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10 years later, a look back at U.S. auto industry’s near-death experience

Chrysler and GM were prepping for bankruptcy; now, what does the future hold?

The U.S. auto industry this month marks a grim and harrowing milestone: A decade ago, the entire industry was staring into the abyss of total collapse.

By 2009, of course, the broader economy was teetering on the brink, with mortgage default rates and foreclosures spiraling and the real estate market in the tank. Both Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns had collapsed, President George W. Bush had signed the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, infusing $700 billion of taxpayer money to stabilize Wall Street, and Insurer AIG, stung by huge losses on subprime mortgages, won a federal bailout.

Virtually the entire decade had been particularly unkind to the Detroit Three automakers, which were over-reliant on gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs as gasoline prices crept toward the $4 mark, and whose labor costs — especially for health care and retiree pension obligations — were dragging them billions into the red. It was a dreadful, frightening time in Detroit, especially, with reports of plant closures and mass layoffs appearing with alarming regularity. Seeing the federal government's largess with Wall Street, General Motors and Chrysler both went calling for government assistance for themselves. (Ford managed to avoid following suit only by mortgaging all of its assets, including its very brand, years earlier in exchange for billions of dollars in loans.)

Yet instead of giving them the "bridge loans" they sought, the incoming Obama administration instead pushed back against GM and Chrysler, eventually guiding them into bankruptcy protection, as the Detroit Free Press recalls in a multimedia story recounting the industry's tumultuous and perilous recent past.

The piece uses images of the newspaper's front pages from those days, splashed with what former newsroom colleagues and I would often refer to as "Pearl Harbor font" headlines ("NO DEAL" read the Freep's Dec. 12, 2008, edition). There are also timelines, interactive graphics and snippets of video interviews with two insiders: freshman U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan, who served as chief of staff for President Obama's auto task force; and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, the wife of the late longtime U.S. Rep. and industry ally John Dingell, who was then an executive at GM.

It's a timely and nail-biting reminder of how close the auto industry came to total incineration, and it offers some perspective to the many people outside of the industrial Midwest who brushed off the industry's plight or suggested, as then-presidential hopeful and Michigan native son Mitt Romney did, that the automakers could easily obtain private bailout financing from Wall Street. It also lays out several reasons to worry the industry may not face a rosy future.

"I think our economy would have suffered greatly if those companies had gone down," Debbie Dingell says in one interview. "And every state and community across the country would have suffered. And I think we would still be in a depression if we had lost either General Motors or Chrysler."

Read the Freep story here.

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