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March 1, 2006

4 Min Read
Editorial: Ford fades

MSnyder.jpgRemember Packard? Remember Studebaker? Remember DeLorean? Remember Ford?

Once again Ford has announced that it will become profitable by shrinking. Or maybe just survive by shrinking. About 30,000 employees are to be let go.

William Clay ?Bill? Ford, CEO, chairman, and fourth generation Ford family member, pitches innovation and safety to the American people in TV ads. Only an eccentric few actually choose vehicles on the basis of comparative safety. The one I know (it?s not me) buys Volvos. And ?innovation?? Very important, but let?s see it in the vehicle. Nobody cares what some shill says about it on TV, even if his name is Ford. The original Henry Ford is probably turning over in his grave.

Everyone involved in the plastics industry endured a Ford downsizing of about 20,000 workers beginning in 2002. And now the plastics industry and everybody else is asked to endure another round.

By more or less continuously shrinking itself, Ford is admitting that it doesn?t know how to make productive use of its employees. As Ford keeps shrinking, at what point will it know how to be productive? As Ford keeps shrinking, it will get more knowledgeable, right? Who do you know that believes that? I have an excellent bridge I would like to sell them. Ford?s actions bring to mind the image of a guy with a single-shot gun who shoots himself in the foot, then reloads the gun and shoots himself in the other foot.

Ford vs. Plastics

Ford doesn?t care what the plastics industry thinks of its strategies. What may not have occurred to Ford is that the plastics industry may no longer care what Ford thinks. Depending on the model, any new vehicle is going to have 100-200 lb of plastic components in it, no matter who manufactures it.

The people of this country are going to continue to buy roughly 15-18 million new vehicles per year. If Ford can?t manufacture its share of those vehicles efficiently, no doubt someone else will.

My reaction is mixed. How can they do this to a great American institution? I grew up with Fords. Some naysayers said Ford stood for ?Fix Or Repair Daily.? They were wrong. Ford has made reliable family cars for almost 100 years.

There were notable blunders over the years. The Edsel for example, named for family member Edsel Ford. It was ugly as sin and was only produced for three years. I saw one here in Denver recently, proof that nothing is too ugly for a collector.On the other hand, the Mustang became an enduring classic, and the Thunderbird proved to be an award-winning design as well.The Pinto is a permanent blight on Ford?s history. In an act of monumental corporate stupidity, Ford initially saved an estimated $10-$15 per car by knowingly designing the Pinto as a rolling bomb, as was later proved in court. Rear-end collisions caused perforation of the gas tank, creating a fireball that incinerated the occupants.

Eventually, Ford issued a recall?and diminished, if not eliminated, the gas tank problem with plastics, would you believe. The gas tank was surrounded with a high-density polyethylene shield. You couldn?t see any difference unless you looked under the car.

I grew up with Fords. I?ve driven more than 100,000 miles in Fords. On Fords I learned more than I ever wanted to know about cars. That was in the day when I could prop up the hood, pull the air cleaner off and spray WD-40 on the sticky butterfly valves sitting atop the carburetor. Then I could pop the (probably phenolic) distributor cap and adjust the points. When that was done I could unscrew the spark plugs, adjust the gaps on the new ones, and thread them in. I warn you, don?t try any of this with your new car.

If I had time, I could pull the oil pan plug, drain the oil, install a new oil filter, replace the oil with fresh 10W30 or 10W40, and drive away in a tuned-up car with clean oil. It cost some time, and a little bit of money, but not much. I suppose you could do this on almost any car of the era. I just happened to learn on Fords. Sadly, my son doesn?t know what a Ford looks like in my garage. Probably never will.

An Uncertain Future

It is no doubt a bit early to issue an obituary for Ford. Ford would say, as Mark Twain did, that the reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated. However, in this era of massive buyouts, sellouts, mergers, and acquisitions, the vultures are always circling, looking to pounce on a company in trouble, or even a company not in trouble.

Ford has adopted a slogan, the ?Way Forward.? The slogan has a very unfortunate resonance with ?The Great Leap Forward,? the 1958 Chinese concept that by all accounts precipitated an ongoing disaster. That kind of sloganeering didn?t do China any good, and it?s not going to do any good for Ford?or any good for the rest of us.

Snyder-Signature.jpg
Merle R. Snyder
Editor

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