I clearly remember Jacques Calvet once accusing Britain of being "a Japanese aircraft carrier floating off the coast of Europe" because of its government's readiness to court Japanese automotive investment and jobs.
Calvet, who was CEO of PSA Group from 1984 to 1997, died Thursday at age 88 in Dieppe, France. He was credited with turning around the then-troubled automaker in the 1980s by slashing tens of thousands of jobs and lowering its breakeven point by one million vehicles.
I was stunned when Calvet made that bold statement in the early 1990s.
At the time, Europe’s largest auto markets had strict quotas on Japanese imports, just a few thousand units a year per brand. The result for consumers was very high prices, mainly for excellent SUV models that had no real competition from European automakers.
As a strong believer of open markets – globalization had not been invented yet almost 30 years ago – I considered such a protectionist statement part of the past and a bad business practice.
Were Europeans buying Toyota Land Cruisers and Mitsubishi Pajeros because they were Japanese? No, because the only alternative made in Europe was the Land Rover Defender, a model launched back in 1948 and thus not exactly state of the art. In other words, if you were looking for a capable SUV in those years, you had no alternative to Japanese products.
In truth, European products were not at the same level as the Japanese in those years, both volume and premium automakers.
Soon after Calvet evoked the Japanese aircraft carrier at the Paris auto show, a book appeared that changed the way cars were built in Europe and North America in the following decades.