x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The fast pace of change: the motoring year in review

2009 was another turbulent one for the car industry, with a a year of bailouts, scrappage schemes, closures and the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The 2009 Detroit motor show is a glitz-free zone. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan's governor, appears alongside Rick Wagoner, GM CEO, while enthusiastic staff wave placards declaring "We're here to stay," at one of the car maker's many new product launches. Fiat steps in to help Chrysler by going into partnership with the beleaguered brand. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Nissan sheds 1,200 jobs from its Sunderland plant in the United Kingdom. In contrast, Chinese manufacturer Chery, which sells cars in the UAE from a showroom in Sharjah, reports record monthly sales of 35,000 units in its domestic market. Germany sets a trend that other nations will follow throughout 2009 with the introduction of a so-called cash for clunkers scheme to encourage owners of older cars to scrap them in exchange for government money to purchase new cars. However, this did not necessarily prove to be the boon to the car industry that German chancellor Angela Merkel was hoping for, with sales of foreign brands doing very well under the scheme. Quote of the month: "Kill the car, kill the country!" A banner posted by the United Auto Workers union at the Detroit motor show.

GM announces it will be phasing out Saturn, despite a last-ditch effort by Roger Penske to buy the brand. Pontiac would also be phased out, although some niche models will still be on sale through Chevrolet dealerships. Peugeot-Citroën causes uproar by slashing 11,000 jobs in eastern Europe. Leaders in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both hit hard by the cuts, accuse French president Nicolas Sarkozy of protectionism.

The writing is on the wall for Saab's demise this month with the company filing for bankruptcy protection in Sweden. Chris Bangle, BMW's controversial design director, leaves the company after 17 years. His work divided opinion but often proved commercially successful. He is replaced by Adrian van Hooydonk, formerly head of BMW's US-based industrial design centre DesignworksUSA. Quote of the month: "I guess the Neanderthals and Luddites will have to find something else to kvetch about." Gonzo, an online commentator, lamenting the departure of Chris Bangle.

Rick Wagoner steps down at GM at the behest of the Barack Obama administration and is replaced by company vice-president and chief operating officer Fritz Henderson. "Being part of a turnaround at GM when, frankly, many people don't think it can be done, is exhilarating, if you like challenges," he tells The Financial Times. The British International Motor Show is cancelled for the first time since 1939 when the Second World War interfered, but the Geneva show goes ahead with the BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo unveiled. It is one of the last BMWs from Chris Bangle's reign as design boss.

In Formula One, the Brawn team is formed from the defunct Honda F1 squad by Ross Brawn. With drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello on board, they place first and second respectively in their debut grand prix in Melbourne on March 28. The Indian car industry showsearly signs of a strong 2009 with Bajaj and Tata Motors both reporting profits for the first quarter. Quote of the month: "Some people may say it's a pity the race finished under the safety car but I don't care, I won the race and that's all I care about." Jenson Button after winning the Australian Grand Prix in his Brawn debut.

Following Germany's lead, the UK launches a car scrappage programme to get old cars off the road. However, the UK scheme has a loophole that means there is no upper limit on the fuel consumption of the new cars. As a result, reports emerge of two buyers purchasing Nissan GT-R performance cars. The Tata Nano, billed as the world's cheapest new car at IR100,000 (Dh7,840), goes on sale in India with 203,000 pre-orders.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the former Middle East rally champion and president of the Automobile and Touring Car Club of the UAE, survives crashing a Renault F1 car into a wall at the Dubai Autodrome during a promotional event. Video footage of the incident on YouTube has scored more than 700,000 hits. Quote of the month: "Automatically, women will come forward." R. Sampathkumar, a single, 30-year-old driver in Coimbatore, India, explains his motivation for the purchase of a Tata Nano.

Chrysler shocks nobody when it files for bankruptcy protection. Toyota makes a stunning announcement, revealing that it will make an annual net loss for the first time in 59 years - a not-insignificant US$4.4 billion (Dh16.16 billion). The Abu Dhabi Police unveils a new addition to its motorcycle fleet in the shape of a highly ornate chopper designed by Paul Teutul's team at Orange County Choppers in the US. On a more eco-friendly note, Adnoc announces that natural gas pumps will be installed at 20 filling stations in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah by the end of 2010. Quote of the month: "We were lacking in the scope and speed of dealing with various problems and issues, and for that I am sorry." A repentant Katsuaki Watanabe, Toyota's president, on the company's first-ever loss.

GM starts the month by filing for bankruptcy protection and the US government approved US$62 billion (Dh885.2 billion) in bailout funds for GM and Chrysler, sparking much debate as to whether the government should prop up private companies.

As part of its restructuring plan, GM sells Hummer to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery, a Chinese company, for the relatively knock-down price of US$150 million (Dh551 million). On June 25, President Obama signs the legislation for a US cash for clunkers scheme, which entitles motorists up to US$4,500 (Dh16,529) to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles until November 1. The industry also loses a venerable figure this month when Peter Wheeler, former owner of the TVR sports car company, passed away after a long illness. He was 65 years old. Quote of the month: "I'm being electrocuted!" David Letterman hamming it up by pretending to get a jolt from the Tesla Model S steering wheel when it appeared, along with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, on his late night chat show.

In Europe, it looks like GM would have a buyer for Opel and Vauxhall in the form of Canadian company Magna and a Russian bank, but this meets with heavy criticism from trade unions and the threat of large scale job losses.

Ferrari driver Felipe Massa suffers a serious head injury at the Hungarian Grand Prix and BMW announces it would leave the sport at the end of the season. Massa spends two days in a medically induced coma after the accident and does not return to F1 for the rest of the season. Michael Schumacher is lined up to replace Massa, but a neck injury forces the German to decline. Quote of the month: "They were understandably suspicious about a Wall Street guy who hadn't even been to Detroit in three decades." Steve Rattner on the concerns amongst Democrat party representatives from Michigan that he was the wrong man to advise the Obama administration on the car industry.

It is announced that the US cash for clunkers scheme will end before the planned November 1 deadline after the US$3 billion (Dh10.99 billion) set aside for the project ran out this month. Figures released by the Automotive News Data Centre for the first half of 2009 reveal that Hyundai-Kia has overtaken Ford as the world's fourth largest car maker. Despite posting its first-ever loss, Toyota still comes out on top with 3,564,105 units sold worldwide, a 26 per cent drop on the same period in 2008.

But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars without so much as a win in eight years, Toyota announces that it will leave F1 at the end of the 2009 season. Quote of the month: "A podium won't be enough, especially to make the Japanese happy. Obviously a win or a good result will definitely help everyone." Jarno Trulli on what he felt he had to do to keep his spot in the now-defunct Toyota F1 team.

Official figures from the US Commerce Department shows some rare good news with car sales up. While September sales are 5.3 per cent less than September 2008, they had, at least, increased by 2.7 per cent on August 2009's figures. September is also a month of stunning car launches, providing a much-needed bright spot in 2009. McLaren releases images of the MP4-12C in the lead-up to the Frankfurt motor show.

The Rolls-Royce Ghost, the Bentley Mulsanne, the Aston Martin Rapide, the Mercedes SLS, the Ferrari 458 Italia, a four-door Bugatti concept, the Lamborghini Reventon Roadster, the Maserati Grancabrio and the Jaguar XJ all make their debuts in Frankfurt. Quote of the month: "The young, hip crowd that we've traditionally marketed to is growing up, and we need to consider their maturing tastes." Hello Kitty - or someone dressed as the feline fashion identity - on who will buy the three baby pink, Hello Kitty-themed Mansory Vitesse Rose Bentley GTCs at the Frankfurt motor show.

In further bad news for the struggling car maker, Chrysler Financial, the company's lending department, goes into liquidation. Jenson Button becomes F1 world champion at Sao Paulo, the penultimate race of the season, while his team, Brawn GP, wins the constructors' championship to finish a fairytale season. Former Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt is voted as new FIA president, replacing Max Mosley. Quote of the month:

"If he doesn't get rid of the ancient guard and all the people who worked with Mosley, he won't succeed." Ari Vatanen, the defeated candidate for FIA president on Jean Todt, the new incumbent.

Abu Dhabi trials its first parking meters in a small area of the city's central business district, with promises of more to come. But all eyes are on the capital in November for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Sebastien Vettel wins the race in a Red Bull Racing F1 car.

Mercedes announces it is buying the Brawn GP team, in conjunction with Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments. On the other side of the world, Jimmie Johnson wins his fourth consecutive Nascar title. Ford continues to prove it is coming out of the recession well by reporting Q3 profit of $1 billion despite the downturn. Meanwhile, Fritz Henderson is forced out of GM after just 246 days. Ed Whitacre, GM's chairman, takes over.

In Europe, months of speculation end when GM announces it will keep Opel and Vauxhall rather than going ahead with a sale to Magna. Also in Europe, the Volkswagen Polo is voted European Car of the Year by 59 members of the automotive press. Quote of the month: "Everyone relates to driving a car and wanting to drive fast. I get to do it legally." Nascar champion Jimmie Johnson on why people love motorsport.

The Dubai motor show proves to be a far more glamorous affair than the Detroit show at the start of the year, with many high-end cars making their Middle East debut. Also in the UAE, plans are announced for unified national driving licences and car registrations, instead of seven separate emirate-specific systems. The new scheme will be known as Injaz, which is Arabic for "accomplishment".

The year ends on a sad note for Saab fans with the brand's future looking increasingly uncertain. Volkswagen turns the tables on Porsche, with VW becoming the luxury car maker's main shareholder. Tata confirms plans for a Nano hybrid and a modified Nano for the US and European markets. Danica Patrick, the first woman to win an IndyCar race last year, announces she will be running a shortened Nascar season in 2010. And at press time, the world of F1 was eagerly awaiting the announcement of Michael Schumacher's potential comeback for the new Mercedes team.

As for the Big Three, their spokespeople are being optimistic. Alan Mulally, Ford's CEO, says the company is "on a path to profitability." And after a wobbly start to 2009, Chrysler announces plans with Fiat to launch a small-to-mid-sized car in Detroit next month. GM starts its loan payments to the US Treasury and Canadian government. Ed Whitacre says his company will finish paying off the debt by June 2010.

Quote of the month: "They've kind of ruined the franchise. They improved the product mechanically, and the reliability factor, but they just didn't market the brand." Neil Patrick, who has been a Saab dealer in the US for 30 years. glewis@thenational.ae