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OM in the News: The Fall and Rise of Quality in American Cars

February 14, 2012

An interesting perspective on the quality (or lack thereof) of American-made autos comes from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Feb.10,2012). For decades we have bemoaned quality problems in the industry, but until recently the situation was simply considered normal. It goes back to around 1915, when GM’s chief production guy told a reporter that his new model “would boast massive improvements.”  When queried for details, he replied that Chevys would now have a mesh screen under the motor that “would catch all the screws and parts that came loose while driving.” Even as late as 1949, it was common knowledge that a Ford could not be taken through a car wash without its occupants being drenched.

And surprisingly, when MIT did its famous 5-year study of the auto industry, which was published as The Machine That Changed the World, it was pointed out that Mercedes put more man-hours into fixing vehicles after production than Lexus needed to build one of its flagship sedans–which had zero problems leaving the assembly line. Of course, it was the auto workers who would take most of the blame for the lack of quality in their cars. But for the most part, it was mediocre engineering –not just in vehicle design, but in factory layout as well. How else can you explain how Buicks occasionally ended up with Chevy dashboards installed–and that GM would refuse to replace them when the errors were discovered at the dealer showroom.

Perhaps the greatest untold automotive story this decade is that no company builds  a  bad car anymore. Thanks to the integration of Japanese design and production techniques, we will never see a car produced whose A/C compressor falls off or whose fenders come in different colors.  Just as Mercedes had to compare itself to Lexus, GM and Ford had to measure up to Honda and Toyota–and to accept the principles of Japanese engineering.

Discussion questions:

1. Why is poor quality accepted in any product?

2. Has US auto manufacturing reached quality levels equal to Japan and Germany?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. terry boardman permalink
    February 14, 2012 7:35 pm

    disagree with this article completely

    first there are too many car tales with little support

    second , it was LACK of management, not engineering

    There was no better car producted than the Ford Mustang but there were not a lot of success stories like the Mustang because MANAGEMENT was complacent and inept

    It was not a lack of engineering- it was a lack of management!!!!

    Still happening in other industries today

    We have great engineers and crappy management

  2. February 15, 2012 9:26 pm

    Terry,
    Thanks for the comments. As a former engineer, I have to take the position you do. But the quote in the article from former VW chairman Ferdinand Piech about the differences between American and German engineers was pretty strong. Cultural differences abound.

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