It seems incredible now we look back on it, but 2008 started in a fairly ordinary way. The Foreman spent his time trying to work out what the car companies would do next. By the year’s end, it was all about working out which one of them would survive.
The year began, as 2007 had closed, with the industry furiously trying to look like it was doing the right thing by CO2. Honda’s plan for hundreds of thousands of new hybrids emerged, and the Germans and French also worked furiously on full and mild hybrids. The Tesla was the poster-child for those of us who hope we can go green without being utterly miserable, but for most of the year it was infuriatingly delayed.
Trouble was, with every new technology that improved consumption, the carmakers would launch another new bulky, heavy car. At the Geneva Show in March, I counted 13 new crossover 4x4s. Now if you imagine every crossover buyer has come out of a heavyweight traditional 4×4, then I guess they do reduce fuel use. But if the crossovers are sold to people who formerly had a car (as they must be because there aren’t enough trad 4×4 owners to go around) then they’re an environmental catastrophe.
Talking of SUVs, Land Rover together with Jaguar was sold to Tata. I did wonder (still do) how, without the facility to share with Ford, they’d pay for the environmental technologies that they’d inevitably need in the coming years. But the Indians looked rich, and they looked like the best buyer at the time.
And of course we all got frothed up about the our favourite madly expensive cars. I remember Rolls-Royce launching the £300,000 Phantom Coupe in June. No-one really spoke about the coming financial crash. Because even then, no-one really saw it coming. Even as late as August, when I first drove GM’s fabulous extravagance, the Corvette ZR1, there wasn’t too much of a smell of irony.
The crash was something for the banks alone to worry about, wasn’t it? Er, no it wasn’t, as it turned out. By September, everyone could see the credit crunch meant buyers wouldn’t be able to borrow to get new cars. But most carmakers thought they could ride the storm without major cutbacks to their future plans.
By October though, it was clear some of car companies themselves (GM especially) would find it hard to get the money to keep operating at all.
And by November we could all see this was a giant global collapse in demand, and no-one was immune. Car companies make a profit only when their factories are going flat out. When demand falls, the losses are instant and huge.
I’ve written enough in this blog before about Detroit going to Washington, cap in hand, so I won’t remind you here. But to prove it’s a global matter, remember Toyota will lose money this year for the first time ever.
I’d say it’s likely Chrysler is in the death throes. Fiat’s boss has talked in general terms about mergers. BMW has cut new models, including the CS. Honda pulled out of F1 and cancelled the NSX replacement. Subaru withdrew from rallying. Many manufacturers can’t lose shifts or close factories fast enough to keep up with the fall in demand.
Things are dropping faster and further than anyone imagined even weeks ago. And the scary bit is, no-one can see the bottom.
These days, no-one talks about green issues any more. Small cars are doing OK only because they’re cheap, not because they’re green. The first half of 2008 seems such a distant memory now.
My personal symbolic memory of the year? In August I travelled to drive the Corvette ZR1 on GM’s poshest corporate jet (it had several, and this one really was a humdinger, a $60m Gulfstream 550 I think). We landed at GM’s private terminal at Detroit International Airport.
GM is now closing the terminal and stopping the jets, partly because of the famous PR blunder sending its executives to Washington on a begging mission in a Gulfstream. I wonder if boss Rick Wagoner will ever get to fly again on that plane he once so generously shared with the likes of me.