Lesson unlearnt

The former “car czar” of Romania writes about his experiences running a public sector car company. A piece full of sarcasm and wit-

They say history repeats itself. If you are like me and have lived two lives, you have a good chance of seeing the re-enactment with your own eyes. The current takeover of General Motors by the U.S. government and United Auto Workers makes me think back to Romania’s catastrophic mismanagement of the car factories it built jointly with the French companies Renault and Citroen. I was Romania’s car czar.

When the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu decided in the mid-1960s that he wanted to have a car industry, he chose me to start the project rolling. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I knew nothing about manufacturing cars, but neither did anyone else among Ceausescu’s top men. However, my father had spent most of his life running the service department of the General Motors affiliate in Bucharest.

My job at the time was as head of the Romanian industrial espionage program. Ceausescu tasked me to mediate the purchase of a minimum, basic license for a small car from a major Western manufacturer, and then to steal everything else needed to produce the car.

Three Western companies competed for the honor. Ceausescu decided on Renault, because it was owned by the French government (all Soviet bloc rulers distrusted private companies). We ended up with a license for an antiquated and about-to-be-discontinued Renault-12 car, because it was the cheapest. “Good enough for the idiots,” Ceausescu decided, showing what he thought of the Romanian people…

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