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.Pacepa goes on to say that car manufacturing and government do not mix well in capitalist countries either. He explains,
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. He baptized the car Dacia, to commemorate Romania's 2,000-year history going back to Dacia Felix, as the ancient Romans called that part of the world. In that government-run economy, symbolism was the most important consideration, especially when it came to things in short supply (such as food).
"Too luxurious for the idiots," Ceausescu decreed when he saw the first Dacia car made in Romania. Immediately, the radio, right side mirror and backseat heating were dropped. Other "unnecessary luxuries" were soon eliminated by the bureaucrats and their workers' union that were running the factory. The car that finally hit the market was a stripped-down version of the old, stripped-down Renault 12. "Perfect for the idiots," Ceausescu approved. Indeed, the Romanian people, who had never before had any car, came to cherish the Dacia.
In the spring of 1978 Ceausescu appointed me chief of his Presidential House, a new position supposed to be similar to that of the White House chief of staff. To go with it he gave me a big Jaguar car. That Jaguar, which at the time had been produced in a government-run British factory, was so bad that it spent more time in the garage being repaired than it did on the road.While the US today is not Romania under Ceausescu or even the UK at that time, the experiences of these countries tells us there are reasons to worry about government involvement in business. History should teach us that the sooner the US government gets out of the car business the better.
"Apart from some Russian factories in Gorky, Jaguars were the worst," Ford executive Bill Hayden stated when Ford bought the nationalized British car maker in 1988. How did the famous Jaguar, one of the most prestigious cars in the world, become a joke?
In 1945, the British voters, tired of four years of war, kicked out Winston Churchill and elected a leftist parliament led by Labour's Clement Attlee. Attlee nationalized the automobile, trucking and coal industries, as well as communication facilities, civil aviation, electricity and steel. Britain was already saddled by crushing war debts. Now it was sapped of economic vigor. The old empire quickly passed into history. It would take decades until Margaret Thatcher's privatization reforms restored Britain's place among the world's top-tier economies.