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Consumers (and businesses) highly value the flexibility and independence that car transport affords. Cars are now a core part of modern culture, and as fashion goods they affect perceptions of social status. Upton Sinclair commented on that in Babbit (1922), and Tom Wolfe’s “new journalism” pieces in Esquire captured car customization in “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) around the Bend” (November 1963) and the rise of NASCAR racing in “The Last American Hero” (March 1965). Modern art captured the new visual world (Giacomo Balla, Speeding Automobile, 1912), as did Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932–1933), while vaudeville’s Keystone Kops carried the car chase into film. Automobile associations sprang up around the world. Early Cars and Carmakers. The dream of an automobile dates from antiquity, but commercial production began only in the 1890s. In 1899 the leading European firm Benz turned out a mere 572 vehicles, and in 1901 the U.S. leader Oldsmobile turned out 425. Internal-combustion engines were in their infancy—Daimler’s gasoline engine was patented in 1885, and Diesel did not invent his engine until 1897. Early vehicles were mere horseless carriages, but they soon came in a wide array of configurations, including three-wheelers and four-wheel-drive models, powered variously by electricity, steam, internal combustion, and even hybrid power trains; other than automatic transmissions and air-conditioning, most of the features found in vehicles in 1970 had been used on one or another commercial car by the early 1910s. With rising incomes, consumers were able and willing to buy cars that offered more amenities and style than the Model T did, but the aging Henry Ford refused to meet this latent demand. GM in 1920 was still an assemblage of firms with no common management systems and precious little coordination. Alfred P. Sloan, brought in by the DuPont family to revive the firm, made virtue of necessity, consciously realigning the product range to provide an array of carefully segmented models, a car for every pocket. To coordinate the many divisions he used standardized reports that allowed executives to compare the return on assets, so that the company could decide where to focus its limited financial and management capabilities. He also clarified line and staff functions, in an elaborate system of committees. In addition, he actively developed the franchised dealership system, including marketing support and finance to both dealers—for floor plan or inventory—and final consumers. These management innovations, though not necessarily unique to GM, proved extremely influential, both because of Sloan’s efforts to communicate what GM did and because for several decades GM was the world’s most profitable (and in some periods the largest) manufacturing enterprise, earning an average 15 percent on sales into the 1970s. Fall of the Big Three. That “Big Three” oligopoly—that of GM, Ford, and Chrysler—was upset by a series of innovations. First, the American market went through a small-car fad once every eight to ten years; the Big Three resisted entering the fad, but they could not ignore the Volkswagen Beetle’s status as the top-selling car in 1968. To counter this, the Big Three turned to imports, with OEM (“original equipment manufacturer,” or contracted) production from Japanese firms and (less successfully) from their own European subsidiaries. That provided profits and market access to a set of foreign firms that were otherwise highly parochial in their operations. Second, the environmental movement led to the imposition of emission mandates and the need to develop catalytic converters. Honda, however, was able to meet the initial standards with its CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine—hence the Civic car—providing a substantial cost and performance advantage. Third, safety concerns—highlighted by Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed—made consumers sensitive to quality, which was sorely lacking in Detroit’s products. Fourth, the 1973 and 1978 oil crises reinvigorated the market for small cars, which as in the past was already fading by the time the Big Three responded to Volkswagen in 1971. Consumers found the early Japanese cars basic but efficient, inexpensive, and of quality that was noticeably better even to the casual observer. Subsequent technological trends accentuated this. Increasing demands for safety (mandates for seatbelts and then airbags, and crashworthiness tests), fuel efficiency (in the United States, the complex corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, rules), and consumer features, the development of new model segments (Chrysler’s revolutionary minivan and Ford’s SUV, the Explorer, leading a light-truck boom), and the digital revolution all intersected to facilitate developing more and increasingly sophisticated vehicles. Firms also faced a larger market, as incomes rose, auto-oriented suburbs replaced urban living, and NAFTA integrated the Canadian, Mexican, and U.S. economies. Models proliferated, with more than six hundred nameplates and countless variations on sale in North America in 2007, including those produced locally by the major German, Japanese, and Korean firms—fifteen new entrants in all. The European Union saw a similar pattern, except that national markets were smaller and pre–World War II incumbents did better. As in the United States and Japan, the sector was also unionized and politically visible, which encouraged a “national champion” mentality. In general, Germans bought “German” cars (including those made by Ford of Germany and Opel, a subsidiary of GM), the French bought the products of their own producers, the Italians had Fiat, Spain had SEAT, and the Scandinavians had Saab and Volvo. In the 1960s and 1970s there was some flux in individual markets—for example, Chrysler bought the French Simca, which itself had bought Ford’s French operations and subsequently sold them to Citroën, which merged with Peugeot. All this changed dramatically when the formation of the European Union lowered barriers among these markets, though a “block exemption” prevented consumer purchases from dealerships in neighboring countries. As a result, all the national firms exited or were absorbed by others in the United Kingdom (Rover and Rolls Royce were the last to go), in Scandinavia (GM now owns Saab, and Ford owns Volvo), in Spain (Volkswagen owns SEAT), and in Eastern Europe. Less visible, Ford and GM consolidated their once-autonomous European subsidiaries to operate as EU-wide entities, while Japanese and Korean companies have entered directly or in neighboring regions such as Eastern Europe and Turkey that have access to or are now part of the European Union. One partial exception is Korea, which began with licensed production but unlike its tutor Japan kept new entry to a minimum. Still, three smaller domestic players have been purchased either by foreign firms or by the more successful Hyundai. At the same time, two countries that were quick to open their markets, Turkey and Thailand, have both done relatively well in attracting a variety of firms to become net exporters, as have several Eastern European countries, particularly the Czech Republic and Poland. Thailand, in particular, is the only substantial producer of pickup trucks outside of NAFTA, and it is the base for such production by a number of firms. Finally, without delving into the local variation in fueling stations, dealerships (the top twenty-five in the United States each sell more than $1 billion in cars and services a year), and local regulations and politics, it is important to remember that most employment is outside of assembly. Even in manufacturing, two-thirds of jobs and value added are from parts production; assembly accounts for only a tenth of the manufacturing cost of a vehicle. Parts production is also widely dispersed; many components are both labor-intensive and light, which encourages production for export outside of the high-wage developed markets. In addition, particularly with the shifts in materials science and microelectronics, parts production is often technology-intensive. As a result, the market for individual components such as airbags, fuel injectors, and electronic components, and even wire harnesses, is in some cases dominated by three firms; in 2007 the top five parts firms each had global sales of more than $20 billion, more than all but the top eleven vehicle producers. Like their customers, however, they now operate on a global basis, with plants in all major regions to supply the great variety of local needs and to meet the just-in-time requirements of the modern economy. Despite globalization, then, auto manufacturing—which is the tip of the broadly defined motor vehicle industry—maintains a strong national component.
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