Founded in 1980 by Frank and Elaine Wrenick
| Join | Home | WA_2008 | Meets | Store | Chapters | Links | Photos | History | For_Sale

The Dinosaur Hunter, Part II

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

For all Rambler's success, the Big Three are not hurting much. Last week the auto industry showed promise of the first spring pickup in sales since 1955, chalked up a record near two-year, midmonth high of 174,780 new car sales. Automen are confident of a 5,500,000-automobile year. That is good news for George Romney; the more car sales, the bigger the share he expects to get.

Rambler's success is writ large in the company's books. American's earnings after taxes for the first six months (ending this week) of its fiscal year will reach almost $35 million, or about $5.80 a share v. $26 million for the whole twelve months of the last fiscal year. For the entire year, American should earn upwards of $50 million, and may easily earn as high as $64 million, or about $11 a share, if Romney's confident expectation of 350,000 Rambler sales holds up. Earnings are piling up so fast that Romney is expected to ask the company directors to declare the first cash dividend since 1954, when it was 12½¢; this time it looks as if the dividend will be about 50¢.

All this success has raised an important question: Has George Romney won a quick victory at the price of losing a war?

His astounding sales and profits have spurred the Big Three to ready their own compact cars. General Motors is pressing its suppliers in hopes of getting into pilot production in May, it's expected to be the first to introduce its compact car, a rear-engine job, in August or early September. Ford's economy car is scheduled for December introduction, Chrysler's for February, although both are considering bringing out their cars on a small scale in the fall to take the edge off G.M.'s lead.

G.M. is tentatively planning to call its compact car the "Invader." Both Ford and Chrysler, unknown to each other, had tentatively decided on the "Falcon." When they found this out, they had an amiable discussion; now Chrysler is thinking of giving Ford the bird and finding another name.

When the new cars wheel on to the market, what will become of American Motors? Some Big Three officials who wrote off the compact and small foreign cars only two years ago now have their own pat answer. Says one high-ranking automan: "Give the Big Three a year or so in the economy market, and Romney will be flat against the wall." But such crapehangers underestimate Romney's passion and skill in battling against odds.

Loyal Owners
Though Romney has loudly condemned annual styling changes (the Rambler has changed little in two years), he will meet the threat of the Big Three's new compact cars by giving Rambler a fresh, crisp look for 1960. If his sales should be hurt, no one doubts that he would completely restyle the Rambler in 1961 to make it competitive with anything that the Big Three can throw at him.

Moreover, Romney has a more subtle factor working in his favor. The success of his long crusade has made him a symbolic figure—a sort of Johnny Appleseed of the auto industry. He is besieged by pleas for help, love letters, poetry, suggestions that he run for Governor of Michigan or President of the U.S. Wrote a Los Angeles admirer: "With you as President, America would once again become a great power."

Around Romney has grown up an army of surprisingly loyal and enthusiastic Rambler owners. Some of them go so far as to call the Rambler "the most reliable car since the model T." Others take their pleasure in less rhapsodic praise. Women like it because its compact size (15.9 ft. long, 6 ft. wide, 108-in. wheelbase v. 17.3 ft. long, 6.4 ft. wide, 118-in. wheelbase for the standard Ford) makes it easy to handie in traffic, easy to park. The Rambler's unitized frame construction, in which body and frame are welded into a single unit (Ford, G.M. and Chrysler will also use this construction in their compact cars), eliminates most of the rattles and squeaks that often occur in other cars. With detachable front fenders and parts that are easily accessible, Rambler is easy and comparatively cheap to repair.

Hidden Ingredient
But the hidden ingredient of Rambler's success is the Big Three themselves. "They are," says George Romney happily, "my best salesmen." The Big Three have used every device of the designer's art and the engineer's skill to make cars steadily bigger, sleeker, more luxurious, almost self-operating. Surrounded by soaring fins, dazzling in their chrome, perched behind an engine of steadily, growing power, the U.S. driver had what Detroit says he wanted. But was he happy?

There were signs that he was not. Cars were often too big to park easily or put in a garage. Gas mileage dropped as gas prices rose. Much of the prestige that once went with a big car disappeared as new prestige articles became popular. Many consumers were apt to pass up Detroit's wiles, instead spend their money for recreation, housing, travel, boats.

In 1954 Detroit sniffed the first faint signs of dissatisfaction: a ripple of interest in imported cars. At first Detroit wrote it off as reverse big-car snobbery and the desire to have something different. Where the snobs led, the mobs followed. When foreign imports rose from .8% of the market in 1955 to 8% last year, it became clear that more than snobbery was at work.

Today no one lifts an eyebrow when his neighbor shows up in a foreign car, and no one need explain or apologize for driving one. With thousands of war babies coming of driving age and crying for their own cars, countless families have found the foreign car an inexpensive playmate for Junior—and a less precious article to entrust to freewheeling Mom. The number of two-car families has grown to 17% of all car owners. Now the three-car family is coming along; there are an estimated 375,000 such families.

Detroit had always brushed off demands for a lower-priced small car with the remark that motorists could buy a good secondhand big car for about the same price. But the purchase price proved not the chief factor. The secondhand car usually burned more gas and oil, needed more repairs, was less economical than the foreign car.

Best of Two Worlds
Profiting by this change, foreign manufacturers have poured into the U.S. market. West Germany led with the Volkswagen (1958 sales: 102,035), France sent the Renault (47,567), Italy the Fiat (23,000), Britain the Hillman (18,663). Japan has entered the U.S. market with its Toyopet, Sweden with its Volvo. Italy has just brought out a sleek new Fiat, and the Dutch announced only last week that they will soon bring their brand-new Daf into the U.S. market. Even the babies of the import family, e.g., West Germany's tiny Isetta and Goggomobile, found a market for around 10,000 cars last year.

Detroit was still not sure. It knew that it could not manufacture small cars in the U.S. for the same price, so it compromised. To cash in on the trend, it brought in cars from foreign companies in which the Big Three held big stock interests. General Motors imported the West German-made Opel and the British-made Vauxhall; Chrysler brought in the French Simca, Ford the English Prefect, Consul, Anglia. Since 1955, the Big Three have hiked imports of these foreign cars from 2,100 a year to 79,600.

What caused the Big Three to make up their minds was the take-off of Rambler sales in 1958. Belatedly, Detroit's Big Three (and little Studebaker-Packard) saw that there was a big market for the kind of car they themselves could make in the U.S. Dubbed a "compact" car to distinguish it from the tiny imports, the Rambler had offered the economy and easy handling of the foreign car plus much of the comfort, power and durability of the U.S. big car.

The Big Three quizzed Rambler buyers, discovered that economy of operation was twice as important in their choice as initial price, that the Rambler was bought no oftener as a second car (one in three sales) than Big Three low-priced cars. George Romney became a prophet with honor in his own country. In 1955 he had predicted: "By 1960, the compact car will be a top contender with present-type cars for the bulk of the market."

No Kidding
From his birth, Romney had little choice but to become a missionary of one kind or another. The grandson of a Mormon who sired 30 children by four wives, he was born into a monogamous family in Colonia Dublan, Mexico, where Mormons from the Southwest had settled 20 years earlier. When George was five, Pancho Villa drove the U.S.-born Mormons out of Mexico, and the family went to Los Angeles. In kindergarten, children taunted him mercilessly with the sneering cry "Mexican!" Said George one day: "Look, if a kitten was born in a garage, would that make it an automobile?'' The logic was overpowering; the kids let him alone.

George's father went broke five times, ended up as a builder in Salt Lake City. From the age of twelve, George worked to help support the family, still found time in high school to play football, basketball and baseball. There he met one of the few people ever to make him speechless: a stunning brunette named Lenore Lafount. Even for parents used to the mysterious fixations of adolescence, George was a caution. He decided that Lenore was the girl he was going to marry; just as he later could not understand why people hesitated to buy Ramblers, he could not understand why she did not jump at his offer.

He was so smitten that he followed Lenore whenever she went out with another boy, sat behind them in a movie or trailed their car. When she starred in a high-school play that involved kissing a boy, he insisted that there be no kiss at rehearsals, stuck around to make sure. "Sometimes I wondered if he was right for me," says Lenore, "but gradually I understood. He really cared."

Biggest Selling Job
At 19 he was selected by his church to spend two years as a Mormon missionary, took off for Great Britain. He spent 18 months in Scotland preaching the Mormon gospel from door to door, then went to London to preach for six more months from a soapbox in Hyde Park and at Tower Hill. The competition from other soapboxers for listeners was so tough that Romney teamed up with a red-bearded Socialist to catch an audience. They agreed to heckle each other's meetings regularly, thus both drew crowds. Says Romney: "I suppose some people thought I was eccentric. But I found it an illuminating, uplifting experience."

Back in the U.S., Romney spent a year at the University of Utah before heading for Washington in search of a job—and Lenore, who had moved there when her father took a Government job. Romney was hired by Massachusetts' Democratic Senator David I. Walsh as a speedwriter. When his speedwriting turned out to lack speed, Walsh kept him on anyway, put him to work keeping track of legislative matters.

When Lenore Lafount moved to New York to study acting, he spent all his weekends there. In 1930 he went to work as a lobbyist for Aluminum Co. of America; when Lenore got an offer from Hollywood (she was a bit player), he convinced Alcoa that he would be more valuable in their West Coast office. "I kept thinking," he says, "that some movie hero would get her." Lenore thought she wanted a career, but George's persistence was overpowering. Just as M-G-M offered her a three-year contract, he persuaded her to marry him instead, took her back to Washington as his wife. Says Romney: "It was my greatest selling achievement."

Click here for Part III