On the evening of November 17th, 1986, Georges Besse collapsed in the gutter outside his home in Paris. He had been shot four times in the head and chest, his body covered in blood. His death, while unfortunate, was not the only one that night. It also marked the end of the American Motors Corporation.
The automotive industry landscape in the United States wasn't always almost entirely composed of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. There was also the American Motors Corporation, better known as AMC.
AMC was much like the other three, in that it grew by buying other, smaller American brands to amass itself into one big car manufacturing juggernaut. While GM has brands like Chevy and Cadillac and Pontiac and Oldsmobile, AMC had brands like Jeep, Rambler, and Nash. It also sold cars under the AMC name, cars that people were pretty proud of. Like the muscular Javelin:
Photo credit: Brian Snelson
And the oddball Gremlin:
Photo credit: Mike L
But by the mid-1970s, the company was encountering financial trouble. It was the perfect storm when you're trying to run a business – a combination of poor timing, a weak economy, and bad management. Its main factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was the oldest in the country, and it was rife with horrible inefficiencies. Assembly points were strewn all over the city, with components and assembled cars having to make a trek pretty much across the Badger State before they could even be readied for delivery.
Cars like the enormous AMC Ambassador were introduced right as the oil crisis was reaching its peak, which isn't exactly what you'd call the "right moment."
The compact little Pacer, while better on fuel than the Ambassador, still had a thirsty straight-six engine that couldn't hope to compete on economy with the new offerings the Japanese were starting to bring over. And it was incredibly expensive to manufacture, which is the opposite of what any company wants for anything.
Basically, AMC was screwed.
The company was hemorrhaging cash. In 1976 and 1977, the company lost the equivalent of nearly $300,000,000 in 2014 dollars. Sales continued to shrink, and despite eking out the smallest of profits in 1978 thanks to Jeep sales, market share had dwindled to less than 2%. If sales of Jeep took a tumble, that would be very dangerous for the company.
Which is exactly what happened, in 1979, when the economy began to trip up a bit. Jeep sales began to decline, and AMC had another crisis on its hands. By 1980, nobody would lend the company money anymore.
Which is a very bad thing, in business.
AMC began to look for a foreign buyer, much like its competitor, Chrysler, would do 20 years later. In December of 1980, it found its savior in the form of Renault, which was owned by the French government at the time.
Yep, what you're thinking is exactly right. A company named American Motors was essentially owned by the French. But, c'est la vie. Might as well play some music, for the rest of your reading:
Renault, to its credit, immediately set about fixing what was wrong at AMC, which was a lot. They streamlined production and manufacturing, which generated some of AMC's highest costs. They brought in new people at the top, to sweep away the archaic management habits of the old company. And they acknowledged their presence by bringing in front-wheel drive Alliance, which was basically a Renault made in Wisconsin.
Photo credit: Greg Gjerdingen
Exhilarating, I know.
As the early 1980s plodded on under President Reagan, AMC continued to struggle, despite the new management team. Most of its offerings were small cars, which was great for the 1970s, but not so much for the mid-1980s. As the economy began to recover somewhat, people wanted bigger cars, which AMC conveniently did not have much of.
Renault itself wasn't doing too hot, either, and there were rumblings from the French government of doing something with AMC. It would mean either a huge investment for new product, while the old stuff languished in dealer showrooms, or Renault could try to sell off AMC to somebody else. That way, it wasn't their problem anymore.
And Renault had a lot of problems, the main one being AMC, as it was already a constant money pit.
And that's where Georges Besse comes into the picture.
Besse had a long history as an executive in France, with stints at top management in the telecommunications industry and uranium production for power plants. He was basically the Alan Mulally of 1980s France, a turnaround guy who had a track record of results.
Besse became the chief of Renault in January of 1985, and immediately set to work.
And by "set to work," I mean one of his first acts was laying off 21,000 people.
At the same time, however, he also poured massive amounts of money into AMC, investing in products like their venerable 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine, a motor that was in production all the way into 2006. That's longevity.
He was a big champion of AMC, and was confident in its inevitable success. He pushed hard for Jeep, seemingly foreseeing the huge demand for SUV boom of the 1990s which was just on the horizon.
Happy days were back for the company. 20 months into Besse's tenure, the company turned a profit for the first time in a long time.
But Besse wasn't loved by all. For sure, there were those 21,000 people he laid off at Renault. And before that, the more than 30,000 he had laid off previously at French aluminum company PUK-Péchiney.
On top of that, it wasn't an easy time being a capitalist in 1980s Europe. As the Soviet Union went through its death throes, it continued to prop up violent capital-C Communist, anarchist, and terrorist groups throughout Europe. Groups like the Red Army Faction and the PFLP thrived, carrying out killings and general mayhem in the name of the worker and the proletariat.
And because of his actions as an executive, that made Georges Besse a target.
On that brisk November night in 1986, Georges Besse was returning home in his chauffeur-driven car. He opened the door, and stepped out.
He didn't even make it to the sidewalk before he was dead. Two people had ridden up on a motorcycle, and four shots were fired directly into his head and chest.
A French group called Action Directe claimed responsibility, in the name of retribution for the layoffs, and revenge for a killing of one of their own by a Renault security guard sometime earlier.
Renault itself had turned a profit just two months before.
With Besse dead, so were the hopes of an AMC revival. Its champion gone, the company began its quick run to the gallows.
Raymond Levy, Besse's successor, almost immediately caved to pressure to rid Renault of what many in the French republic considered to be a tumor eating away at the rest of the company. Though he never said it, the specter of more layoffs if AMC went south, and the possible endangerment to his life that would ultimately follow, probably weighed heavily on his decision.
It was a decision that most people, faced with that kind of pressure, probably would have made. Though I can't begin to understand what it must be like to be in that situation, I probably would have made it myself.
Less than six months after Georges Besse's death, Renault sold AMC to Chrysler.
Chrysler immediately turned AMC into its Jeep-Eagle division. But Jeep was the real prize, and obviously it continues to thrive to this day. Eagle struggled on for a few years, and they're mostly remembered for the Talon, but by the end of the 1990s, it was gone, too.
Even still, it's incredible that one man had kept a company alive. And somehow, only four bullets led to its final demise.
Topshot credit: Renault