Is Ford Trying To Tell Us Something?

February 10, 2010
John Cusack in 'Say Anything'

John Cusack in 'Say Anything'

1989 Ford Mustang convertible

1989 Ford Mustang convertible

The philosopher George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". Frankly, we're feeling a little déja vû.

Twenty-one years ago, America was edging toward an economic downturn -- one that eventually spelled ruin for George H. W. Bush. Also: the Cold War was beginning to thaw, Billy Ray Cyrus was still unknown, and the internet was, for all intents and purposes, just a series of tubes. And on this very day in 1989, Ford Motor Company posted a whopping prior-year profit of 5.3 billion dollars.

At the time, that was a record gain for an American automaker, and it signaled to the world that the Big Three weren't dead -- not by a long shot. True, their market share had shrunk over the previous two decades thanks to a global gas crunch, a glut of fuel-efficient foreign cars, and more than a few fugly Detroit clunkers. A string of recessions between 1973 and 1982 didn't help matters. Still, the Big Three lumbered on, and by the early 1980s, they'd begun making cars people wanted again. The Ford Escort and the revamped Ford Mustang in particular helped put Blue Oval at the top of the heap.

We can't help noticing some interesting similarities between 2010 and 1989. America is now dealing with the after-effects of a brutal recession -- one that spelled ruin for George W. Bush and many of his associates. Billy Ray Cyrus is unknown once more, though Millennials are all too familiar with his bi-polar spawn, Miley/Hannah Montana. Detroit is listening to consumers again, making vehicles that buyers want. (Well, at least Ford and GM are; we're still waiting to hear from Chrysler.) And Ford Motor Company has posted a remarkable prior-year profit -- the first Big Three automaker to do so in recent years.

Maybe this only goes to prove that history is, indeed, cyclical. And we've been around the block enough times to know that tracing direct parallels between today and 1989 would be dicey. Still: is it a coincidence that Ford has landed at the forefront of recovery for a second time? And are there lessons that the auto industry has (or should have) learned from the last 21 years that might inform their decisions going forward? Will they relapse into another phenomenon mentioned by Santayana, that of fanaticism: "redoubling your effort after you've forgotten your aim"? Or is it all, as Ms. Shirley Bassey once said, just little bits of history repeating?


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