It's a very different business

Twenty years ago, Lee Iacocca and other Detroit executives railed against the Japanese, insisting they build where they sell and make the United States a level playing field.

Well, the Japanese have done exactly that and, in the meantime, have changed the face of the American automobile business.

In the past, we had the Big 3 neatly carving up the U.S. automobile industry, with a relatively modest percentage for the European and Japanese imports.

Today we have plenty of Japanese plants scattered across the middle of the country from Ohio to the South. Even a couple of German companies are building in this country for the North American market and for export.

Last year, European and Japanese automakers built about 3.2 million vehicles in the United States and Canada - just about everything that an American buyer would want.

What started with a small Honda motorcycle plant in Ohio has blossomed into a very large part of U.S. car and truck production. Ten states have plants that make transplant vehicles, and all those states are happy to have them. The biggest competition among U.S. states is when they are vying for an automobile assembly plant.

If Iacocca and his peers hadn't uttered that challenge and we were still a market in which all the imports actually were imported, it would be quite a different landscape. Today, some 35 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States are from companies other than the Big 3.

And if all those vehicles were shipped to this country from overseas, it would be an entirely different market. In fact, our government probably wouldn't have let it increase to that percentage. There would have been all sorts of restrictions and quotas on imported vehicles.

But that's all changed. It's just about impossible to figure out what's an import and what's a domestic - particularly when the Big 3 are sourcing many of their own products from outside the United States.

It's a global business these days. The landscape has changed forever, and the effect on our industry has been dramatic.

You can reach Keith Crain at kcrain@crain.com

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