin Savings, is "like buying Girl Scout cookies from the little girl next door and not from your own daughter."

"It's not Japan bashing," she said. "It's supporting your own economy."

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