The car industry: boom or bust?

Dossier ~ Monday 2nd March 2009
The Castafiore Emerald (1963) - Page 37]

While the 79th International Motor Show opens its doors in Geneva (5-15 March), the news from the car industry just keeps getting worse. Factory closures, job losses, rumours of bankruptcy, rising fuel costs... Are we witnessing the end of the automobile as we know it?

An unprecedented crisis

Could it be that it was simply the runaway price of petrol (in July 2008, the price of a barrel of oil, equivalent to 158.98 litres, was pushing 150 dollars) that brought the car industry, from the United States via Europe to Japan, to its knees? There is undoubtedly more to it than that: overproduction, a growing awareness of the negative impact of cars on the planet and too little research into alternatives to the internal combustion engine, such as electric or hydrogen power, have all contributed to the current situation. Added to this we have the collapse of major banks, a crisis of confidence among credit institutions and, above all, millions of savers at risk of losing everything. The first sector to suffer is the car industry.

An unprecedented response

Never in the history of the automobile industry has the President of the United States, in this case Barack Obama, had such an important role to play. Acting to avoid the closure of factories belonging to General Motors (Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac, among others) and Chrysler, the American government has already injected nearly 75 billion dollars into the sector. At first glance, it may appear that these big moves have been made to revitalise an ailing industry, to help safeguard the jobs of workers and the families who rely on them. Yet while car factories employ workers internally, there are also many on the outside reliant on the production of cars, such as suppliers of raw materials, accessories, mechanical parts, garages, etc. This isn't the first time that the car industry has found itself in dire straits, but the crisis manifests differently every time it happens.

The golden years of the automobile

The motor car has delighted the whole world from as far back as the 1930s. Every country in Europe, even the smallest, had its own make. The Netherlands used to produce the Daf (Volvo took over the car division in the 1970s, but it still manufactures utility vehicles), and Luxembourg used to make Wagner cars, in Diekirch. The two most famous Belgian brands were Minerva (made near Antwerp) and Imperia (in the suburbs of Liège). We haven't yet mentioned the fact that Hergé drove an Imperia during the 1930s. His car is now owned by a collector who will exhibit it at the Tintin festival in Namur, 8-10 May 2009.

The fantastic adventures of a farmer's son

Why did all these makes of cars disappear? Ironically, they fell victim to the success of the motor car generally. As long as cars were created by skilled craftsmen, they would be very costly to make, as well as to buy. It was the American, Henry Ford (1863 - 1947), who shifted the construction of cars onto the assembly line, which drastically reduced costs. The son of a farmer, Ford left school at 15 years of age to learn how to make a living in the wider world. He worked for Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb (1879), before becoming interested in the internal combustion engine as developed by the German engineer Nikolaus Otto. Less than 20 years later, in 1908, Henry Ford launched his classic Model T Ford.

Henry Ford's enemies

The Model T was built around a four-stroke engine, and could be constructed in 14 hours. Although initially out of the reach of ordinary mortals, cars gradually became more common. The Model T could be seen everywhere, even on the cover of Tintin in the Congo. In 1913, Ford set up a production line in his Detroit factories in the United States. The price of a Model T came down from 1000 dollars in 1908, to 360 dollars (equivalent to 30,000 euros today) in 1916. In 1927 there were 15 million Ford Ts throughout the world. Henry Ford's greatest problems were with his own shareholders. Attracted by the success of the Model T, they expected big profits, and quickly. Ford himself wanted to reinvest in research to increase performance and build new models, but this was not what his investors wanted, echoing current events at the start of the twenty-first century.

When the car industry breaks down

Let’s close this whirlwind tour on an optimistic note. Despite the sky appearing to have clouded over, Porsche has just opened a state-of-the-art museum in Stuttgart (Germany), and Citroën has just announced the relaunch of its DS19 model, which turned heads back in the 1950s and 60s with its daring and revolutionary looks. And on the subject of museums, get ready: the Hergé museum (opening 2 June 2009) will exhibit the multitude of cars that appear in The Adventures of Tintin. Hergé was a big fan of cars and high speeds. Until then, don’t miss the book Tintin, Hergé et les Autos (Editions Moulinsart), an inventory of all the vehicles that made Tintin the fastest reporter of the twentieth century. Vrrroom!

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