In these days of automotive bankruptcies and newspaper closures, it may be hard to recall—even to imagine—that the auto companies, and particularly General Motors, were once the dominant enterprises in the land, and that national newspapers were a novelty, a business on the rise.
But that is the way it was in the Spring of 1954, when Barney Kilgore, the brilliant publisher of The Wall Street Journal, stood down a challenge from GM, and helped establish a bedrock principle of modern journalism.
The auto business had been booming in the postwar years, and 1953 had seen some of the best sales months in the industry’s history. But competition was cutthroat, fear was widespread that the postwar boom might be ending, and an auto shakeout was well underway, with smaller firms folding into each other (American Motors had just been created out of such weakness, with the merger of Nash and Hudson; Packard and Studebaker would hold on for a few more months before joining forces). Government scrutiny of the practices, in particular, of industry giants GM and Ford was intensifying. GM chief executive Harlow Curtice was under substantial pressure.
On April 15, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Justice Department had launched an antitrust investigation of the industry, focused on “the hammer and tongs struggle for supremacy” between GM and Ford and whether the two companies were trying to create a duopoly. GM’s market share had reached more than 45 percent in 1954, its high point since before the Second World War; Ford’s share was nearly 32 percent, its highest since Alfred P. Sloan had driven GM to overtake Ford for market leadership; the six-going-on-four remaining automakers were left to divvy up the remaining 23%. (Today, GM’s share is 19 percent, Ford’s 13 percent.) Each of GM’s five brands—Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Cadillac—vastly outsold the entire outputs of each of the smaller manufacturers. Chevrolet, the market-leading brand, sold more cars than Chrysler, American Motors, Packard and Studebaker combined.
General Motors chief Curtice was 60 years old, a Michigan native and GM lifer, having joined the company’s AC Spark Plug division as a bookkeeper in 1914. He had become president and chief executive officer in 1953, when his predecessor, Charles Wilson—the man who memorably said that “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa”—was named secretary of defense in the Eisenhower Administration. Sloan, aged 78, remained the corporation’s chairman. Curtice, known to friends and associates as “Red,” had recently placed a large bet—a billion dollars to expand production. The company he led had larger revenues than any other private concern in the world and employed more than 550,000 people. Two million Americans in 1954 were expected to attend GM’s Motorama, a traveling show which the Journal described as aiming “to promote the company’s cars with much fanfare, music and beautiful models.”
Curtice’s world was a sheltered one. He made more money than any other salaried employee in the country. He lived, as he had since 1914, in Flint, a city where nearly two-thirds of the workforce was employed by the company he ran, and flew back and forth on corporate aircraft each week to work in Detroit. As Time magazine would soon describe Curtice’s existence:
In many ways he lives a life that is beyond the comprehension of most of his car owners. Platoons of subordinates jump when he twitches. Garages filled with gleaming limousines and beaming chauffeurs stand ready to transport him wherever he desires. A private eighteen-plane air force of multi-engined, red-white-and-blue airplanes is at his disposal. Private secretaries and public-relations men take care of bothersome detail, see to it that Cadillacs, hotel suites, restaurant tables and theater seats are there when and where he wants them. High-salaried assistants smooth his path, greet him wherever he arrives, order his drinks, fetch his newspapers.
On May 3, 1954, Harlow Curtice can hardly have been pleased by what he found in one of the newspapers they fetched. The Journal had written two editorials the previous month attacking the government’s antitrust investigation, and defending GM and Ford’s competition with smaller rivals and each other as pro-consumer. But on May 3, a Journal news article laid bare a tactic the auto manufacturers had recently been deploying to great effect.