General Motors made my first car. It was a 1955 two-tone Chevrolet with stick shift and black tires. It had an AM radio and air conditioning, if I hand-cranked the window down in summer. It came with bench seats, the better to have your date close to you. I bought it used (this was before cars were "pre-owned") in 1961. My Dad co-signed the $750 note, which I paid.
Those were the days when you could fill up for pocket change. Somewhere I have old Esso receipts that show a full tank of regular gas cost me $3 dollars.
Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, and Cadillac were the mainstays of GM, as Fairlane, Crestline Skyliner, Falcon, and later Galaxie were for Ford, some of which I would own as an adult. I would also own some Chrysler products, so I have contributed to the profits of all the "Big Three."
Ford is fending for itself without a bailout from Washington, but GM and Chrysler have filed their restructuring proposals with the government in order to receive additional billions to keep them solvent. On Tuesday, GM received the final $4 billion on a $13.4 billion federal commitment. Chrysler, also getting $4 billion, has already requested an additional $3 billion. The money is conditioned on GM and Chrysler coming up with comprehensive restructuring plans that will prove to the government that they have made "aggressive" progress since they pleaded with lawmakers last December for financial aid. Members of Congress told the company CEOs that everyone had to make sacrifices, including management, unions, suppliers, investors, and bondholders.
Here's a better idea: Let them die a slow death, with the emphasis on slow. Tell workers (management always seems to land on its feet) that they have a fixed amount of time to look for new jobs. Government will help them with training and education, but government cannot prop up companies that no longer make products people want to buy in large enough numbers for them to remain profitable.
There are many reasons the car companies are in trouble, all of which have been reported in the major media, but that is the past and it is way too late in the game to do much about guaranteed pensions and health care that ended up crippling GM, even after the company successfully negotiated with UAW members to decrease retirement benefits, which, honestly, is a little like quitting smoking after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Some of the cars of my childhood are no more. Kaiser-Frazier was the biggest postwar challenger to the Big Three. Models included the 1949 Kaiser Custom Vagabond, the 1948 Frazer Manhattan four-door sedan, the Dragon sedans, and Henry J coupes. In 1970, Kaiser, then known as the Kaiser Jeep Corporation, was sold to American Motors Corporation.
Other auto companies either went out of business or were bought. These included Packard ("ask the man who owns one"), Studebaker ("first by far with a postwar car"), and Hudson, which began making cars in 1909 and, like other automobile companies, in early 1942 was ordered by the U.S. government to stop making passenger cars and concentrate exclusively on fulfilling war contracts. In 1954, Hudson eventually merged with Nash-Kelvinator to become American Motors, a company that lasted in one form or another until 1987 when Chrysler gobbled it up.
None of these companies (and many more before them and after with names such as Tucker, DeLorean and Duesenberg) received government bailouts. If they couldn't sell their products at a profit, they either sold out, or went bust. People who worked for them found other jobs. No one starved to death.
Americans have benefited from capitalism. Our government should not be undermining an economic system that has produced more prosperity for its citizens than any nation on earth. It cannot forever prop up companies that make products not enough people wish to buy. If a growing number of people prefer cars not produced by GM and Chrysler, how will a government rescue plan make them more likely to buy them?
The "going out of business sale" sign should go up now. Taxpayers should not be expected to underwrite dying companies, unless we get a free car for our money. But that only happens on Oprah.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.