As the decade dubbed 'the noughties' bows out, Dave Leggett looks back at the last ten years and considers some of the events and trends that helped shape the automotive decade. Here's his list of ten.

1. Jacques (Jac) Nasser left Ford

Nasser's departure from Ford in 2001 signalled a change of direction at Ford, but more than that, it chimed with the changing business mood in the early part of the decade. The dotcom bubble had burst and it was time for more traditional industrial values to reassert themselves. Nasser's grand vision was to turn Ford into a post-modern provider of multi-branded vehicles and transport-related services. It was a vision in part seduced by the rapid rise of the Internet and the widespread notion in the late-1990s that the future belonged to the smartest firms that embraced new ways of doing business while amassing high-margin activities with strong synergies.

But Nasser took the flak when Ford lurched to heavy financial loss in 2001 as its reliance on trucks  was exposed amid higher fuel prices and strong competition in the US domestic market from Asian brands now producing there. His image was also tarnished by his uncertain handling and of the tyre tread separation Ford Explorer-Bridgestone/Firestone controversy. Nasser's abrupt departure paved the way for Ford's 'back to basics'  movement under chair and CEO Bill Ford which, in turn, paved the way for the arrival of Alan Mulally from Boeing to be Ford's CEO. Mulally's big idea said it all: 'One Ford'.

Nasser's fall hardly a complete surprise

2. Zero percent finance and the role of incentives in the US

When interest rates plummeted after 9/11, GM saw an opportunity to 'keep America rolling' with free finance. Whether we're talking about very cheap finance, discounts or rebates, Detroit was sucked into incentives in a big way through much of the decade. It may have moved the metal and kept plants in operation in the short-term, but it devalued the product proposition in the long-term. Arguably, it was a big contributory factor behind the decline of the 'Big 3' in their home market and it left them with little room for manoeuvre when the economic climate worsened sharply last year.

3. China came of age and spawned 'new independents'

China's economy moved up a gear in the Noughties, fueling growth of motorisation in the big urban centres in the east of the country. In the first half of the decade, China's economic growth was built overwhelmingly on the country's exports of manufactured goods. But by the end of the decade, China's domestic demand was accounting for more of China's GDP as wealth spread and a sizeable urban middle-class with spending power had emerged. When the government introduced incentives to encourage its vehicle market in 2009, many overseas firms also breathed a sigh of relief that one of the world's biggest car markets was still performing well.

China's automotive industry was a growth pole through the decade. In the year 2000, some 2m vehicles were produced in China, but by the end of the decade, annual production was running at 12m units.

While the established joint ventures between foreign carmakers (such as Volkswagen, GM and Toyota) and domestic Chinese makers have gone from strength to strength, an arguably more significant development has been the growth of smaller independent carmaking groups such as Geely, Brilliance, Great Wall and BYD. While they started out without the high-volume advantage of some of the bigger groups, they have managed to establish a presence and formulate strategies for overseas expansion.


4. The rise of the 'green car'

Some may see it as something of a paradox, but the noughties certainly witnessed the rise of the 'green car' in many forms. I'm using this term in a loose way to encompass everything from G-Wiz-style EV city cars, to gasoline-electric hybrids and clever innovations like stop-start as well as the super-efficient diesels that come with a green sub-brand. It was the decade in which the environment and concerns over possible man-made global warming took centre stage. And the auto industry, whatever the debate over the scale of its contribution to the whole problem, reacted to that. By the end of the decade auto show headlines came to be dominated by green car solutions of all types, especially hybrids and electric vehicle concepts.

And let's not forget the contribution of bioethanol and its controversial and heavily subsidised incursion into the food chain in America (causing 'tortilla riots' in Mexico). In the US, it has been partly driven by energy security and reducing dependence on imported oil as much as by environmental benefits. Second generation biofuels promise the green gain without anything like as much pain. 

But let's step back and look at the big picture. People do consider the environmental impact of the vehicle they drive now much more than they did in 2000. Higher fuel prices may have helped, but so has the regulatory and tax environment in Europe. Statistics involving average CO2 per km were banded around by the end of the decade in the same breath as MPG and 0-60. There had been a transformation of sorts.

5. BMW redefined 'premium small car' with Mini

Back in 2000 it looked audacious bordering on foolhardy. How do you take a small car icon like the Issigonis Mini and reinvent it in a way that doesn't tread all over the sensitivities of those who loved the original. And more than that, you give it a contemporary feel but with a nod to the heritage. And turn a profit? Certainly not an easy one to pull off. BMW came up with a design that was different in concept from the original and yet recognisably a Mini. It was bigger, too, though still a 'small car' with front-wheel-drive rather than rear. But this wasn't to be a utility product in the Issigonis tradition. This was a premium small car. It worked. The brand was positioned as premium.

6. GM buys Daewoo Motor and turns Chevy into an international brand

When Daewoo Motor went bust at the beginning of the decade, there weren't too many takers for the assets. But General Motors came in for it and the decision to use it as a springboard for a new international and value-driven brand looks inspired now. It sounded odd at the time. A Chevy, as Don McLean said, is something you take to the levee, along with your whiskey and rye. But GM had other ideas. They would leverage (a noughties term if ever there was one) Daewoo's small car engineering expertise and production capacity to rebrand Daewoos as Chevrolets. It worked. Chevrolet's golden bow-tie looked just fine on the Chevrolet Spark minicar and indeed, other models. Dumping the Daewoo brand name wasn't giving up much (though it was retained in the home Korean market).   

7. Marchionne brings Fiat back from the brink

Fiat looked like a firm that could well be heading into terminal decline before a Canadian-Italian (or vice versa) accountant emerged as the choice of the firm's main creditors to be CEO. Working with Luca di Montezemolo, Marchionne transformed Fiat Auto, streamlining its reporting structure and focusing the company on making better product, accessing international markets more efficiently and becoming better placed to make profits. He turned the firm around to profit in 2005, helped by the impact of the Grande Punto in Europe - a hit model that was followed by others, such as the Fiat 500, not to mention a rejuvenated Alfa Romeo brand.

Anyone remember the GM 'put option' back in 2005. That was a nice bit of business in which Fiat trousered USD2bn in compensation from GM in order to let GM walk away from its ties with Fiat. But Marchionne hasn't been averse to other selective tie-ups - such as the collaboration with Ford to save cost on the Ford Ka/Fiat 500. But Opel didn't happen for him this year. How successful will Fiat's alliance with Chrysler be? If anyone can make that one work, it is probably Marchionne, who will likely continue to be on the lookout for acquisitions or alliance extensions in order to get to still higher volume scale economies.


8. DaimlerChrysler unravelled

In 1998 it was billed at the biggest industrial merger of all time to create a vast corporation that would serve as a model for the auto industry, with huge synergies in product development, engineering, procurement and distribution. But DaimlerChrysler fell apart when its board opted in 2007 to offload the loss-making Chrysler division to private equity group Cerberus. In truth, the marriage of supposed equals to create the vast DCX enterprise never seemed to quite gel. There were many stories of disharmony, lack of trust and cultural clash between Stuttgart and Auburn Hills over the years. And the benefits that were supposed to flow from combined efforts and synergies appeared to be much less than hoped for. The integration of operations and functions was patchy. The man who many saw as a key architect of the DaimlerChrysler deal, Jürgen Schrempp, was replaced as DaimlerChrysler's CEO at the end of 2005, a sure sign that something was already going very wrong with the grand vision. (Schrempp had also presided over quality glitches on the E-class that tarnished the Mercedes-Benz brand image badly in the middle of the decade, but that's another story.)


9. North American suppliers pushed over the edge

When the Detroit 3 came under pressure, so did their suppliers. At the beginning of the decade, the North American OEM-supplier relationship was reduced to relentless price pressure imposed on the local supply base, alongside an increasing tendency to look to low-cost solutions overseas. Many US suppliers struggled as a result and many were forced into bankruptcy - perhaps the most notable Chapter 11 filer being Delphi (and it would stay in Chapter 11 for four years). Are things better now? They are said to be, with Ford, GM and Chrysler all taking a more strategic and long-term, collaborative approach to supplier relations. Even if things do seem significantly better than they were, with the prospect of raised production schedules for the next few years, many suppliers are still wary.

10. Demise of MG Rover

Look, I know what you're thinking. He's not raising that old chestnut again is he? Let it go, man, let it go. But the sad MG Rover tale is in many ways a tale of our times, if a small one, and I can't quite leave it out of this list. Yes, there's a sorry catalogue of strategic errors and mistakes that extend back several decades, but the final incarnation of Britain's last indigenous volume carmaker is in many ways the saddest.

Rewind to 2000. John Towers, an old-fashioned Midlands industrialist, is cheered by Longbridge workers after he pledges to keep volume car manufacturing going at the plant. He and his other 'Phoenix Four' colleagues appear to have a plan of sorts, backed by the UK government. They'll fine tune the existing models on the cheap, while looking for a strong industrial partner. And they'll wrap themselves and the brand up in the Union Jack.

Was this a Skoda-type brand renaissance in the making? No it wasn't.

The industrial partnership or technology alliance that the company desperately needs for future product is not found. A commercial failure involving a rebadged Tata Indica is about it. The company goes bust in 2005 and the controversy does not end there. Suffice to say, allegations of pocket lining by the 'Phoenic Four' directors and the company's former CEO don't go away and an official report published in 2009 (took 'em a while) eventually lays it out. They made a mint while they presided over MG Rover's decline. Not technically wrong perhaps (they had good advisers), but not exactly morally fully above board. One suspects that John Towers and the others would be reluctant to show their faces around Longbridge now - where a handful of warmed over MGF roadsters are assembled by a handful of workers for a handful of dealers on behalf of a Chinese company that lifted and shifted tooling, blah, blah, blah. That's enough. I'll let it go.

Some other noughties' nuggets:

  • 2007 Hyundai's Chung Mong-koo gets jail term (suspended)
    South Korean business culture has, for a long time, come with a big dollop of corruption and dodgy practices. Amazingly enough, the Korean government has sought to end the worst excesses of the powerful chaebols. An example of sorts is made of Hyundai Motor's mercurial leader Chung Mong-koo. But he stays a free man provided he gives away some of his considerable personal fortune to good causes. 
  • 2000 - MMC's locker stuffed with 'bads'
    The auto industry and Japanese public was stunned when it emerged in the summer of 2000 that Mitsubishi had systematically hid auto defects to avoid recalls for more than 20 years. Police, acting for the Japanese Transportation Ministry following a tip-off, found the evidence of defects and customer complaints in an employee locker room instead of filed away properly.
  • 2006 - Pischetsrieder resigns from VW
    When Bernd Pischetsrieder resigns as VW Group CEO in November 2006, many suspect the hidden hand of VW patriarch Ferdinand Piech at work. Piech was said to have waged a behind-the-scenes campaign undermining Pischetsrieder's restructuring efforts, which were opposed by VW unions. Piech-friendly Audi man Martin Winterkorn succeeds Pischetsrieder.
  • 2007 - Volkswagen's Brazilian prostitutes scandal
    It's manna from heaven for the German tabloids as a scandal breaks involving VW, labour leaders, a slush fund for 'holidays' in Brazil and prostitutes. Former Volkswagen labour union boss Klaus Volkert is eventually jailed for nearly three years for his part in a sex and corruption scandal that rocked VW and corporate Germany. In December 2007, former VW human resources head Peter Hartz was given a two-year suspended sentence and fined after admitting he had approved the payments to Volkert.
  • 2006 - GM-Renault-Nissan alliance talks end. Carlos Ghosn's star waned a little during the 2000s after the initial gain from successfully integrating Renault and Nissan in alliance faded. Plans to reinvent Renault as a premium brand seem to be in some disarray. Ghosn's efforts to add GM to the Renault-Nissan alliance, via Kirk Kerkorian, were eventually rebuffed by GM's board. By the end of the decade, he was looking for future growth via a lead in electric vehicles.