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Howes: Who is America's true auto company?

daniel howes
Daniel Howes
Detroit News

In President Donald Trump’s America, it matters where automakers bend metal.

That’s one reason General Motors CEO Mary Barrajourneyed to the Oval Office this week to meet with the man behind the desk. Among other things, Trump wants know what the Detroit automaker’s really going to do about the plants it’s moving to close across the industrial Midwest — a region he needs to win next year if he wants to remain president.

Barra’s answer probably didn’t satisfy Trump — since he didn’t immediately take to Twitter to a) gloat or b) continue his recent bashfest of GM. Trouble is, some of the inconvenient truths about where the automaker assembles vehicles are, in fact, true. More vehicles are assembled in China than in the United States. More in Mexico than any major manufacturer.

Into this increasingly confusing jumble stepped Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford before the Labor Day holiday. In a note to “The Ford Team” he reminded folks that “no other automaker builds more vehicles or employs more hourly employees in the U.S. than Ford." And “Ford,” he continued, “is America’s auto company.”

There you have it: the money shot. In five words, the guy whose name is on the building encapsulated the competitive advantage Ford will leverage as GM battles negotiations with the United Auto Workers — and bargains the fate of four U.S. plants it’s moving to close.

Ford continued: “We honor and celebrate the people who work hard and build things every day. In 1914, my great-grandfather changed the world by offering $5 a day for factory workers, doubling the prevailing wage, and helped expand the American middle class.”

True, and saying so is no coincidence.

As GM and the news media beat back erroneous presidential tweets hammering the automaker for imaginary transgressions, Ford is strategically reaffirming its Made-in-America legitimacy. It’s an asset in its talks with the UAW and a defense against periodic meddling from the Tweeter-in-Chief.

Using data from independent firms, Ford compiled information it calls “Looking at the Numbers.” It contains few surprises for those who know the numbers.

But they bear repeating in the hothouse of national contract talks under the shadows of Trump's Twitter account and a federal corruption investigation touching UAW leadership.

Ford is the leading producer of vehicles in the United States. It outpaced GM by roughly 380,000 units last year. Some 80% of the vehicles Ford sells at home are built at home. That’s the highest of any manufacturer. Ford is the leading exporter of U.S.-built vehicles. And last year Ford imported half as many vehicles as GM or Fiat Chrysler.

The upshot is Ford’s heavy U.S. footprint could prove politically potent in union negotiations focused on allocating job-ensuring production. And Ford’s U.S. presence could deflect presidential meddling – a fact of life in the Trump era.

The other subtext in Bill Ford’s note? That his company didn’t take taxpayer money to survive the Great Recession. The Blue Oval may have its problems, but that isn’t among them – exactly why the boss is touting Ford as “America’s auto company.”

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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