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Mitt Romney's Dad Predicted The Future Of Cars

Illustration for article titled Mitt Romneys Dad Predicted The Future Of Cars

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.

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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.

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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.

Illustration for article titled Mitt Romneys Dad Predicted The Future Of Cars
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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.
"

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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.

Illustration for article titled Mitt Romneys Dad Predicted The Future Of Cars
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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."

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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."

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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.

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Photo Credit: Author, Getty/Hutton, AP

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DISCUSSION

silverado_driver
silverado_driver

Why do we have to downsize our vehicles? Why can't our government just accommodate what we want to drive? Ronald Reagan got this. In his late seventies announcement that he was running for POTUS he suggested that as Americans we can drive what we want and forced downsizing was no energy policy. Managing and using our own energy responsibly the way we see fit is an energy policy. It is beyond the current, regulate everything, mentality of the current administration. Today's V8's pollute less than the 4cyls from 20 years ago which were then heralded as environmentally friendly and they get gas mileage approaching that of those same 4cyls. If our country responsibly tapped its own energy reserves and let the market decide on what vehicles survive and which do not I think we'd all be in a better place. If you want to drive a compact, great, more power to you but don't make me, let me drive my truck and FS/SUV in peace. I don't bash compact cars but I take a lot of abuse for driving full sized. Why is that? There is nothing wrong with either, I am not a wreckless anti-environmentalst for driving to my preference.

With regards to politics, fact is we need wealthy people to make the economy run, the democratic fight against the percentages is mind boggling. If I pay 10% in taxes and the owner of the company I work for pays 10% in taxes we are paying exactly the same though his check to our uncle will be larger. Why is that so hard to grasp. The tax terrorism that is on the table in WA only shows how little the current administration cares about the individual. Sucking money out of the economy has never helped this country. It is only when the citizens have money in their pockets that the economy launches. In world history no country, state, county or city has taxed themselves to prosperity. In reality that is the fastest way to do the exact opposite and drive full speed into bankruptcy. No one in our country is entitled to anything except freedom as defined by our often ignored constitution. Businesses should not be taxable entities, they create taxpayers with each new hire. Currently the regulation, taxes and mandates are keeping all businesses throttled back due to their ridiculous costs. How is does that get us back to prosperity? I don't think that Mitt can fix it all. However the current administration has pushed this country to the brink, with taxes (health care included) restricting energy advances and knee jerk reactions to serious issues. They have disregarded the constitution and have attacked the free market economy at every opportunity. I would like to see all corporate taxes reduced to zero as long as those corporations have 90% of their staffing based in the US. I would like to see responsible tapping of our own resources used to lower the cost of energy. I would like for the US to stand as the leader of the free world rather than a "citizen of the world". Our system works, it is why we have accomplished what we have but we as citizens all need to take up our own share of the responsibility and forget about legislating and taxing our way to prosperity it won't happen. If we all focused on doing our part better, be that our job, running our home, becoming active in our communities, schools, and came alongside each other this country could be great again. Our current administration will never say that they want to keep us burdened and in fear because that gives them great power over us. Government was meant to be our partner not a benevolent dictatorship. We need to stop putting our hands out and instead put our hands to work accepting personal responsibility and finishing strong. The US has very little for me to hand down to my kids and grandkids we've spent it all. One person at a time we can take it back and leave something for them. This transcends both political parties and what we drive etc. Its about believing in what made this country great and living it each day. The US owes us nothing, we need to build it back by getting back to fundamentals. Low taxes, small federal government, only needed regulations, and a responsible but will of the people driven energy policy are just places to start. Let the states manage their part without the federal nipple. Let the local governments work with the states without the federal nipple. Flat tax all taxpayers the same and abolish most of the IRS. These are the kinds of basic reforms that will put America on the track it needs to be on. Those are my hopes.