The Association of International Automobile Manufacturers will scale back its mission, focusing on technical issues more than the touchy trade matters that brought the group into existence.
At a board of directors meeting at the NADA convention, the importers and transplant automakers that make up the group voted to change the organization's course.
While AIAM will continue to monitor such commercial trade issues as import tariffs and international taxation, it will devote more of its resources to such technical areas as industry regulations on safety, fuel economy and material standards.
The vote in Orlando is symbolic of the industry's corporate-level upheaval of the past two years.
AIAM has been a source of public relations and advertising protection for the non-Big 3 automakers - particularly the Japanese transplant factories around the United States.
When trade tensions between the domestic and import auto industries were at their worst, the AIAM broadcast the message that the transplants were intertwined in the U.S. economy. Led by Phil Hutchinson, a former Volkswagen of America Inc. manager, the organization gave non-U.S. competitors as diverse as Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Corp., AB Volvo and Hyundai a united front in the U.S. market.
But the acquisition of Chrysler Corp. by Daimler-Benz AG in Germany began blurring the lines between U.S. and 'non-U.S.' companies.
A number of AIAM members have already pulled out and joined the newer Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which combines importers and the former Big 3. In recent weeks, the AIAM has downsized to fewer than a dozen employees, compared with 31 at its peak.
'Fortunately, we don't have any real trade problems on the horizon right now,' explained Hutchinson, who retires March 1. 'The issues that caused such concern in past years just aren't a problem these days.'
One key source of friction between the transplants and the Big 3 dealt with employment concerns. In the mid-1980s, when the Japanese were beginning to build new U.S. factories in places such as Smyrna, Tenn., and Marysville, Ohio, the Big 3 had tens of thousands of laid-off workers in the Michigan and Great Lakes area.
'Michigan really has no unemployment problem these days,' Hutchinson said. 'If anything, Michigan has a labor shortage.'
The board also elected Tom Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., as its new chairman. He will succeed Yale Gieszl, vice chairman of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
Gieszl credited Hutchinson with 'being the moving force behind the organization.'
'Phil has provided a lot of strength here,' Gieszl said. 'We are all competitors here. And yet we've been able to reach consensus on a lot of critical issues. Phil really kept us focused on the bigger picture and brought us together.'