It’s time to thaw Carroll out.
I don’t know if you read about this but, the Ford Racing legend Carroll Shelby lies frozen in a box in a Dallas hospital.
I had the chance to meet Carroll at the launch of the Ford GT500. For me it was the chance of a lifetime. Being from East Texas, Carroll was an even larger legend to me than most.
So, here I am in Detroit at a Ford sponsored media drive for the GT500 and there sits Carroll, bigger than life, auto writer after auto writer besieging him with rambling questions about the GT500. If I got in front of him, I promised myself I would make him remember me. So, when my turn came to ask the legend a question I popped off this line. “Hi Carroll, I’m sure you’ve talked enough about the mustang today. What I really want to know is what are your thoughts on those great *^%$#%$# Noonday onions”. He started laughing and ended up giving me all of his personal contact info on a Shelby business card.
That was a great moment that I’ll always have, along with a card with his info written in his hand. This may not be much to you but, for a dude born in New Boston, Texas who loves cars, this was a moment I’ll never forget.
Now, fast forward to today and it makes me sick to see what’s going on. Cleo Shelby, aka, wife number six, is in a battle with the lawyers over Carroll’s remains.
This is wife number six. Really? Wife number six? What makes you think Carroll loved or cared for you anymore than 3 thru 5?
Everyone who owns a Shelby product should get in it, drive to Dallas, back their cars up to Baylor Hospital and rev their engines to defrost the single largest contributor to Ford racing.
That’s right. It’s time to defrost and either cremate or bury our East Texas comrade.
Carroll deserves better than this. Even a life spent suing everyone you know should not end in perpetual non- organic numbness.
Why do people feel the need to control the fate of deceased family members? Money and power, that’s what this is all about.
Look, all parents and children have ups and downs. I assure you if my father had passed when I was between the ages of 17-25 it would be a whole different story than it would be today. But, no matter what happens, family is family and number 6 is number six.
Let’s just hope they don’t let this continue so long they make another dark comedy about East Texas folks, like “Bernie”-which, by the way, was a great movie.
Carroll, here’s hoping you finally get in the fast lane to your final resting place.Read More
A few pictures from the eventRead More
Efficiency, we all say we want it. Our Bosses want it. Mine does. We require it of our cars, home heaters and firearms. But what is the human opportunity cost for task-efficiency? I’ll tell you, it’s southern hospitality. Yeah, I said it, southern hospitality and customer service in a high volume atmosphere do not always co-exist well. Sometimes you can be too busy to take the time to haunch over the counter and friendly-up to everyone in the room.
I’ve been a Seinfeld fan forever and could be the biggest “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fan you’ll ever meet. Both of those shows are set in big metro settings. Seinfeld, in the hard and cold city of New York and “Curb” set in Los Angeles, where the plastic is far more than skin deep. Both locales offer people forged by their environment. Tough and unimpressed.
Not so much in our little town of Tyler. Here you can soak up some serious southern hospitality. I bet Mrs. Palin gets a load of it. Seems fair, she’ll certainly be leaving a load of it. Like it or not, being overly nice is here to stay. Really, I don’t have a problem with it. Actually, it’s pretty cool. After moving from Dallas I found it kind of soothing to walk in Brookshire’s and hear the ever present “thank you”.
But, here’s the deal. If you want to get your car inspected and time is of the essence then drop on by “The Inspection Nazi”. Remember the “Soup Nazi” made famous by Jerry? “No soup for you”. Well his southern equivalent is inspecting cars and trucks in Tyler, Texas.
When you enter the inspection station there is calm. You hear various country artist playing at a low volume in the background. There are four chairs sat in a row for your comfort. They line the front wall. They are for sitting. Wait for your turn and have your insurance card ready. I hope you parked in the assigned parking spots before you came in. Come on, really, there was a sign clearly marking this area. NO INSPECTION FOR YOU! Just kidding, but, expect the owner to make you feel like the unobservant moron that you are. He will. You won’t do it again. I haven’t, not in five years.
What endeared me to this place the first time I dropped by was something I’d never seen in my Forty-three years of life. Ready? You sure? I saw a middle age normal dude treat a twenty something collegiate hottie no different than torn up old me. Or, for that matter the grandmother next to me. In case your keeping score on how often that happens in normal life you can use the same pen to write the score for the rest of your life, because it NEVER HAPPENS. The young girl walked up to the counter looking completely entitled and left completely humbled. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
Here’s the best part though. In the time it’s taken you to read this, your car could have been inspected. Depending on your literacy level. The actual time is usually ten minutes or less. Ten calm minutes.
Don’t expect to be coddled. If you’re getting a car inspected you are old enough to take direction and read signs. Right? God, I hope so.
The owner is not going to advertise with me. Hell, he, like a lot of people, might not be a fan of the show. Point is, I really don’t care. I just like getting my car and truck inspected at Rusty’s 10 Minute Inspection, located at the corner of Troup and the Loop. Rock on Rusty.Read More
Toyota’s powerful friends in Washington
For example, Senate investigator says he felt he was on automaker’s ‘team’
The Associated Press
updated 9:29 a.m. CT, Mon., Feb. 8, 2010
WASHINGTON – The lawmakers now investigating Toyota’s recall include a senator who was so eager to lure the Japanese automaker to his state that he tramped along through fields as its executives scouted plant sites, and a congresswoman who owes much of her wealth to a Toyota supplier.
They and others on the congressional committees investigating Toyota’s massive recall represent states where Toyota has factories and the coveted well-paying manufacturing jobs they bring.
Some members of Congress have been such cheerleaders for Toyota that the public may wonder how they can act objectively as government watchdogs for auto safety and oversight. The company’s executives include a former employee of the federal agency that is supposed to oversee the automaker.
Toyota has sought to sow good will and win allies with lobbying, charitable giving, racing in the American-as-apple pie NASCAR series and, perhaps most important, creating jobs. Will those connections pay off as it tries to minimize fallout from its problems?
The Senate’s lead Toyota investigator, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, credits himself with lobbying Toyota to build a factory in his state. A member of a House investigating panel, California Rep. Jane Harman, represents the district of Toyota’s U.S. headquarters and has financial ties to the company.
Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has known Toyota’s founding family since the 1960s. He was so closely involved with Toyota’s selection of Buffalo, W.Va., for a factory that he slogged through cornfields with Toyota executives scouting locations and still mentions his role in the 1990s deal to this day.
“By the time Toyota decided to make Buffalo its new home,” Rockefeller said in 2006 during the plant’s 10th anniversary, “I felt like a full-fledged member of that site selection team.”
Rockefeller’s committee is expected to review whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acted aggressively enough toward Toyota. The agency’s new chief, David L. Strickland, worked for eight years on Rockefeller’s committee as a lawyer and senior staffer.
Strickland has such close relationships with Rockefeller and other senators that Republican Sen. George LeMieux of Florida asked Strickland at his confirmation hearing two months ago whether he could disagree with Rockefeller, his former boss: “The oversight for you in your role will be from the committee that you once served on,” LeMieux told him.
“I will be honest with you, sir,” Strickland answered. “I’ve had disagreements with the chairman personally. But he signs the paycheck, and he wins. But I will have no problem with that all, sir.”
Rockefeller sees no reason to step aside from his committee’s investigation. Consumer protection is a cornerstone of his work as chairman and that is reflected in the steps he and the committee are taking, including NHTSA briefings and plans to hold hearings and seek recall-related documents, Rockefeller spokeswoman Jamie Smith said.
“While this important work proceeds, Senator Rockefeller is encouraged that Toyota is making every effort to minimize the impact on its U.S. work force, especially during these difficult economic times,” Smith said. “He hopes and expects that Toyota will remain a strong company and is capable of getting back on the right track with safety and consumer confidence.”
Toyota’s U.S. operations are based in Torrance, Calif., in Harman’s district. She serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating Toyota’s recall.
Harman and her husband, Sidney, held at least $115,000 in Toyota stock as of her most recent financial disclosure report. The company to which the couple owes much of their multimillion-dollar fortune, Harman International Industries, founded by Sidney Harman, sells vehicle audio and entertainment systems to Toyota. The two companies teamed up on a charitable education project in 2003, when Sidney Harman was Harman International’s executive chairman. He retired from the Harman board in December 2008.
When leading Toyota engineer David Hermance died in a 2006 plane crash in California, Rep. Harman took to the floor to pay tribute, calling Hermance the “Father of the American Prius.”
“It was David’s passionate approach and commitment to the environment that helped persuade a skeptical industry and auto-buying public to appreciate the enormous potential of his work,” Harman said at the time. “In fact, Madam Speaker, my family drives two hybrid vehicles — one in California and the other in Washington, D.C.”
Harman didn’t respond to The Associated Press’ request for comment.
Several other lawmakers on investigating committees also represent states with Toyota factories, including Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. Toyota says it employs nearly 36,000 people in the U.S. and indirectly employs about 166,000 people at dealerships and suppliers.
Republicans also have spoken of Toyota’s importance to their states. “Kentucky is still reaping the rewards of its 20-year partnership with Toyota, and we hope to continue to do so for years to come,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in marking the 2006 anniversary of a Toyota plant there.
Still, Toyota has a long way to go to win the wholesale affection of Congress. Democrats criticize it for nonunion shops. Some lawmakers suggest it benefits from unfair Japanese trade policies at the expense of automakers they consider American, such as Ford and General Motors.
Toyota has tried hard to be thought of as an American brand. Its efforts include trying to become part of the nation’s car culture.
In recent years it broke into the highest ranks of the beloved U.S. sport of auto racing, fielding cars in NASCAR races in front of millions of die-hard fans. Popular driver Rusty Wallace announced in November that his team would race in Toyotas starting with the 2010 season.
Its U.S. charity doles out millions each year, sometimes in photo opportunities with politicians. It gave $5.6 million to charitable causes from mid-2007 to mid-2008, much of it focused on education and the environment, according to its most recent report. Toyota promised former President Bill Clinton’s charity that it would spend $496,000 to sustain forests in the southern United States.
“Words cannot express the generosity that Toyota has shown Kentucky through industry job opportunities and community service,” Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., said in a 2006 Senate speech.
Toyota’s lobbying spending in Washington has risen as its U.S. sales have. Toyota spent $5 million last year lobbying on such issues as industry regulation, energy, labor laws, patents, trade, taxes and government contracting. That’s more than five times what it spent a decade earlier, when one of its lobbying reports acknowledged that its mission included “reducing unnecessary regulations.” It is active in several trade associations that lobby, including the National Association of Manufacturers.
Its Washington team is well-connected.
Its main liaison to the federal government on vehicle safety issues is Christopher Tinto, who worked for several years in NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation as a vehicle defect investigator and in its Office of Vehicle Safety Standards, where he mostly worked on heavy-truck braking standards.
Among its lobbyists is Josephine Cooper, who was chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry coalition to which Toyota belongs, and who also worked at the Environmental Protection Agency and as an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney when he was in Congress.
Its lobbyists also include Tom Lehner, who was an aide to five senators and was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s treasurer. Another lobbyist, Robert Chiappetta, organizes an annual event in which Toyota sends employees to Washington to lobby Congress and he was a delegate for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama at the 2008 Virginia Democratic Party Convention.Toyota recently retained Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a well-connected, bipartisan lobbying and public affairs firm that will help Toyota try to contain the damage in Washington, the AP has learned. On its Web site, the firm promises to “limit damage to reputation.” The AP also has learned that Toyota has retained The Glover Park Group, a Democratic public affairs-lobbying firm, for crisis management.
Toyota has a diversity advisory board that includes Federico Pena, a Clinton administration Cabinet secretary, national co-chairman of Obama’s presidential campaign and a member of Obama’s transition team; Clinton administration Labor Secretary Alexis Herman; former Republican Rep. Susan Molinari, now a lobbyist working with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; and Gilbert Casellas, former chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, former general counsel of the Air Force and former co-chairman of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board.
One of Toyota’s executives, Tom Stricker, serves on the EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee, and a former executive, Thomas Zawacki, is commissioner of Kentucky’s Vehicle Regulation Department.
Toyota also is a federal contractor. Its contracts in the 2008 budget year included at least $3.8 million in business providing the State Department with motor vehicles and trailers, according to figures compiled by OMB Watch, a nonpartisan group that tracks government spending.
Toyota has not been a big player in U.S. campaigns. Its U.S. employees contributed roughly $30,000 to federal candidates in 2007-08, compared with about $880,000 from Ford Motor Co. employees and about $799,000 from GM workers.
Unlike rivals Ford and GM, Toyota doesn’t have a political action committee to dole out campaign contributions. Toyota’s PAC would have difficulty distinguishing itself from Toyota’s Japanese management to the degree needed to be legal under U.S. campaign finance laws.
That makes Toyota an unwitting example of an issue that has become a hot topic in Washington in recent days: foreign companies with U.S. subsidiaries and their involvement in U.S. elections. The Supreme Court ruled last month that U.S. corporations and unions can spend treasury money on election ads attacking federal candidates. Some Democrats including President Obama argue the ruling would let foreign corporations with U.S. subsidiaries sneak into U.S. election activities, and they plan legislation to close such a loophole.Read More
NYT: Toyota’s slow awakening to deadly issue
Carmaker’s handling of recall shows how it lost sight of its bedrock principle
By Bill Vlasic
The New York Times
updated 9:55 a.m. CT, Mon., Feb. 1, 2010
DETROIT – The 911 call came at 6:35 p.m. on Aug. 28 from a car that was speeding out of control on Highway 125 near San Diego.
The caller, a male voice, was panic-stricken: “We’re in a Lexus … we’re going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck … we’re in trouble … there’s no brakes … we’re approaching the intersection … hold on … hold on and pray … pray …”
The call ended with the sound of a crash.
The Lexus ES 350 sedan, made by Toyota, had hit a sport utility vehicle, careened through a fence, rolled over and burst into flames. All four people inside were killed: the driver, Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, and his wife, daughter and brother-in-law.
It was the tragedy that forced Toyota, which had received more than 2,000 complaints of unintended acceleration, to step up its own inquiry, after going through multiple government investigations since 2002.
Yet only last week did the company finally appear to come to terms with the scope of the problem — after expanding a series of recalls to cover millions of vehicles around the world, incalculable damage to its once-stellar reputation for quality and calls for Congressional hearings.
With prodding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Toyota halted production and sales of eight models, including its top-selling Camry sedan.
And late last week, the government allowed the company to go ahead to try yet another new fix for its vehicles, which it is expected to announce on Monday.
At almost every step that led to its current predicament, Toyota underestimated the severity of the sudden-acceleration problem affecting its most popular cars. It went from discounting early reports of problems to overconfidently announcing diagnoses and insufficient fixes.
As recently as the fall, Toyota was still saying it was confident that loose floor mats were the sole cause of any sudden acceleration, issuing an advisory to millions of Toyota owners to remove them. The company said on Nov. 2 that “there is no evidence to support” any other conclusion, and added that its claim was backed up by the federal traffic safety agency.
But, in fact, the agency had not signed on to the explanation, and it issued a sharp rebuke. Toyota’s statement was “misleading and inaccurate,” the agency said. “This matter is not closed.”
The effect on Toyota’s business is already being felt. Its sales in the United States in January are expected to drop 11 percent from a year earlier, and its market share in the United States is likely to fall to its lowest point since 2006, according to Edmunds.com, an automotive research Web site.
The company has not yet projected the cost of its recalls and lost sales. But a prolonged slowdown in sales could substantially hurt a company that once minted profit.
Toyota’s handling of the problem is a story of how a long-trusted carmaker lost sight of one of its bedrock principles.
Company failed to pull the ‘andon cord’
In Toyota lore, the ultimate symbol of the company’s attention to detail is the “andon cord,” a rope that workers on the assembly line can pull if something is wrong, immediately shutting down the entire line. The point is to fix a small problem before it becomes a larger one.
But in the broadest sense, Toyota itself failed to pull the andon cord on this issue, and treated a growing safety issue as a minor glitch — a point the company’s executives are now acknowledging in a series of humbling apologies.
“Every day is a lesson and there is something to be learned,” Yoshimi Inaba, Toyota’s top executive in North America, said at the Detroit auto show in January. “This was a hard lesson.”
In Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Akio Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota’s founder who now heads the company, told a Japanese broadcaster that he was “deeply sorry” for the problems.
Toyota’s safety problems may prove to be a hard lesson for the N.H.T.S.A., as well. Six separate investigations were conducted by the agency into consumer complaints of unintended acceleration, and none of them found defects in Toyotas other than unsecured floor mats.
In at least three cases, the agency denied petitions for further investigative action because it did not see a pattern of defects and because of a “need to allocate and prioritize N.H.T.S.A.’s limited resources” elsewhere, according to agency documents.
‘Everybody’s a Toyota lawyer now’
The investigations, and Toyota’s handling of the problem, will be the subject of Congressional hearings.
But the publicity surrounding the accident near San Diego, and Toyota’s repeated inability to quell consumer concerns with a definitive solution, has also prompted a flood of lawsuits reminiscent of the litigation a decade ago arising out of the rollovers of Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires.
In addition to cases related to individual accidents, several class-action suits have been filed against Toyota. The cases are expected to focus on why the government and the carmaker were unable to identify problems beyond the floor mats, despite mounting instances of runaway cars.
David Ennis, a Washington lawyer, said he was working on three lawsuits that had been in the works for five months. “Over the last 24 hours, everybody’s a Toyota lawyer now,” he said last week.
Toyota now believes that the trouble with its cars is twofold — a combination of loose floor mats that can interfere with accelerator pedals, and a pedal that itself can stick when a driver depresses it.
Toyota has told its dealers that it will announce its fix for the faulty accelerators on Monday, but has yet to release details. The CTS Corporation, the supplier of the pedals used in recalled models, is making replacement parts. But Toyota is also expected to try to repair or modify the pedals in some vehicles.
Before last August, Toyota had issued three limited recalls to replace floor mats and change an interior part that could catch on accelerator pedals.
But after the fatal crash near San Diego, and the public release of the 911 tape, Toyota was forced to, as it said in the fall, “take a closer look.”
That crash, said Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, “was a watershed event.”
“It captured on tape the deaths of four people in an uncontrolled acceleration where the driver was an experienced highway patrol officer,” he said. “If he couldn’t bring the car under control, who could?”
A lawyer for the Saylor family said he wished that the federal government had acted more quickly about concerns over the sudden acceleration.
“They’re clearly starting to become more interested in the problem and more attentive to it,” said the lawyer, John Gomez, of San Diego. “Do I wish they would have done more sooner? Obviously.”
In one federal inquiry on Toyota models built from 2002 to 2005, investigators found that 20 percent of the 432 complaints studied involved “sudden or unintended acceleration.”
But no defects were uncovered in any of the vehicles, and the rate of incidents was considered “unremarkable” in the context of the millions of cars on the road.
The petitioner in that case, Jordan Ziprin of Phoenix, said the regulators had focused exclusively on mechanical issues with his car, a 2002 Camry.
“I believe this is an electronic issue, but they have been avoiding that possibility entirely,” Mr. Ziprin said in an interview.
Electronic system at fault?
Several lawsuits against Toyota also suggest that the company’s electronic system could be at fault.
A Toyota spokesman said the company had looked extensively at its computerized electronic throttle system, which controls the speed of its cars, and had found no faults.
“If we found anything, we would take appropriate action,” said the spokesman, Mike Michels. “But we continue to think it’s entirely unlikely that an electronic malfunction is the cause.”
A lawyer for a California man whose wife died in a 2007 crash of a Camry said the company was avoiding a potentially more pervasive problem by focusing on mats and stuck pedals, rather than its electronics.
“There are thousands of these complaints, and we’re not seeing floor mats and we’re not seeing stuck throttles,” said the lawyer, Donald H. Slavik, of Milwaukee. The traffic safety agency “simply doesn’t have the resources to analyze the electronic systems of these cars.”
The agency, which is part of the Transportation Department, has stepped up its oversight of Toyota drastically since the fatal accident that involved the Saylor family.
Agency officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was still being investigated, say their responsibility is to identify defects in autos, not to develop remedies to fix them. That responsibility, these officials said, rests with the automaker.
Many complaints by consumers were eliminated by the agency during its investigations because of possible driver error, or the lack of sufficient information about the circumstances of the incidents.
The agency separated braking problems from acceleration issues, further narrowing the number of complaints that could be linked to a faulty pedal or an electronic malfunction. Cases involving brief periods of acceleration were also considered separately from those that involved prolonged, high-speed incidents, many of which involved accidents.
Sean Kane, whose consulting firm, Safety Research and Strategies, counts plaintiffs’ lawyers among its clients, contends that the agency did not push Toyota for more data, and too quickly accepted the company’s explanations about floor-mat problems.
“The agency has not been very forceful with Toyota at all,” Mr. Kane said. The agency “always took the low-hanging fruit for an explanation, which is the floor mat.”
‘It’s not a typical case’
The discussions between federal officials and Toyota intensified in December, when the acting chief of the agency, Ronald Medford, flew to Japan to hold meetings with senior company executives, according to a government official with knowledge of the trip who was not authorized to speak publicly.
On Jan. 19, two days before the recall for the sudden-acceleration problem, Mr. Inaba of Toyota met in Washington with Mr. Medford and the new head of the agency, David Strickland.
The mounting number of complaints and accidents has led the agency to be more outspoken than it usually is during continuing investigations.
Last week, the transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said in an interview with a Chicago radio station that Toyota had halted production of recalled vehicles “because we asked them to.”
Indeed, Toyota had to be told by regulators to shut down production and suspend sales of the cars and trucks in the latest recall until it had the parts necessary to fix them. It was yet another example of a slow response from a company long known for its meticulous approach to building cars and servicing customers.
Mr. Michels, the Toyota spokesman, said the company never before had to halt production or stop selling millions of vehicles involved in a recall.
“It’s not a typical case,” he said. “Usually in a ‘stop sale’ it’s a very small quantity.”
In its attempts to play down the problem, Toyota may have raised more doubts among consumers.
“It thinks it can control this crisis, and in the process has thrown its own credibility out the window,” said Mr. Kane, the safety consultant whose firm has documented thousands of reports of unintended acceleration.
Fear about driving the vehicles
Some owners of recalled Toyotas are now saying they are afraid to drive them. “I live only a half mile from the office and I drive there,” said Elaine Byrnes, a Camry owner in Los Angeles. “If I had to go farther, I wouldn’t consider it.”
And the scrutiny of Toyotas will not end with its new plan to replace the pedals. Accidents are receiving swift attention from federal regulators.
On Dec. 26, a 2008 Toyota Avalon — one of the cars under recall — crashed just outside of Dallas. A police officer in Southlake, Tex., Roderick Page, said in an interview that “for undetermined reasons, the vehicle left the main roadway, and went through a metal pipe fence, striking a tree and causing the vehicle to flip and land upside down in a pond.”
All four people in the car died. “There was no evidence that they attempted to hit the brake or slow down,” he said. “Honestly, my reaction is, ‘Wow.’ ”
Two weeks later, an investigator from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration visited Southlake to inspect the car, accompanied by a Toyota engineer. Mr. Page said one factor they immediately ruled out was the floor mats, which were in the trunk.
This article, “Toyota’s Slow Awakening to a Deadly Problem,” first appeared in The New York Times. Matt Richtel contributed reporting from San Francisco, Clifford Krauss from Houston and Matthew L. Wald from Washington.
Copyright © 2010 The New York TimesRead More
Recall may push Toyota to tipping point
GM, Ford, others move in to grab share from wounded Japanese giant
By Paul A. Eisenstein
updated 8:06 a.m. CT, Wed., Feb. 3, 2010
What a difference a year makes. As the otherwise dismal 2009 got under way for the auto industry, it looked like Toyota, the new global sales leader, was in the driver’s seat. But 12 months later, the hobbled Japanese giant is looking a lot more like the walking wounded.
Few could have anticipated the problems that have befallen the Japanese maker, which ended 2009 with a record recall that was expanded in January, leaving millions of customers waiting for word on when they can get potentially sticky gas pedals repaired.
With Toyota’s reputation for building safe, reliable vehicles in tatters, competitors have taken aim, hoping to gain lost ground. Among the makers who see an opportunity to take market share from their Asian nemesis are General Motors, Ford and South Korea’s Hyundai.
“This is embarrassing for us having this kind of recall situation, but it doesn’t mean we’ve lost our edge on quality,” Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz told reporters this week. He acknowledged, however, that the reputation for quality is the “cornerstone” of the brand’s enviable presence in the U.S. market.
Toyota on Tuesday reported a 16 percent drop in U.S. sales last month, posting its worst result in 12 years, after taking the highly unusual step of halting sales on eight models with the defective part. GM and Ford were among the brands that posted double-digit gains in January.
Like every manufacturer, Toyota has had to deal with recalls over the years, but never have they been so large nor with such potentially life-threatening problems. In October, the maker announced it would recall 3.8 million vehicles due to “carpet entrapment,” the possibility that loose floor mats could jam their accelerator pedals, as appeared to happen in an accident that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and three members of his family.
At the time, Bob Carter, Toyota division general manager, insisted that complaints about other potential causes of so-called “unintended acceleration” were “unwarranted speculation.” But the company now admits that even then it was beginning to receive credible reports that gas pedals could stick on their own. That finally led to the latest recall announced Jan. 19 and then expanded even further. Initially Toyota said the recall would affect another 2.3 million vehicles, but that number has grown to 4.5 million in recent days, while the first recall’s tally has jumped to 5.3 million.
Complicating matters, Toyota has taken the highly unusual step of advising dealers not to sell eight of its more popular models, which together account for about 4,000 units of volume daily. And it has idled five North American plants for at least a week until replacement parts can be shipped to the factories.
GM was first to fire a salvo at its archrival, which displaced the humbled American maker as global sales king at the end of 2008.
GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson said the company’s dealers “were getting inundated” with calls from Toyota owners looking to trade in. So the Detroit maker sweetened the pot with an offer for any potential customer trading in a Toyota. GM buyers can get either $1,000 in cash, $1,000 off lease payments or a zero-interest, 60-month loan. The program, which began last Wednesday, runs through the end of February.
It has been more than a bit controversial with some industry executives considering the sales grab a cheap shot. Toyota executives, they note, supported General Motors last year when the big American maker needed a massive government bailout to survive.
But some inside GM feel that were it not for Toyota, GM wouldn’t have been in trouble in the first place. And besides, said spokesman Wilkinson, “Carmakers are always looking for a competitive advantage.”
GM’s strategy was quickly copied by a number of rivals, including Ford and Hyundai.
In years past loyal Toyota customers might simply have waited until the hold on sales of the eight affected products was lifted, but that seems less likely now, due to the severity of the problems and uncertainty over a fix. And there are some customers who simply cannot wait, perhaps because they have vehicles coming off lease that need be replaced immediately, or because they are driving a clunker that won’t make it to the end of winter.
And if quality is a key driver, the fact is that the gap among manufacturers has been narrowing significantly in recent years, said Dave Sargent, director of automotive research at California-based J.D. Power and Associates. Indeed, more than a few recent studies have found Toyota slipping behind. GM’s Buick brand recently topped the Toyota’s luxury Lexus line in J.D. Power’s long-term reliability study.
Meanwhile, the highly influential Consumer Reports has praised Ford for delivering “world class quality” on a par with the best imports, while GM’s newest models, such as the Chevrolet Malibu sedan and Equinox crossover also were singled out.
That’s something General Motors has been actively telling customers in a recent series of TV commercials that skip the serene driving shots in favor of direct comparisons, often against Toyota.
This is “absolutely” an opportunity for GM and Ford, said Power’s Sargent. “They stand to gain significantly from this. Their images are clearly improving, and for each and every Toyota model affected by the recall, they have a direct competitor available.”
For his part, Toyota’s Lentz declined to forecast the potential impact of the recall on the company’s sales and market share, but neither did he deny that the company could be at a tipping point.
“It all depends on how well we take care of the customers” with the two recalls, Lentz said. “If we do well, the impact will be minimal, so the heat is on us to do this well.”
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