Auto industry changed with the times

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In the beginning, there was Chrysler Corp.

(Not literally the beginning, mind you, but at the beginning of Plastics News 25 years ago.)

And then in 1998 Chrysler begat DaimlerChrysler. Legally, that was DaimlerChrysler LLC in North America and DaimlerChrysler AG in Europe.

And when that “merger of equals” proved not to be one, in 2007 DaimlerChrysler became Chrysler LLC, with private equity group Cerberus Capital Management holding a majority stake in the carmaker.

Less than two years — and one bankruptcy filing — later, it became Chrysler Group LLC.

Then in early 2014, a new sign went up outside the offices on what is still called Chrysler Drive in Auburn Hills, Mich., noting yet a new name: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

And that entire stretch of time, from Chrysler Corp. to Fiat Chrysler, you could still buy a Chrysler Town & Country Minivan, made at the same plant, mostly by the same workers, designed to do the same job of transporting families from soccer games to school and home again.

Of course Chrysler is hardly the only company that has gone through some name changes and face lifts during the past 25 years. General Motors — from GM Corp. to today’s GM Co. — is the easiest example to cherry pick from the auto sector.

But there are also auto supply giants like Delphi Automotive Corp., which went from Corp. to LLC to plc, and seemed to shed divisions as quickly as it changed names, and Magna International Inc., which created subsidiary companies Intier and Decoma for its interiors business and exteriors business, then brought them back in house simply as part of Magna Exteriors and Interiors.

So is this just a matter that the more things change the more they stay the same?

Not really.

Many of the name changes reflect the changing auto industry during the last 25 years. There were bankruptcies, of course, but also restructuring as the North American auto market expanded to record production of more than 17 million vehicles, then massively imploded at the start of the Great Recession.

Plastics News Rhoda Miel

Interior supplier Lear Corp. decided it wanted to focus on seating and electronics, and sold the bulk of its injection molding and blow molding trim division to financier Wilbur Ross, who created International Automotive Components — a company that didn’t even exist at the beginning of the 2000s and now is one of the biggest auto suppliers in the world. (Lear did maintain a minority interest in IAC.)

Then there were changes in what the auto industry expected future buyers to want. The late 1990s brought us the mega-SUVs the Ford Excursion and the Hummer, as well as Daimler’s two-passenger Smart Car.

Diesel was finally going to break through in the U.S., experts said, (it never did, of course) or North America was going to be doing its own refining of fuel from corn (I know plenty of gearheads who mutter nasty things every time ethanol gets mentioned).

There was Chrysler’s grand experiment to injection mold the entire side of a car on a massive press from Husky at a technical center in Novi (now closed), and a few years when everyone expected the auto industry to switch to a 42-volt electric architecture to accommodate all the electronics that were seeping their way into the car. The electronics are still coming, but improvements to the electronics systems manage to keep cars going with a standard 12-volt.

The jury is still out on the fate of the electric car, with Elon Musk and his Tesla Motors the darling of Wall Street investors, but battery companies still struggling to fill factories built to supply the expected growth which has been sputtering along at minimal levels for years.

Carbon fiber is now moving to large scale production. BMW AG nursed the material along in research efforts with its own in-house production of everything from the raw material to finished parts and now is putting it into multiple cars. Independent suppliers like Plasan Carbon Composites have developed faster, more efficient ways to process carbon-fiber reinforced plastics, winning it new places on a wider range of vehicles, while European companies are finding more and more potential for the material in structural parts.

Then again, it’s hard to tell in the moment when some new idea in the industry has a real shot at making through all the turbulence to commercial success.

In 1997, Ford Motor Co. introduced a concept lightweight vehicle made with an aluminum frame and body panels. Later this year, it begins making the aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck.

That same year, Toyota Motor Co. was talking about the potential for an emission-free vehicle powered by fuel cells. (The cells themselves, made with high-end plastic components.) And this year? Toyota is introducing a new fuel cell vehicle, along with a loan backing the construction of hydrogen filling stations to fill the (probably composite) tanks that will go with those cells.

In another 25 years, some version of a Ford and a Toyota will likely still be around. The cars we drive may change, but they may also stay the same.