Acquisitions and mergers. Foul-ups in factory-dealer relations. The rise of the Internet, and the merger that wasn't a merger. The death of a beloved American car, and the end of a supposedly great idea in used cars.
There was no lack of important events for editors and reporters to consider in their 47th annual Story of the Year poll.
But one event towered above all of the others: sales.
It can be argued that sales are the most important automotive event of any year, for without sales, there is no auto industry. But in 1999, sales had the game as well as the name.
The U.S. auto industry is 103 years old, and this year's sales are the highest in history. On Dec. 10, the year-to-date total passed the previous full-year peak of 16,026,426, which was set in 1986. The final count for 1999 is estimated at 16.9 million.
Close behind in the voting was Renault's purchase of control of Japan's Nissan Motor Co. and the installation of cost-cutter Carlos Ghosn as COO. His job is to stem the tide of red ink that has consumed Nissan in recent years. Maybe more important, some observers say it marks the end of Japan Inc., the inbred conglomeration of makers and suppliers that has run Japan's auto industry by its own rules for a generation or more.
General Motors and Ford Motor Co. played the factory store game with their dealers, and the makers did not fare well. Chairman Jack Smith shot down a GM plan to acquire up to 770 big-city dealerships. Ford's Auto Collection stumbled, especially in Tulsa, Okla., and Salt Lake City.
The auto industry discovered the Internet in 1999, and that was the year's No. 4 story. GM, Ford and other big makers announced major Internet programs in purchasing and retailing.
After its hookup with Daimler-Benz, Chrysler Corp. pushed the idea that it was a merger of equals. Last year, it became clear that is not the case. DaimlerChrysler consists of three separate business units under German control.
Ford bought Volvo Cars for $6.5 billion, no pretext of a merger there. The purchase spurred the creation of Ford's Premier Automotive Group, which has Lincoln, Volvo and Jaguar as its major components. Wolfgang Reitzle, formerly No. 2 at BMW, is running the show for Ford.
In seventh place was GM's spin-off of Delphi Automotive Systems and Ford's efforts to get rid of its parts-making Visteon Automotive Systems.
GM's unsuccessful Vehicle Order Management System was eighth-place choice. VOMS was intended to simplify dealer orders and speed the flow of vehicles to the retailers. Instead, dealers complained that it took hours to submit simple orders. Even worse, they couldn't get the 'sold' vehicles they ordered for customers.
DaimlerChrysler announced the Plymouth brand will die after the 2001 model year. Walter Chrysler introduced Plymouth in 1928, and Plymouth was Chrysler Corp's best-selling car from 1930-78.
Rounding out the top 10 was AutoNation's decision to scrap its highly promoted used-car superstores. AutoNation is still the nation's biggest new-car dealership chain with about 400 franchises.
1. SALES SET RECORD
This year's sales of about 16.9 million new cars and light trucks have smashed the former record of 16,026,426 that was set in 1986. That achievement was harder than it might seem.
Harder, because people keep their cars longer, and because sales were really strong in the years leading up to this record - 1999 is the fourth year in a row above 15 million.
The industry sold 75.7 million light vehicles in the five years before 1999, compared with 62.5 million in 1981-85.
2. RENAULT BUYS NISSAN
When Renault bought a controlling 36.8 percent stake in Nissan, the implications were broader than in Daimler's takeover of Chrysler.
Renault immediately blossomed from a parochial player into a global presence. The biggest impact, though, was in Japan.
Renault appointed Carlos Ghosn as Nissan's COO, and he promptly zeroed in on Nissan's flaws. Ghosn's 'Revival Plan' for Nissan broke Japan Inc. taboos by the score. It included five plant closings, 21,000 job cuts (most of them in Japan), the snatching of an Isuzu Motors Ltd. designer to be Nissan's new head of design, and the sale of stakes in 1,390 affiliates.
The latter move rolls out the welcome mat to foreign parts suppliers that are interested in buying Japanese parts makers. Whether or not Ghosn succeeds in turning Nissan around, he has ensured that the Japanese auto industry will never be the same.
3. FACTORY STORES STUMBLE
Factory stores were 1999's top fad at Ford and GM.
Ford started the year with ambitious plans to form Auto Collection stores across the United States. In an Auto Collection, Ford Motor dealers pool their stores and other assets in a new company jointly owned by them and Ford.
But Auto Collection stores in Tulsa, Okla., and Salt Lake City didn't live up to expectations, and Ford bought out most of the dealers involved. The company scaled back its plans for Auto Collection stores in other cities.
In September, GM floated a revolutionary plan to buy up to 10 percent, or 770, of its dealerships in about 130 markets. GM dealers went ballistic, and Chairman Jack Smith nixed the whole idea about a month later.
4. INTERNET TO THE FORE
The Internet economy went mainstream in 1999 as auto industry executives became feverish converts to the religion of e-commerce.
GM created e-GM, the means by which America's largest industrial firm will reshape itself for the Internet Age. Mark Hogan, one of GM's most promising young executives, was put in charge. GM purchasing czar Harold Kutner formed a partnership with Commerce One Inc. to set up an online marketplace for buying and selling.
Ford CEO Jac Nasser, once affectionately known around Motown as The Knife, is now more appropriately Net Boy, the car dude who hobnobs with Internet visionaries and big-time software moguls such as Bill Gates and Mike Dell.
Nasser has entered into a Web retailing partnership with Microsoft Corp.'s CarPoint and into an Internet purchasing joint venture with Oracle Corp.
More to come, no doubt.
And guess what? The Niagaralike torrent of venture capital flowing into the dot-com industry is being used, in part, to recruit management talent. A handful of prominent auto executives, lured by bushel baskets full of stock options, fled dreary Detroit for red hot dot-com start-ups.
And, as long as the money tree is in bloom, more will surely follow.
5. IT'S NOT A MERGER
The DaimlerChrysler linkup marked its first anniversary Nov. 17, but cultural differences proved to be too big for the new company.
So one year after the consolidation, the Chrysler side looks and acts a whole lot like the old Chrysler Corp. Same goes for Mercedes-Benz and commercial trucks.
Instead of trying to force the further integration of different cultures, DaimlerChrysler chose to create these three largely separate automotive business units, each responsible for its own success.
6. VOLVO IS NOW A FORD
In January, Ford bought Volvo Cars for $6.5 billion, spurring the creation of the company's new Premier Automotive Group. Volvo, Lincoln, Mercury, Jaguar and Aston Martin now reside under one corporate roof.
Wolfgang Reitzle, the former BMW AG product development chief who migrated to Ford in March, oversees the five brands globally. Reitzle's task: Sell at least 1 million vehicles annually early in the next century.
7. DELPHI GOES SOLO
Delphi Automotive Systems Inc. severed ties with GM this year in a move designed to streamline GM and help Delphi win nonGM business.
Delphi CEO J.T. Battenberg III wants to boost nonGM business from about 35 percent to 50 percent of sales and expand Delphi's European operations.
Ford is expected to follow GM's lead and spin off its parts subsidiary, Visteon Automotive Systems, in early 2000.
8. OMS MAKES DEALERS GAG
In January, GM introduced a new online distribution system and dubbed it VOMS, for Vehicle Order Management System. Frustrated dealers quickly nicknamed it Vomit.
GM's goal was to make its distribution system common throughout its vehicle divisions and to cut the time from order to delivery. But what GM delivered initially was a system loaded with bugs - a system that couldn't guarantee the delivery of 'sold' orders to retail customers.
Although most of the demons have been exorcised, GM dealers still complain about the hours, even days, they spend wrestling with the system. GM admits it needs further improvement.
9. PLYMOUTH GETS THE AX
DaimlerChrysler quietly dismantled the 71-year-old Plymouth brand this year. The signs were clear, but DaimlerChrysler waited until November to publicly acknowledge its intentions.
DaimlerChrysler no longer wants to play badge engineering. Plymouth's only unique vehicle was the low-volume Prowler roadster, which celebrates the heritage of the American hot rod. The 2001 model year will be its last.
The Plymouth Voyager and Grand Voyager minivans have been folded into the Chrysler brand. Production of the Plymouth Breeze mid-sized sedan ended this month, and the Plymouth Neon will fade away after the 2001 model year.
To offset the loss of the budget brand, DaimlerChrysler is expanding the Chrysler marque. The new 2001 PT Cruiser, for example, will be badged a Chrysler and will be priced under $20,000.
10. AUTONATION DUMPS USED-CAR SUPERSTORES
Wayne Huizenga was going to do for the used-car market what he did for the garbage collection and video-rental markets: Consolidate it, and put mom-and-pop used-car lots out of business.
But in the end, Huizenga's AutoNation USA used-car mega-_stores were far too big with too much overhead. Although the megastore chain's one-price selling and varied inventory won fans among consumers, its lack of profits became a near-fatal drag on AutoNation Inc.'s stock price. In December, AutoNation announced it will close most of the megastores and convert the rest to new-car dealerships, leaving CarMax as the last of used-car superstore chains.