Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Auto Makers—GM, Ford and Chrysler by Bill Vlasic, William Morrow & Company, 400 Pages, $26.99, Hardcover, October 2011, ISBN 9780061845628
A couple of years ago, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote Too Big to Fail, a brilliant and unparalleled “fly on the wall” narrative deep from the heart of the financial meltdown. Now, Bill Vlasic has written the equivalent about the American automotive industry meltdown from 2005 to the present.
Bill Vlasic, Detroit bureau chief of The New York Times, shows us, in amazing detail, the people and the cultures responsible for “the fall and resurrection” of this mainstay of the American economy throughout the 20th century. All the characters are present and there is plenty of drama present too. When the troubled companies went to Washington with hat in hand looking for loans to survive, Ford was actually looking for a line of credit instead.
This was a juncture in history, the exact moment when the Big Three parted ways forever. For decades, these three auto companies had moved in lockstep, whether it was the cars they built or the wages they paid or the mistakes they made. They had always fought like brothers in the same house and played by their own unique, inbred set of rules. But not anymore, Ford was going in one direction, and GM and Chrysler were going in another.
After the bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler, what emerged were new versions of the companies, but they remain haunted by the past. Vlasic writes with color and criticism:
The “old GM” and the “old Chrysler” were junkyards laden with rusted parts and pieces of an industry fallen on very hard times. There wouldn’t be much demand for any of it. The nation was littered with shuttered auto plants…. Most were just abandoned industrial hulks sprawled over hundreds of acres, left vacant while awaiting demolition, environmental cleanups, and willing developers.
Once Upon a Car tells one of the gravest and under-told stories in American business history. Even if you find yourself less than sympathetic to this trifecta that resisted change until change was brought upon them, you’ll be riveted by their story, as Vlasic enriches his journalistic attention to detail with the drama and pacing of a summer beach read thriller.