Firestone, Clunkers and Chapter 11: The Decade in Car News

December 28, 2009

As 2009 draws to a close this week, the auto industry is waving goodbye to a decade--and in some corners, waving it good riddance.

The "Naughties" might be the best neologism for this lost decade. It began with new alliances forming and new empires emerging, and ends on Friday in a multi-car pileup of cratered sales, shuttered brands and factories, wiped-out shareholders, and only a faint glimmer of hope for recovery in 2010.

There's been huge disruption around the carmaking globe since 2000, against a backdrop of titanic clashes of egos, epic battles of highly anticipated new products--and inevitably, the sound of an economic freight train approaching.

Who would have imagined the epic fail of the American auto industry in a pre-9/11, pre-iPhone, pre Bush v. Gore world? Who could have thought GM would fall as hard as it did--with Toyota taking a stumble right behind it? Would anyone ever have foreseen Porsche being swallowed up by Volkswagen?

Will someone please explain exactly how we were to expect Bob Lutz and 50 Cent in the same room--much less on the same stage--for the stillborn return of the El Camino?

TheCarConnection.com's editors have watched and written these stories as they unfolded right before us, live and on the Web. We've culled our best memories of our longest news days down to the ten stories that defined the 2000s.

We've left a few on the cutting room floor, too. Cash for clunkers? Big news, but ultimately a government-induced anomaly. The rise of South Korean automakers like Hyundai and Kia? A huge story, but one already in the works in the 1990s. Aztek? Leave it alone. Just leave it alone.

As we look back wistfully at the days when tires were the most Detroit had to worry about, TheCarConnection.com's team has chosen these as the top car news stories of the decade:

The

The

GM, Chrysler File for Bankruptcy

It seems unreal, but as recently as 2000, GM posted record profits and Chrysler was still healthy, still on its corporate honeymoon with Daimler AG. Both were cutting jobs, though, and by the end of 2000, GM had confirmed it would close the Oldsmobile division. It was a dire omen of the spiral that landed both companies in bankruptcy court this year.

GM's problems were well-known, back into the early 1980s, when a string of failed reorganizations wound out over time, as the world's then-largest automaker continued to see its market share erode. In 2000 GM set 30-percent market share as its goal, and entering the decade, after selling 5 million vehicles in the U.S. in the prior year, it seemed possible. GM held a dozen brands and was fresh from acquiring the other half of Saab it didn't own, and was launching HUMMER. GM last turned a profit in 2004. Debt ballooned to more than $60 billion, and faced with a do-or-die scenario, GM swallowed its pride, took government loans and put itself into a quick reorganization still unfolding today. As of this writing, Saturn and Pontiac have been dumped, with Saab headed to the same fate. HUMMER's still in limbo, with a tentative deal with a very tentative Chinese government and a little-known heavy-duty truckmaker from the Middle Kingdom. And even then, critics are wondering if the handful of brands left--Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, GMC, Opel, Vauxhall and Holden--will hold the key to a turnaround.

Backtrack to Chrysler, which in 2000 was the blushing bride in an acquisition that brought it into Daimler-Benz, and nearly into a three-continent alliance with Mitsubishi. By about 2005, Chrysler's expensive product needs proved to be too much of a burden for Daimler, which sawed it off to the Cerberus hedge fund--which then dumped it into receivership and into the arms of Fiat Group. Chrysler had saved itself from peril in the early 1990s with a wave of new product, but that wave isn't due to crash ashore until early 2011 at the earliest, as America gets ready for a score of Chrysler-branded Fiats. Back then, a popular book of the day claimed Chrysler was "taken for a ride," but a decade later, it's probably Daimler that escaped with its life--and Fiat that should be the next to buckle up, and quickly.

No Renault-Nissan-Chrysler alliance

No Renault-Nissan-Chrysler alliance

Wagoner claims GM doesn’t need an alliance

Wagoner claims GM doesn’t need an alliance

Auto Alliances End in Tatters, Mostly

In 2000, the auto landscape was shifting dramatically as smaller brands were being hoovered up by debt-happy automakers. Today, most of those alliances have ended up in tatters.

GM and Chrysler may have hit the skids together this year, but ten years ago, it was Nissan that was edging toward the same fate before Renault intervened. Nissan's fortunes foundered in the late 1990s as stale product and stagnant sales in Japan and the U.S. pushed the company near insolvency. DaimlerChrysler took a sniff--and walked away. In the end, France's Renault invested in a major chunk of Nissan, and to date it's the most successful near-merger ever executed in the auto industry--the only Renault alliance worth much, in the long run.

Look elsewhere, and it's a hall of shame of unworkable acquisitions and alliances. In the 2000s alone,  GM held 20-percent stakes in Fiat, Suzuki, and Subaru--while also retaining production sharing with Suzuki in Canada and Toyota in California. All are defunct. Ford once held Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin--and sold them all during a decade of retrenchment, with a Volvo sale nearing a closing date and Mercury likely in possession of a DNR.  BMW jettisoned Rover while nurturing MINI and Rolls-Royce.

Volkswagen seemed to buck the trend by digesting Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Skoda and by finally swallowing Porsche and taking a large chunk of Suzuki. Will that sentence read the same in ten years?

2001 Ford Explorer XLS

2001 Ford Explorer XLS

Ford Survives Firestone Recall; Explorer, Not So Much

The decade began with Ford's most severe challenge since the Pinto. A series of incidents involving the Ford Explorer and Firestone tires were related to improperly inflated tires, which overheated. That led to tread separation--and hundreds of deaths and injuries on America's highways. In addition to the 270 fatalities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) logged thousands of injuries and property claims made to automobile manufacturers and tire companies. As a result, the Firestone name retreated under its Bridgestone corporate umbrella for years--but Ford's losses were just as steep. The recall hurt badly--but the change in consumer tastes that followed felt more permanent, and possibly arose as a result of the Firestone debacle. Sales of the Explorer SUV have plummeted from more than 400,000 annually to about 35,000 this year, with a new carlike Explorer in development for the 2011 model year.

Angular Front Exterior View - 2009 Dodge Challenger 2-door Coupe R/T

Angular Front Exterior View - 2009 Dodge Challenger 2-door Coupe R/T

Camaro, Challenger and Mustang: Musclecars Get a Second Act

Is it a second act, or a coda? Flash back to 2000, and the Ford Mustang's still going strong--but the Camaro's headed for the scrap heap, the only rear-drive Dodge car is a Viper, and the future of the musclecar was in doubt. Cue more good times, and GM and Chrysler gave the green light to new V-8 two-doors even while gas prices and fuel economy started to loom large in the national discussion. This year, we're truly living in a new musclecar era--with a 426-horsepower Challenger SRT8, a 425-hp Camaro SS, and new for 2011, a Ford Mustang 5.0 with 412 hp. But with 35-mpg fuel economy rules in the pipeline, we can expect to see hybrid Camaros, diesel Challengers, and electric Mustangs--or maybe none at all.

2010 Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius

Green Car Fans Unite Behind Hybrids

Back in 2000, the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight still were novelty cars, owned and loved by a clutch of green-car pioneers who claimed they'd be the way forward for the auto industry. Back then, only 10,000 hybrids were sold each year. In 2009 more than 250,000 hybrids will be sold, and Toyota alone is promising a hybrid version of every vehicle it builds by 2020. The market's zoomed from two hybrid nameplates--Prius and Insight--to more than 20, with big SUVs and compact city cars alike. Maybe $4 a gallon gas had a lot to do with it--but there's no doubt the avalanche of new hybrids expected in the next few years will only make hybrids more widely available, more consumer-friendly, and more normal.

Handful of small SUVs earn top marks in latest IIHS crash test

Handful of small SUVs earn top marks in latest IIHS crash test

Safety Is The New Black

Crash-test scores are the least sexy part of marketing a new car--if this is the year 2000. As standard airbags and anti-lock brakes worked their way into the national fleet, fatalities began to fall. They kept falling, to new record lows in 2009, to a point where five-star safety isn't just a goal for family cars--it's a goal for entire brands like Acura and Ford. Standard airbags and ABS brought calls for standard stability control, which becomes law in 2012. And now, computer technology is bringing a wide range of new features into cars that lift ideas from concept cars of 50 years ago--rearview cameras, lane-departure warning systems, even car-to-car communication. Safety isn't just a benefit of a few expensive imported cars anymore--it's the new black.

Tesla Model S Sedan

Tesla Model S Sedan

Bush's Lasting Legacy: Electric Cars For All

In the decades to come, history will judge President George W. Bush's legacy--for missteps and for many successes in providing HIV treatment across Africa, for expanding healthcare at home. It will be impossible to underplay the Bush administration's impact on the development of electric and hybrid vehicles in the U.S. Under President Bush, massive loans program for green cars not only has enabled old-guard automakers like Ford and GM to tap inexpensive credit to retool their fleets for the forthcoming LEAF and Focus EV, it's also underwritten the first start-up automakers with a chance at long-term success in decades--Tesla and Fisker. The Tesla Roadster forever dispelled the notion of electric cars as modified golf cars; with federal loans, they're planning a new generation of lower-cost EVs for the mass market, as is Fisker. Along with the Chevrolet Volt (which has its own package of tax credits distinct from these loan programs), the Tesla Model S, the Fisker Nina project, the LEAF and the Focus EV will either turn America on to the potential of home-grown alternative propulsion, or seal their fates as another expensive boondoggle.

2008 Toyota Tundra

2008 Toyota Tundra

Toyota Stumbles on Trucks, Quality

GM had been the largest automaker in the world for 74 years until Toyota passed them early this year. Now, Toyota is hitting some classic GM-like problems: overexpansion, quality issues, and a floor-mat recall that's at a tipping point of public awareness. Can Toyota turn momentum back to top-notch small cars and continue to own the hybrid mantle--while also figuring out how to walk away from big trucks quietly, and what to do with the excess capacity it has in North America?

Volkswagen Up! Light Concept Hints At Future Hybrid Models

Volkswagen Up! Light Concept Hints At Future Hybrid Models

Volkswagen Snares Porsche (And Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini...)

Volkswagen as the world's biggest automaker? Right now Toyota sells more cars than VW, but by some measures (recent production),  Volkswagen has already passed its stated goal for the year 2018 of being the world's largest vehicle manufacturer. Volkswagen began the decade on a brand-buying binge, and it may or may not have ended with stakes in Porsche and Suzuki this year. Somehow, VW has manufactured lush profits out of a seemingly unmanageable constellation of nameplates--with a savvy manufacturing philosophy underlying the wildly divergent badges. Sure, there are some clunkers under the VW sun, like SEAT. The Volkswagen name itself is desperately awaiting its next boom in the U.S. But with new alliances, new brands, new city cars, and new buyers in next-world countries, VW is on the brink either of supernova--or black hole.

Instrument Panel - 2009 Ford Flex 4-door Limited FWD

Instrument Panel - 2009 Ford Flex 4-door Limited FWD

#YourCarTalks--And Reads, And Steers, And Updates Your Status

In the century of cars, we've evolved from the universal transportation of the Model T, to the personal expression of a Ferrari Califonia.  Now we're at the vanguard of an age where interaction between the car and driver will get as much attention as horsepower, traction and top speed. You can use your car as an information interface, just like you were promised in the concept sketches from the Sixties and Seventies. And your car can talk back in meaningful ways; it can transmit information to safety personnel, take in data to bring you movie listings and re-route you in traffic--even keep your kids occupied in the back seat. Coming down the road: letting your car talk to other cars, to prevent accidents and share useful information on traffic, gas prices, and more.

The media world's changed along with cars, transitioning from the hands of the few to the hands of--well, the hands of you. You can talk about cars on Facebook or #twitter--or you can read about cars in publications that didn't exist a decade ago, new outlets like Autoblog, Jalopnik, and LeftLaneNews.

We like to think it started here at TheCarConnection.com, one of the first independent Web sites to challenge the old guard and keep readers in touch with the car world around the clock on the Web. Media keeps changing, and we're ringing in the new year with an updated version of TheCarConnection, along with some blockbuster news from other media partners and, of course, the winner in our Tesla Roadster writing contest.

So buckle up, and stay linked here--it's going to be an exciting decade ahead.

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