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Published: Tuesday, 4/28/2009

Round, Round, Get Around, I Get Around

Bert:

The April 30 deadline is just a couple days away, so this Chrysler-Fiat drama should soon play out.

I sort of feel like this would be a shotgun marriage between a regal looking, but faded suitor and a desperate housewife.

Chrysler is desperate to do something to satisfy the U.S. government's restructuring demands. It also needs Fiat's small-car technology if the future is to be anything but a mirage.

What does Fiat need? Oddly enough, it needs money, too. It's holding a gun to the German government for a bailout of its own and some cynics might suggest Fiat's real interest in Chrysler is the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars that would likely come with it. Cynics always say stuff like that.

I mean, wasn't Daimler healthier when it affiliated with Chrysler than Fiat is now? We know how that worked out.

We're supposed to believe that Chrysler and Fiat, with maybe Opel mixed in courtesy of a GM giveaway, could become a profitable global player. I'm not sure the economy allows for such optimism.

But, by golly, we'd better hope it happens and that it works, or at minimum fools the government into thinking it is working. Because what happens to Toledo if our state-of-the-art Jeep Assembly Plant turns into the biggest self-storage facility in the world? If there isn't something rolling off those lines, you might as well roll up our sidewalks, right?

Fiat has reportedly discussed moving Chrysler's minivan operations to Toledo. It's roughly half the size of the 25-year-old Windsor plant that currently assembles minivans and, theoretically, the Toledo plant, which is now reduced to a single shift, would be back to a 24-hour operation and three shifts. Re-tooling parts of our plant to do that would be expensive, which doesn't quite fit in with the overall game plan, but let's dream anyway.

My dear-departed daddy always told me not to get ahead at someone else's expense, so it would be awkward to see Toledo get a break at Windsor's considerable loss.

But these are desperate times, Bert, and both Chrysler and our gigantic north-end auto plant are the most desperate of housewives. We need a match made in heaven or hell. Why be picky?

Chrysler and the UAW have reportedly agreed on labor concessions. That might provide relief in the hundreds of millions, but this is a tens of billions game. The picture that has been painted is anything from a healthy alliance with Fiat, to Chapter 11 bankruptcy and a resulting downsizing that might find the Jeep brand to be expendable, to Chrysler being auctioned off by the piece.

I mean, Bert, what do you think would happen to our city if the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex went dark and silent?

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Dave:

Here's a paper bag. Breathe into it for awhile. Don't automakers get to huddle with certain monster-sized banks under that sheltering and massive governmental umbrella known as Too Big To Get Rained On/Let Fail?

Even under bankruptcy scenarios, doesn't the government maintain a certain level of bossiness?

Shoulder shrug.

Meh.

I confess to a small ember of weariness within. I'm trying to extinguish it, trying to follow every development with wide-eyed interest, but I'll be honest: This economy (which encompasses the general matter of certain industries' fitness, automakers included) is grinding me down to a nub.

It's both exhausting and soul-crushing to keep current and upbeat. And that's coming from me, someone whose sole reason for growing up here traces back to my father's relocation for a career with, yes, Jeep. Jeep looms as large in my childhood as those summer sunset neighborhood games of tag.

They say Pontiac will soon join Oldsmobile to rust away in retirement in the Once-Great Domestic Cars Junkyard, located in some unzoned township of auto afterlife.

Well, so be it.

Maybe (you'll forgive me for sounding here like the sadsack typically found slumped at the end of the bar) this is what has to happen - to Jeep, Pontiac, to the whole lot of 'em.

Maybe the only way to restart the American auto industry is from scratch.

(Heaven knows when we leave it in the hands of automakers, they miss the mark.)

The U.S. auto industry grew great and mighty in postwar America by responding to conditions around it. You could argue the same industry has grown feeble and weak by failing to respond as conditions changed.

An entire gearhead songbook about our cars dates back to the '60s, charting in pop-culture the triumph of American automaking.

Consider Pontiac GTOs (make mine cherry red), those once-storied vehicles: powerful, quick, sexy beasts on wheels.

What could we sing about now? Hummers? Bloated, crude, graceless, cartoon-like testimony to American excess. God help us.

OK, yes, I acknowledge this much: I'll probably read all this in an hour and disagree with myself. (Well, not the Hummer part, though: that's just Little-Man Syndrome with chrome.)

Because, yes, on behalf of a battered nation and a beat-up industry, me myself and I are having a small pity party at the moment. I'll regroup and get chipper again soon enough.

But you know, as a nation we excel (or used to) at invention. So maybe our auto industry benefits most right now from a total re-invention.?

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dhack@theblade.com

roberta@theblade.com



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