CAMPAIGN 2012:

On fuel economy, Romney isn't following in his 'rebel' father's tire marks

George W. Romney -- the father of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- was also the father of American fuel-efficient cars.

In 1960, when most Americans were driving chrome-armored, gas-swilling tanks, Romney's American Motors Corp. was marketing the compact Rambler that got an astonishing 38.9 mpg -- jaw-dropping mileage at the time -- in a coast-to-coast race. Romney, AMC's president, crowed about fuel efficiency in a 1959 interview with Time magazine.

"Who wants to have a gas-guzzling dinosaur in his garage?" Romney said.

So is Mitt Romney a chip off the old engine block on fuel efficiency? Not exactly.

The former governor of Massachusetts has in fact blamed federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regulations for Detroit's economic miseries. Congress passed the first CAFE law in 1975 in the wake of the Arab oil embargo.

Speaking in a Republican presidential debate last week in Rochester, Mich., Romney said CAFE standards had helped foreign cars "gain market share in the U.S."

The push by the Obama administration to make U.S. passenger cars more efficient figures to be an issue in next year's presidential campaign. The administration this week proposed CAFE regulations that would raise the fleetwide fuel economy standard to 54.5 mpg by 2025, nearly doubling the current standard (Greenwire, Nov. 16).

The administration characterizes the CAFE plan as a "landmark" initiative to "save American families money at the pump, reduce our country's dependence on oil and boost domestic manufacturing." But Romney has questioned the wisdom of President Obama's emphasis on green initiatives, especially the administration's loans for electric-car initiatives.

"Instead of President Obama's doomed strategy of creating jobs that are good for the environment, we need a strategy to create an environment that is good for jobs," Romney wrote in a newspaper op-ed last month (Greenwire, Oct. 26).

Roland Hwang, transportation policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Action Fund, said Romney's views seem "out of step or not up to date with the facts on the ground."

"There's just overwhelming evidence," Hwang said, "that fuel efficiency and having regulatory certainty of increasing standards have led to auto companies investing ahead of the curve."

"Ahead of the curve" would describe Romney's father's work as an automobile executive. George Romney's leadership of AMC from 1954 to 1962 helped make him governor of Michigan in 1963. He ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and then became secretary of Housing and Urban Development, serving from 1969 to 1973. He died in 1995 at the age of 88.

Charlie Hyde, the author of "Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson and American Motors," said Romney was a "maverick" who challenged Detroit's Big Three automakers by producing small, efficient cars at a time when Americans were driving bulky gas guzzlers.

"Romney believed that it wasn't consumers that were driving what Detroit was making; it was Detroit driving what Detroit was making," Hyde said in an interview. "When consumers didn't have any choice, they'd buy the big iron vehicles."

'Dinosaur hunter'

George Romney believed a small, economical vehicle made the most sense for American drivers.

And so AMC promoted the Rambler, a light sedan first produced by Nash Motors Co. in 1950 (AMC was born of the Nash-Hudson Motor Car Co. merger in 1954). With roots in the steel shortages of World War II, the Rambler was as much as a foot shorter and more than 4 inches thinner than its competitors.

Romney talked up the Rambler in public appearances and commercials. And he tried to appeal to women -- an unusual pitch then because a small percentage of women had driver's licenses -- asking at one point if they needed a 4,000-pound car to drive down the street to buy lipstick.

The Rambler won the Mobil Economy Run in 1960 with 38.9 mpg. And at the Pure Oil Economy Trials, the car hit 51.3 mpg, but that test was not conducted under road conditions.

Today's CAFE regulations require a U.S. fleetwide average of 27.3 mpg.

The Rambler frequently sold out its production run and by 1959 had become the fifth best-selling model. That same year, AMC had upped production of the vehicle from 300,000 cars a year to 440,000 with a $10 million expansion of its Kenosha, Wis., factory.

The Rambler was named Motor Trend's car of the year in 1963. And Time put Romney on a 1959 cover, hailing him as "The Dinosaur Hunter."

"[AMC] still produced some of these bigger cars, like the [full-size, V8] Ambassador, but it survived the last 20 years of its life basically specializing in small, somewhat quirky cars," said Hyde, a retired professor from Detroit's Wayne State University. AMC models were phased out starting in 1983 after the company was purchased by Renault, and the company effectively vanished after a 1987 transfer to Chrysler.

Hyde added, "In a lot of ways, Romney was way ahead of his time. There were no CAFE standards or anything like that. People don't realize not only how badly those cars polluted or how lousy the gas prices got to be."

After the success of the Rambler, the Big Three announced plans to market their own small cars, such as the Ford Falcon and the Chevrolet Corvair (leading to AMC calling the Rambler "the most imitated car in America"). The growing import market, led by the Volkswagen Beetle, also ushered in a new era of lighter cars.

What put Romney ahead of his peers on fuel economy? Hyde said there was no clear explanation, but that Romney always had a reputation as a "maverick" and that his Mormon faith, which discourages waste and excess, may also have played a factor.

But, Hyde said, the bottom line on why Romney did what he did at AMC may have been the company's bottom line.

"I think he really chose that path because he thought it was the only way AMC would survive," said Hyde. "He was a smart man. He understood the market."

Where would George Romney stand on CAFE?

Mitt Romney is unabashed about his admiration for his father.

"Dad was a man ahead of his time," said Romney at an Iowa campaign appearance in 2007. "He also coined the term 'gas-guzzling dinosaurs.' That's what we're driving today, and that's got to change."

But Mitt Romney has been vague about his overall stance on clean cars, casting dispersions on the viability of electric hybrids like the Chevy Volt and saying that the country should be exploring oil and gas resources to support driving on combustion engines.

"You don't drive cars with a windmill. You have to have fossil fuels," Romney said in a July interview with a New Hampshire radio station. "Ultimately, we'll have electric cars, but we're not going to have the country covered in Chevy Volts. Most people have gasoline-combustion engines."

As Massachusetts governor in 2005, Romney adopted regulations on vehicle emissions in concert with California, a move that automakers slammed as close to regulating fuel economy. But Massachusetts officials said a 1990 statute required the state to follow California's lead and that Romney would not have made the move on his own.

Other GOP presidential candidates have not targeted CAFE standards as Romney has, even as they have attacked U.S. EPA for regulations they say will destroy jobs. Even at last week's debate in Michigan, Romney was the only candidate to specifically address fuel efficiency and regulations on the auto industry.

Hyde, for one, does not doubt where the elder Romney would stand on the issue if were alive today.

"I think he'd be one of the early advocates for all-electric cars or hybrids," Hyde said, adding that George Romney might have backed CAFE standards. "He was really considered a rebel when he was running AMC."

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