Foreign Correspondent on the Car Industry downturn

TUESDAY MAY 26 8.00pm

For North America correspondent Tracy Bowden covering the crisis in the US car industry was more than just an opportunity to investigate the unravelling of what was once the biggest company in America, General Motors, but the chance to visit a city she'd been hearing about since she was a little girl.

'I come from a car family' says Bowden. 'My dad was in the car industry for all of his career, and my brother has worked for Ford for close to 30 years.'

South Australians may remember Bowden Ford, back in the 1970s, run by Bowden's father Don Bowden. He was later CEO of General Motors Holden New Zealand and before he retired was a director for GM Holden based in Sydney.

'Dad travelled to Detroit on business back when things were booming in the Motor City, so what I saw was quite a contrast' says Bowden.

The city's streets are quiet; buildings are deserted; factories closed.

Bowden's report on Foreign Correspondent this Tuesday looks at the demise of the big three US auto makers; what went wrong; and how they're restructuring to survive. The sound-track to the story is another Detroit creation - the music which took its name from the city - Motown

Few things symbolised the wealth and optimism of a post-war America more than the big car and the Motown sound.

And perhaps few things symbolise the decline of American capitalism more than the sight of the country's biggest car makers going cap in hand to Washington begging for a bail out.

There is one positive note being struck in Motor City though - aka Detroit, Michigan. The city is gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of music from the likes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. The sound known as Motown based its production style on the car assembly line, invented here by Henry Ford in 1913.

Cruising Detroit in a perfectly preserved 1967 Pontiac GTO, Tracy Bowden finds a once proud city in deep depression, along with the fortunes of what used to be the world's biggest industrial company, General Motors.

Fifty years ago American car companies dominated the world. Now they're facing bankruptcy and their workers are fearing unemployment and poverty.

So what went wrong? According to a former long time senior GM executive, there was a crucial failure to innovate and even GM is not too big to fail.American car companies became complacent and moved too slowly to make greener cars. The Big Three - GM, Ford and Chrysler - have already shed tens of thousands of jobs this decade, and long time Detroit residents tell Foreign Correspondent things have never looked this bad.

But city councillor Martha Reeves - yes, as in Martha Reeves and the Vandellas of Motown fame - sees some hope amidst the doom and gloom.

"I think Motown mood is a good time and a party, I think anytime you put on a Motown record you are going to see sunshine, the Temptations sing "I Got Sunshine" there is sunshine in the music." MARTHA REEVES, DETROIT CITY COUNCILLOR