It's the year 2004, and Honda never arrived in Marysville, Ohio. Nissan never came to Smyrna, Tenn., and Toyota never set up shop in Georgetown, Ky.
It is the "Twilight Zone" world of the North American auto industry that would have been without 25 years of assumption-challenging Japanese, European and Korean transplant auto manufacturing.
It's a barely recognizable world.
It is a world in which the Big 3 never had to go back to school to learn how to remake themselves in order to compete with the most daunting competition they ever faced.
General Motors never partnered with Toyota. Ford never studied Mazda's supply chain. Chrysler never rewrote its operating system to resemble the Toyota Production System.
Twenty-five years after the Japanese never ventured into the U.S. manufacturing arena, the big office complexes of suburban Los Angeles constitute the true Motor City, U.S.A. They contain the Pacific Rim import, sales, marketing and distribution centers for Asian firms such as Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Suzuki.
The skill of those companies did not become creating and managing cautious manufacturing systems that were transplantable to far-flung spots such as Kentucky or Alabama or Ontario. That never happened. Their skill became - or rather remained - building dependable and inexpensive vehicles in Asia and competing with each other to flood them onto the U.S. market like low-priced computers.
Without any need to produce their cars on mainland North America, using American and Canadian workers and parts and material suppliers, the Japanese automakers instead focused on the core competency they truly needed to compete in America: exporting.
Instead of investing in American steel mills, they invested in their own superfast ocean freighters. Instead of pushing Michigan and Indiana metal stampers to new levels of quality control, they nurtured their own suppliers of high-speed global order processing software to expedite 12 million to 15 million vehicles a year through West Coast ports. Instead of recruiting their Japanese suppliers to build parts factories in small towns around the continent, they recruited their own banking and trading partners to build ultramodern Long Beach-to-Long Island railways and Jacksonville-to-Montreal trucking operations.