To every car, turn, turn, turn

Wikipedia has entries about 548 U.S. automobile manufacturers that no longer exist:

Defunct motor vehicle manufacturers of the United States: ABC-Daniels Motor
Defunct motor vehicle manufacturers of the United States: Desberon-Matheson
Defunct motor vehicle manufacturers of the United States: Maxwell-Yale

I live in Nashville, in a region of Tennessee that is now headquarters to Nissan USA and that has two major manufacturing facilities that build a wide array of Nissan models. The area also has a major GM facility in Spring Hill that used to build Saturns, but now makes the Chevrolet Traverse. Also in middle Tennessee, there are a host of manufacturing facilities (including a major automotive glass manufacturing facility formerly owned by Ford) that supply those and other auto manufacturers.

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The former Marathon Motor Works, as seen from I-40

But one of those companies on the Wikipedia list of “defunct motor vehicle manufacturers” was also in Nashville a century ago and the building where a car hasn’t been built since 1914, the Marathon Motor Works, can be seen by tens of thousands of commuters every day. (See the Google map at right.)

According to those who wrote the Wikipedia entry, Marathon was “on a roll” starting in 1911:

“Even by the exuberant standards of the exploding auto industry. The cars acquired a good reputation for quality and durability, probably helped by the fact that the factory had total control of its parts engineering and manufacturing. New models and national advertising followed, and production soared to 10,000 units in 1912. Dealers were signed up literally on every continent and demand considerably exceeded supply. As with so many of the early auto firms, though, management and finance did not keep up with engineering. It was said that Collier was allowed to make fewer and fewer decisions, having to defer instead to a board of directors that often changed and may have been involved in financial improprieties. Critical personnel began to leave and suppliers began to complain of non-payment. The company fell as fast as it had risen and 1914 was its last year.”

Today, the century-old complex that housed Marathon Motors is a four-block area called Marathon Village that has been under development since 1987. It is home for several businesses and many artists of all types have studio space there. Although it took almost a century for that to happen, I thought of all this as I read this op-ed piece in the New York Times about the still-decaying Packard Motor Car Company facilities in Detroit that have been sitting empty since 1956. The author implies the empty Packard plant is evidence of a possible “misery” reason the government should bailout auto manufacturers.

But the rise and fall of individual auto manufacturers is a part of U.S. industrial history. And it will be a part of its future. It’s unfortunate that the management and workers of some companies fail to understand their marketplace while the competition does. But that’s what happens.

If lawmakers and the President want to provide funds to GM, Chrysler and Ford as some sort of jobs-protection, economic recovery strategy — or to prevent “misery” associated with closing manufacturing facilities — then do so — but let’s call it what it is. However, if anyone thinks the government can keep a car company from failing, I have 548 examples of how the marketplace and competition are more powerful than anything the government can do.