A major battle in the war between foreign and domestic automakers ended Saturday with neither side driving away with a clear victory.
For 34 hours beginning on Wednesday, 60 lawyers for both sides fired rounds of arguments, expert witnesses and reports with differing conclusions. They were arguing before the International Trade Commission on the merits of an unusual request brought by the United Auto Workers union and Ford Motor Co. to limit the numbers of imported cars and light trucks sold here until the Detroit automakers can develop their own small, fuel-efficient models. To qualify for import relief, Ford and the UAW had to prove that imports were the substantial cause of their injury.
The ITC, which will decide the contest publicly on Nov. 10, gave little indication last week of who the victor will be. After quizzing Ford representatives about why the company wasn't prepared to meet the challenge of small, fuel-efficient imported cars following the gasoline shortage of 1973, the commissioners then asked representatives of the foreign automakers how they thought Detroit could be expected to predict accurately several years later what kinds of vehicles American consumers would want.
The ultimate decision on the politically sensitive issue will be made by the president following the November election. The president first must receive the ITC's recommendation on Nov. 24 and then decide the case within 60 days. Depending on the decision, the car wars casualties either will be the domestic auto industry, which won't be able to generate enough capital for its $80 billion retooling and modernizing plans, or the American consumers, who may be forced to pay higher prices for imported and domestic makes or be unable to find the fuel-efficient cars they want, auto industry experts said last week.
Witnessess in favor of the petition, including Ford Chairman Philip Caldwell and UAW President Douglas Fraser, said that particularly in 1979 and 1980 imports have flooded domestic markets and will account for about one-fourth of U.S. car sales this year.
UAW and Ford blamed imports for the indefinite layoffs of 217,000 autoworkers, bankruptcy of 1,600 domestic car and truck dealers, and second-quarter losses for the Big Three automakers nearing $1.5 billion.
Fraser even blamed increased suicides, homicides, cirrhosis of the liver, infant mortality and tooth decay on imports. These problems have increased because unemployed autoworkers have suffered stress, poor diet and the loss of company-paid health insurance, he said.
On Saturday, nine European automobile manufacturers told the ITC that their imported vehicles constitute such a small part of the American market that they could not have caused the U.S. auto industry's current financial problems.
The Europeans, along with the Japanese, argued that Detroit's problems were caused by American consumers' shift from large gas-guzzlers to smaller fuel-efficient cars. The foreign manufacturers argued that this shift was caused by high prices of gasoline and the recession this year, not an increase in imports.
Because UAW and Ford had to prove that imports were the substantial cause of injury to their industry, one crucial problem the commissioners said they had was determining what was an industry. Was the entire small-, medium-sized and large-car and light-truck business one industry, or were they different industries rolled into one?
The importers claimed that separate industries exist and that, because nearly all of their cars are small, they only compete with the U.S. small-car industry, which is doing very well. It is large cars that consumers don't want that are hurting Detroit, they said.
Ford and the UAW contend that all cars and light trucks are one industry, an industry that, because of imports, stands to lose about $3 billion this year.
The whole issue could have been avoided if the Japanese manufacturers voluntarily limited the numbers of cars and light trucks they sell here or built plants here like Volkswagen of America has done and Honda Motor Corp. plans to do, UAW and Ford said.
The Japanese, however, said that the plants will be very expensive and that, by the time they are planned and completed, the U.S. auto industry will have retooled and started producing large numbers of their own high-quality small cars. In fact, a representative of Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A., makers of Datsun cars, lavishly praised Detroit's new line of small cars and said imports soon will have trouble competing with them.