I'll be a much happier camper when December 31, 2009, is finally in the record books. The symbolic passing of the year 2009 is going to do huge things for my optimism, which has been at the bottom of the toilet since last November.
Yes, '09 will be one to remember. But not in a good way. Few economic sectors outside of the mortgage business have been hit harder than the automotive industry. OEMs around the globe have taken a hit, but the American automakers have been arguably hit the hardest. Hell, the Big Three barely survived through spring. That all three have managed to make it into late summer seems miraculous.
General Motors is the poster child of what the automotive industry, particularly the U.S. auto industry, has been through. I realize most enthusiasts of European cars might not give the proverbial rat's arse when it comes to GM's fate. But if you also consider yourself an American, or even a driving enthusiast living in America, you probably should.
I've dealt with European contributors who consider GM both irrelevant and inferior, but any American who says he'd like to see GM fail is just as misguided as one who says he'd like to see the President fail. The way I see it, if either of those institutions fails, we as Americans fail.
I also find it pretty disheartening when a company like GM, a pillar of whatever is left of American industry, is publicly raked over the coals and left to hang when institutions like the big banks, who dumped us into this economic cesspool in the first place, are allowed to skate away with incomprehensible and largely untraceable sums of taxpayer bailout money. The phrase "laughing all the way to the bank" never had so much resonance.
More to the point, I have a sinking suspicion that whatever happens with GM could be largely indicative of what happens with American car culture as a whole. Depending how things shake out, that could be a frightening prospect.
GM's main problem, beyond the obvious lack of money, is one of image. Many point to its current insolvency as the product of a wasteful, grossly inefficient product lineup-Hummers, Suburbans, Escalades. I could concede some of that argument, having no great personal love for gigantic truck-like things. But looking at the situation like that seems to be overly simplistic.
The bottom line is this: auto manufacturers build vehicles they think people will buy. They don't build cars to destroy the Earth or to subjugate mankind. Car building is a business, and businesses need to make money.
I don't know what you've seen where you live, but here in Southern California we're up to our eyeballs in Suburbans and H2s. Clearly, someone has been buying the product. So if you want to point an accusing finger at GM, you had best follow it up by pointing the same finger at your mother-in-law, your father, your friends, your neighbors... maybe even yourself.
At least give the company credit for taking drastic measures to streamline its operation. But even after massive layoffs, shuttering of dealerships, putting Hummer and Saturn up for sale and killing Pontiac outright, there's still a ways to go.
Admittedly, I could do without gigantic trucks on my streets and freeways. More concerning to me is the fate of GM's luxury and high performance divisions, Cadillac and Corvette. Those two brands, at least, have been turning out product that is still widely lauded in the automotive press. And the cars in the respective model ranges are proven performers more or less on par with certain offerings from Europe.
Early indications are that both these sectors remain profitable and for the time being will continue to turn out the company's most compelling product. Less certain will be the direction of the bulk of GM's fleet, which could ostensibly become filled with gas/electric or all-electric vehicles, like the forthcoming Volt. Bleh.
But if GM ever pulls the plug on an American icon like Corvette, it could portend the beginning of the end. At least for those of us in this great country who like to drive.