Unlike presidents Bush #1 and #2, the late Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, Skull and Bones, the tobacco industry and numerous other subjects of creator G B Trudeau’s sharp and subtle wit, I am a great fan of the satirical Doonesbury cartoon strip, first published in a Yale student newspaper in the early 1970s.

It eventually found its way, via syndication, into many daily papers both in the US and further afield, and many editors subsequently moved it to the editorial, rather than ‘funnies’ page. Much like the later Simpsons cartoon TV series (this week set in Ireland for St Patrick’s Day, with predictable treatment of that country’s traditions like showing the ingredients of Guinness as bog water and chocolate), no subject is safe. Including the auto industry.

News just in today brought to mind the Doonesbury series, in the early 90s, if I recall correctly, depicting legendary Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca discussing the standardisation of airbags in minivans. Details are hazy 15 years on, but I recall one episode ended with Iacocca telling a Congress hearing: “Driver airbags ya can have today; for passenger ‘bags ya wait!” As you’ll know, it wasn’t long before passenger airbags were standard fit. I can’t help thinking it was a bit like that when it came to doling out federal low interest loans from the TARP fund to the auto industry. “If yer making cars in Detroit, here’s the funds now; if yer in the parts business, ya wait”.

The first loan funds to GM started trickling down Capitol Hill towards Detroit as long ago as last December but the money-haemorrhaging components industry, without which no vehicle is built, had to wait until last night for lawmakers finally to lever open the taxpayers’ wallet. And even then, only large tier firms supplying GM and Chrysler are eligible for help. The idea, apparently, is they, fresh federal cash coursing through their corporate veins, will then, in turn, be able to help the smaller tier twos and threes.

Let’s hope so. Several of the big boys are in serious trouble, such as Lear and Visteon, which this week said it expected a ‘doubtful as a going concern’ note very soon from its auditors. And there are sure to be more. If the big players are having trouble, you can bet the smaller firms on which they depend are also hurting. Signs of difficulties in the parts biz this week included a complex little spat in Canada and an outright unresolveable difference of opinion in Syracuse which means bye-bye to a plant and its jobs. And, in a Vancouver not in Canada, there was bad news for workers at a heavy truck parts plant.

Opel remained in the news – and gossip – this week as we continued to await some resolution of its woes and plenty of speculation continues over the proposed Fiat-Chrysler alliance. Chrysler itself remains upbeat, with CEO Nardelli popping up on a business TV talk show while his colleagues insisted just $5bn by the end of March would keep the fiscal wolf from the door.

What passed for good news this week included a new Audi SUV for the Seat plant in Spain (in return for a pay freeze), BMW at least holding targets despite large 2008 losses and Toyota trying to retain its Turkish workforce as the new Verso (more or less a European version of the US Matrix) started volume production. Plus Our Man in Brazil reported signs of recovery there already and Tesla delivered its 250th electric sportscar while announcing more details of its new five-seater.

We also took a look at the future of 4WD, put the Tata Nano being launched in India under the ‘Coolbear’ (aka Mark Bursa) microscope and caught up with supplier Behr.

Spring seems finally to have sprung around in the UK and a sunny weekend is forecast for us.

Hope yours is good, too.

Graeme Roberts
Deputy/News Editor