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The president of General Motors was in a foul humor. He had slept badly during the night because his electric blanket had worked only intermittently, causing him to awaken several times, feeling cold. Now, after padding around his home in pajamas and robe, he had tools spread on his half of the king-size bed where his wife still slept, and was taking the control mechanism apart. Almost at once he observed a badly joined connection, cause of the night's on-again off-again performance. Muttering sourly about poor quality control of blanket manufacturers, the GM president took the unit to his basement workshop to repair.
His wife, Coralie, stirred. In a few minutes more her alarm clock would sound and she would get up sleepily to make breakfast for them both.
Outside, in suburban Bloomfield Hills, a dozen miles north of Detroit, it was still dark.
The GM president—a spare, fast-moving, normally even-tempered man—had another cause for ill humor besides the electric blanket. It was Emerson Vale. A few minutes ago, through the radio turned on softly beside his bed, the GM chief had heard a news broadcast which included the hated, astringent, familiar voice of the auto industry's arch critic.
Yesterday, at a Washington press conference, Emerson Vale had blasted anew his favorite targets—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. The press wire services, probably due to a lack of hard news from other sources, had obviously given Vale's attack the full treatment.
The big three of the auto industry, Emerson Vale charged, were guilty of "greed, criminal conspiracy, and self-serving abuse of public trust." The conspiracy was their continuing failure to develop alternatives to gasoline-powered automobiles—namely, electric and steam vehicles—which, Vale asserted, "are available now."
The accusation was not new. However, Vale—a skilled hand at public relations and with the press—had injected enough recent material to make his statement newsworthy.
The president of the world's largest corporation, who had a Ph.D. in engineering, fixed the blanket control, in the same way that he enjoyed doing other jobs around the house when time permitted. Then he showered, shaved, dressed for the office, and joined Coralie at breakfast.
A copy of the Detroit Free Press was on the dining-room table. As he saw Emerson Vale's name and face prominently on the front page, he swept the newspaper angrily to the floor.
"Well," Coralie said. "I hope that made you feel better." She put a cholesterol-watcher's breakfast in front of him—the white of an egg on dry toast, with sliced tomatoes and cottage cheese. The GM president's wife always made breakfast herself and had it with him, no matter how early his departure. Seating herself opposite, she retrieved the Free Press and opened it.
Presently she announced, "Emerson Vale says if we have the technical competence to land men on the moon and Mars, the auto industry should be able to produce a totally safe, defect-free car that doesn't pollute its environment."
Her husband laid down his knife and fork. "Must you spoil my breakfast, little as it is?" Coralie smiled. "I had the impression something else had done that already." She continued, unperturbed, "Mr. Vale quotes the Bible about air pollution."
"For Christ's sake! Where does the Bible say anything about that?"
"Not Christ's sake, dear. It's in the Old Testament."
His curiosity aroused, he growled, "Go ahead, read it. You intended to, anyway."
"From Jeremiah," Coralie said. "'And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination.'" She poured more coffee for them both. "I do think that's rather clever of him."
"No one's ever suggested the bastard isn't clever."
Coralie went back to reading aloud. "'The auto and oil industries, Vale said, have together delayed technical progress which could have led, long before now, to an effective electric or steam car. Their reasoning is simple. Such a car would nullify their enormous capital investment in the pollutant-spreading internal combustion engine.'" She put the paper down. "Is any of that true?"
"Obviously Vale thinks it's all true."
"But you don't?"
"None of it whatever?"
He said irritably, "There's sometimes a germ of truth in any outrageous statement. That's how people like Emerson Vale manage to sound plausible."
"Then you'll deny what he says?"
"Because if General Motors takes on Vale, we'll be accused of being a great monolith trampling down an individual. If we don't reply we'll be damned too, but at least that way we won't be misquoted."
"Shouldn't someone answer?"
"If some bright reporter gets to Henry Ford, he's apt to." The GM president smiled. "Except Henry will be damned forceful and the papers won't print all his language."
"If I had your job," Coralie said, "I think I'd say something. That is, if I really was convinced of being right."
"Thank you for your advice."
The GM president finished his breakfast, declining to rise any further to his wife's bait. But the exchange, along with the needling which Coralie seemed to feel was good for him occasionally, had helped get the bad temper out of his system.
Through the door to the kitchen the GM president could hear the day maid arriving, which meant that his car and chauffeur—which picked up the girl on their way—were now waiting outside. He got up from the table and kissed his wife goodbye.
A few minutes later, shortly after 6 A.M., his Cadillac Brougham swung onto Telegraph Road and headed for the Lodge Freeway and the midtown New Center area. It was a brisk October morning, with a hint of winter in a gusty northwest wind.
Detroit, Michigan—the Motor City, auto capital of the world—was coming awake.
Also in Bloomfield Hills, ten minutes from the GM president's house, as a Lincoln Continental glides, an executive vice-president of Ford was preparing to leave for Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He had already breakfasted, alone. A housekeeper had brought a tray to his desk in the softly lighted study where, since 5 A.M., he had been alternately reading memoranda (mostly on special blue stationery which Ford vice-presidents used in implementing policy) and dictating crisp instructions into a recording machine. He had scarcely looked up, either as the meal arrived, or while eating, as he accomplished in an hour what would have taken most other executives a day, or more.
The majority of decisions just made concerned new plant construction or expansion and involved expenditures of several billion dollars. One of the executive vice-president's responsibilities was to approve or veto projects, and allocate priorities. He had once been asked if such rulings, on the disposition of immense wealth, worried him. He replied, "No, because mentally I always knock off the last three figures. That way it's no more sweat than buying a house."
The pragmatic, quick response was typical of the man who had risen, rocket-like, from a lowly car salesman to be among the industry's dozen top decision makers. The same process, incidentally, had made him a multimillionaire, though some might ponder whether the penalties for success and wealth were out of reason for a human being to pay.
The executive vice-president worked twelve and sometimes fourteen hours a day, invariably at a frenetic pace, and as often as not his job claimed him seven days a week. Today, at a time when large segments of the population were still abed, he would be en route to New York in a company Jetstar, using the journey time for a marketing review with subordinates. On landing, he would preside at a meeting on the same subject with Ford district managers. Immediately after, he would face a tough-talking session with twenty New Jersey dealers who had beefs about warranty and service problems. Later, in Manhattan, he would attend a bankers' convention luncheon and make a speech. Following the speech he would be quizzed by reporters at a freewheeling press conference.
By early afternoon the same company plane would wing him back to Detroit where he would be in his office for appointments and regular business until dinnertime. At some point in the afternoon, while he continued to work, a barber would come in to cut his hair. Dinner—in the penthouse, one floor above the executive suite—would include a critical discussion about new models with division managers.
Later still, he would stop in at the William R. Hamilton Funeral Chapel to pay respects to a company colleague who had dropped dead yesterday from a coronary occlusion brought on by overwork. (The Hamilton funeral firm was de rigueur for top echelon auto men who, rank conscious to the end, passed through, en route to exclusive Wood-lawn Cemetery, sometimes known as "Executive Valhalla.")
Eventually the executive vice-president would go home—with a filled briefcase to be dealt with by tomorrow morning.
Now, pushing his breakfast tray away and shuffling papers, he stood up. Around him, in this personal study, were book-lined walls. Occasionally—though not this morning—he glanced at them with a trace of longing; there was a time, years ago, when he had read a good deal, and widely, and could have been a scholar if chance had directed his life differently. But nowadays he had no time for books. Even the daily newspaper would have to wait until he could snatch a moment to skim through it. He picked up the paper, still folded as the housekeeper had brought it, and stuffed it into his bag. Only later would he learn of Emerson Vale's latest attack and privately curse him, as many others in the auto industry would do before the day was out.
At the airport, those of the executive vice-president's staff who would accompany him were already in the waiting lounge of the Ford Air Transportation hangar. Without wasting time, he said, "Let's go."
The Jetstar engines started as the party of eight climbed aboard and they were taxiing before the last people in had fastened seatbelts. Only those who traveled by private airfleets knew how much time they saved compared with scheduled airlines.
Yet, despite the speed, briefcases were out and opened on laps before the aircraft reached the takeoff runway.
The executive vice-president began the discussion. "Northeast Region results this month are unsatisfactory. You know the figures as well as I do. I want to know why. Then I want to be told what's being done."
As he finished speaking, they were airborne.
The sun was halfway over the horizon; a dull red, brightening, amid scudding gray clouds.
Beneath the climbing Jetstar, in the early light, the vast sprawling city and environs were becoming visible: downtown Detroit, a square mile oasis like a miniature Manhattan; immediately beyond, leagues of drab streets, buildings, factories, housing, freeways—mostly dirt encrusted: an Augean work town without petty cash for cleanliness. To the west, cleaner, greener Dearborn, abutting the giant factory complex of the Rouge; in contrast, in the eastern extremity, the Grosse Pointes, tree-studded, manicured, havens of the rich; industrial, smoky Wyandotte to the south; Belle Isle, hulking in the Detroit River like a laden gray-green barge. On the Canadian side, across the river, grimy Windsor, matching in ugliness the worst of its U.S. senior partner.
Around and through them all, revealed by daylight, traffic swirled. In tens of thousands, like armies of ants (or lemmings, depending on a watcher's point of view) shift workers, clerks, executives, and others headed for a new day's production in countless factories, large and small.
The nation's output of automobiles for the day—controlled and masterminded in Detroit—had already begun, the tempo of production revealed in a monster Goodyear signboard at the car-jammed confluence of Edsel Ford and Walter Chrysler Freeways. In figures five feet high, and reading like a giant odometer, the current year's car production was recorded minute by minute, with remarkable accuracy, through a nationwide reporting system. The total grew as completed cars came off assembly lines across the country.
Twenty-nine plants in the Eastern time zone were operating now, their data feeding in. Soon, the figures would whirl faster as thirteen assembly plants in the Midwest swung into operation, followed by six more in California. Local motorists checked the Goodyear sign the way a physician read blood pressure or a stockbroker the Dow Jones. Riders in car pools made bets each day on the morning or the evening tallies.
The car production sources closest to the sign were those of Chrysler—the Dodge and Plymouth plants in Hamtramck, a mile or so away, where more than a hundred cars an hour began flowing off assembly lines at 6 A.M.
There was a time when the incumbent chairman of the board of Chrysler might have dropped in to watch a production start-up and personally check out a finished product. Nowadays, though, he did that rarely, and this morning was still at home, browsing through The Wall Street Journal and sipping coffee which his wife had brought before leaving, herself, for an early Art Guild meeting downtown.
In those earlier days the Chrysler chief executive (he was president then, newly appointed) had been an eager-beaver around the plants, partly because the declining, dispirited corporation needed one, and partly because he was determined to shed the "bookkeeper" tag which clung to any man who rose by the financial route instead of through sales or engineering. Chrysler, under his direction, had gone both up and down. One long six-year cycle had generated investor confidence; the next rang financial alarm bells; then, once more, with sweat, drastic economies and effort, the alarm had lessened, so there were those who said that the company functioned best under leanness or adversity. Either way, no one seriously believed any more that Chrysler's slim-pointed Pentastar would fail to stay in orbit—a reasonable achievement on its own, prompting the chairman of the board to hurry less nowadays, think more, and read what he wanted to.
At this moment he was reading Emerson Vale's latest outpouring, which The Wall Street Journal carried, though less flamboyantly than the Detroit Free Press. But Vale bored him. The Chrysler chairman found the auto critic's remarks repetitive and unoriginal, and after a moment turned to the real estate news which was decidedly more cogent. Not everyone knew it yet, but within the past few years Chrysler had been building a real estate empire which, as well as diversifying the company, might a few decades hence (or so the dream went), make the present "number three" as big or bigger than General Motors.
Meanwhile, as the chairman was comfortably aware, automobiles continued to flow from the Chrysler plants at Hamtramck and elsewhere.
Thus, the Big Three—as on any other morning—were striving to remain that way, while smaller American Motors, through its factory to the north in Wisconsin, was adding a lesser tributary of Ambassadors, Hornets, Javelins, Gremlins, and their kin.CHAPTER 2
At a car assembly plant north of the Fisher Freeway, Matt Zaleski, assistant plant manager and a graying veteran of the auto industry, was glad that today was Wednesday.
Not that the day would be free from urgent problems and exercises in survival—no day ever was. Tonight, like any night, he would go homeward wearily, feeling older than his fifty-three years and convinced he had spent another day of his life inside a pressure cooker. Matt Zaleski sometimes wished he could summon back the energy he had had as a young man, either when he was new to auto production or as an Air Force bombardier in World War II. He also thought sometimes, looking back, that the years of war—even though he was in Europe in the thick of things, with an impressive combat record—were less crisis-filled than his civil occupation now.
Excerpted from Wheels by Arthur Hailey. Copyright © 1971 Arthur Hailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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