Automotive News’ Top Stories of the Year: 1953 – 2019

1953 GM Hydramatic plant fire


(I saw this at AN this morning, and had to share it, as we’re historians here at heart. Unfortunately, AN did not include links to the actual stories. But this is where you come in.)

Every year since 1953, reporters and editors at Automotive News have chosen the year’s top auto story. Here are their selections:

1953: Fire destroys General Motors’ Hydra-matic plant in Livonia, Mich. (here’s an article on what stands still as the greatest industrial fire in the US)

1954: Reduction of “phantom-freight” charges

1955: (tie) Senate hearings on auto trade practices; attainment of supplemental unemployment compensation by the UAW

1956: GM begins offering five-year franchise contracts, up from one year, in response to dealer complaints

1957: The rise in imported-car sales

1958: Enactment of price-sticker law

1959: Compact cars introduced by Ford Motor Co., GM and Chrysler Corp.

1960: Chrysler’s conflict-of-interest problems; a president is deposed, and other executives are affected

1961: Antitrust actions filed against the Big 3; GM accused in Los Angeles discount-house rhubarb; Ford’s acquisition of Electric Autolite properties questioned; Chrysler charged with pressuring dealers not to dual with Studebaker

1962: Future of the franchise system: Los Angeles antitrust suit against GM viewed as threat to franchise

1963: GM wins criminal antitrust suit growing out of Los Angeles discount-house situation

1964: Record truck sales and the first 8-million-car year.

1965: “The Year of Records”: All-time highs in sales and production of domestic cars and trucks

1966: Safety: Congress holds hearings; bills are passed; William Haddon is appointed safety czar; standards are proposed for 1968 models

1967: 61-day strike costs Ford Motor 500,000 cars; Big 3 workers receive a raise of about $1 an hour in wages and fringes over three years

1968: Bunkie Knudsen named president of Ford Motor a week after he quit as executive vice president of GM

1969: Bunkie Knudsen fired as president of Ford Motor after holding the job for 19 months

1970: UAW strike shuts GM for 67 days in the United States, 95 days in Canada; the strike costs GM production of more than 1.5 million cars and trucks and more than $4.5 billion in sales

1971: President Nixon’s economic program and its effect on the auto industry: Prices and wages are frozen; import duty is raised temporarily; currency is revalued; excise tax is repealed; program touches off auto sales boom

1972: Wankel engine advances: GM plans to offer Wankel-powered Chevrolet Vega in 1975 model year; other makers watch and wait; Mazda, with the only Wankel-powered cars in the United States, has a big year

1973: The energy crisis: Arabs halt oil exports to United States; gas rationing feared; uncertainty hurts auto industry and entire economy

1974: New-car sales (U.S. and import) fall to 8.6 million in 1974; 1975 model year is off to a dismal start

1975: U.S. automakers offer rebates of $200 to $500 to move huge inventories

1976: Auto sales rebound after two poor years, reaching 9.96 million for 1976; intermediates and big cars are hot, but small cars are hard to sell

1977: Government orders airbags on new cars, to be phased in with 1982 models; industry fails in bid to have Congress override Department of Transportation decision

1978: The fall and rise of Lee Iacocca, who is fired by Henry Ford II as president of Ford Motor in mid-July, then becomes president of Chrysler in November

1979: Chrysler’s financial anguish: Federal loan guarantees sought; future of company in doubt

1980: GM, Ford, Chrysler, American Motors suffer combined loss of $4.2 billion for the year

1981: Another year of recession/depression for the domestic auto industry

1982: John DeLorean is arrested on drug-trafficking charges; he is later found not guilty; his sports car company folds

1983: A year of recovery for the domestic auto industry; sales and production rise after three bad years

1984: Record profits for each of the Big 3 as well as a record profit of $9.8 billion for the four domestic automakers

1985: Big 3 on buying binge: GM, Ford and Chrysler make major acquisitions outside the automotive field; biggest is GM’s $5 billion purchase of Hughes Aircraft

1986: Turmoil at GM: Market share dips; plants to close; Saturn scaled back; plastic-bodied Camaro-Firebird dropped; bus operations for sale; Volvo to run heavy-truck venture; GM has third-quarter operating loss of $338 million

1987: Chrysler buys AMC

1988: The sleeping giant stirs: GM’s profits rise; car-market share stabilizes; new models aren’t look-alikes; quality improves; overseas operations in high gear

1989: After eight quiet years, Washington again becomes a major thorn in the side of the auto industry; President Bush and Congress talk about tighter emissions rules, much higher fuel-economy standards and alternative-fuel cars

1990: GM’s Saturn arrives after seven years of development; the car gets good reviews, pleases shoppers and dealers, but production problems hold output to a trickle, delaying evaluation of Saturn’s sales success

1991: Car and truck sales drop 12 percent from a mediocre 1990; GM, Ford and Chrysler deep in red; end of Persian Gulf war fails to ignite sales; GM announces massive cost-cutting program and cutbacks in personnel and facilities as year ends

1992: The bloodbath at GM: Long-passive outside directors rise in revolt as staggering losses continue; chairman, vice chairman, president and two executive vice presidents ousted; Jack Smith named chief executive, and John Smale is first outside chairman since 1937

1993: J. Ignacio Lopez quits GM and joins Volkswagen; GM says he stole secret documents; Lopez and VW deny it; FBI and German court investigate as year ends

1994: Sixteen former Honda managers and two former dealers are indicted in U.S. probe of bribes and kickbacks in wholesale organization; all but three plead guilty

1995: Kirk Kerkorian, Chrysler’s second-largest shareholder, makes a takeover run at Chrysler in April, but Chairman Robert Eaton beats it down

1996: Airbags kill kids and small adults; NHTSA delay means no action until 1997 on whether to order lower-powered bags or allow owners to disconnect them

1997: In less than a year, H. Wayne Huizenga’s Republic Industries Inc. becomes the nation’s largest new-car dealership group, with 270 franchises and annual revenue of $10.3 billion; acquisitions continue; Republic wins fight with Toyota

1998: Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. combine as DaimlerChrysler AG, with Daimler as the lead pony; headquarters are in Stuttgart; Juergen Schrempp and Robert Eaton are said to be co-CEOs

1999: U.S. sales set a record of 16.9 million cars and light trucks; the old record was 16,025,426 in 1986

2000: Chrysler in crisis. Daimler’s Schrempp admits that he planned from the beginning to make Chrysler a division; the Chrysler group loses about $1.8 billion in the second half of the year; heads roll in Auburn Hills, Mich., starting with President Jim Holden; Dieter Zetsche heads the Chrysler group in the United States, and Wolfgang Bernhard is COO

2001: Ford Motor Co. fires Jac Nasser as CEO and president; Bill Ford (the fourth generation) succeeds Nasser as CEO and continues as chairman

2002: Ford’s financial and quality problems continue; a turnaround strategy, announced in January, includes a pledge to deliver $7 billion annual pretax profit by 2005 after losing $5.45 billion in 2001; Bill Ford brings back Allan Gilmour as CFO

2003: The Big 3 moved the iron with high incentives but lost market share again; Big 3 share fell to 60.0 percent, down 1.7 points from 2002

2004: Rebates remain sky-high; sales continue near 17 million despite weak fundamentals; Asians boost market share; Big 3 and others try new incentives

2005: Delphi Corp., the world’s largest auto supplier, files for bankruptcy protection. GM refuses to bail out Delphi, its former property; Delphi CEO Steve Miller wants to cut wages in half and reduce benefits; UAW threatens a killer strike that would cripple GM

2006: An awful year for Detroit 3. Ford loses $5.8 billion in third quarter; the Chrysler group, felled by sales bank, loses $1.5 billion; GM makes progress but is still light years from financial health. Detroit 3 lose 3.2 points of market share in 11 months; Japanese gain 2.2 points

2007: The Detroit 3 closed the gap in labor costs with their Japanese rivals. The car companies agreed to pay about 55 cents on the dollar to shift nearly $100 billion in combined retiree health care obligations to UAW-controlled trusts. The UAW also relented on two-tier wages that allow the Detroit 3 to replace workers earning $28 an hour with new hires earning half that wage.

2008: It was a tough year from start to finish, and it ended with GM and Chrysler on their knees before Congress begging for money to keep operating. Ford was in better shape, but it wanted a line of credit.

They didn’t get anything from Congress, but GM and Chrysler did get a $17.4 billion loan from President Bush and the Treasury Department.

2009: The industry slump went from bad to worse, and two of the Detroit 3 — GM and Chrysler — filed for Chapter 11 reorganization. The good news: Most of the hard work was done in advance, and each of companies emerged from bankruptcy in less than six weeks.

2010: The industry began to claw its way back, but Toyota didn’t share in the recovery. Allegations of unintended acceleration sparked a heated safety controversy, ugly headlines and global recalls of millions of units. Toyota’s prime asset — a pristine reputation for quality — was seriously tarnished. The company lost U.S. market share, along with the trust of many shoppers.

2011: On March 11, a massive earthquake rocked northeast Japan and a devastating tsunami followed. Thousands died, and Japan’s auto industry was severely wounded, deep into the supply chain. Shortages of vehicles and parts disrupted the global auto market through the year. In the United States, vehicle shortages stifled a modest sales recovery that had been taking root.

2012: North America was the world’s hottest auto market. And coupled with that sizzling demand was a new leanness — painfully achieved during the recession — that helped dealerships, automakers and suppliers to a very profitable year.

2013: GM, as part of its biggest personnel shake-up since 1992, named product development chief Mary Barra to succeed Dan Akerson as CEO. Barra, an engineer and GM lifer who had spent much of her career working inside the company’s plants, will become the first woman to run a major global carmaker.

2014: For GM, 2014 became the Year of the Recall, as defective ignition switches linked to more than 40 deaths erupted into a full-blown crisis for CEO Barra just weeks into her new job. Revamped safety protocols unleashed a record string of recalls, covering more than 30 million vehicles globally.

2015: Volkswagen AG admits that it cheated on diesel emissions tests by installing software on vehicles that turned on emissions controls during testing and turned them off afterward, enabling the vehicles to pass U.S. emissions tests. The company said it had sold 11 million vehicles worldwide that could be in breach of regulations. The scandal cost CEO Martin Winterkorn his job, as well as those of Audi r&d chief Ulrich Hackenberg and others. Settlement costs were expected to be in the tens of billions of dollars.

2016: Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential election. As a candidate, Trump had the auto industry in his crosshairs on the campaign trail. He called out Ford Motor Co. for moving jobs to Mexico, and called for a repeal of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said was destroying jobs. With Trump’s election victory, the industry awaits signs that indicate how his policies will affect business.

2017: Virtually every automaker becomes an electric vehicle evangelist. It’s now easier to list which automakers do not plan to electrify most or all of their offerings than to keep track of the ambitious plans announced in 2017. Among them: Volvo said every vehicle it builds starting in 2019 will have an electric motor. General Motors said it has 20 EVs coming by 2023, and Toyota plans more than 10 by early next decade. All told, more than 100 battery-electric models are headed to dealerships globally within five years.

2018: Carlos Ghosn, head of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, was indicted in November on charges that he underreported his income by about $82 million and misused company assets for personal gain. Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors quickly ousted him as chairman, but Renault was less eager to part ways with its CEO after his arrest in Japan. The situation cast a pall of uncertainty over the future of the alliance, which has held together largely because of Ghosn’s efforts.

2019: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles finally found a partner, though not before Sergio Marchionne’s untimely death in 2018. FCA pairing up with PSA would create the world’s fourth-largest automaker — bigger than Ford Motor Co. and General Motors — and give it the global scale that Marchionne insisted was necessary to compete. The deal that sprang from the friendship of current FCA CEO Mike Manley and PSA CEO Carlos Tavares has the potential to reshape the global auto industry.

Update: Carlos Ghosn’s dramatic escape from Japan qualifies as a last minute 2019 top story addendum.