That’s a switch

The General Motors ignition-switch incident is growing like the Blob, and the part that perplexes me is that so much of it seemed avoidable. Yes, GM’s part-handling procedures seem dubious; yes, this debacle should have been dealt with before the rest of the world stuck its nose in. I admittedly never have owned one of the cars in question. But it never occurred to me that having the switch slide over from ON to OFF or ACC in the middle of the road was a death-dealing scenario.

Car and Driver’s July issue checks out the claims. They got themselves a Saturn Ion, one of the vehicles being recalled, and then rigged it to kill power assist to steering and brakes to simulate the problem. The results were not surprising: steering effort went up markedly, though not to a point where it couldn’t be dealt with, and braking effort quadrupled — once the vacuum was gone. It wasn’t on the first panic stop, because there’s a check valve in the line.

Still, neither of these is a problem if you simply restart the car, no trick if you remember that there’s an interlock and you have to shift the lever into neutral. Somewhere around ninety percent of panicky drivers, I suspect, will not remember that. (Trini, who actually owned one of these Ions, and was almost certainly aware of the vagaries of the car’s ignition switch, having replaced one once, would have; then again, she’s one of the least-panicky individuals on the planet.)

There remains the question of why the airbags didn’t deploy when Mr and Mrs Panicky hit the wall, but since there’s no legal specification other than “test dummies must not be subjected to this much force,” it’s difficult to compare notes among individual incidents. And I am reminded of my one and only Major Crash, out on a two-lane state highway in 2006, in which my car and a doe came to mutual death blows at an appallingly high speed. The airbags didn’t budge. Then again, I didn’t get so much as a scratch.

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A minor slip-up

I’ve been on the receiving end of exactly one automotive recall notice in my life, and I admit that I found it a lot more amusing than the government did. In ALL CAPS, the text thereof:

CERTAIN RESERVOIR TANK CAPS ON THE BRAKE MASTER CYLINDER WERE PRODUCED WITH A WORN OUT DIE AND LACK VENTILATION HOLES. AS A RESULT, THE PRESSURE IN THE RESERVOIR TANK CAN DROP GRADUALLY AS THE BRAKE PAD OR SHOE WEARS AND AMBIENT TEMPERATURE DROPS. ALSO, THE PRESSURE COULD REACH A POINT THAT THE BRAKE CALIPER AND DRUM CYLINDER ARE PULLED BACK BY THE VACUUM IN THE RESERVOIR TANK WHEN THE VEHICLE IS PARKED FOR A LONG TIME.

I duly presented myself to a Mazda dealer, who popped the hood and announced: “You have the good one.”

Mazda has had hard luck with spider-related recalls, but those could be reasonably defined as design defects, albeit tenuously. Sometimes, though, an automaker just flubs up:

The recall madness over at General Motors isn’t letting up anytime soon, as evidenced by this latest call-back of 8,208 Chevrolet Malibu and Buick LaCrosse sedans… GM issued a statement saying these sedans are being recalled due to “possible reduced braking performance,” according to Automotive News. The problem? Rear brake rotors may have accidentally been installed in the front brake assembly. And since both cars use more robust braking systems up front than out back, braking power could be reduced, increasing the risk of a crash.

All those rotors look alike, man. I duly looked up Gwendolyn’s OEM brake specifications, and they’re within 2 mm of the same diameter — but the front discs are nearly three times as thick as the rears. I can’t imagine the General popping for some combination more exotic than that.

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Meanwhile in Corvetteland

UAW Local 2164, which represents workers at GM’s Bowling Green Assembly facility, home of the Chevrolet Corvette, has voted nearly unanimously to authorize a strike:

93 percent of the workers who submitted ballots voted in favor of authorizing a strike. Still, the decision needs to be booted up to the regional and then national levels before any action can actually be taken. Eldon Renaud, the president of Local 2164, seems to think that the strike authorization will serve as a sort of saber rattling, getting the “immediate attention” of the facilities management.

“We’re like everybody else, we’re strike-shy,” Renauld told the media, according to the Associated Press. “Nobody wants to have a strike. Who really benefits by it?”

The union’s complaints:

Renaud said issues involved were safety and quality control.

He said there have been several “near misses” that could have resulted in serious injuries for assembly line workers at the Bowling Green plant. The union also worries that the elimination of quality control positions will affect the integrity of the plant’s quality procedures, he said.

Presumably the “near misses” do not include the sudden appearance of a sinkhole in the plant in mid-February, from which the last car was retrieved this week.

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Say hello to Patsy

First female CEO at General Motors. Historic moment? Maybe — or maybe not:

I am not as thrilled as the rest of the country seems to be by the appointment of a woman to lead General Motors. If not for the $10.5B-losing bailout, GM would have have had to examine their practices, make changes and compete in the real world market place. The Saturn never would have been killed and Cadillac models would once again have names instead of numbers. As it stands though, the bailout provided a soft landing for all of their stumbles and they are now upright and undamaged. But are they changed? If they’re not, God Help Mary T. Barra the first female CEO of GM and the patsy set up to take the blame for the coming fall.

In defense of Barra, she does seem to understand cars, something no one ever would have said of predecessor Dan Akerson.

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Instant justification

“Whew! That was a close one!” we’re supposed to be saying as the Treasury disposes of the balance of its holdings in General Motors, although Treasury — and therefore taxpayers — lost ten and a half billion dollars on the deal:

Without the bailout, the country would have lost more than 1 million jobs, and the economy could have slipped from recession into a depression, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said on a conference call with reporters.

Which is what he’s required to say: everything the government does, from handing out cell phones to putting tariffs on Chinese tires is justified by “the alternative would have been worse.”

Not that we can actually prove any such assertion, of course:

Well, if Jacob Lew says the alternative was worse than losing $10.5 billion of taxpayer money, who are we to disagree? Because the effects of hypothesized alternative scenarios are always subject to speculation, officials can justify any policy by declaring that things would have been worse if we had done something different. (Let’s keep this principle of Liberal Logic™ in mind: Next time some hippie peacenik tells you that Bush’s Iraq policy was a failure, just remind him that an imaginary hypothetical alternative — e.g., Saddam Hussein’s army invading Connecticut — would have been much worse.)

Oh, and that blue floodlight out in the yard? It keeps tigers away.

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Leaving the junkyard behind

They’re not out of the woods yet by any means, but one of the Big 3 ratings firms — Moody’s — has upgraded General Motors’ corporate debt from junk status to investment grade.

It’s the bottom rung of investment grade — Baa3, in Moody’s parlance — but it’s above the psychological barrier, and that’s almost certainly going to matter the next time GM needs to borrow a few bucks.

The other two ratings firms, S&P and Fitch, still rate GM as junk, but fairly high junk.

As for the rest of Detroit, Ford made it out of Moody’s junkyard in the spring of 2012; Chrysler is not traded on public exchanges, but has filed for an initial public offering, mostly at the behest of the Voluntary Employees Benefit Association of the United Auto Workers, which would like to turn some of its 41.5-percent ownership of Chrysler into actual cash. (Fiat owns the other 58.5 percent.)

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I’ll be working on my maintan

Autoblog posted this item on Thursday:

Autoblog screenshot

Whatever “maintance” is, apparently you get two years’ worth on your new Impala.

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Smaller Government Motors

Fifty million shares of General Motors go on the block today, thirty million from the Treasury, twenty million from the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, in the hopes that the General’s return to the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (also today) will hype the price a bit.

Of the $49 billion taxpayers put up to bail out GM, almost $32 billion has been recovered; assuming a price in the low-to-mid-30s, the Treasury offering should bring in a billion more. Officially, Treasury plans to exit GM entirely by next April; it’s not likely they’ll break even, but the company may well be helped by losing the stigma of being “Government Motors” — at least in the States. Canada and the province of Ontario, which hold about 9 percent of GM stock, aren’t selling at this time.

Treasury, I have to figure, isn’t particularly thrilled by the fact that much of GM’s market momentum is being propelled by the arrival of new trucks, but I also figure that fiduciary responsibility trumps green posturing elsewhere in Washington. And if it doesn’t, well, it should.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

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Those boys don’t look right

Marc Heitz sells Chevrolets in Norman. In fact, he sells a lot of Chevrolets: Heitz moved over 1900 cars last year. This record, however, does not keep him in the good graces of General Motors:

The best way to attract people to his lot, [Heitz] theorized, was to give them reasons beyond cars and trucks. His Norman, OK showroom has a 45-foot waterfall, an aquarium stocked with local fish species and animal tracks on the floor lead to an arcade for the kids. Outside the log-cabin-like dealership are bear and elk statues, a picnic area and two dog parks. It feels more Bass Pro Shops than car dealer.

And that, says the General, is the whole problem:

[B]ecause the Heitz building doesn’t have Chevy’s signature blue cladding and gold bowtie, GM says it will not pay Heitz his $250,000 quarterly dealer-excellence incentive. A GM spokesman said the company will be glad to reinstate the payments if only Heitz will modify the building to be in compliance with the corporate branding plan, including removing the animal footprints.

Said Heitz to Automotive News [paywall]: “It would be like putting socks on a rooster.”

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Symbol-mindedness

In other news, there actually is a Michigan Republican Party:

The Michigan Republican Party harshly criticized the Obama administration for allowing a Toyota Motor Corp. pickup truck to tow one of the retired space shuttles to its final home in Los Angeles.

“Barack Obama acts as if he singlehandedly built the U.S. domestic auto industry, meanwhile, a symbol of American greatness will be towed to its final resting place by a foreign competitor, forever cementing the image of a Toyota truck towing a retired space shuttle,” said Matt Frendewey, director of communications for the Michigan Republican Party on Monday.

“The symbolism of this PR stunt should be offensive to every red-blooded American with vested interest in the success of the U.S. automotive industry.”

The Toyota Tundra is built only in San Antonio, Texas, with 75 percent domestic (defined as “US and Canada”) content, compared to, um, 62 percent for the Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra twins that compete with it.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

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Mysteries of General Motors

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten has calculated that possession of a Chevrolet Volt makes you sexier — but not all that much:

I assure her that I am a working journalist and that my question is purely hypothetical. Judging by appearances alone, I ask, what would be my theoretical chance of having sex with her, expressed as a percentage?

“Three,” she says finally.

He then gestures toward the Volt, and says:

“This is my ride,” I say. “Does this new information change the hypothetical answer at all?”

She takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly.

“Three-point-five.”

Hey, it’s a 16.7-percent improvement. Isn’t that worth $35,000 after tax credits?

And speaking of statistics, here’s the Cadillac section of GM’s January sales report, as snipped from The Truth About Cars:

Cadillac sales January 2011

I knew the XLR had been marked for extinction because of low sales, but I had no idea they were this low. Minus one? That’s even below the point where you can make it up in volume.

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Keeping the General on a leash

There are few people of whom you can say “Even when he’s right, he’s wrong,” and one of them is Ralph Nader, who has decided that General Motors ought to postpone its stock offering, currently scheduled for next week; he and three like-minded meddlers dispatched a letter to the President requesting that the sale be delayed indefinitely.

The Detroit News quotes Nader:

“It’s the same old arrogant GM. There’s no sense of gratitude that they wouldn’t exist without the government, without the taxpayers.”

That much, I’ll give him. Besides, it was just Nader in the interview; there was no mention of the other co-conspirators, one of whom is Joan Claybrook, one of the dimmer bulbs ever to occupy the back seat of a motor-pool sedan, whose major contribution to Western civilization has been the notion that people won’t drive fast if you limit the numbers on auto speedometers.

And this bit from the letter sounds Claybrookian, if not precisely Orwellian:

“As majority shareholder in GM, the United States has the ability to direct or influence the company’s investment decisions. As the U.S. reduces its share, so its capacity to influence such decisions diminishes.”

It must really frost them that Washington doesn’t own a piece of Ford.

Actually, there is a perfectly good reason not to sell off a bunch of GM stock right now, and it did get mentioned in the letter: the Feds stand to lose a fair chunk of change on this first sale. (A Detroit News estimate says up to $5.4 billion.) I have no doubt that GM is tired of having Washington looking over its shoulder, but inasmuch as I stand to lose eighteen bucks on the deal — $5.4 billion split 300 million ways — I’d just as soon they waited a while longer.

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Leave my kitten alone

“How much do you want for the puppy?”

The child thought for a moment, then briefly channeled Dr. Evil. “One million dollars.”

A frown, and then: “How about two kittens at $500,000 each?”

And so a deal was made in the neighborhood, and everyone was happy.

It’s going to take something like that for the taxpayers to recoup their quite-involuntary investment in the American auto industry. From a new GAO report [pdf], we find this little jewel:

Equity value of company necessary to recoup investment:
Chrysler: $54.8 [billion]
GM: $66.9 [billion]

By comparison, Ford, an automaker not owned by the government, which is for the moment marginally profitable, has a market capitalization around $24 billion. How in the world is Chrysler, maybe half the size of Ford in a good year, ever going to be worth $55 billion? Somebody’s going to need an awful lot of high-priced cats.

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Somehow Mercury survives

Saturn, meanwhile, is dead:

General Motors will close Saturn and wind down its dealership network after a deal to sell the faltering brand to Penske Automotive Group collapsed, the automaker said on Wednesday.

The breakdown of a deal that had been widely expected to close this week will force some 350 Saturn dealerships to close and could cut 13,000 U.S. jobs that would have been preserved under a plan by auto magnate Roger Penske.

Penske had been negotiating with Renault SA to acquire vehicles for the Saturn brand once a production agreement with GM had expired. Those talks collapsed, scuttling the Saturn acquisition by Penske.

If Roger Penske, one of the smartest guys in all of cardom, can’t make something work, it’s not going to work. Period.

Final burial of the brand will be approximately one year from now.

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Cutlassed again

What’s next, LaSalle? Oldsmobile dealers are feeling the squeeze:

In all, GM paid dealers more than $1 billion when it eliminated the 103-year-old brand [in 2000] because of dwindling sales. Some of the 2,800 Oldsmobile dealers took lump-sum payouts, which were based mainly on sales volume. Others agreed to annual cash payments for as long as 10 years.

Several dealers just learned they won’t be receiving the rest of their money because the automaker is leaving those payments in bankruptcy court with the “old GM,” according to a recent bankruptcy court filing. They’ll likely get pennies on the dollar for their claims, which vary, but ranged from $50,000 to $4 million.

The last Oldsmobile was built in April 2004.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

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Proposed stock symbol: WTF

I suspect that this is not going to be the next Google:

The General Motors Company, the new automaker majority-owned by the United States Treasury, said Friday that it intended to make an initial public offering of stock by July 10, 2010, the one-year anniversary of its exit from bankruptcy. The target date range for an offering was disclosed Friday in a federal regulatory filing that the company said summarized its activities in the four weeks since it left court protection.

I’m trying to decide whether to question the timing. There’s no reason to think the General will be in much better shape this time next summer; on the other hand, if nothing goes wrong(er) and the stars line up correctly, we’re looking at about four months before the hotly-hyped 2011 Chevrolet Volt is supposed to go on sale. If the Volt proves to be the game-changer GM swears it will be, the folks who bought in for a pittance in July will turn a tidy profit in December or January.

Meanwhile, No Longer Second Deputy Under-Assistant Car Czar Ron Bloom says Chrysler won’t be doing likewise for a while:

“I don’t think Chrysler’s I.P.O. is a 2010 event,” Mr. Bloom told reporters at an automotive conference in northern Michigan. “I think it’s a little further off. But again, that will be the board’s judgment.”

Mr. Bloom referred to Mr. Obama’s directive that the government sell its stakes in the carmakers “as soon as is practicable.” He stressed, though, that unloading the 61 percent share of G.M. and 8 percent share of Chrysler would take time so as not to destroy their value.

On the other hand, an IPO would be a pretty good indication of whether those shares have any value in the first place.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

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Obama will not fix your car

Second Deputy Under-Assistant Car Czar Ron Bloom let it be known yesterday that the car companies the government controls are once again responsible for their own warranty coverage:

Toward the beginning of the restructuring process, the Auto Task Force implemented a Warranty Program to give confidence to GM’s and Chrysler’s customers during a period of substantial uncertainty regarding the outlook for the companies. With the successful emergence of the new companies, consumers can now feel assured that the companies have the financial wherewithal to meet their warranty commitments on a continuing basis. As such, the Auto Task Force determined that it was appropriate to end the Warranty Program. I am happy to report that $641 million invested in the program has been returned to United States Government along with interest payments on the program. This achievement represented a prudent short-term use of taxpayer funds.

Of course, $641 million compared with the untold billions poured into these particular ratholes corporations — well, let’s see if the bank will take $2.69 toward my mortgage payment next month.

Still, we should hope Mr Bloom’s confidence is not misplaced, if only because it would be nice to get some sort of return on, um, investment.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

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New brands for old

One possible obstacle to the restoration of General Motors, apart from its lack of solid product lines, its myopic upper management, and its beyond-myopic upper-upper management in Washington, is its name: it’s just too twentieth-century, maybe even nineteenth-century, and doesn’t speak to contemporary buyers.

So how about GenMo?

A shortening of the current name, tailored for today’s shorter attention spans. Preserves the equity of decades’ worth of branding, while making it that much easier for disgruntled customers / employees / creditors to spit out as a curse.

Hey, it worked for FedEx.

I note that Japan’s most successful automakers, Toyota and Honda, are named after their founders. (Toyota messed with the spelling a little bit, but no one complained, nor did anyone gripe at Mazda either.) Perhaps GM should be renamed for Billy Durant. And given its current state, it should be Durant’s middle name.

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Controlling the engine

I turned this up on Usenet, and it’s at least as ludicrous as some of the Y2K stories that floated around ten years ago. It was found in alt.home.repair.

Since GM has begun their bankruptcy, their cars and trucks are failing quickly. It’s estimated that by the end of the month, no GM vehicles will be running or repairable. The cause is in the engine’s computer controlled ignition system. It’s a little known fact that ever since computer circuits became part of modern vehicles, the manufacturers have been sending out a signal via satellite which monitors and controls these vehicles and adjusts their operation based on instructions generated by their systems which is based on the data received from petroleum refiners, which instructs the engines to function according to changes in fuel refining. This is just part of the picture, because these auto manufacturers also adjust these engine control systems based on location, altitude, and other external conditions, solely based on GPS signals being sent by the vehicle.

With GM in bankruptcy, these signals have ceased to operate. Vehicles are now unable to adjust their systems according to variable fuel and environmental conditions, and are now locked according to the last signal sent by GM prior to the start of the bankruptcy proceedings.

It’s already been determined that in the last few days, GM vehicle gas milage has dropped by ten to thirty percent. Emisions have risen dramatically, and engine output power has dropped significantly.

The result has been, but not limited to engine flooding, poor engine timing, loss of vacuum control, scored cylinder walls, and eventually complete engine failure. It’s just a matter of time before all GM vehicles will fail and become unrepairable. This affects all GM vehicles except those manufactured prior to the use of computerized controls. All GM vehicles still in use who were manufactured prior to the early 1980’s are not affected. All vehicles since then are computerized and will fail within the next few weeks.

Now is the time to consider the effects of being without a vehicle. If you rely on your vehicle to earn a living, or require a vehicle for survival, now is the time to purchase another vehicle manufactured by another company, and send your GM vehicle to the salvage yard before it leaves you stranded, undermines your income, and possibly endangers your life.

James V. Masters
Automotive Engineer
Masters Automotive Engineering Inc.

If you’re concerned about this, a helpful hint: the tinfoil goes between the sunroof and the headliner.

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Saturn enters Penske’s orbit

It’s official: Roger Penske’s Automotive Group will acquire the Saturn brand from Government General Motors for a price believed to be somewhere north of three dollars and a sackful of kittens.

Saturn’s five-vehicle line is being pared to three — the Sky roadster and the compact Astra sedan will be put to sleep — and GM will continue to build the remaining vehicles (the Vue SUV, the Outlook crossover, and the mid-sized Aura sedan) for two years. All of these, I note, are bigger than the models being deep-sixed.

The deal is expected to be completed in October.

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