George Will

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Commuting to and from work must be a blast for William Clay Ford Jr. in his gorgeous green, fully loaded version of the new Mustang that his company is selling as fast as it can make them. But being at work is a lot less fun these days for the entire domestic auto industry.

     Henry Ford, the founding father of that industry and this company, grew up in this suburb contiguous to Detroit. Today, his great-grandson, 48, the company's CEO, says ``the business model really hasn't changed in 100 years'' -- internal combustion engine vehicles, sold through dealerships -- but the industry faces ``a very different kind of future.''

     Much better informed customers will increasingly buy on the Internet, or surf it for information enabling them to arrive at dealerships ``much better informed than the person they are talking to.'' Soon they may be talking about vehicles powered by hydrogen.

     Furthermore, Ford says, because ``nowhere else do you have 90 minutes of people's undivided attention each day,'' Silicon Valley wants to equip cars to feed information to drivers -- reading them their e-mails, etc. But should drivers' attentions be so divided? ``You do hit the 'tilt' sign at some point,'' he acknowledges.

     The way to get to a glistening future may be to get back to the chrome-covered 1950s, when each autumn boys mounted their balloon-tire Schwinns and rode around to dealerships to savor the excitement of the curtain rising on a new model year. The loss of theatricality -- today's seemingly random arrival of too many models, too many of them boring -- is central to the domestic industry's decline.

     Robert Lutz, head of GM's product development, says, ``We're not in the transportation business, we are in the arts and entertainment business.'' Ford, perhaps with his Mustang in mind, emphatically agrees: ``There's a high emotional component to buying decisions.''

     And, he insists, there still is a unique emotional facet of working -- from the assembly line to the executive suites -- in the automobile industry. Assembly workers, he says, ``take it personally if their vehicle'' -- the one they assemble -- ``isn't selling.'' Ford, he says, has ``third, fourth even fifth generation'' workers.

     But their relatives worked for a company that was much more in the automobile business than it now is. Today, in America, it is a truck manufacturer -- F-150s and SUVs -- with just one vibrant niche in the automobile market: that Mustang, the scarcity of which, Ford says, fuels the excitement about it.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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