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The past couple of years have been very tough ones for the US auto industry, culminating in the somewhat embarrassing request for life-saving bailouts for GM and Chrysler in late 2008 and the bankruptcies that followed.
Tough times are not new to U.S. automakers, who've seen their reputation and market share decline sharply in the past four decades. Amid the doom and gloom, however, has been a boom or two.
Take a look at some of the milestones in the auto industry since the 1970s.
Updated 7 Jan 2011
In 1973, OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo on the US for its decision to resupply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur war. The embargo lasted until March 1974, but during this time oil prices quadrupled. To control supply, the Federal government under President Nixon rationed oil, by state, to 1972 levels. By February 1974 it was estimated by the American Automobile Association that 20 percent of gas stations had no fuel to sell.
The decade's second energy crisis was in 1979, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution where production was greatly decreased and exports suspended. Nixon's gasoline price controls were repealed but oil prices rose to their highest real price until 2008.
During the 1970's energy price turmoil, Japanese automakers like Toyota, Nissan and Honda started to gain popularity with American consumers, who were looking for smaller, fuel-efficient cars. U.S. automakers responded to the competition by building smaller vehicles.
In 1979, Chrysler reported a $1.1 billion loss, forcing the company’s CEO Lee Iacocca to ask for a bailout from Congress.
In 1980, the Chrysler Loan Guarantee Act was passed, giving the company $1.5 billion in loans to prevent a bankruptcy protection filing. Iacocca rebuilt the company, and repaid the loans.
Honda became the first Japanese company to build a car in the U.S. when it opened its Marysville, Ohio factory in 1982. Hosting Japanese and later German auto plants would become a highly competitive endeavor for states looking to generate new, high-paying jobs.
Today, Honda has over 100,000 workers employed at company- authorized automobile, motorcycle and power-equipment dealerships, while the company directly employs nearly 25,000 Americans.
The Ford Taurus became America’s top selling car in 1992, displacing the Honda Accord.
The car had mass appeal and was also a great fleet car, says Jesse Toprak, chief auto analyst at Edmonds.com. At the same time, he says the Taurus is a telling example of "how an automaker can dilute a brand."
The Toyota Camry replaced the Taurus as the best selling car in 1997. Ford came out with the sixth- generation Taurus at the Detroit Auto Show in 2009, and the model sold over 68,000 units in 2010.
In 1998, the German automaker bought Chrysler, forming DaimlerChrysler. Daimler-Benz eventually sold Chrysler in May 2007 to Cerberus Capital Management for $7.4 billion, making Chrysler the first of the Big Three to be privately owned. Fiat of Italy now owns a stake in Chrysler.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, sales of sports utility vehicles helped revitalize the US automobile industry.
"They don’t cost that much more to make,” explains Toprak of Edmonds.com, but the automakers charged much more for them.
It was widely reported that automakers made about $10,000 per unit on a SUV or truck, compared with breaking even on a compact car. The Chevy Suburban (pictured above) was the “symbol of the love affair with SUVs," says Toprak. So was the Ford Explorer.
At the same time that SUV sales surged, so did those for light trucks.
“It became fashionable to own a large truck even though you may not have a use for it,” said Toprak.
The Ford F-150 (pictured here) is one of the best-selling vehicles of all time.
Toyota announces on May 2008 that sales of the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, surpassed the one-million mark, coinciding with record gasoline prices in the US.
In December 2008, President George Bush approved $17.4 billion in rescue loans for General Motors and Chrysler.
CEOs of the Big Three testified before Congress amid questions about their survival.
Ford passed on the aid, having restructured its debt the year before.
Chrysler filed for bankruptcy protection on May 1, 2009, followed by General Motors a month later. Shortly afterwards both companies emerged from bankruptcy after receiving government aid.
Chrysler received about $7 billion in assistance, while GM received over $50 billion between 2008-2009. GM conducted a new IPO in 2010 after sucessfully emerging from its chapter 11 reorganzation.
With the financial crisis of the past several years came the death of several car brands owned by major auto companies. Among the brands killed were Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn, Oldsmobile, Geo and Mercury.
Many of these models have been identified as casualties of the crisis, but it exposed a deeper reality of us automakers: they simply had too many overlapping brands. In boom times, this was not a problem, but shrinking demand caused brands within each company to compete with one another more substantially. The result was the end of some memorable brands.
Although several electric cars were manufactured by major automakers in the early 1990’s, the first generation of these electrics were entirely phased out. This phasing out even inspired a film, Who Killed The Electric Carthat argued car companies artificially ended the life of the electric car models.
However, in the beginning of the 21st century, demand for electric cars reemerged and several start-ups quickly gained popularity while big automakers laid out plans for electric cars. Tesla Motors, the maker of the high performance Tesla Roadster, made their IPO in the summer of 2010 and the stock has been up ever since.
Nissan, General Motors, Toyota, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Hyundai and several other major brands are planning electric cars to go into production within the next two years. There are also numerous smaller companies looking to enter the market with plans for production.