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
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
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.
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,
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
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."
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,
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
Click here for Part III