Non-Auto Auto Stuff
by Bob Hagin
March 12, 2001
There's more to the auto business than just the making and selling of cars and trucks. The following are some interesting items that have cropped up in the past few weeks:
WHAT'S IN A GRILLE - Although they're both sport/utility vehicles, there's not much similarity between the new Jeep Liberty and the equally new GM Hummer H2. The boppy Liberty looks like it would be best suited for a beach party or as the base-camp for a mountain bike tour, while the military-looking H2 looks sort of out of place without khaki paint and camouflage jump suits. Nonetheless, DaimlerChrysler (DC) feels that the flat-nose, seven-slot grille on the H2 is an infringement on the trademarked flat-nose seven slot grille on its various Jeeps. The irritation is so strong that DC is suing GM to stop the H2 from appearing in showrooms until the design is changed. GM counters that it also holds a trademark of the grille design that goes back 16 years. It didn't seem to be a problem for Jeep when the Humvee (HMMWV, the military version of the big Hummer) was fighting in Desert Storm and showing the same grille to the Iraqi army. It seems like us veterans never get any respect.
JOE ISUZU IS BACK - I'm sure that you remember Joe Isuzu, that charming cad of a car salesman (but not a Cad car salesman) who represented American Isuzu Motors in the late '80s. Back then Isuzu sold passenger cars as well as SUVs and the only thing that viewers could be sure of was that wherever Joe said on the TV ads was a lie as verified by truthful subtitles. "Joe" was played by aspiring actor David Leisure who not long before had been living in his car. His only movie appearances had been in "Airplane," and "Airplane II." He landed the role of Joe Isuzu in '86 and he was instantly catapulted into millions of American homes. The Joe Isuzu ads were dropped in '90 when the company decided that Joe was the star and not the Isuzu vehicles. "Joe" had become a beer-swilling couch-potato and had to whip himself into shape when the company recalled him. Joe Isuzu isn't a lying salesman any more and returns as a spokesman for Isuzu. Apparently the company has regained its sense of humor now that General Motors is at the helm.
MAZDA CREW ABANDONS SHIP IN JAPAN - Ford is now totally in control of the Mazda Motor Corporation and despite the fact that its little Miata is a best-seller here, the company is going through some very heavy changes at home, both structurally and culturally. Recently the company announced that it would offer early retirement to the first 2000 employees who signed up for the program. The sign-up period was to last 15 days but so many Mazda "regulars" wanted to bail out that all the spots were gone within a couple of hours and many, many more were turned away before the day ended. More than a quarter of these employees were in their '30s, which is unusual in a country where employment in a large corporation means a lifetime job. Morale seems pretty low and a great number of Mazda employees are worried that their jobs depend on how well they speak English to the American management team.
MERCURY MAINTAINS - First it was Plymouth that bit the dust last year. That august Chrysler organization originated in '28 as an "entry-level" Chrysler but its age didn't keep it from the chopping block. Now it's Oldsmobile, the oldest ongoing auto make in the U.S. if not the world. These purges left us Ford fans wondering if Mercury would be next. It was originally brought on the market in '39 as a bridge between the basic Fords of the day and the upscale (but not prestigious) Lincoln Zephyr V12. But now the word on the street is that Mercury will stay in the game and get a shot of adrenaline to become the glitzy member of the of the Ford family. It won't be in Ford's Premiere Group (Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lincoln, Volvo), a fact that would seem to make its position still a bit precarious.
DAEWOO DISTRESS - Daewoo automobiles continue to be sold in this country, and after abandoning its program of having college student reps sell to other students (the "reps" were determined by the government to be salesmen and thereby required to be officially employed by a dealership), the U.S. branch of the Korean firm developed a conventional dealership network. There is a half-dozen within a 50-mile radius of our offices and the sales people say they're doing OK. But things are not so good in Korea. Daewoo Group is a multifaceted conglomerate in which the auto making branch is just a small part. Late last year a massive fraud scheme was uncovered through which top Daewoo Group executives had been "kiting" asset sales between the various branches to inflate stock prices and filter off money for their own use. Recent arrests included Kim Tae Gou, the former chairman of Daewoo Motors among others, and all are still in custody. The founder and head honcho of the Daewoo Group, Kim Woo Chong, is now an international fugitive is said to have a couple of hundred-million dollars hidden away through a London-based front company. Six years ago Kim and a group of other Korean executives were charged and convicted of paying bribes to the president of the republic, among others. But Daewoo Group says that the organization is pushing ahead and is reorganizing. In the meantime, sales of its little cars here are progressing nicely.
No one has ever accused the car business of being dull. From its early days, it's been full of scandals, scams and skulduggery. Some things never change.