Award shines hope for U.S.

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, the title of “most American-made vehicle” has returned to the hands of an American auto company. After winning the honor four straight years, the Toyota Camry was finally supplanted by the Ford F-150 in this year’s annual Cars.com rankings.

To be considered in the rankings, a vehicle must be at least 75 percent comprised of parts manufactured in North America, which includes the U.S. and Canada. The F-150 has traditionally fared well in both North American parts content and sales, but in several cases Japanese automakers have been considered “more American” than many of their Detroit-based counterparts.

Is the F-150’s return to the top of the index an indicator of a changing trend back to American-made? Or is it just one strong example that overshadows the domestic market’s heavy reliance on parts made in Mexico and assembly plants that are often in foreign countries. Although the Ford pickup garnered the top spot in the rankings, five of the Top 10 vehicles were of Japanese origin, with four vehicles from Toyota leading all brands.

It’s probably too early to tell one way or the other. But I’m a firm believer that the auto industry is a microcosm of the American jobs crisis as a whole.

When Ford, General Motors and Chrysler began shutting down assembly lines in Michigan in favor of the cheaper labor and cheaper parts in Mexico, the “Big Three” alienated its most staunch supporters — the American autoworkers.

Profit-margin was the sole driving factor. But as more and more industries followed suit with the same mindset, fewer and fewer Americans could afford to buy a new vehicle on a regular basis. Buying a brand-new American car or truck no longer contributed to the American work force; it simply loaded the bank accounts of rich executives and perpetuated the merits of cheap, outsourced labor.

The trend is not isolated to the U.S., either. More and more, German automakers are outsourcing to China and Korea, as well as the United States. Japanese companies have done the same.

The first “Made in China” automobiles arrived in North America with little fanfare in 2011 as the Guangzhou-born Honda Fit landed in Canadian car dealers.

After several decades of relying heavily on foreign production, American automakers have experienced the highs and lows of the country’s fragile economy … and then had to beg those same people they had slighted for a multi-billion dollar bailout when times got really tough.

Traditionally, the response to profit dips has been to shut down a Detroit factory and open a cheaper Mexican counterpart. If this mentality doesn’t change, I believe it will continue to do more harm than good. I believe the long-term health of both the auto industry and the American economy would be better served if Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler all rededicated themselves to the hard-working men and women of this country who made those companies great so many years ago.

In today’s global economy, there will never again be mass-produced vehicles that are 100 percent made in America. But hopefully Ford’s return to the top of the “most American-made” index will be a starting point for companies to once again take pride in being built right here in the land of the free.

Garrett Rudolph is the managing editor of The Chronicle. He can be reached at 509-826-1110 or via e-mail at grudolph@omakchronicle.com.

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