Mitt Romney's campaign has put his dad in the spotlight and most of the stories you'll read about George Romney say the same thing: he rescued American Motors and gets credit as a turnaround master.
But there's more you ought to know about George Romney. He saw the future coming, and he tried to warn the rest of the industry about it.
Years before Ralph Nader became famous, years before Toyota and Nissan and Honda became juggernauts, and years before anyone was paying $4 a gallon for gasoline, George Romney knew that cars were going to have to shrink and become more fuel efficient.
He was the one who coined the phrase "gas guzzling dinosaurs," not some sprout-eating environmentalist. Of course, even George Romney admitted a motivation was to set his tiny company apart from the giants in Detroit, but there's good evidence to support the fact that he did believe that small was the future.
I've always been interested in George Romney, for a couple of reasons. First, my parents knew him. They were delegates to the convention that wrote Michigan's Constitution in the 1960s, an effort that George Romney led. I met George Romney when I was small, like probably every other Michigan school child for generations (he died in 1995, so there were years after he was governor when he was a presence).
Here's a photo from a family album that my mom dug out.
When I grew up and started studying auto industry and labor history, I found George Romney's fingerprints everywhere. He was instrumental in helping the automakers convert their production to the war effort, creating what's called The Arsenal of Democracy. He was a spokesman for the auto industry's trade association, and he said this about UAW President Walter Reuther in 1945.
"Walter Reuther is the most dangerous man in Detroit because no one is more skillful in bringing about the revolution without seeming to disturb the existing forms of society. "
And of course, Romney headed American Motors once it was founded in 1954 by the merger of Nash-Kelvinator (which he worked for) and Hudson Motor Car. The story on Romney focuses on how he reorganized its product line to shift away from big vehicles toward smaller ones like the Nash Rambler.
Maybe because of his position at the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, George Romney had a big picture view of the car market. It was clear to him in the 1950s that the big cars on America's new highways were not going to dominate the market forever. This was a time when GIs had brought back little two-seaters from Europe. Some of them were buying new Volkswagen Beetles. In 1957, Toyota made its first try at the American market with the Toyopet.
Here's what George Romney said at an AMC convention in 1994.
"We forced the Big Three into compact car production. The press used to laugh at me when I'd say, 'down the road, most of the cars are going to be compact cars.' Even the Cadillac's a compact car today."
What had happened was something that seems to happen with people and organizations: they tend to carry success to an extreme. That's what our competitors did. They carried what they did to an extreme, so I was able to go on about gas guzzling dinosaurs. That was done to get somebody to listen to us."
But Romney also explained that families at the time were beginning to worry about their finances (the industry was hit by a significant sales slump in 1958) and he was seeing a shift from a focus on styling to a focus on value. He joked that a pedestrian was "a man with two cars, a wife and two teenaged kids."
Kidding aside, Romney wasn't only saying it in retrospect. I found an AMC-sponsored editorial in the Charleston, S.C. News and Courier that George Romney wrote (or most likely, AMC's PR department wrote) in 1961.
"The compact car, pioneered by Rambler, is today's outstanding motor car value. Just what is a true "compact car"? Loosely applied, the term has been used to describe a car providing better-than-average gasoline economy, or a particular size of vehicle, or a car in the new lower price range. The compact car concept is broader than these things."
By the end of the 1960s, the Beetle had become a juggernaut, Toyota had sold its 100,000th car in the United States, and Henry Ford II was warning that the Japanese carmakers posed a threat to Detroit. Within 15 years, the Detroit companies were facing fuel economy standards and were scrambling to downsize.
Despite AMC's ultimate fate, George Romney was a visionary, and that term stands up to fact checking.
Photo Credit: Author, Getty/Hutton, AP