Some Thoughts on the Car Biz

I’ve been re-reading a couple of my favorite car books for some insight on what’s going on with the car biz today. No, these aren’t your usual glossy, things-were-better-with-old-American-cars books. These are business histories about two companies who thrived for the first 50 years of the auto age, but ended life together.

Packard, the grand marque of the classic age, and Studebaker, the old-line wagon maker that built mid- and low-priced cars for most of its auto years, ended up merging in the mid-50s then disappearing within a few years.

The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company by James Ward and More Than They Promised: The Studebaker Story by Thomas Bonsall are two books I recommend. Both authors have a breezy style and give just enough of the companies’ early histories to give readers the background on the firms. They then go through the ups and mostly downs experienced, the personalities and the thousands of little things and tens of big things that can contribute to a car company’s demise.

Read the books for the details, but in a few words, both companies came out strong after the production demands of World War II, but stumbled after, despite going through the biggest production and biggest or near-biggest profits in their histories. Factories got old, production got out of whack with capacity and costs, there were labor issues, spotty quality, weak dealers… anything sound familiar?

How could GM go broke? Burn through so much cash so quickly? Looking at Packard and Studebaker — two much smaller companies in the same business — will give you a good idea. And even though all of this takes place from 1945-63, it is relevant to today.

Read the books. Look at it as a way to be an engaged stockholder; after all, you taxes are now keeping GM and Chrysler alive (at least as I write this).

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