End of a Dream: Detroit Fights to Survive amid Global Downturn

By Marc Hujer

Detroit, America's legendary automotive capital, has been in a permanent state of crisis for more than 30 years. But the current downturn is different. This time the industry's very survival is at stake.

Editor's Note: This feature is part of a SPIEGEL series that will continue all week on how the economic downturn is affecting people and companies around the world. No other downturn in history has hit as many of the world's economies. The current crisis is hitting migrant laborers in China, Russian oligarchs and even strong traditional German firms like the chemical giant BASF.

Ford was his life. Ford provided him with security, prosperity and happiness. Pictures of Henry Ford hung on his walls, and Ford's words were quoted in his home like verses from the Bible.

His grandfather, one of the legendary figures at Ford, was vice-president for production, responsible for the Rouge plant in Dearborn, a symbol of the rise of capitalism in the 1920s. His grandfather worked closely with Henry Ford I and later with Henry Ford II. He owned a mansion in Detroit and a house in Palm Beach. Throughout his life, his grandfather owned more cars than he could ever drive in his scant free time.

Today, Rob Eaton is sitting in his garage in a Detroit suburb, railing against Ford. A lot must have happened for someone like Eaton to be criticizing Ford. In fact, he loves Ford. Just as he loves his garage, with its carpeting and its underfloor heating, because it's nice and warm in the winter and because it's a place where he can be alone with his car, a Ford Mustang GT '94. The car, which he calls "my baby," is all that is left of Eaton's dream.

Eaton was an engineer at Ford, doing exactly what he had always wanted to do. He drove test cars from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds, dipping sharply into curves and testing their performance in ice, rain and wind. And then he made the cars better.

Eaton liked Detroit, and he liked what Detroit stood for. With a little hard work, anyone could make $100,000 (€74,000) a year there. The automakers even paid life-long pensions and provided health insurance for their employees' entire families. Over the course of a century, a social welfare state developed in Detroit that existed nowhere else in America. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union became a unique force in Detroit. Detroit itself became a place resistant to war and crisis alike. Those who, like Eaton, had employment contracts with Ford were sufficiently free of other cares to devote their full attention to cars. "I carry Ford in my heart," says Eaton.

That was until a few years ago, when he noticed that things were no longer moving forward at Ford. Eaton wanted to close the gap that separated his employer from other carmakers, and it irritated him that BMW was consistently ahead of Ford. But his bosses did nothing but issue new rules and procedures and order more and more pointless tests. The dictatorship of the bean counters had begun. "All we were doing were the things that the boss wanted because his boss wanted them," says Eaton.

He doesn't like to be reminded of those days. He feels cheated by Ford, cheated out of his passion. At some point, he says, Ford lost interest in developing its own products, instead striving to deliver what the foreign competition had already been making for a long time. Benchmarking was the new catchword, copycat products were developed and Eaton often found himself driving BMWs on Ford's test tracks. Ford wanted to emulate what its competitors were doing, as far as that was possible. But with each new model, Detroit fell further and further behind.

It was then that Eaton removed the photos from his wall, the shots of his grandfather next to the Fords, sitting, standing, in a conference room, at Christmas parties and in the plant.

Graphic: The Detroit downturn
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: The Detroit downturn

When his second wife became pregnant again, Eaton made a decision. It was the most difficult decision of his life, he says, even more difficult than the decision to divorce his first wife. It was the end of 2006, things were not going well at Ford once again, and his friends were being laid off. Eaton went to his boss and told him that he was finished with Ford. He was asked to sign a document stating that he would never work for Ford again, and in February 2007 he received his last salary and severance pay. He never returned to his office at Ford.

Eaton is now a stay-at-home dad and drives a BMW 3-series, his secret act of revenge against Ford. He keeps the Mustang in the garage, except on special occasions.

But he retains a glimmer of hope, perhaps because he still loves Ford, or perhaps because his two children were born on the same days as the great Fords, his daughter on the birthday of Henry Ford I and his son on the birthday of Henry Ford II. He feels the coincidences are a good omen.

Maybe Detroit will finally learn its lesson, when the crisis gets too big, Eaton thinks to himself. Maybe Detroit will make a comeback, and maybe Ford will then produce a hybrid automobile that people will remember in 50 years, just as people today remember the old Ford Mustang or the 1953 Corvette.

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