This week’s Curbside Classic has been filled with posts packed full of data and thoughtful perspectives on the decline of Motown’s fortunes through the years. Well, roll the clock back fifty years, and the handwriting was already on the wall, courtesy of Brock Yates in the April 1968 issue of Car and Driver.
While it was easy to bash Detroit as the epitome of closed-minded corporate arrogance reinforced with closed-minded social circles and groupthink, Yates was clever to draw an analogy with the railroad industry from a previous era. “Hubris comes before a fall” is an age-old problem, effectively captured in Greek Mythology and thriving ever since. In the context of current times, simply substitute Atherton, Los Altos Hills and Palo Alto for Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe to see another wildly profitable “world changing” industry whose navel-gazing is legendary, and we’ll once again see if history repeats, or at least rhymes.
As for Detroit’s specific fall, which would agonizingly play out over many years following this 1968 exposé, the most telling indicator was not just in Yates’s article, though he certainly was effective—and bold—in covering the mostly self-inflicted issues facing Motown. Rather, look at the Toyota ad on the last page of the “Myopians” article: there was an economy car offering great gas mileage, hardtop styling, well-equipped with niceties like standard reclining bucket seats, all for $2,055 ($15,039 adjusted), perfectly suited to handle the driving needs of many Americans and completely unavailable from Detroit. Turns out, the Japanese quickly developed a better handle on the needs and tastes of Americans than the domestic brands, and it would literally take decades for Detroit to even be able to clearly see the problem or fathom how to properly respond. Myopians indeed, and though not a species solely indigenous to the Detroit area, certainly a prime example of the breed, and a story of hubris for the ages.