Ronald Reagan had just stepped down as president. Roger Smith was still investing in scads of robots. Mercedes-Benz was a snooty manufacturer of very expensive cars. Virtually every American car dealership was privately owned. THE JAPANESE WERE COMING, EVEN IN LUXURY CARS! And American automakers were probably doomed because they couldn't match the Japanese on the most important issue: quality.
That was the background 10 years ago this month when I joined Automotive News as editor. The world's auto industry was an astonishing landscape to survey. And, oh, how that landscape has changed.
I was once the editor of a small-town daily. The first year was pretty interesting. The second year was almost a clone of the first, like Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, where the same things repeat themselves, day after day. Two years at that job was plenty.
In the auto industry, no two years are alike. Ten years ago, everybody knew that low-quality Chrysler couldn't compete with those high-quality Japanese manufacturers like Nissan. Oops.
Ten years ago, Mercedes and BMW were about to be devoured by Lexus, Infiniti and Mazda's rumored luxury line, Amati. Oops.
Ten years ago (heck, even two years ago), the individual, privately financed, franchised auto dealer was and always would be sacred to every automaker, especially Ford. Oops.
Sometimes I wish the industry would stop and take a breath.
Anyway, in marking my decade at this fascinating vantage point, I now make a few awards for achievement (or folly) in the last 10 years. Let's call them the Petey Awards.
Most Memorable Character: No, not Lee Iacocca, brilliant communicator though he was. The Petey for character goes to Bob Lutz, subversive revolutionary and buttoned-down organization man, cocky car guy and good listener. Lutz's greatest personal triumph came after he was passed over for Chrysler's chairmanship. He learned humility, and he led a renaissance at Chrysler and the American auto industry.
Most Memorable Moment: Jack Smith's 1993 press conference to announce that J. Ignacio Lopez would NOT be leaving General Motors for Volkswagen and would instead run GM's North American Operations. After a delay, a sad and somber Smith took the podium to announce that Inaki had left a message to say he was bolting for VW after all.
Most Unscrupulous Villain: Inaki Lopez. He destroyed suppliers' trust in GM, he betrayed Jack Smith, and he stole boxes and boxes of GM documents. Inaki was a true believer and a charismatic leader. With a moral compass, he could have done great things.
Top Trade Association: The American International Automobile Dealers Association. AIADA has an advantage over other associations: a mission as clear as gin. It's for free trade. Period. AIADA has a brilliant and charismatic executive in Walter Huizenga and has had a series of energetic and fiercely committed elected dealer presidents.
Top Governmental Regulator: Gen. Jerry Curry, George Bush's first administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The general knew how to get things done in a big, change-resistant organization. He wanted to save lives, and he did.
Most Disappointing Technology: Antilock braking systems. They were just getting big in 1989. What an idea! And they penetrated the market. I still wouldn't buy a vehicle without ABS. But drivers haven't learned to use them properly, and the insurance companies believe there's no evidence that they avoid accidents. And their penetration plateaued.
Least Critical Technological Advancement: Cupholders. We've got cupholders that ratchet up and ratchet down, that hide in the console and in the dashboard. They keep hot things hot and cold things cold. We Americans love 'em.
Most Challenging Technological Advancement: Intelligent Transportation Systems. We Americans seem to like dumb transportation systems (DTS), with chaotic driving patterns and bad road information. ITS faces a pot-holed road into the new millennium.
Most Significant Vehicle: The Ford Explorer. It was a redesign of the disastrous Bronco II. But the 1990 launch of this civilized sport-utility created the momentum that has pushed light trucks to nearly half the market. Ten years ago, this was still the car industry; after the Explorer, it's the vehicle industry.
NEXT WEEK: The corporate Peteys.
You can e-mail Peter Brown at [email protected]