MURDER OR SUICIDE?
A Review of Kenneth Whyte’s The Sack of Detroit
I read a review of Kenneth Whyte’s The Sack of Detroit: General Motors and the End of American Enterprise in The Wall Street Journal. Barbara Spindel, the reviewer, found the book provocative and vigorous. I was intrigued. My family and I owned many GM products over the years, so I was familiar with what GM offered the public. In fact, in Christopher Buckley’s 2007 Boomsday, a character commits suicide by driving a 1957 Cadillac over a cliff. In trying to make the suicide look like an accident, the case is made that the gearshift fell out of Park and into Drive. When it was pointed out that the gearshift would have gone from Park to Reverse instead, all that was said was, “You would have thought so.” I knew that in 1957 the GM shift sequence was Park, Neutral, Drive, and Reverse, so a fall out of Park to Drive was plausible. I wrote the author, who said no one else had caught that. By the way, Christopher Buckley is, in my opinion, a hell of a lot better at writing than his father was. At any rate, we’ll get back to my and my family’s experience with GM later, but know in advance not one of us currently owns a GM product.
Whyte starts off by saying, “This is a book about America in the 1960s, a notoriously hectic time, and it felt that way in the living.” Whyte was born in August of 1960, so it’s not clear how he knows the 1960s “felt” hectic. I lived through them, and while a lot happened during that decade, a lot happens in every decade. The 1940s, for example, involved World War II, which could also have been categorized as “notoriously hectic,” especially for those involved in the fighting. The 1960s have been romanticized by the aging activists of that era, some of whom now teach college courses about the 1960s, but newsflash! every decade had its activists. I think the 1950s have been shortchanged, but that’s just my gripe, and I’ll save that for another time.
The reader really doesn’t learn much about Whyte from the very brief writeup about him on the dustjacket, but a Google search reveals he’s something of a conservative writer and activist in Canada. I’d guess he’s something of an Amity Schlaes, attempting to resuscitate reputations of presidents who are generally considered failures (Coolidge for Ms. Schlaes; Hoover for Mr. Whyte) and revise history rightward. Had I known that in advance I probably would not have read the book, but once I started the book it was like a bad accident. I couldn’t avoid looking to see just how bad it was going to get. And it got pretty bad!
While Whyte starts out on an enjoyable trip down memory lane, discussing how the automobile was resisted before becoming a necessity, he soon veers into victim territory. By the time he gets to the 1950s, it seems there are barbarian worms assailing the perfect apple that was GM. People are actually becoming concerned about automobile safety. Until then the industry had successfully blamed accidents primarily on speeding and drunk driving. But some studies were showing that car occupants were killed or seriously injured when they were thrown into steering wheels and dashboard controls and even out of the cars. Personal injury lawsuits were being filed, and some were being won. What’s an industry to do? Additionally, cars were becoming so large in the 1950s that some people wanted something more manageable and were buying imports—most notably VWs. To get to the meat of the book, GM decided to make a car to compete with VW, and the Corvair was the result. Whyte is convinced the Corvair was a good product (and he cites one case, decided by one judge, as evidence), but as we know, Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965 (when Whyte was five years old), and things went downhill from there. GM might have been able to come out undamaged by the investigation of the Corvair, but they made the mistake of investigating Nader in search of mud. GM wasn’t successful in finding mud, although Whyte is convinced there was some, but it just wasn’t found. At any rate, at that time the American public had a strange belief that private lives should for the most part be private. (I know. How quaint!) GM’s investigating Nader did not go over well and resulted in GM’s paying Nader $425,000 (equivalent to more than $3.5 million today) for damages. Whyte isn’t sure, but he says the death of Alfred P. Sloane, a former president and CEO of GM, at the age of 90 in 1966 could have been caused by Ralph Nader! Additionally, some people were beginning to question industry practices in general, and—horrors!—writing books. Whyte credits or blames such offerings as Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities as examples.
By the time I got to this part of the book, I wondered why Whyte wrote this book. After all, he doesn’t even seem sure of what cars GM made. He lists Plymouth as a GM product more than once (when he discusses safety improvements in a 1937 Plymouth, I don’t know whether he means Plymouth or an actual GM product), and never mentions the LaSalle, positioned between Buick and Cadillac between 1927 and 1940. But I trudged on.
GM was damaged by Nader, but “fiscal excesses” of the Johnson administration also damaged GM, causing it to pursue a new product, which would “have to be produced on the cheap, with smaller amounts of cheaper materials, less distinctiveness in design, more sharing of designs and parts with other cars, and more efficiency rather than greater care in assembly.” The Vega was the result. Cheap does not always save money. There were massive recalls for all sorts of problems, and the car’s aluminum engine was notoriously awful.
Whyte dismisses the benefits of safety legislation passed in 1966, and perhaps he has a point that regulators concentrated on passive restraints (air bags, etc.) rather than on seat belts, but to say, as he does, that “The fact is Ralph Nader and the federal government harmed the cause of safety” is, I think, a bit of a stretch.
The answer to the question I asked myself several times while reading this disaster finally comes in the Epilogue, titled “The End of American Enterprise,” in which Whyte compares the evils committed against GM to what he perceives as overkill regarding regulating Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies. How penalizing Purdue for overselling opioids and understating their dangers is a bit of a reach, as is claiming such actions mean “the end of American enterprise” is a bit of a stretch given we live in a country that has in the not too distant past given us Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and a host of other successful companies.
Now, as promised, a brief history of my and my family’s experiences with GM.
After war was declared in Europe my father bought a 1939 Chevrolet coupe. He was hired by the US Army Corps of Engineers to work on a project that took him first to St. Louis, where he met my mother, then to New York followed by Santa Fe and Oak Ridge, Tennessee and finally back to St. Louis after the project brought an end to the war, which also meant an end for their jobs. The Chevy had served them well, but they wanted a newer car, so my father signed up for a 1946 Buick. As it turned out cars were in high demand at the time—none had been built in the past four years, and it was um, expected, that in spite of price controls, some money would be passed under the table in order to insure delivery. My father didn’t know that, and as a result he spent the rest of his life joking that he just knew one day GM would call and tell him that Buick was ready.
What my father wanted
What we wound up with
I came along, followed by the older of my sisters, and we outgrew the coupe, so in 1950 my parents bought a 1948 Plymouth, which, contrary to what Whyte thinks, was not a GM car. Three years later they bought a 1953 Pontiac, which was one of my favorite cars.
Just about my favorite of the cars we owned
Probably the worst car we ever owned
A couple of years later we became a two-car family when my father got a deal on a 1951 Buick from a cousin. It turned out not to be a great deal after all. In 1958 we moved into a newly built house with a two-car garage and wound up with a 1957 Oldsmobile in one side and the old reliable Pontiac in the other. The Oldsmobile was one of the worst cars we ever owned, and in a triumph of hope over experience, it was followed by a 1961 Oldsmobile, which was an improvement, but considering the 1957, that’s not saying much.
Something of an improvement.
My father’s company let him drive a 1962 Ford, which he eventually bought. The Pontiac was parked at my grandmother’s house supposedly for me when I was old enough to drive, although when a friend of mine and I started fixing it up to get it running a few years later, my parents promptly sold it for $50, and the Ford was foisted on me. No, it wasn’t given to me.
What I wanted to buy (with my own money, by the way)
What I wound up with
I’d found a 1954 Pontiac I wanted to buy, but I wasn’t 21, so I couldn’t buy a car on my own. My folks wanted a new car, so my choice was if I wanted to buy a car, I could buy the Ford. Or nothing. (I had several paper routes, so I was earning and saving money.) The Ford didn’t last long. I had a few junkers after that, but when I was finally old enough to buy a real car on my own, I bought the first of two VWs. A few years later, the first gas crisis hit. People remember those times as awful, and for a while there was a gas shortage, gas lines, odd and even fill up days and so on, but the price of gas went from about 32¢ a gallon to 57¢ a gallon, which in the overall scheme of things was manageable, at least for me. Large cars were cheap, and I bought a one-year-old Buick Electra which I took with me to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Jose, where I sold it and bought a Honda Accord, which I hated and sold for a profit and bought a 1974 Pontiac, which I brought with me to Kansas City the first time I moved here.
The deuce and a quarter.
The job I had at that time required me to travel, and I was impressed with the Buick Regals and Oldsmobile Cutlasses I rented, so I bought a new Regal in 1980. It had a V6, and it was basically a good car. I took it back to the dealer several times because parts of the car didn’t quite fit together well, and the carpet in the trunk didn’t really fit. I kept taking it back until one day I noticed it sitting in the parking lot of a local fast food joint where I’d gone to get coffee while I waited for the car. When the car left I walked back to the dealership, and the customer service manager said it was all fixed. When I asked how that was possible, given I’d just seen it in the fast food joint’s parking lot, he said, “Look. You didn’t pay for a perfect car.” This was news to me, but it did make me wonder what the purpose of buying a new car was if it weren’t going to be perfect when it came off the showroom. That car was totaled in Austin, Texas when another driver ran a red light.
"You didn't pay for a perfect car"
I went through a couple of junkers and finally bought a 1986 Oldsmobile after a move back to San Jose. That car was OK, although it did have computer problems. I brought it back with me to Kansas City and after 9/11, when car makers were offering no down and no interest loans, I saw a 1990 Buick station wagon on a dealer’s lot. When I expressed an interest, the dealer said, “Oh, no one will make a loan on a car that old.” After talking to the car’s previous owners, a wealthy couple who said they’d only used the car to go to their place in Florida in the winter and their vacation home in Michigan in the summer, I decided to make a lowball offer, which was accepted. My mother died unexpectedly in 2003, and I made biweekly trips to my father’s home in Oklahoma City for some time afterwards. The car’s air conditioner stopped working, and I took the car in to have it fixed. I will never forget how frustrating this experience was. Actually, the air conditioner was fine, but the car had a touch sensor that failed. Now, this was a sensor that had been used on Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Buick station wagons, and GM no longer stocked the part! Because of that, the air conditioner could not be fixed. I even asked my parent’s trusted mechanic if he could find a used part. He couldn’t. When I expressed my frustration to the dealer, he said, “Well, that car is 13 years old.” GM was admitting, I suppose, they didn’t plan on their cars lasting 13 years. At any rate, I told myself people had survived without air conditioned cars for years, and I could, too, but the summers here and in Oklahoma can be brutal!
"Well, that car is 13 years old."
My father died in 2005, and I inherited the 1989 Oldsmobile he’d bought after seeing my 1986. I also bought another 1989 Oldsmobile from a friend who was relocating. Eventually the second one pretty much fell apart, and I sold the first one and the station wagon and bought a 1996 Oldsmobile, which was one of the worst cars I’ve ever owned. When the brakes failed the second time, I decided that was it. I’d taken a look a Kia Souls and liked how relatively easy they were to get into and out of. The day after I had the brakes on the Oldsmobile fixed, I drove it to a Kia dealership and bought a Soul. That was more than seven years ago, and other than routine oil changes, tire rotations, etc., the only thing I’ve done to that car is replace the battery, and I did that just because it was seven years old, and it gets cold here in the winter.
My younger sister was for a while the lone holdout, saying she would always buy only GM products, since that’s what our parents did, but she now has a Toyota Rav4.
I think it’s safe to say I and my family gave GM more chances than we should have in order to stay loyal, but in the end, GM just didn’t stand up to competition that was more comfortable, more reliable, and more affordable, especially when taking into account maintenance and repairs.Mr. Whyte can make the case that GM was a victim of bad faith all he wants, but in my book, GM’s downfall was self-inflicted. It wasn’t murder, it was suicide.