On Chrysler’s Comeback

In case you missed the full version of Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” Super Bowl commercial, here’s the full two-minute spot:

It’s complete with a gravelly-voiced narrator, images of industrial ruins and Joe Louis’ fist, and a somewhat surprising appearance by Eminem and a choir, and I’m a little ashamed to say that it gave me goosebumps when I first saw it.  It’s weird to call a video put together for the sole purpose of selling something “moving,” but it’s just that.  I’m unabashedly pro-American cars, even if that position has become virtually untenable as the industrial landscape of the U.S. changes and the phrase “made in America” becomes so muddled as to be useless.  The question “what is an American car?” quickly becomes a “Ship of Theseus” paradox – at what point is a car built by an American company no longer an American car, if the components (or even the car itself) are assembled elsewhere?  Similarly, if Toyota builds Camrys in Kentucky and sources many of its subcomponents from American suppliers, is it still a foreign car?

As confusing as it is to root for a Chrysler that is now owned by an Italian car company and is using white rappers and popular notions of the American industrial spirit to shill rebadged Sebrings, I can’t help it.  While most media outlets love to lambaste Chrysler and GM for relying on the government to bail them out when thirty years of their own poor management and decision making (as well as those pesky unions) put them in that position, the truth is a little deeper than that.  I’m not an expert on Chrysler’s corporate history, and it is foolish to draw a straight descending line from their early-80’s bailout to the near-collapse of 2008-09, but I know this much: the “merger of equals” with Daimler-Benz in 1998 will go down in history as the most disastrous merger ever (including the AOL-TimeWarner mashup).  Daimler, weary of treating Chrysler like an illegitimate step-child and unable to devote equal time to both Mercedes Benz and their American diversion, unloaded the now cash- and new-product-strapped automaker onto Cerberus Capital Management in 2007.  Daimler kept control of the day-to-day operations of Chrysler while Cerberus did what private equity groups usually do best – strip away inefficiencies in an attempt to flip the company for a profit.

The point of all this is that Chrysler entered the worst economic downturn in 70 years with the oldest, least competitive vehicle lineup of any major automaker.  They were already relying on leases and fleet sales to prop up the sales of unwanted vehicles, while Cerberus was bleeding them dry by not investing in engineering and design.  In an industry where product is everything, Chrysler was seriously lacking.  As proof of this, Fiat’s first order of business once they took over was to rush development of new designs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and updates to existing cars, like the 300 and Charger.

I was born into a GM family, but I’ve expanded my horizons as I’ve aged.  While there’s still enough of the the old “Buy American” mentality ingrained in me that I don’t think I could actually buy a foreign car, at least I now appreciate the good ones and don’t begrudge anyone for their choices in transportation.  I know “made in America” is often hollow and meaningless when it comes to cars.  I know Chrysler’s ad agency is treading a fine line between uplifting and maudlin, and patriotic and jingoistic.  But I also know that Chrysler has a slew of new cars coming out, and I hope they sell by the bushel – because everyone loves a comeback.

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