They were, it seemed, the worst of times for Volkswagen, even before Jim Fuller died.
U.S. sales had sunk to near 30-year lows. VW had built one U.S. factory, planned another, then had none. An organization once geared to selling 500,000 cars and trucks a year could barely sell one-third that many. Layoffs had begun.
The head of Volkswagen of America, a burly South African named Noel Phillips, triggered more fear than respect.
Its Audi division churned through four vice presidents in 16 months as the unintended-acceleration crisis nearly mowed down the Audi marque in the United States.
But the Volkswagen side had Jim Fuller. He had been at Ford and Renault and then American Motors. He led VWoA's old Porsche-Audi group before switching to VW itself in 1982.
Charismatic, energetic, committed, Fuller kept hope alive. Stick with us, he'd tell dealers who might otherwise have thrown in the towel. The Beetle may be gone. But we've got Golfs and Jettas and those Foxes from Brazil. We'll make it.
They weren't just words. He had a way with people. His top dealers and lieutenants were part of his family. He cooked for them at his home. He cared about their minds; dealer gatherings might include a visit to a museum or a talk by John Kenneth Galbraith. The spirit of camaraderie he fostered is remembered warmly to this day.
Fuller battled to get what he could for the U.S. market. That was tough. Volkswagen AG in Germany distrusted the Americans. The Golf was the best-selling car in Europe, after all. Why couldn't the Americans make it dent the charts in the United States?
Fuller knew why. Americans wanted more flair and better quality at a lower price than VW offered. And given those limitations, Fuller had to work twice as hard to make VW run.
Long before Saturn arrived, Jim Fuller charted a plan to make VW the industry's best provider of customer service. But before he would roll the idea into dealerships, VW employees had to prove they could live the philosophy themselves.
As sales slid in the late 1980s, he set his sights on 1989.
That's when three new cars would arrive, and VW would begin to come back. First, the Corrado sport coupe would deliver some sex appeal. Then the GTI Rallye would pump some adrenalin. The volume would be low, but it promised lots of fun for a few enthusiasts like Fuller who wanted the world's most expensive performance hatchback. The Passat, hot in Europe, would be VW's biggest sedan. Each would feature 'German engineering, the Volkswagen way.'
In late December 1988, Fuller, 50, and Lou Marengo, his 33-year-old marketing director, flew to Germany to button up plans for the launches. Four days before Christmas - 10 years ago today - Fuller and Marengo boarded a Boeing 727 in Frankfurt. They switched to a 747 in London and headed home.
The news hit desktop radios at VW's headquarters in Troy, Mich. A plane had disappeared from radar over Scotland. Nervous chatter - weren't Jim and Lou flying home? - gave way to a terrible sense of dread. They were indeed scheduled for the doomed flight. Faint fantasies took hold. Maybe Fuller, in his typical put-the-schedule-to-the-metal fashion, had missed his plane.
He hadn't. Neither had Lou.
The organization that couldn't be hit any harder had suffered its cruelest blow. Jim Fuller and Lou Marengo died with the 257 others aboard Pan Am Flight 103.
In 1989, VW's 40th anniversary in the United States, VW sold just 134,000 vehicles. Two years later, VW fell below 100,000. Two years after that, the once-mighty king of imports couldn't sell 50,000. Volkswagen came close to closing its U.S. doors.
Would Fuller have made a difference? Some. But probably not enough to turn the tide. Volkswagen's problems in the United States were beyond the repair of any human on this side of the Atlantic.
It took the changes brought by Ferdinand Piech to get the formula straight. The manufacturer provides the right products; the importer gives them the right sales and marketing touches.
Most of those who worked with Fuller have since retired or scattered to other automakers. Their VW days may be long past, but their holidays will be forever shadowed by memories of what happened over Lockerbie a decade ago.
Those enjoying VW's resurgence today should give a nod to the gentleman whose spirit and vision kept VW going, back when success was still a long way away.
Reach David Versical at [email protected]