Car Culture

General Motors' History Holds a Key to Its Future

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

I've long envied the extensive library of automotive history owned by my friend and mentor Frank Swoboda, a former business editor of The Washington Post.

So it was with great delight that I recently received from him most of those books, which he delivered in his typically succinct manner.

"Yours," he said.

Mine, indeed.

I've since spent hours perusing those volumes, almost incapable of turning away. Their appeal is simple: History matters.

Consider, for example, the often context-free and, thus erroneous journalism generated by the restructuring bankruptcies of General Motors and what is now the Chrysler Group. One such specimen appeared on the pages of this otherwise fine newspaper in the Sunday Outlook Section, June 14, under the byline of Jamie Lincoln Kitman.

Kitman is a leading practitioner of what I call the Black Forest School of Automotive Journalism, BFSAJ, an acronym I pronounce as "bull-sage" in my more surly moments.

BFSAJ is wedded to the myth of German engineering superiority -- as if no German car or machine has ever failed or disappointed. In that context, BFSAJ assumes the predominance of any European component -- especially German ones -- in any pairing of European and American enterprises.

Typical of that thinking is Kitman's conclusion in his Outlook piece, "Why GM Shouldn't Dump Its Top Brands," which bemoans GM's decision to shed most of its interest in its German-born Opel subsidiary, which also supplies vehicle platforms for the formerly GM-owned Saturn car group.

Kitman wrote:

"There's a reason why finding buyers for [GM's] German Opel division and domestic Saturn brand has been easy: They're the most promising divisions GM owns. Getting rid of them was dumb and pretty much seals the company's fate."

There is no argument that Opel and Saturn are good brands. But history begs to differ with the contention that getting rid of them is a "dumb" move that ultimately will put GM in a grave.

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