Thursday, August 11, 2005

Evidence!

Yesterday, I posted an item on Kelly Gabriel's husband Paul Heidbreder, who publishes The Daily Telegram in Adrian, Michigan and just fired his news editor, allegedly for writing a column critical of the American auto industry.

Today Dave Clark, the former editor of The Daily Telegram, sent me a copy of the column in question. Said Clark, " I hope it is not the reason he was fired."

Read it and judge for yourself.
Sorry, Lee; we're finding better cars

Commentary by James Briggs

My first vehicle was a red and white 1982 Chevy S-10 pickup - fully loaded with broken air conditioning and a set of Superman stickers I had plastered to the glove box when I was 7. No matter. To a 16-year-old kid, it was a topnotch performance machine.

I bought the truck from my grandfather, a retired General Motors Corp. employee whose garage has overflowed with GM products for as long as I've been alive. Just this year, he has added two more to the fleet.

He's always sworn by GM products - and sworn at those who dared purchase something different. That includes my mother, who switched to Ford - Ford! - when I was a child. She has switched back to GM.

Given that family history, I was more than a little uncomfortable to see my grandfather this spring. Because after driving four GM vehicles - including that trusty S-10, which I hear has served at least two owners faithfully since me - I jumped ship to a foreign automaker.

Maybe I'm hitting a late rebellious streak. Maybe I'm simply unpatriotic, ungrateful or un-American.

Or maybe the domestic automakers have slipped so far down that purchasing an American vehicle has become moronic. I'll go with that answer.

Because even with access to the GM employee discount - before each of the domestic automakers were handing them out like balloons at a tent sale - I found time after time that foreign vehicles come with a smaller price tag and more than twice the warrantee as what the Big Three offer.

I traveled to dozens of dealerships and searched every auto Web site I could find. Invariably, I reached the same conclusions at every turn: Foreign cars are more dependable and less costly.

Finally, common sense trampled my American ego - especially when I realized the GM vehicle I was driving had been built in Mexico, while the Japanese vehicle I was test-driving had been built in Indiana. Which one is more American?

Like Henry Ford did decades earlier, the foreign automakers have found a better and more efficient way to produce automobiles. Soaring health care costs, a lack of imagination and a sad trend of stagnation have left the Big Three in the dust.

How have they responded? By offering more incentives than a Las Vegas casino. Sorry, but all incentives do is suggest the vehicles were overpriced to begin with.

Today, Chrysler Group is launching the fourth and final commercial featuring former chairman Lee Iacocca. In it, Iacocca is portrayed as a golfing buddy of rapper/felon Snoop Dogg. The idea is to link the auto industry's glorious past with today's young buyer.

Unfortunately for the flailing automaker, Iacocca might still know more about cars than any of its current executives. And unfortunately for Iacocca, millions of people have taken his famous advice from the 1970s: "If you can find a better car, buy it."

I did, and I did. After buying three brand-new malfunction-prone American cars - all of which made me long for that old S-10 - I had enough. The decision to buy foreign, I told myself, was the right one.

But the guilt festered until - like a child who had thrown a baseball through a window - I had to admit the sin to my grandfather. I showed him my car, and we discussed several things - its engine, its handling ability - but not its origin, until I reluctantly brought it up.

"So...it's not a GM," I said, as though I had just discovered the fact.

"No, it's not," my grandfather shrugged. "But it looks sharp. And the Japanese cars are less money these days, anyway."

And with that - a virtual blessing from a man who raised his family on GM - my guilt slipped away.

And with that, the Big Three should be frightened.

No longer boasting the best products or the lowest prices, domestic automakers are losing their strongest selling point: bullish American pride.

My best memories of GM are fading away in the rearview mirror of that 1982 pickup. But I long for the day when the domestic automakers look clearly into the future - and give us a reason to do the same.

James Briggs is news editor of The Daily Telegram. Contact him at 517-265-5111, ext. 265, or jbriggs@lenconnect.com.



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