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How the downfall of the American car industry in the 1980s led to the murder of a Chinese American: The Story of Vincent Chin

On June 19, 1982, Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten up in Detroit, Michigan by two unemployed auto workers. He died 4 days later of his injuries. While being known as a significant event in U.S Social Justice as the tipping point of Asian-American racism, social injustice, civil rights to immigrant Americans, and the way hate crimes were handled under American law, Vincent Chin’s death was the unfortunate consequence of a once-successful and profitable industry suddenly becoming unable to sufficiently compete with a surge of more attractive imported models and the burdens of the oil crisis of the 1970s.

How the downfall of the American car industry in the 1980s led to the murder of a Chinese American: The Story of Vincent Chin - Blog

Vincent Chin’s attackers were a group of redundant auto manufacturing plant workers, motivated by the economic state of the American car industry in the late 70s-80s and confusion over race. Notably, the root of why his attackers were eager to attack Chin and why the men were frustrated from the start, can be seen in cars, specifically the state of the U.S car industry during the 80s.

Detroit was a city at the centre of the automotive boom taking place in post-war U.S. GM and Ford were churning out desirable, luxurious, often V8-powered cars. But when the oil crisis of the 70s and resulting energy crisis of 1979 struck, as petrol prices rose and supplies dwindled, manufacturers were forced to downsize their powerplants to adhere to the unexpected conditions brought by the oil crisis. The long, luxurious, and heavy cars were not prepared with this sudden shift in the market, as the majority of them were primairly accustomed to V8 engines, with high MPG barely a focus during the development of American models. For instance, MotorTrend in 1972 tested a Chevrolet Impala with a 6.5 litre V8, which recorded an average of 15 MPG. The oil crisis forced many to replace the large engines with smaller, more fuel efficient units. Many manufacturers therefore, brought in 4 cylinder engines to power cars released during this period. Unfortunately, many retained their heavy and large bodies, and on average the typical American car made by 1985 achieved no more than 17.5 MPG, as the smaller engines struggled to carry the unmodified excess weight of the American sedans.

During this period as well, imported, compact and more efficient models from Japan produced by Toyota, Subaru, Honda, and Nissan began dominating the local car market alongside European cars from Volkswagen, Renault, and Fiat. Many of these models offered far more ownership incentives and benefits over the long term compared to domestic models. Due to their size, they could make more efficient use of their 4 cylinder engines. Coupled to their FWD drivetrain which boosted their fuel economy compared to a traditional American RWD, they could achieve far more superior fuel economy than any American car at the time. In addition, many came standard with amenities that normally forced customers of American models to pay extra for: such as AM/FM radio, power windows, air conditioning, and central locking.

How the downfall of the American car industry in the 1980s led to the murder of a Chinese American: The Story of Vincent Chin - Blog
How the downfall of the American car industry in the 1980s led to the murder of a Chinese American: The Story of Vincent Chin - Blog

The imports also gained significant attention for their more refined build quality and reliability. Japanese cars such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Accord, became the most popular in their range and within the American market as this was their key selling point.

Yet throughout all of this, the majority of American manufactuers during the 1970s refused to acknowledge that a massive redesign was needed for their range to comply with the new automotive industry standards: they refused to acknowledge their rivals were building far more superior products and failed to build an effective product to compete with their quality. While between 1973-1985, GM attempted to remedy the situation by introducing diesel engines (that proved inferior since they were conversions of existing petrol powered units) and Ford introduced fuel efficient-focused compacts such as the Pinto and Mustang II, these efforts in the end did nothing to improve the situation. The situation was worsened even more as build quality issues involving GM produced cars made in response to the oil crisis, brought up by the FTC, forced GM to issue massive buybacks of unreliable models: from the Cadillac Cimarron’s V8 6-4 engine not working as marketed to corrosion issues with the Chevrolet Vega, along with Oldsmobile customer backlash towards the use of Chevrolet engines in their cars. On the other hand, Ford experienced a PR disaster following a design flaw with the Pinto’s gas tank, along with the negative public response to the Mustang II.

And Chrysler was not left alone here. Two compact models, the Plymouth Volare and the Dodge Aspen produced in response to the oil crisis, also suffered multiple reliability issues and recalls over their inferior build quality. The American auto industry’s blunders, one to another, just continued to drive attention and consumers towards more fuel efficient and money-saving imports.

How the downfall of the American car industry in the 1980s led to the murder of a Chinese American: The Story of Vincent Chin - Blog

By 1980, the economy had taken a beating. High unemployment, inflation, and interest rates were the norm. GM and Chrysler had sold or retired most of their subsidaries to make ends meet as demand dropped. Japanese manufacturers in response to import restrictions on their cars, built production plants within the U.S and established luxury subsidaries such as Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti, cars which could deliver higher profit margins and offer the same level of expected import reliability, fuel efficiency, and affordability. As the Japanese automakers continued to be successful, American automakers were forced to shut down their plants, kill off more subsidaries, or move production to countries with cheaper labor (ex. GM plants were exported to Mexico at this time). Either way, this forced the layoff of dozens of American auto workers: jealous at the extent of foreign enroachment Japanese cars were having upon the local car industry, continuously viewed anything or anyone associated with the import market as a national threat: a supporter to the very ‘thief’ that saturated their economy and took their jobs.

How the downfall of the American car industry in the 1980s led to the murder of a Chinese American: The Story of Vincent Chin - Blog

On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin was enjoying his bachelor party at a Detroit bar with several friends. Two men: Ronald Ebens, a former Chrysler plant supervisor and his stepson Michael Nitz, thought Chin was Japanese. They shouted at Chin, blaming himself and his friends for the success of the Japanese manufacturers, and the resulting decline of domestic manufacturers. Ebens notably shouted: “It’s because of you m**rs we’re out of work”. Redundant auto workers were quick to finger point at who to blame for the loss of their jobs, fuelled by a rising anti-sentiment towards Asians, and frustratations at foreigners taking their source of income away. Chin fled the scene, only to be found at a Mcdonalds by the two men. Ebens bludgeoned Chin with a baseball bat, fracuturing his skull before the two escaped. While Chin was rushed to Henry Ford Hospital, he died on June 23rd, just 4 days before he was due to be married.

Ebens notably shouted: "It's because of you we're out of work"

Ebens and Nitz pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and were let off lightly with 3 years probation, a 3,000 USD fine, and a further 780 USD in court costs. The result was an uproar amongst the Asian American community for the biased treatment towards the two, and an appeal to reform hate crime legislation which led to the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1997. Within the auto industry, post 1985 domestic manufacturers began to improve as oil prices dropped. New innovations such as fuel injection, disc brakes, and electronic ignition systems along with the growing acceptance of FWD drivetrains, and the pioneer of the Minivan model Chrysler allowed the American car industry to bounce back.

In the end the murder of one Chinese-American, was the result of an industry failing to adhere respectively to a sudden market change, lack of competition against imported cars that proved far superior in all areas, and a rising sentiment fueled by anger and frustration from unemployed auto workers playing a blame game that led to the loss of one innocent life in Detroit, Michigan.

How the downfall of the American car industry in the 1980s led to the murder of a Chinese American: The Story of Vincent Chin - Blog