To My Brother REO and Our Generation

 For starters, REO, that’s a family friend, Mrs. Loomis, out for a drive with either Gaga or Auntie Bun. I suspect it’s the latter. I scanned this image from Helen Earley’s book, Setting the Pace, celebrating 100 years of Oldsmobile.
 
So GM went under. That’s the latest news today. No one has said so far that GM is also the iceberg that’s sinking the State of Michigan, but that’s what it looks like from here, in Bogotá. No doubt a lot of tears are being shed in many places and I sincerely feel sorry for the dealers and owners of GM products, as well as all those Michiganders whose lives are related to the corporation.
 
But cry for GM? No, not a single tear. All kinds of clichés apply, of course–shooting  themselves in the foot with an elephant gun, screwing up big time. Those are two that come to mind and are printable.
 
However, I am left with a lot of questions for which I have not found the answers, so far. I’m sure that in the coming months there will be hundreds of magazine articles and books analyzing the situation from different perspectives, but in the meantime, here’s mine.
 
We are part of a legacy in the history of the US, and maybe the world. That’s not bombastic nor even egocentric. It’s just the way the dice rolled.  You and Dad carried on a name that meant something to millions of people in the world for 100 years–Oldsmobile. This was the first American car shipped to a foreign country (to Mumbai, India, in fact). It was the oldest car in continuous production, even though technically Renault is older, by a few months; it had to take some time-outs in its history to deal with those horribly inelegant wars that occurred from time to time in France. C’est la vie, c’est la guerre, la vida sigue adelante.
 
Great-grandpa Olds was a pioneer in many fields–coupling a power source to a drivetrain; creating an assembly line in order to produce multiple units efficiently; convincing a skeptical public of the value of his product; and so on. Also starting another and very successful company when Oldsmobile was sold to the incipient General Motors. What I find interesting–still–about Great-grandpa and his generation (Henry Ford, Will Durant, the Maxwell brothers, the Dodge brothers, the Chevrolet brothers, etc.)–was that they were not the products of MBA programs. They had gone to school, but most of them had not gone to college. They had ideas and passion and took risks. Most of them were members of various Protestant denominations, which meant that they could come face-to-face with their buyers on any given Sunday simply by sitting down in their pews. Later, many of their dealers were in the same situation. Creating, producing and selling a car was not an abstract economic concept. It was in some ways a one-to-one relationship which eventually changed American society and the rest of the world. Not bad for people who started out with ideas and passion and no MBA attached to their names.
 
So how is it that the MBA "nabobs" (a word used by Whistler to describe people who thought a little too highly of themselves) can so efficiently run a multinational corporation straight into the ground, and so quickly!? What kind of genious does that take? How much passion is required to screw up so badly that the only honorable solution is to jump into the Detroit River and drown? (Move over, Jimmy Hoffa; you’ve got company!)
 
I know that many analysts have stated that this was inevitable and a long time coming, because Detroit and specifically GM refused to see the writing on the wall. That’s probably true. Okay, the writing was in Japanese and Korean, but even so, couldn’t they have looked for translators? Renault, in fact, is doing okay, at least here in Latin America, and Fiat seems to be close behind. But GM just kept cruising down I-96 and I-94 as if it were the only vehicle on the road. Talk about driving blind!!!!!!
 
My personal feeling is this–Disregarding previous signs of change, GM cancels one of its major emblems, the Oldsmobile, and thus alienates millions of people who have owned or then owned or planned to own one. That is like saying, "Screw you," to millions of people worldwide. The ripple effect here is that, if GM jettisons the Oldsmobile so casually, it will probably do the same with Pontiac or Cadillac or Chevrolet or Buick, and then, where will we all be, in terms of parts and service?
 
Was Oldsmobile losing so much money it became unprofitable? Or was there gross mismanagement? Or did GM decide that it could get oodles of delicious tax breaks by shutting down this division and transferring everything to Saturn? (I favor this hypothesis myself.) Or did GM set such outrageously high production standards that no car company could meet them?
 
GM had access to the best brains in the world, in terms of finances and design and advertising, in order to rethink Oldsmobile. Apparently the corporation chose not to use them.  That’s a waste of time and money, isn’t it? "Can someone come up with a better idea? Yes? Well,  I don’t want to know what it is."
 
What we did get was the Hummer and the Cadillac Escalade, those 5 mpg behemoths which allow a Bloomfield Hills housewife to drive safely from her home to her gym and the Troy Mall in total safety. Until she meets up with some weirdo pulling out of a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s at 75 mph in a similar vehicle, who doesn’t see her because he/she is head-down in a chocolate shake and fries, while talking on a mobile phone.
 
Why in the hell was  it not possible to rethink the standard station wagon, for Pete’s sake!? It can be done (and has been), but it seems that GM wanted something different and did not hesitate to convince the public that an SUV is a great idea, especially after 9/11.  Worse, the American public just got too carried away with a macho image of itself roaring down the highway in one of those things, with unlimited gas mileage, no less, on the way to the eternal beach and ahead of those space craft filled with Taliban lunatics.  Maybe the American public deserves to be disillusioned with GM’s demise.
 
So, REO, and our cousins, in spite of this, I think we should remain proud of what our great-grandfather accomplished in his lifetime. It was truly amazing. That is our legacy. We can just drive around GM and keep going. "Come away with me, Lucille,/In my merry Oldsmobile/Down the road of life we’ll fly/Automobubbling you and I. . ."
This essay (C) 2009 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved
 
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1 Comment

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One response to “To My Brother REO and Our Generation

  1. An old joke described mixed feelings as “watching your mother in law drive over a cliff in your new Cadillac.” I had those feelings when General Motors was on its way “over the cliff” but was saved by way too much cash infusion from the government. History will have the last word on whether saving a dinosaur at any cost was a good idea or whether market forces and the instant pain of ripping off the bandaid would have been a better solution. Personally I have no respect for either the union and their 70 dollar per hour pay and benefit package for screwing on a lug nut, or the uninspired management of GM that has cluttered our highways with automotive adiposity in the form of the SUV, that uniquely American “supersized” vehicular version of Kim Kardasian’s butt. We drive foreign cars in our family for many reasons, none of which is because we are un-American. I was on the cusp of buying the new JEEP Grand Cherokee when I saw video of the men who make this car getting stoned on Mary Jane and Booze on their lunch break. The union of which they are members was essentially unapologetic. I am essentially the same about my choice of anything made in Germany of by a german company in America being better than anything made in the city that looks like Dresden after the bombing, Detroit.

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