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The Dinosaur Hunter, Part I

Monday, Apr. 06, 1959
Reprinted Coutesy of Time Magazine

George Wilcken Romney, at 51, is a broad-shouldered, Bible-quoting broth of a man who burns brightly with the fire of missionary zeal. On the Lord's Day, and whenever else he can find time, he is a fervent apostle for the Mormon Church, in which he is a high official. But at all other times his missionary zeal is best defined by a plaque that hangs in the walnut-paneled Detroit office where he reigns as boss of American Motors. A facetious gift from the Cleveland Auto Dealers Association, it reads: "To George Romney, critic, lecturer, anthropologist, white hunter of the American dinosaur."

The American dinosaur, to Romney, is the long, low, chrome-laden U.S. auto, i.e., any car of his Big Three competitors. Where does he hunt it? At conventions, Rotary meetings, congressional hearings, wherever he can find a platform or a soapbox. He closes in on the quarry with a verbal barrage. Back and forth he rocks, clenching his fists, screwing his handsome face into an intense mask. Out shoot the words in evangelical, organlike tones; down flies his big fist to shake the dust from the table.

He even carries his own props. "This fellow here," he says, suddenly snatching a green china dinosaur from his briefcase, "is called a triceratops. He had the biggest radiator ornament in prehistoric history. It kept getting bigger and bigger until finally he could no longer hold up his head. He had a wheelbase of nearly 30 feet. The dinosaur perished because he got too big."

Then Romney pauses dramatically, juts his formidable jaw. "Who," he challenges, "wants to have a gas-guzzling dinosaur in his garage?" In the silence that follows, Romney races on to introduce the creature he would most like to see replace the dinosaur: American Motors' compact little Rambler.

With inexhaustible energy Romney last year traveled 70,000 miles across the U.S. to preach his message, sometimes sleeping and eating in his Rambler. He wears an alarm wrist watch to remind himself when to stop talking, but no one can remember a time when he ever heeded it. He likes to get up before women's clubs, fix the ladies accusingly with his blue-grey eyes. "Ladies," he says, wagging his finger at them, "why do you drive such big cars? You don't need a monster to go to the drugstore for a package of hairpins. Think of the gas bills!" No audience is too small for him. Caught in a taxi in the middle of a St. Louis traffic jam, he lectured the captive driver: "Now if we all drove small cars, we'd have a lot less trouble like this." His parting tip as he abandoned the cab and sprinted off on foot: "Next time try a Rambler."

Recently, when an American Motors executive showed up at an automobile manufacturers' meeting in place of Romney, a Big Three auto official asked: "Where's the boss?" Said the substitute: "He's making a speech." Yawned the Big Three man: "So what else is new?"

Through his talkathon, George Romney has brought off singlehanded one of the most remarkable selling jobs in U.S. industry. He has taken a company that only three years ago was on the brink of the grave, the butt of countless jokes ("Did you hear about the man who was hit by a Rambler and went to the hospital to have it removed?"), and given it a new and vibrant lease on life. More remarkable, he has done it all by selling an "economy" car that, in 1956, actually cost $4 more than the Big Three's cheapest car (it is now $311 cheaper), and that takes an expert driver to get the company-boasted gas mileage (more than 30 miles to the gallon). Snorts a General Motors executive: "Romney's been selling a dream—price and economy—but he's done a helluva good job at it."

Just as remarkable, Romney has proved a powerful competitor not only against the Big Three but against a flood of small imported cars, whose chief selling point is even lower cost and greater economy than the Rambler. This year the 60-odd foreign cars coming into the U.S. are expected to account for 560,000 units, or more than 10% of the U.S. market. But Rambler's sales have risen faster than any of the imports.

Rambler has done so well that it is in fifth place in U.S. auto sales (after Chevrolet, Ford, Oldsmobile and Pontiac); its share of the market has risen from 1.6% to 6.2% in two years. This week it made its 20th successive increase in production in 1½ years. Yet the public is still ordering Ramblers faster than American Motors can produce them. Romney is in the midst of a $10 million expansion program that will lift the company's capacity to 440,000 cars a year.

Click here for part 2