But in England, Triumph was a full-fledged car company making everything from small, 1300cc, front-wheel-drive econoboxes to BMW-challenging, fuel-injected sports sedans. Production was around 150,000 cars in most years, not bad for an English company selling most of its vehicles in its home market.
On Aug. 26, 1980, Canley built its last car, a yellow Spitfire, ending 50 years of car production at the plant. In the late 1980s, the land was sold, the buildings were razed, and an industrial park was built. Then came a giant Sainsbury's supermarket and numerous American junk food emporiums.
Streets of dreams
On the very spot where workers once earned respectable wages building cars, a new generation of workers toils. Instead of wielding wrenches and welding torches and building something, they are armed with coffeepots, spatulas, French fry baskets and mops. They say, "May I help you?" with the same practiced indifference as kids here.
The only reminders of the past are the streets named after cars: Herald Avenue, Dolomite Avenue, Spitfire Close.
In my travels, I came across a closed MG Rover dealership. The inside was a mess, as if it had been cleaned out hurriedly in the middle of the night. A yellow hard hat was upside-down on the floor, chairs were stacked haphazardly and the carpet was filthy. A yellow paper taped to the window said: "The dealership is now closed."
MG Rover is roadkill. England's last British-owned volume automaker folded last year, and its remains were bought by a Chinese company.
The next stop was the Coventry Transport Museum. A wall in the museum lists every company that ever built a bicycle, motorcycle, car or commercial vehicle in Coventry and their suppliers. The list has 136 names. Some - such as Daimler, Sunbeam, Hillman and Humber - are recognizable to Americans.
Then I spent a few hours in the local library reading on microfilm The Coventry Evening Telegraph from the summer of 1980, to get a feel for what it was like when the wheels were coming loose. It's a lot like reading the Detroit papers today. Almost every day's front page had a story about layoffs, plant closings, the rise of Japanese imports and the troubles of the domestic auto industry.
CEO field trip
I've long felt as if Britain's auto industry is the canary in the coal mine for the United States. Whatever happens there first seems to happen here later. Carmaking may have left Coventry, but it didn't leave the country. It just spread out when the Japanese moved in. It's not unlike what is happening here now.
As I left the museum, two thoughts ran through my mind: Rick Wagoner and Bill Ford ought to come here on a field trip. It would be a sobering experience. They've seen their share of plant closings, yes - but not company closings and what they do to a community.
Also, with competition the way it is, the price of making wrong or bad decisions now could be fatal for GM and Ford. More of the same from both companies could mean a future only in museums.
On a more positive note, it appears to take only about 25 years for a city to recover from the loss of its auto industry. When the factories closed in Coventry, land prices came crashing down. Then, new service-oriented businesses moved in. Coventry seems to be booming these days. Toyotas, Hondas, Hyundais, Nissans, Citroens and BMWs are everywhere.
You may e-mail Richard Truett at [email protected]