Wednesday, September 28, 2005
  Fathers, sons, Georges, Mitts.....

Since it's become obvious with the Bush family that -- despite all hopes and prayers -- the son echoes the father, I decided to examine Mitt Romney's 'pedigree'.

It appears that the blogosphere has looked in some detail at George Romney's rather brief political career, but he had a longer and more interesting career before that.

Let's start back -- way back -- in Michigan in 1880. Charles W. Nash was orphaned at the age of 12. The county handed him to a farmer as a bond-servant. Nash didn't like involuntary servitude, so he escaped and made his way to Detroit, where he got a job stuffing buggy seats for Billy Durant's carriage works. He moved up quickly into management, and in 1908 when Durant pulled together several budding automobile companies to form General Motors, Nash came with him.

Durant, like most of those early auto founders, was a high roller. Easy come, easy go. Buy companies, lose your shirt, start over. Nash wasn't comfortable with the wildcatter's ethic, and decided to try something different. So in 1914 he left GM, bought the Jeffery company, and applied his own name to its cars.

Through the '20s and '30s, Nash became known for a belt-and-suspenders approach to both cars and business. His cars were superbly engineered, with extra main bearings and two spark plugs per cylinder. His company was superbly managed, with 'just-in-time' production methods and absolutely no borrowing. While other small auto makers, relying on debts and banks, foundered and failed in the Depression, Nash sailed through in fine form.

Nash in 1934:



In the late '30s Nash handed over power to George Mason, who continued the same way of thinking. Stay in the black; keep customers and employees loyal; find a niche too small for GM but large enough for profit. Mason decided to focus on low-priced cars, with special emphasis on gas economy. In 1941 Nash introduced the '600', the first high-volume American car to use unit body-frame construction. The model number was not arbitrary: it signified 600 miles on a tank of gas. Though not quite accurate, still a clear appeal to frugality by a frugal company. It sold well, but was halted almost immediately when WW2 stopped all car production.

After the war Mason knew his health was beginning to decline, so he looked around for a successor. George Romney had worked for a couple of auto companies, and was heading up the Auto Manufacturers' Assn at that time. When Mason showed Romney his big postwar idea, Romney fell in love with it, and was thus hired as the heir apparent.




The Nash Rambler became an icon of smallness and non-conformity, until the VW swept everything else aside. What's not so well remembered is that the Rambler was by no means the only American small car of that era. Willys, Hudson, and Kaiser made cars of similar size. Why was Rambler the only success? Why did it survive until 1987 in various forms? Mason's secret, carried on by Romney, was to separate smallness from cheapness, economy from austerity. The Rambler was not the cheapest car available in 1950 by a long shot. It came fully equipped with radio, heater, and fancy trim at a time when most low-priced cars had a deceptive 'base price'.

When Mason died in 1954, just after buying out Hudson to form American Motors, George Romney took over full control. He wasn't as visionary as Mason, but had a talent for doing the right thing at the right time. In 1957, when Ford was blowing its wad on the Edsel, Romney understood that middle-priced cars were not the Next Big Thing. He yanked the full-sized Nash and Hudson off the market and concentrated purely on Rambler. Result: in 1960, Rambler took over the #3 sales spot from Plymouth.

How did Romney manage? More like Reagan than Bush. He found the most talented people and kept them happy. A story from 1960 or so:

American Motors styling director Ed Anderson strode along the hallway at AMC headquarters in Detroit with his head down in thought. He was upset because he believed others in the organization were torpedoing important styling features of his latest design. Lost in concentration, Anderson suddenly heard a voice. Looking up, he found himself face to face with AMC's legendary chairman and president, George Romney.

"How's the new American coming along?" asked Romney.

Anderson hesitated, then blurted out that things weren't going as well as he'd hoped. Although the program was just a re-skin of the existing Rambler platform, Anderson was trying to give the car a completely new look. He wanted to give the American a flatter, more modern roofline, but to do so he needed to reshape the windshield frame as well. Engineering vetoed that, decreeing it not worth the expense. Anderson declared, "They've got me over a barrel, George."

Romney paused a moment then said, "Tell you what, Ed. You take care of the design and I'll take care of the barrel."


[Anecdote is from the latest issue of Collectible Automobile magazine.]

If Mitt is anything like George, he could turn out to be the right thing at the right time. We could use a leader who knows how to distinguish austerity from economy, a leader with a talent for selling and explaining.
 


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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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