The term 'Big 3' has been a part of the industry's lexicon since 1928 when Automotive News coined the phrase.
Originally, 'Big 3' meant simply the three largest of all the auto companies, which were General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. Over the years the connotation changed as 'Big 3' became synonymous with the U.S. auto industry.
After the Daimler-Benz/Chrysler deal was struck, Automotive News decided that the term 'Big 3' no longer applied. In September 1998, we even published an editorial saying so. It was clear to us that the world and the industry had changed.
We reasoned that as DaimlerChrysler became an integrated, global company with a single, synthesized culture, it would be absurd to use 'Big 3.'
We were too hasty. So we're putting 'Big 3' back in our vocabulary as a way to refer to the three largest producers in North America.
Since 1998, we have tried not using the term 'Big 3,' but it hasn't worked out. Somehow, 'the automakers formerly known as the Big 3' just didn't cut it, and other ways of describing the three largest players became too cumbersome.
Most significantly, despite shifts in market share away from the traditional North American producers, 'Big 3' still accurately describes the way the vehicle market is divvied.
Also, the Chrysler portion of DaimlerChrysler, now sometimes known as the Chrysler group, has not been integrated into a single culture. It remains largely a North American enterprise, even if it now will be more tightly controlled by German executives, just as GM's Opel subsidiary remains a German automaker.
STILL HANDY, ACCURATE
I know there will be howls from those who think Chrysler Corp. was sold out and taken over. There also could be protests from those who say that the emergence of the new American manufacturers demands putting the term 'Big 3' in a museum because it has parochial and protectionist connotations.
But 'Big 3' is still a handy and accurate way to describe GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler group (Chrysler-Dodge-Plymouth-Jeep).
Collectively, they still account for more than 12 million of the 16.5 million light vehicles produced in North America so far this year. The Chrysler group's share is about 2.4 million. The next closest producers are Honda and Toyota at about 1 million each, if you include units built at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in the Toyota total.
In sales through October, the Chrysler group's sales accounted for 14.6 percent of the market, compared with 9.1 percent for Toyota/Lexus and 6.6 percent for Honda/Acura.
The regulatory issues facing the industry these days tend to be technical issues, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes the Big 3 plus 10 other manufacturers, represents the industry's interests. And there are no major trade issues to divorce DaimlerChrysler from GM and Ford.
GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler are in another boat together: They all have employees represented by the UAW. They negotiate contracts with those employees and every three - or four - years, all three face the possibility of strikes.
Times do change.
I remember using the term 'Big 4' to refer to the group of North American producers that included American Motors.
That was very early in my career, when AMC had close to 5 percent of the U.S. car market and seemed likely to remain a viable, independent manufacturer. But by the time Chrysler absorbed AMC in 1987, hardly anyone would have used 'Big 4'; it would have seemed laughable.
Eventually, it may be necessary to retire the term 'Big 3' permanently. Toyota and Honda may get so big in North America that arithmetic will force a change. Or perhaps some future management team at DaimlerChrysler really will integrate the North American and European business units and make the old definitions obsolete.
But in the meantime, 'Big 3' remains a very useful concept that everyone understands.
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