Commentary

I met Joe in 1985, when I began dating his daughter. He was no fan of Detroit.

Growing up in Queens, NY, my father-in-law adored Manhattan but moved to Detroit in 1967 with his wife and children to work for a relative. Eventually, Joe found a better opportunity selling used cars.

Despite success in Motown, Joe regularly bashed Detroit’s crime and blight – and the city’s inability to fix its problems. At times he sounded like Archie Bunker, while I felt like Meathead, trying in vain to convince him there were good things in Detroit he didn’t see. He often had more ammunition than I did. The vibrant streets of Manhattan fueled his criticism.

Joe sold a lot of Big Three metal. But in the time I knew him, he drove Japanese cars – and loved them. He understood value. Many of his customers were well-compensated union workers from Big Three plants, and he heard too many stories of abuse on the line.

Today, a majority of Americans seems to agree with Joe as GM and Chrysler seek an economic lifeline. Alarmingly, many Americans want Detroit to fail, arguing tax dollars would be wasted on auto makers that have held fast to excessive paychecks despite producing second-rate vehicles for years.

In that respect, Detroit already has failed, in the same way Washington has failed to end two wars that have cost thousands of lives and shattered America’s image overseas; in the same way Wall Street failed to protect Main Street from corporate greed; and in the same way governments failed to prepare for a catastrophic hurricane in New Orleans.

There are problems all across America, and some get fixed: more aid streams into New Orleans, a new president takes office and more firefighters converge on California to save homes from wild fires intentionally set.

But Detroit’s auto makers have been addressing their problems incrementally, while Joe and most Americans were looking the other way. Union wages and benefits have been cut, along with executive compensation. Plants have closed, jobs eliminated.

These things should have happened a decade ago, but Detroit was prosperous then and the principals wanted their share of the wealth. And while Detroit’s vehicles have improved greatly, foreign auto makers have converted legions of loyal buyers like Joe, giving customers little reason to shop elsewhere.

As a lifelong Detroiter, it hurts to feel the wrath of America. Every flippant comment about our auto industry from a standup comic, news anchor and financial “expert” stings like a pink slip.

People like Joe, who died earlier this year, are hard on Detroit because they are so passionate about cars they’ve owned – especially the ones that stranded them. What will save Detroit is continued humility and reliable product.

GM and Chrysler can consider it a moral victory if President Bush hands over a bridge-loan package.

If that happens, this industry is in store for a dynamic new era, in which Detroit finally competes on equal footing with the foreign transplants. There will be no excuses at that point if the domestics come up short.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com