Canadian Plastics

Under GM’s hood? The North American dream

To be honest, I've never liked the way that people always talk about the American love affair with cars. I've always thought it would be more accurate to call it a North American love affair. In other words, count us Canadians in. A country...

September 1, 2009   By Mark Stephen, managing editor



To be honest, I’ve never liked the way that people always talk about the American love affair with cars.

I’ve always thought it would be more accurate to call it a North American love affair. In other words, count us Canadians in.

A country steeped in American influences — not to mention possessing some of the most wide open highways anywhere — Canada has just as much of a car culture as our neighbor to the south.

That’s why whatever happens to any of the Big Three automakers matters to us…and not just in an economic sense, although that’s certainly an important consideration. (For a look at how the troubles of the Detroit automakers are impacting Canadian parts manufacturers, check out our “Automotive Update”, beginning on pg. 10)

For those of us that grew up surrounded by domestic cars, the economic problems of GM, Ford and Daimler Chrysler matter on an emotional level, I think — in much the same way that it would bother us to see the old Mom’n’Pop store that we hung out in as kids go out of business.

The fact that these companies brought many of their problems on themselves might blunt our compassion, but probably doesn’t destroy it completely.

Anyone who feels even a lingering affection for the Big Three will probably find a new book called Why GM Matters to be an entertaining and instructive read. Written by business journalist William J. Holstein, Why GM Matters (subtitled Inside the Race to Transform an American Icon) gives the reader keyhole access to the ins-and-outs of the history of the venerable auto giant: its glorious rise, the beginnings of crisis, the slow slide into bankruptcy, and the recent sacking of chairman and chief executive George Wagoner, Jr.

Without downplaying GM’s failures, Holstein does a good job of reminding the anti-car advocates (not that they’d ever read his book, of course) of the importance of GM and other auto giants. “It’s hard to imagine a healthy technology industry without an auto industry to buy from,” he said. Seen in this light, Holstein continued, GM “is not a dinosaur left over from the previous century, but a crucial piece of America’s effort to revitalize its economy and sustain its position in the world for the next century.” A chapter on the development of the Chevy Volt backs up this claim by offering an interesting glimpse not just of the future of GM, but into the future of driving in North America.

In the end, Holstein makes a convincing argument for the continued centrality of GM to the so-called American dream, despite the transplantation of foreign car production onto American soil.

(He also offers the interesting theory that GM’s own awareness of its role in the American dream led, at least in part, to its downfall: the gargantuan employee benefits burden that put GM at a competitive disadvantage to foreign carmakers was an outgrowth of its self-image as the personification of everything good in America — according to which, what could be better than giving working men and women a decent retirement?)

Early in the book, Holstein asked the question, “Should anybody care if GM survives?” Putting the volume down, I found myself thinking that its survival does matter — to me and probably to millions of others, not just to the car owners and jobholders.

It used to be said that what was good for GM was good for America. I think it still is, although with the following modification: what’s good for GM is good for North America.

mstephen@canplastics.com


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