What big three is that?

This is a long-time grump that I was reminded of again in this morning paper’s Business section, recounting the problems of the three “American” automakers and the successes of the “Asian” automakers.

I am sick and tired of this nationalistic divide–particularly because it is factually inaccurate and makes no sense.

My Honda Civic is every bit as much an American car as your Dodge Neon, maybe more.

Made in the U.S.? Check–for my 2001 Civic and for most Hondas sold in the U.S. (except that California buys more Hondas than the American factories can build, so my wife’s 2005 Civic is Japan-built; if we’d taken a different color, it would have been Canadian-built or U.S.-built). Whereas “American” cars may be built in Canada, Mexico, Korea, or somewhere else entirely.

Made from primarily domestic parts? Check–85% for Civics (“domestic” explicitly includes Canada for all U.S. labeling); a much lower percentage for quite a few products of the Big Three.

Of course, I know why the Big Three are “American” and Honda isn’t: Because, at one time, GM, Ford, and Chrysler were American-owned.

But somehow, when Daimler-Benz essentially took over Chrysler (it may be called DaimlerChrysler, but it’s a European-owned, European-controlled company), it didn’t become the Big Two, Ford and GM. Nope; DaimlerChrysler somehow retained its status as an American car company.

At which point the whole thing became completely ludicrous. So why does the reporting still work that way?

I know the answer to that, too, and it’s a shame: Tradition and sloppiness. It’s just traditional to consider Chrysler American, and nothing will change that. Doesn’t matter where the cars are built. Doesn’t matter where the parts come from (some “GM” cars are built in Korea from almost entirely Asian parts–but because they have GM nameplates, they’re American). Bizarrely, at least when the Fremont plant was building both Toyota and GM cars, it didn’t matter if the cars came off the same assembly line. One was “American,” one was “Asian.”

(Now here’s the interesting question: Since most “Asian” cars sold in the U.S. are built in the U.S. by union autoworkers, why is it that these “Asian” cars have substantially lower defect rates and higher quality than “American” cars? Yes, “American” cars have gotten better–theyr’e almost as defect-free as Toyota and Honda were a decade ago–but so have the Japanese cars, and the Korean cars are catching up fast. You can’t blame it on the UAW. I’m sure it couldn’t be corner-cutting management…that wouldn’t be the American Way.)

Modified 1/6/06, but you can still see what I originally said: I was wrong about “union workers,” as some American plants for Japanese-owned car companies are nonunion.

14 Responses to “What big three is that?”

  1. Mark says:

    Walt, I got the same sort of guff from my in-laws when I we bought a Honda Civic in the late 80s and then got thanked by them when we bought a Dodge Caravan in the early 90s. Only problem was the Civic was a US Ohio-made car, while the Caravan was Canadian. A simple check of the VINs could tell one that.

    I haven’t understood this for a long time either.

  2. walt says:

    Fortunately, I don’t get much guff. The whole family (except for one of my nieces and her family) lives in California. Since Civics might as well be the California state vehicle (for those who avoid SUVs and Hummers and other monstrosities), it’s not an issue.

    I sort of miss the days of my first Civic, the pumpkin (a bright orange 1975 hatchback), when Civics were actually distinctive. Now, finding a silver current-design Civic in a local parking lot…well, finding is trivial. Finding the *right* Civic is a little tougher.

  3. Bill Drew says:

    Nice rant and very well written! I actually have owned 4 Chevy Cavaliers which are mostly US and Canadian parts, but I understand your outrage.

  4. Michael says:

    My American 1994 Ford F-150 truck is composed of an engine and transmission from Canada and Mexico, with numerous parts from the rest of the world. The entire thing was thrown together in Michigan. “Japanese” cars made in America are typically not union made, while those made in Japan are made by unionized workers. Honda’s flagship Gold Wing motorcycles are made in Ohio; those Kawasaki police motorcycles you see everwhere all come from Nebraska.

  5. I actually tried to get into someone else’s Honda Civic in the OCLC parking lot a couple of weeks ago. Then I noticed the car I was trying to open had four doors, and mine has two. OK, I was tired.

    OCLC is about 10 miles from Honda’s flagship Civic plant in the US, and we just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the groundbreaking for that plant. And now we’re trying to corral a new Toyota plant for central Ohio.

    An article in Newsweek a couple of weeks ago said that DaimlerChrysler has also been trying to do away with the concept of the Big Three. I think this is more media shorthand than reality any more.

  6. walt says:

    George, I haven’t been that bad yet. I only try to open four-doors with moonroofs, that is, silver Civic EXs (2001-2005: the 2000 model is very different) and their Accord cousins. There are a lot of those around here, along with all the Civic Hybrids and LXs and DXs. At least my wife’s 2005 has a fatter key than my 2001; otherwise, it would be tough in the early morning…

  7. Walt, if it is correct to speak of Daimler-Benz as a “European-owned, European-controlled company,” presumably it would also correct to speak of Ford and GM as “American companies,” and Honda as a “Japanese company.”

    And I think you will agree that it would be incorrect and very confusing to refer to American cars built in Mexico as “Mexican cars.” In just the same way, it seems meaningful to refer to your Honda as a “Japanese car,” no matter whether it was built in the U.S. or uses some percentage of U.S. parts.

    But I see from your parenthetical comment that you aren’t concerned with consistency, since you grant the existence of that which you have just denied long enough to disparage American cars and the American auto industry.

    What is it, Walt, with the perverse glee that American liberals take in slagging off on their own country? Can you explain that for me?

  8. walt says:

    It is simply factual that, much as cars from the Big Three have improved in quality, the defect rate for “Japanese” cars sold in the U.S. (most of them built in America by American workers from predominantly American parts and contributing enormously to the American economy) continues to be lower. Simple fact.

    I did not disparage American cars; there are several excellent ones. The whole point of the post was that “Big Three” is no longer a useful term–and that setting up a “Big Three vs. Everyone Else” competition is silly.

    Almost as silly as your comment.

  9. walt says:

    A note on moderation policy:

    Jack Stephens submitted another comment, challenging my figures on defect ratios and overall build quality. Mine were based on Consumer Reports’ ongoing survey of hundreds of thousands of car owners. The challenge was based on J.D. Powers figures.

    The challenge was fine, although I’d stand behind Consumer Reports data.

    Stephens also accused me of bigotry.

    That’s not fine.

    This is my blog. It is not a public forum.

    I have every right to reject outright personal attacks on me, and I choose to do so.

    Comments known to originate from Jack Stephens will not be approved and will be deleted if encountered. Period.

    And, while there’s no way to do so programmatically, I consider comments closed on this post: The discussion has veered too far away from the simple point that there are not three American-owned car companies, and that cheerleading journalism that makes DaimlerChrysler “one of us” and Honda or Toyota “one of them” is bad journalism.

    Update: As explained elsewhere, I’m now saying “I reserve the right to delete any comment that doesn’t meet reasonable standards of civility, and to force certain people into moderation for all comments.” But as of now, I’m not autodeleting any person–although a fair number of words do cause autodeletion, mostly to cut down on spam moderation. (23 attempts yesterday: Arggh.)

  10. Matt says:

    I think it is important to keep the wonderful companies of Ford and Gm in the US of A and keep all the foreign “crap” out of here. It is absolutely ridiculous that Hondas and Toyotas are Made in USA because the fact is that Japan is making the profits we should be keeping in THIS country. I hate when people think that we can just get rid of Gm and FOrd

  11. walt says:

    I approved the comment above because that’s my general policy for anything that isn’t clearly spam or uses objectionable language (and “crap” certainly isn’t objectionable, if it’s a bizarre way to describe Hondas and Toyotas built by the labor of U.S. autoworkers using primarily parts produced by other U.S. workers and, in many cases, designed in U.S. workshops). I don’t remember suggesting that GM or Ford should disappear–and, in fact, the post was really about DaimlerChrysler in the first place.

  12. Mike Payne says:

    I hope I’m not too late to get in on this discusion but here goes anyway.
    First off, as a Canadian I kind of resent being lumped in with Korea as a place that is taking away the American production of “The Big Three”. Still that is your prerogative. It is after all your blog. As a Canadian (North American) Steelworker I see things a little differently. As a believer in NAFTA my feeling is that if a car contains a reasonable percentage of North American steel/parts then I will buy it. We are way beyond the point where we can call a G.M./Ford/ Chrysler a North American car and the rest foreign. In fact the manufacturers in the car industry have become so entangled that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell what is made where. Which is what brought me to this blog in the first place. I was trying to find out which of the G.M. products are manufatured in Korea. The only thing I know for sure is that not one single part or ounce of steel goes into any car North Americans buy from Korea, Germany or Sweden to name but three. The ownership of the car companies in those countries – well that’s a whole different story. One last thing that Americans should be aware of is that those three countries mentioned above, plus Japan, account for virtually no sales of american cars in their respective countries. So much for world trade!!

  13. walt says:

    I also approved this comment, although it appears (a) that you didn’t read the post itself very well (since I’m certainly not complaining about “taking away American production”) and that you’ve come to the wrong blog for more info–this isn’t an automotive blog and I have no idea which cars with “American GM” nameplates are actually relabeled “Korean GM” cars. The whole point of my post was that it’s illogical to call German-owned DaimlerChrysler one of the “big three American” auto companies, and that I don’t see how it helps the U.S. (and Canadian) autoworkers who do brilliant jobs of manufacturing Toyotas and Hondas to do so.

    I’m also aware that the percentage of “domestic” parts stated on auto labels includes both U.S. and Canadian manufacture, and I certainly have no problem with that. Nor, when we were shopping for a new car, did we much care whether the new Civic was assembled in Ohio or in Toronto (I think it was Toronto).

  14. Tedd says:

    The question that comes to my mind is how much of the cost of “American” cars built abroad stays in the US vs “Japanese” cars built in the US. Is anyone familiar with those figures?

    Out of an average $22,000 sedan how much goes to…
    corporate profits?
    car dealerships?
    materials cost?

    I’ve read that “domestic” auto manufacturers actually lose money on their sedan fleets… does that sound ridiculous to anyone else besides me?