It’s the Christmas season in Northern Ohio, but the blessings of the holiday will not fall evenly on all God’s children. In Toledo, they are preparing for the arrival of the Gladiator. Since September, FCA has been preparing a third shift for the plant based on Wrangler volume alone; Gladiator makes it a certainty. More than one thousand new workers will find their lives permanently changed by membership in the UAW and a job assembling one of the most steadily popular nameplates in the auto biz.
A few hours to the east, the workers at the General Motors plant in Lordstown are preparing for a closure on or about the first of March. At the Los Angeles Auto Show, while FCA showed off the Gladiator and Honda announced the discovery of a previously-unknown gap in its tall-wagon lineup that would be immediately and profitably filled by a shrunken Pilot, GM announced the corporate equivalent of a high-school girl cutting off all her hair and putting on Goth lipstick because her boyfriend dumped her for someone thinner. Lordstown is just one of the several plants being closed on short notice. Their products will die with them. The vast scale of the ignorance and wastefulness on display is breathtaking to behold; the brand-new CT6 V-Series, equipped with a massively expensive bespoke engine evocatively yclept “Blackwing”, is dead on arrival. Pause, if you will, to admire the stupidity verging on genius here; it was already a nearly impossible task to sell an S63AMG competitor with a Cadillac badge on the grille, so GM simply went the rest of the way by declaring in advance that the car would be discontinued. Thus the CT6 V-Series ticks every possible box in the disaster checklist: hideously expensive, undersized, impossibly complex, terrifying in the contemplation of future maintenance expenses and resale value, abandoned by its parents at birth.
GM’s nonentity of a chairperson, the inscrutably useless Mary Barra, allowed as how perhaps Mr. Trump had killed the plants with a “billion dollars” worth of tariffs on steel and aluminum. The press repeated her blather as fact, perhaps forgetting that Ms. Barra had been on Hillary’s shortlist for vice president and could be again. Not considered by anybody on Twitter or in the automotive press: why the tariffs were deadly for GM but seemingly livable for everyone else, particularly since the company makes a relatively low percentage of its vehicles in the United States. While Honda adds Alabama production for the Passport and says nothing about the effect of tariffs, GM takes its ball and goes home to Mexico.
Left unsaid in all of this: while GM chases Korean electric dreams and Chinese autonomous hopes with blank-check naivete, while Chevrolet wastes God knows how many million dollars on astoundingly stupid garbage like their Call Me Out application, and while the firm bets the farm on a new generation of trucks that appears designed to increase the resale value of their predecessors — FCA takes the time to design and build vehicles that people actually want to buy. My suggestion: GM should approach Honda about building Passports at Lordstown. Or they could build Jeeps there, the same way that Ford was reduced to building the Willys quarter-ton truck during WWII because their own design didn’t cut the mustard.
It’s trite in this business to say that product matters, and it isn’t always as true as we’d like it to be, but there are times that you just have to face the cruel fact that auto companies can live or die on the strength of what they put on the showroom floor. It doesn’t matter so much for Ms. Barra, who will continue to earn approximately twenty-two million dollars a year — about an eighth of the Lordtown workers’ salaries in total, by my rough calculation — regardless of her ineptitude, and it does not matter at all for Sergio Marchionne, dead at America’s retirement age. Rather, it is the blue-collar families of Ohio who will thrive or suffer in the year ahead, through no fault of their own. Has it ever been any other way? In the meantime, however, as the holidays approach, let us hope that God blesses us, every one.