My memory of the flush auto industry culture I covered 40 years ago as a newspaper reporter in Detroit doesnt square with the one weve lately heard loudly declared to be arrogant, stupid and greedy -- undeserving of taxpayer help.
So now, in Detroits leanest days, I feel I owe my memory a story I heard back then but never have told: a story behind the then-record auto safety recall of 4.9 million cars that General Motors announced in February 1969.
The majority of those cars -- 2.5 million 1968 and 1969 Chevys -- needed inspection for possibly defective welds between the rear wheel wells and trunk that under some wind conditions allowed exhaust fumes (hence carbon monoxide) to escape into the trunk and, ultimately, the passenger compartment.
The other 2.4 million cars, Chevys and other GM makes, needed inspection to find and replace some fuel system parts.
When Fred Collins, one of GMs public relations guys back then, called our The Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones News Service office in Detroit with the press release, he suggested: You might want to open a phone line to New York.
That 4.9 million figure (quadruple the then-record recall) so electrified us that as Fred read on, my colleagues began ripping each sentence from my typewriter and dictating to our headquarters in New York, which immediately put the story on the market wire.
When he finished reading, Fred asked if I had any questions. Uhh ... I stalled, sitting there with just his last sentence in my typewriter. Well, yes, Fred said, as long as youve asked, there are three pending lawsuits alleging that death has resulted from this defect. General Motors is defending the suits vigorously.
Off the record
I trusted Fred Collins after that. One night over dinner not long afterward, he returned the favor by sharing his off-the-record inside story behind that record 1969 safety recall. The fuel system inspection was straightforward, Fred said; a thorough needle-in-a-haystack search to find a suspected few, defective carburetor parts that sometimes made engines race.
But the matter of the 2.5 million cars recalled for the welding flaw was very different, he said. That defect had been spotted by a foreman at the Chevrolet plant in St. Louis, who saw a worker improperly performing his welding job in a way that left gaps between the rear wheel wells and the trunk.
When challenged, the worker insisted he was doing the job exactly as directed by the companys written work standard.
Horrified, the foreman, GM plant officials and eventually GM senior management realized the standard was written ambiguously enough to be misinterpreted in precisely the way that the St. Louis worker was misinterpreting it.
What are the odds?
In those early days of federal oversight over highway safety, potentially dangerous defects quickly reached the desk of then-GM Chairman James Roche. Hed asked for a statistical analysis of how widespread the defective welds might be and how likely it was that other workers doing the same job at Chevrolets dozen other plants were also doing it in the same dangerous way as the man in St. Louis.
The odds were statistically negligible, Roche was told, a percent or so in several studies. Next Roche asked how much it would cost to call back only those cars that the St. Louis man had worked on. The answer was several million dollars, Fred told me.
Then Roche stunned the diverse group of staff experts in his office (including Freds boss) by asking how much it would cost to call back all 2.5 million 1968 and 1969 Chevrolets built using the same rear wheel welding standard the St. Louis worker had misinterpreted. That answer was more than $50 million, Collins said, adding:
Jim thought for a minute and said: Call them all back. This is General Motors.
Back then it was easy to give Fred off the record status on his story. No self-respecting reporter, then or now, would write a one-source story lionizing the boss of an obviously biased source. Yet lately, watching GMs current boss and the other auto CEOs twisting in the wind before Congress and in the press, I regretted not putting Freds story on the record long ago -- at least before June 6, 2004, the day Jim Roche died.