Motor Mouth: Go on - give Detroit a break

The Sunday Times

It seems right now that if you work in a so-called white-collar job, and your company is in trouble, you get a bailout. But if you work in a blue-collar job and get your hands dirty - like a car maker - you don't.

It's a tough time for the American auto industry. Once you lose a manufacturing giant like General Motors, Ford, Chrysler . . . it never comes back again. As an American, I know it has something to do with national pride - something about supporting the home team.

I know so many British enthusiasts who have mourned the total loss of Triumph, and the loss of ownership of companies such as Jaguar and other wonderfully proud British names.

If I were running things, I would give the auto companies the bailout money, but I would also say that no CEO could make more than the highest-paid federal employee, which happens to be the president of the United States.

The minute you pay the $25 billion back, you can go back to making your millions again. That doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Have US auto workers relied too much on making trucks? Yes. That's a huge mistake. But there are now some tremendous vehicles coming out of Detroit - the Chevy Volt, the new Ford F150, the Dodge Challenger.

These are all cars that people want to buy, and the reason they’re not buying them isn’t because they don't like American cars, but because they can't get the financing. You go down to the docks here in Long Beach, and you see that for the first time in history Mercedes-Benz is leasing 15 acres to stockpile cars it can't sell. So is Nissan, so is Toyota.

Because GM was so big for so long, the American media like to pick on it. That's not to say it hasn’t made some mistakes - it has, but mistakes no worse than those the others have made. And globally GM (Vauxhall) and Ford are making some edgy cars.

I have a new Dodge Challenger and I have a new Corvette; these are world-class vehicles that I’d put against anything in their price range or even anything a couple of thousand dollars above their price range.

Right now perception is everything. If people perceive that American cars aren't as good as they were, then the American car market is going to suffer. I think American cars are as good as anybody's, though. You have a situation where you have a vehicle such as the Hummer, which becomes the face of the American auto industry. One Hummer cancels out 100 little Chevy Cobalts. That's where Toyota was smart: it built the Prius, but also built those giant trucks. But nobody notices those because the Prius is out on the forecourt.

For almost a year now, I have been driving a GM hydrogen fuel-cell car. It shows that we have the technology to do that, but the problem is that nobody can get a car loan. Americans are used to getting a car for almost no money down, but all that money has dried up. When they can’t do that any more they make the mistake of thinking that the products are inferior, when in fact it's just the loan they're not able to get.

So, did those Ford, GM and Chrysler CEOs make a mistake flying into DC on their private jets? Yes. They should have bought an economy ticket and taken the shuttle bus in – à la Martin Luther with his sackcloth - and thrown themselves at the doors of Congress. Do what you gotta do.

I think this is a wake-up call, and unlike in other industries there is a precedent for this. Lee Iacocca, the greatest car salesman in the world, got the government to bail out Chrysler in the late 1970s. No one had ever done it before, and I think he paid the loan back five years early, with interest. It showed that it could be done. Let's hope it's not too late for history to repeat itself.


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