Business, Finance & Economics

Italian-owned Chrysler reminds Americans that they're still an American icon

Unless you're a Seattle Seahawks fan, Sunday night's Super Bowl was a pretty boring affair. But at least a lot of the advertisements were entertaining.

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One theme among many of the ads was companies promoting American-made products and their American-ness. But in the age of globalization and multinationals with headquarters across the world, is that always such a fair claim? 

Take the case of Chrysler. Sometime during the second half, when 97 million American were half paying attention to the blowout going on, Bob Dylan popped up onto the screen selling Chryslers. 

The ad showed nostalgic American images: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and a younger Bob Dylan, icons from a time when Detroit was the cool car capital of the world. The message was clear: It should be like this again.

My friends and I watching the game weren’t really sure how to feel about this message. After all, Chrysler is owned by Fiat, an Italian company, and builds cars in Mexico and Canada. So, is Chrysler really an iconic American company any longer?

“Chrysler makes a whole lot of vehicles in the United States,” said Kristin Dziczek, with The Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

She makes a compelling case for Chrysler still being very much an iconic American company. Chrysler sells 18 models, 10 built solely in the US, and one built jointly with a plant in Mexico.

Chrysler also employs about 50,000 people in the US. Employment is still down 14 percent from 2008, but Dziczek said Chrysler is doing pretty well.  

“No company has seen employment recover as strongly and as completely,” she said. 

In short, she liked seeing Bob Dylan selling Chryslers with a bit of American swagger on Sunday night.

Dave Cole, who knows a thing or two about cars, also liked the commercial. He chairs the research group Auto Harvest in Ann Arbor. He liked seeing the resurrection of the idea that great cars are still built in the US.

Despite the bleak news from Detroit, Cole says it’s been a remarkable recovery for US automakers: Chrysler just posted its 46th straight month of sales gains. 

“For years, we chased cheaper labor because we had not very productive assembly of vehicles, that is, it took a lot of people,” said Cole.

“But now with the productivity in the industry — the technology of the industry — what we’re seeing is that the value of the cheap labor has diminished considerably because of the high-tech agile flexible plants that all of the manufacturers have. There was a time, for example, you could have said, ‘Well, let’s assemble a car in China and send it to the US.’ Well, today the cost of that transportation is greater than the labor savings.” 

Cole said today, you have to build where you sell. It works both ways though. Chrysler has plans to build its Jeep in China for the Asian market. Don’t look for a commercial touting that at next year’s Super Bowl.