Howes: Amid auto talks, Ford lays claim to being 'America's auto company'

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

As General Motors Co. parries inconvenient truths that it sells more cars in China than the United States and builds more vehicles in Mexico than any other major automaker, rival Ford Motor Co. has a message:

The Blue Oval is America's auto company.

Executive Chairman Bill Ford, great-grandson of ol' Henry, said as much in a Labor Day message to "The Ford Team" last Friday, just days before the United Auto Workers named GM its lead company in national contract talks bearing down on a Sept. 14 deadline.

United Auto Workers Vice President Rory Gamble, left, and Ford Motor Co.'s executive chairman, Bill Ford, open national contract talks between the union and the automaker.

"No other automaker builds more vehicles or employs more hourly employees in the U.S. than Ford," the chairman wrote. "Ford is America's auto company. And that is something we can be proud of.

"Labor Day has always had a special meaning to Ford. We honor and celebrate the people who work hard and build things every day. In 1914, my great-grandfather changed the world by offering $5 a day for factory workers, doubling the prevailing wage, and helped expand the American middle class."

True, and saying so is no coincidence. As GM and the news media beat back erroneous presidential tweets about the automaker's business outside the United States and its plans to idle four plants inside the country, Ford is strategically reaffirming its Made-in-America legitimacy — an asset in its talks with the UAW and a defense against periodic meddling from the Tweeter-in-Chief.

Using data from IHS and Ward's, Ford compiled a PowerPoint deck it calls "Looking at the Numbers." It compares "production, sales, exports, imports and more" and finds few surprises to folks familiar with the numbers. But in the hothouse that is national contract talks under the looming shadows of President Donald Trump's Twitter account and a federal corruption investigation reaching to the upper levels of UAW leadership, they bear repeating.

Ford is the leading producer of vehicles in the United States, last year outpacing GM by roughly 380,000 units. Some 80% of the cars, trucks and SUVs the Blue Oval sells in the United States are made in the United States, compared to 62% for GM and roughly 55% for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Only California-based Tesla Inc. builds 100% of its output in the United States.

Ford is the leading exporter of U.S.-built vehicles, the numbers show, outpacing GM, FCA, BMW AG and Honda Motor Co. And last year, GM and FCA imported roughly twice as many vehicles from production sites outside Canada and Mexico than the 74,185 Ford imported last year. GM, FCA and Ford ranked ninth, tenth and 15th, respectively, in non-NAFTA imports last year.

The upshot: Ford's global footprint, especially in the United States, could be politically potent in negotiations that focus on product allocation for union-represented plants. And the reality of Ford's U.S. production can deflect potential presidential criticism — a fact of life in the Trump era.

The numbers can change. FCA's plans to kill the Fiat 500 in North America, boost production of its hot-selling Ram pickups and expand its line of next-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs in Detroit are likely to fatten the Italian-American automaker's U.S.-made percentage.

And GM's move to close four plants in the United States — two in Michigan and one in northeast Ohio — is likely to reduce GM's made-in-the-USA share. That's likely to exacerbate political headaches for CEO Mary Barra and her leadership team in the run-up to a presidential election and beyond.

The other subtext here are the federally funded bankruptcies of GM and FCA's predecessor company, now marking their 10-year anniversary. Barra and her team have moved on, focused on ensuring the new GM doesn't repeat the mistakes of its past. The same applies to FCA, now led by CEO Mike Manley.

But most of the rest of America hasn't yet moved on, witness the furious backlash to GM's plans to move to close four U.S. plants. Trump railed, reminded that he'd urged manufacturing workers in places like Ohio's Mahoning Valley to hold on to their homes because factory jobs are coming back. Politicians of the right and the left demanded answers. The UAW protested and sued.

Ford may have its problems, but those aren't among them — exactly why the guy whose name's on the building is touting the Blue Oval as "America's auto company."

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.