This is a little personal story about the American car industry, as well as a review of a great episode of This American Life . The episode in question is “NUMMI”, episode #403, available for immediately listening or download here. And the car is the Chevrolet Nova. More specifically, my 1986 Chevrolet Nova.
When I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago at the very beginning of 1986, I drove there in my 1982 Pontiac Phoenix. The Phoenix was an awful car. It was one of GM’s notorious X-body cars, the Pontiac version of the Chevrolet Citation. I had bought it used, but with only 4,000 miles on it. And from the day I got it, it was pretty much always getting serviced. The first six weeks I had the car, the transmission fell apart. I mean literally fell apart: They undid the bolts under the transmission, and the whole thing fell out and crumbled on the garage floor.
The alternator had to be replaced twice in the 18 months I owned the car. The radiator once. Brake pads, twice, entire brake assembly, once. For a while, the air conditioner heated up the car and the heater cooled it off.
It did have a nice interior, however. I remember my Dad emphasizing that fact.
In the fall of 1986, after nine months of driving the Phoenix all over Los Angeles, it finally gave up the ghost completely. At a stop light one day in Culver City, the car make a loud sound like that of a giant sighing. The brake pedal suddenly lost all tension and slammed against the floor. And the car began to creep though the intersection, right into oncoming traffic.
15 minutes later, a cop helped me push it off to the side of the road. I took it to the nearest brake shop… driving at 5 miles an hour with the door open, so I could drag my foot to bring the car to a stop. The Meineke guys were all smirking. A quick look at the car, and the service dude told me the entire brake system needed to be replaced. “But man… it’s not worth it. If I were you, I’d ditch this piece of crap”, the service manager told me bluntly.
They did something with tying off a hose or pumping it full of fluid or some such, which they said would last for about a week if I didn’t drive faster than 50 an hour or so. I did it. Even that was $150.
Two days later, driving down La Brea Avenue, the car started to rattle and cough. And then there was a very loud noise, a kind of popping and crashing sound, and a dent appeared on the hood – pushed out from the inside. The Phoenix just stopped, and I coasted it to the side of the road.
And that was it. It has thrown a rod, along with at least one other bad thing that I didn’t bother to deal with. I had the car towed to the dealer. Even the crappy extended warranty I had on the car would not cover a complete engine rebuild – because I’d already used most of my “deductible” on the new transmission.
So I sat down with the nice man at the Chevy dealer – because I still had almost a year of payments left to make on the car – and worked out buying a new car. I was all set to get a new Camaro. Silver. T-Top. Basic 4 cylinder. Mmmm boy. I had the keys in my hand, and then they did the final credit check. And the salesman snatched the keys back out of my hand.
“The only thing we have that you can afford”, he said, sneering a little bit (I swear to god I’m not making that up, he honestly did sneer, the side of his lip curled up with actual disdain) “is one of the Novas. The Toyota things.” He waved his arm towards the opposite end of the dealership.
Now, I grew up in a military household. To my father, there were (and still are) only two places that made cars: Detroit and Germany. Although we had a few Volkswagens here and there, every other car we had was a True Blue American Car Made By Real Americans In America. Mostly Chevys, but we had at least one Ford that I know of. So, honestly, I had not even thought of buying a Japanese car. Besides, I was locked into my GMAC loan.
The smarmy Camaro salesman handed me off to a sadder-but-wiser looking older salesman, who gave me an earnest review of the Nova. He explained that it was exactly the same as a Toyota Corolla, but made by GM workers in a plant in California, under Toyota supervision. It was the first joint venture between an American and a Japanese car company, and this was the second year they had been available. He told me what a great deal it was – I was getting a Toyota Corolla, but for less money and made in America!
To be honest, it wasn’t like I had a lot of choice, and it did seem like a decent enough little car. I drove off with one that was just a little above “the base” – a blue, four-door 1986 Chevrolet Nova with cloth seats, automatic transmission, no air conditioning, basic FM radio.
As I drove it home for the first time, it felt good. It was solid. It hugged the road. It accelerated nicely with its tiny 4-cylinder engine, much better than my crappy Phoenix ever had. The brakes worked! And even without A/C, the vent system was powerful and blew air through the car well. I was still pretty miffed about not getting the Camaro, but still, it seemed like a nice enough little car…
Well. I drove that car for the next six years, putting 89,238 miles on it before I finally sold it. It became, to this day, the only car that I ever completely paid off. I continued to drive it for another year, even after it was paid for and the warranty had expired. I drove that car all the way through Baja Mexico, over a thousand miles to Cabo San Lucas, and back. I drove it to San Francisco, Las Vegas, and even through the snow to Mammoth Mountain for skiing. It took me everywhere I wanted to go.
After the first year, I upgraded the stereo to add a cassette player and four speakers. And other than regular service, that was the only money I ever had to spend on that car. It never broke down. Never. Nothing every had to be replaced. Nothing rattled. Nothing broke. The transmission was flawless. The brakes always worked. It never stalled. The interior stayed solid and wear-free for six years. Even the carpets stood up to the test of numerous hikes, ski boots, and I can’t even remember what all else.
I paid, I think, $7,500 for that car brand new. Six years later, in 1992, I sold it for $3,000 cash. One of my friends said I was a fool for selling that car, since it was paid for and ran great. In retrospect, he was right. I moved “up” into a Ford Explorer, which was the first of a series of SUV’s that I bought, until I finally moved back into a small car in 2005 (the Mini Cooper).
I have very found memories of that Nova. And one last little tidbit: Two years after I sold it, I was driving down PCH (Pacific Coast Highway, outside Malibu) behind… a blue Chevy Nova. Frank was in the car seat next to me, and I pointed at the car, telling him I used to have a car “just like that”. And then I noticed… the license plate was my old plate. And my “Northwestern University” sticker was still on the rear window. It was my actual car!
I tried to wave at the driver – I was pretty sure it was the same woman I had sold the car to – but she didn’t see me, and pulled away into traffic. I noticed that the car was still running fine, and it was still clean and dent-free.
The Chevrolet Nova got great reviews while it was made, and even Consumer Reports said it was the most reliable car GM made. I had always assumed that it was just because it was, after all, an exact clone of a Toyota Corolla.
And then, I heard the latest episode of This American Life , hosted by Ira Glass. Although This American Life is a radio (and TV) show on PBS, I listen to it as a downloaded podcast. I listen to the show regularly (great to listen to in the car on the long drive to work), so when I saw the title of this week’s episode – “NUMMI” – I didn’t really care what it meant, since I listen to every episode regardless.
Over the course of an hour, the show details how the NUMMI plant came to be, going online in late 1984. It describes how the workers traveled over to Japan, for intense training in the concept of car teamwork. It includes frank, honest interviews with auto workers, union members, and GM and Toyota executives.
What is truly amazing – and very, very sad – is that way back in 1985, GM knew exactly how to make high-quality, reliable cars. They were doing it at the NUMMI plant. The union workers put aside their seniority and their perks, and worked side by side with management. They fully embraced the entire concept of “Kaizen” – constant, continuous improvement – in all aspects of the company. At the NUMMI plant, by the end of 1986, they were building the highest quality, most reliable vehicles on the American continent. They were even keeping pace neck-and-neck with their Japanese counterparts.
In the show, as revealed by interview after interview with former line workers, you can hear the pride in the worker’s voices. For the first time, one says, he looked forward to going to work. He swelled with pride when a new Nova came off the line, 100% free of flaws.
Another talked about how he printed up a batch of postcards with his name and address on them, and whenever he saw a new Nova in a parking lot, he’d slide the postcard under the windshield wiper. What did the card say? “I built this car, and I’d love to hear what you think”. For years, he’d get comments back from owners – almost all of them positive.
One worker, who was planning on taking early retirement, stayed for an additional 18 years until he was forced to retire. He said he just liked what he was doing too much to stop. Management became actual members of the team, even working the production line alongside their union counterparts.
So…. why didn’t the rest of GM just do the same thing? Why, rather than extend this technique to the entire company, did they instead wind up filing for bankruptcy in 2008, the largest company in history to do so?
The second half of the show tells us why. More interviews reveal that for the most part, the majority of General Motors did not care at all about… well… actually making cars. They cared about protecting their jobs, their exact way of life, their little fiefdoms. They did not want change. They wanted things to stay exactly the same. None of them believed that GM could ever fall, and they saw no reason to rock the boat.
And so NUMMI remained as the one and only unionized, American operated factory that practiced the same production methods as their Japanese counterparts. After 1988, NUMMI switched over to making the Geo line, and then later to just making Toyotas – Corollas, Tacomas, etc – when GM dropped their small cars in favor of larger trucks and SUVs. It finally closed down in 2008, a victim of the bankruptcy. Joint ventures, even successful ones, can’t survive a complete dismantling of one of the parents.
I’ve always enjoyed This American Life, but this is a particularly stand-out episode. If you have any interest at all in why American car manufacturers fell so far and so (relatively) fast, listen to this episode . It is awesome in its clear, frank attitude about exactly what went wrong. And how, if only more people had been willing to accept a new way of thinking and working, GM might have not only regained their number one position, but could have climbed even further. Instead – well, we all know what happened instead.
At the end of the show, one retired worker comments on how the only thing that really saddened him about the GM bankruptcy was that the NUMMI plant was getting shut down. “I loved that plant”, he says wistfully. “It changed me life. I’m not kidding, it really did. It changed the way I thought about everything, and it gave me pride in what I was doing every single day I went to work”. He didn’t take a vacation day for one of those eighteen years, he reveals.
So when you wonder… how did American end up in such a bad recession? How did we lose our lead in such a short time? How could we, as a country, have fallen so far? Listen to “NUMMI”. In a nutshell, it’s all there.
Chevrolet Novas from the 1980s are still on the road. And they’re still holding together.
And that’s the best testimony I can think of to what could have been.