FLINT, Mich. — This may be the most improbable place in America for the domestic auto industry to make a stand against the Japanese.
After all, Flint--the aging birthplace of General Motors--is a town that has come to symbolize everything that went wrong with the U.S. auto industry in the 1980s.
Devastated by plant closings and layoffs that cut GM's Flint payroll nearly in half during the decade, the city is now most famous as the setting for "Roger and Me," a savagely funny new movie about filmmaker Michael Moore's attempts to take GM Chairman Roger B. Smith on a tour of the desolate landscape left behind by GM's virtual collapse here.
Yet amid Flint's industrial rubble, one GM factory has been transformed into a showcase of American quality, building cars that are nearly as trouble-free as the best from Japan.
For here at its "Buick City" assembly plant, GM produces the Buick LeSabre, which received the highest quality ranking of any American car in 1989 from J. D. Power & Associates, an Agoura Hills research firm that is considered the last word on automotive quality in Japan and the United States.
In fact, after years of languishing near the bottom in the annual rankings, the 1989 LeSabre turned in the highest quality score ever posted by a domestic car under J. D. Power's rating system.
Remarkably, the LeSabre also came in with higher quality scores than almost every Japanese car on the market and was rated the second-most trouble-free car sold in the United States, trailing only the Nissan Maxima.
The LeSabre's success in the J. D. Power ratings--usually dominated by the Japanese--has acted as something of a tonic for Detroit's auto makers.
After a decade in which the Big Three were never able to become fully competitive with the Japanese, the LeSabre has provided a glimmer of hope that Japan's quality advantage can finally be erased in the 1990s.
"This is a great American success story," Buick General Manager Edward Mertz said. "It tells the world that the American worker can do the job on a world-class level."
And, for GM in particular--now amid its worst sales slump since the early 1980s--the LeSabre's surprising success comes at just the right time, when the organization is so badly in need of a win.
"I really get encouraged when I look at the LeSabre," said J. T. Battenberg, vice president and group executive of GM's Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac Group. "Our dealers tell me that as the recognition grows that we are building cars of comparable quality to the Japanese--that sells."
Indeed, the LeSabre has proven once and for all to GM executives that if they build quality cars, people will respond; the LeSabre took off like a rocket on the sales charts after last June's release of the Power survey.
In July, LeSabre sales rose more than 91% compared to those of the July, 1988; in August, nearly 99%.
The public perception of quality made the LeSabre the hottest domestic car on the market.
"The dealers told us that people started coming in with newspaper clippings about the quality ranking and would say, 'I want one of these cars,' without even knowing what a LeSabre was," said George Gurnsey, Buick's product satisfaction manager.
For managers at the plant here, the LeSabre's success has been all the more rewarding because they remember too well just how bad the quality was when LeSabre production began at the renovated Buick City complex in September, 1985.
Buick City, conceived as a model plant where GM would introduce the latest in robotics and innovative manufacturing processes, along with a fresh approach to labor policies, instead quickly became one of GM's biggest headaches.
Today, even top GM executives admit that the quality of the early LeSabres from Buick City was terrible.
Quality suffered, they acknowledge, because the company tried to introduce too many new elements into the production system all at once.
Not only did the LeSabre have a new design, but the Buick City plant itself was essentially new as well. GM had gutted a 75-year-old Buick plant and stuffed it with the most advanced robotics available.
Meanwhile, the plant's workers were unaccustomed to each other, having been brought in from different plants in the Flint area. And, as production began in the fall of 1985, even the management in Flint was being restructured as part of GM's corporate-wide reorganization.
"An upheaval that massive is more than anyone needs," Buick City plant manager Nelson Gonzalez said with a sigh.
The result was chaos on the line at Buick City, and some of the worst quality anywhere inside GM.
"We were unhappy with the start-up and the quality of the plant, no question about it," recalled Battenberg, who from 1986 to 1988 was in charge of GM's Flint Automotive Group, which runs Buick City.