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Dudder: The Culture War

If they fix their cultures and connect with the next generation, U.S. automakers won't follow the British to oblivion.

You have to wonder why we have lost what we have lost.

You have to wonder why we have lost what we have lost. Once, the U.S. stood atop of the world as the pre-eminent power, creator, manufacturer, and consumer. True, the rest of the world was just rising from the ashes of World War II, leaving the road clear for the United States to fill the void. Over time, other countries would get back on their feet, and export their wares to the America. Vehicles different than those made here. Smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient, and, in some cases, better built. The competition for the American car buyer was on-and continues unabated.

Meanwhile, over in Great Britain, the competition for the British consumer was fierce, and often fought between indigenous car makers. But Britain had another problem: The socialist tendencies of the pre-war period came back to haunt the country, led by a trade union mentality unwilling to give in, and managers with a landed gentry mentality unwilling to do the same. In a very short span, the British car industry consolidated at a rapid pace toward its ultimate oblivion. Instead of letting companies die a natural death, consolidations were forced with unsurprising results. The stronger "partner" took care of its own, but did little-if anything-to meld the disparate cultures into a new whole. In time, both suffered and died. Meanwhile, foreign automakers, mostly Asian, established production facilities and brought vehicle manufacturing back to the island. They were joined, briefly, by BMW who, in a misjudged move, scooped Rover away from Honda and established it as a "mainstream" arm of the upscale automaker. But in an ironic twist, this time it was the Germans who failed to meld the disparate cultures into a workable hybrid. With this failure went any plans to relaunch Triumph, MG, or rebuild Rover. Only Mini survived.

There are those who insist that the U.S. market is on the same trajectory as the British. They believe the domestic automakers will continue to lose market share and one or more will disappear. Chrysler has already been swallowed and spit out by a German automaker as though it was Rover to Mercedes' BMW, but unlike the British automaker, Chrysler was not fatally hobbled. Whether its new venture capitalist owners have the stomach, stamina, and wisdom to ride out its current rough patch while they re-jig the company as a leaner and more focused car maker free of the sins of the past has remains to be seen. The appointment of Bob "My Way or the Highway" Nardelli is not comforting, despite the addition of Jim Press to the board.

Ford, on the other hand, has been run by an untalented aristocracy bent on expiating the sins of its founder even if it meant the death of the company he built. It has taken the subtle strength of an outsider-Alan Mulally-to stitch the original global automaker into a new whole, and with an entirely different culture. Recent rumors suggest Mulally will leave after his contract expires and-get this-Jac Nasser will return to lead the company back to glory. An odd statement, it should be noted, when Nasser was the same man who, with the family's backing, nearly brought the company to its knees. More likely, the dynamic duo of Farley and Kuzak will continue to build their relationship and assemble and effectively sell the vehicles to come from the newly emerging global Ford culture. A culture that could wither and die if Mulally leaves too soon.

GM, on the other hand, is at the start of what could be a strong product roll. It has the R&D depth to bring new technologies to market, and the design ability to make people stop and stare. Quality is improving, as is desirability, but it will take more than this-or the semi-retro dreams of "Big Bob" Lutz-to make it stick. Lutz has done wonders in taming the bureaucracy and keeping the product teams focused, but has enough been done to make this change permanent? It's doubtful. Bureaucracy has the power to suffocate even the most promising ideas and people.

The one wild card in all of this is the generation known as the "Millennials." Raised in Baby Boomer households where Asian automakers dominated, they are willing to reconsider the choices of their parents. However, they are bombarded daily by a culture that denigrates all that is American, and they question, though not as mindlessly as their parents, whether anything associated with those three letters-USA-isn't somehow evil. The automaker that convincingly connects with this generation will win the day. It will take more than new product. It will take a new culture. Can the American OEMs respond appropriately and in time? 

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