Thursday, April 18, 2002

Fighting for the Moral Legitimacy of the Automobile

For those that don't think automobiles are the spawn of Satan, George Will has an interesting comparison between two major car company CEOs - William Clay Ford, Jr. of Ford Motor Company and the newly installed Robert Lutz of General Motors. Of the two, Lutz certainly seems to be more in love with cars. You can see it in the ads - GM has billboards of classic car designs with witty slogans attached, playing to guy on the street who thinks chrome and horsepower are things to be admired. On the surface, Ford seems to be on the same track with Bill Ford himself recently appearing in TV commercials stressing how he loves riding his SUV through the outdoors. These ads, however, are mostly damage control trying to obscure the fact that he's a sellout to environmental groups who make a living out of demonizing the automobile and it's liberating legacy.

Bill Ford is a good example of what happens when companies are inherited by scions who are embarrassed by their own products. The Houston Chronicle reported on March 31st:

"Before he became chief executive of the Ford Motor Co., William Clay Ford Jr. made a point of joining the environmental camp.

"Global warming, he wrote in a citizenship report last year, 'stands out from other environmental issues because of its potentially serious consequences and its direct relationship to our industry.'

"Global warming? Auto executives talk about cars, golf and every tenth of a percentage point of market share. But they do not speak of global warming, unless prompted, and then only to dismiss it as scientifically unproved.

"Such statements made Ford - a vegetarian, guitar-strumming black belt in tae kwon do - the Motor City's most outspoken executive on environmental issues."

He has, not surprisingly, moved back from such pronouncements recently - especially with the company suffering large losses. Of course, there's nothing wrong with developing a fuel efficient car, as long as there's someone to buy it. His lean toward the green left, though, struck some people as hostile to the lifestyle that a lot of Ford customers - especially truck buyers - embrace. From last October's Automotive News:

"Ford is embroiled in a passionate and divisive debate in the West over land use and natural resources. Led by Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., an avowed environmentalist, the automaker has cast itself as an environmentally friendly company. For example, Bill Ford led the automotive industry in acknowledging the existence of global warming.

"Now, Ford Division dealers say the company's attitude is contributing to lost sales among ranchers, miners, loggers and farmers in the western United States.

"'Ford has donated money to environmental groups. One of them is the National Audubon Society. These environmental groups are spending a lot of money putting timber, livestock grazing and everything else out of business in the West,' said Doc Lane, director of natural resources for the 2,000-member Arizona Cattle Ranchers Association and a meeting participant. 'Our concern is why would Ford be paying to put their customers out of business?'

"Last week, the protesting groups asked Ford to underwrite a multi-million-dollar national educational campaign promoting American agricultural and forestry products.

"Last week's meeting followed a similar session this month in Montana with protesting members of the logging industry.

"'These are not just complaints. This is costing sales' said Udon McSpadden, owner of McSpadden Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Glove, Ariz., and a meeting participant. 'There were three people in the cattle ranching industry in the meeting that drove Fords their whole life and who now own General Motors products for the first time.'

As the new pro-SUV commercials attest, Ford has learned that environmental groups aren't the only ones that can put activist pressure on a corporation.

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