I would like to remind everyone that Republicans have successfully driven the Canadian automobile sector into bankruptcy five times, beginning in the early 1950s and continuing until the mid-1970s.
The shining star of the Canadian automaker industry in those years was the Chevrolet Nova, a unique, brilliant, low-cost car that was a hit in America from the early 1960s until the mid-1970s. It was a hit with consumers and increasingly the U.S. Army, too.
One of the things that made the Chevy Nova special was the Buy America provision, under which one of the biggest producers of domestic made vehicles, the Chevy company, had to build it in the United States. David Vine, GM’s chief counsel at the time, said as much in his famous testimony before Congress.
On the Canadian side of things, the program ended up punishing Canadian industry by saddling it with at least $3 billion in loans. The Nova, for example, had to be imported because Buy America precluded its domestic manufacture. The Nova disappeared from the U.S. used car market and appeared for only a short time as a used vehicle.
At the end of the conversation I had this week with Jim Curran, who oversees GM’s Canadian and Latin American operations, I asked him if the American leader in foreign exchange would consider implementing Buy America for GM vehicles in Mexico and Canada. Curran said that was not on his agenda.
According to GM, GM Canada produces more than a million vehicles a year. The Nova was the first Chevy model to be made in Canada. By 1960, GM had added a second production plant in Oshawa, Ontario. The Nova was the first of GM’s low-cost Chevys, among which were the Nova, the Riviera and the Cavalier. They were followed by the Mercury Marquis, Texaco Firebird, Buick Riviera, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Series-H and Chevy Blazer/RV.
In 1965, GM produced 36 percent of its Chevrolet products in North America. At the start of that year, there were 88 Chevrolet dealers across the country and about 6,000 Chevy dealerships in the U.S.
In 2014, Chevrolet imported 2.3 million vehicles out of Canada and Mexico. The United States imported more than 3.2 million vehicles. Canada makes cars with exterior designs similar to those of GM’s U.S. offerings, the most popular of which are the Corvair, Cape and Vega. It makes full-size pickups and a number of sport utility vehicles, as well as high-end cars, such as the Impala, Impala GL, Silhouette and Cadillac Escalade.
At the start of the decade, the two countries imported 725,000 passenger cars. That figure is dwarfed by the all-time U.S. record, 5.7 million, recorded in 1972. The Buy America experience resulted in the Canadian car industry going into bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, a period of time not seen since. GM filed for bankruptcy in November of the same year, beginning the entire Great Depression cycle of losing money for the first time in company history. Chrysler filed in May of that year. Fiat eventually bought both companies.
So, when Governor-elect John F. Kennedy announced his Better Way For America program in 1962, he not only wanted to give Americans a fair shake, he wanted to send the Great Depression monster back to sleep. Buy America was the linchpin of that grand bargain. But Buy America’s legacy has been death.
Next time, let’s save our money and save the jobs, not just for American consumers, but for the workers and the communities that depend on the vehicle industry.
David Olive is an auto industry consultant.