Hooniverse Asks: What Automotive Industry Conspiracies Do You Think Might Actually Be True?

The auto industry has long been a hotbed of conspiracies and collusion about one group secretly doing something nefarious to impede the efforts of another. And of course for those who spin these tales of treachery we’re the ones who inevitably are the losers.
There’s the lore about the car that runs on water and the 500-mpg carburetor, supposedly both inventions suppressed and long swept under the carpet by the oil industry. Then there’s the story of Los Angeles’ trolley car system-once the largest in the world-having been colluded into dismantlement partly by General Motors who saw lucrative  bus sales in its replacement.
Well yeah, that last one is mostly true. Or, at least that’s what I’ve heard. Today, I want to hear what you’ve all heard. What are the auto industry conspiracy theories that you personally think might very well be true?
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  1. Maymar Avatar

    The Great Red Car Conspiracy

    Regarding the whole “GM killed Los Angeles public transportation thing,” this is the best counter I have to offer. Essentially, streetcars were going to fail in Los Angeles one way or another, GM just happened go be part of a larger change in transportation.

    1. karonetwentyc Avatar

      An ex-boss of mine had a quote that he’d use when wondering about the motives behind a particular decision or event which really resonated with me: “was it conspiracy or incompetence?”
      This one was certainly incompetence. Los Angeles did exactly the same thing that almost every other city in the world with a well-developed tram system was doing at the time: they tore it out. Car ownership was on a massive rise in Europe and America after World War II, light rail ridership was on a decline, and this was an understandable (if incompetent) response to that combination of factors. There were others, to be sure, but in this case it wasn’t the oil companies, tyre manufacturers, and automobile builders dumping giant sacks of money on the mayor’s desk.
      L.A. has had its share of corrupt government over the years, but this decision came down to the economic trends of the time and shortsightedness.

      1. engineerd Avatar

        I’m not sure I’d call LA’s light rail system “well developed”. It was designed to serve housing developments on the outskirts of the city and little else. When the housing began spreading the light rail was overwhelmed and people found it faster, cheaper, easier, more convenient, and less hassle to drive. Especially if your new house was beyond the reach of the rail system and/or your office more than a few blocks from a stop.

        1. karonetwentyc Avatar

          I do agree with you regarding the term ‘well-developed’ in this context, but only up to a point. The Red Cars were well-developed compared to what followed them in that they ran with a degree of priority over vehicular traffic (not total priority, but they did have a fair amount), reached areas that the current light rail systems don’t, and had branches that paralleled the majority of the main travel corridors.
          That’s not to say that the historical reasons for its decline aren’t as you’ve mentioned – they were. It’s just a pity that no real thought was given to possible future needs when the rights-of-way that Pacific Electric and the other tram companies possessed were ceded and/or demolished; it was a factor that led directly to L.A.’s currently-dire state of public transportation.
          As someone who has used the current light rail (Metro) in L.A. fairly extensively when it was practical to do so, I’d kill for the modern map to look like this one from 1947.

      2. Vairship Avatar

        The Yellow Car system going out of business was probably inevitable, however the fact that they went through the additional expense of ripping the rails out of the ground in LA (instead of just paving over them, like they did in San Diego) might indicate that someone wanted to make sure that the replacement of trolleys with (GM) buses was permanent and wouldn’t be turned back.

        1. karonetwentyc Avatar

          One thing re: the physical removal of the rails: L.A. wasn’t the only one doing this; other cities were also removing them when decommissioning their light rail lines. The usual reason for doing this was that leaving the rails in place would have meant raising the grade of the entire road meant to run on top of them in that particular location.

    2. Gee Nick Avatar
      Gee Nick

      Speaking of this, if you get a chance, the short documentary on Chavez Ravine is a fascinating look at the national political environment and development of the LA basin.

  2. Sjalabais Avatar

    I’m not much of a conspiracy guy, but I believe that more money could have made this less of a deadend decades earlier:

  3. tonyola Avatar

    Chrysler’s introduction of the groundbreaking Airflow was delayed for a few months in 1934. The associated conspiracy is that GM quietly put the word out that the delay was due to problems with the Airflow design and that the advanced-looking car was no good. This was part of the uphill battle that the Airflow faced right from the start.

  4. ptschett Avatar

    Those darn laws of physics, conspiring against the car that runs on water or the 500-mpg carburetor…

  5. P161911 Avatar

    Colin Chapman faked his own death to avoid the whole DeLorean scandal.

    1. Monkey10is Avatar

      I’d heard Colin Chapman faked the DeLorean to avoid his own death?

  6. P161911 Avatar

    TVR and Bristol still sell new cars. I really want this one to be true.

    1. Vairship Avatar

      Add Spyker to that list!

  7. JayP Avatar

    Rumor is Ford has a mid-sized sedan with a v8 manual trans… and won’t bother to bring it to the US because they can’t afford the warehouse costs to house all the cash they will make.

    1. ptschett Avatar

      I heard they were waiting for Chevy to discontinue the SS so they could have that whole market to themselves.

      1. karonetwentyc Avatar

        It was actually going to be a mid-engined Viper built on the Fiat Panda platform.

        1. Monkey10is Avatar

          …which would be marketed in Europe as a Lancia, but in the UK would mark the re-introduction of the Talbot brand.

          1. karonetwentyc Avatar

            My understanding was that Fiat had also acquired rights to the FSO name and was planning on reviving the marque as its direct competitor to Skoda. This was to have been its flagship car, though assembled in Indonesia.

          2. Monkey10is Avatar

            …well if it is an FSO then it fully deserves to be brought to the UK as a Hillman. So that would be the V10, Le Mans-tested, Hillman Avenger?

          3. karonetwentyc Avatar

            Armstrong-Siddeley by Lancia. The Hillman name was seen as carrying too much baggage.

  8. smalleyxb122 Avatar

    As much as I love to vilify Big Government and Big Business, the only conspiracy theories that I think are true have more evidence than mere anecdotes and conjecture. Conspiracy theories, by their nature, are only tenuously plausible, and I need evidence before giving them credence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
    Most of these theories involve so many parties that the odds of keeping it secret goes way down (which makes the Volkwagen diesel scandal all the more amazing).
    I do believe that Ferrari has historically supplied ringers for comparison tests. I also believe that calling them out on it can get you blacklisted.

    1. LEROOOY Avatar

      I’ve always assumed every company supplies ringers for every media event. Not perfect vehicles, but somebody went over them with a fine-toothed comb beforehand to make sure they wouldn’t be an embarrassing heap.
      Of course, sometimes vehicles break down in the comparison tests anyway.

      1. outback_ute Avatar

        There was the Holden Commodore that went faster than its HSV big brother despite being down on power by 30kW and having a taller diff ratio, about 12-15 years ago. Not just traction either, it had a faster terminal speed in the 1/4 mile. They normally didn’t appear in the same tests due to being in different price classes. Oops!

  9. Alff Avatar

    Makers of diesel automobiles have engaged in chicanery to meet emissions requirements.

    1. mad_science Avatar


  10. engineerd Avatar

    Bernie Ecclestone was involved in the Great Train Robbery. The getaway driver was a race driver and known associate of Ecclestone. The F1 boss suddenly became wealthy about a decade after the robbery. Coincidence? I think now.

      1. smalleyxb122 Avatar
    1. P161911 Avatar

      The getaway driver DID make the manufacturers trophy for F1. http://en.espn.co.uk/onthisday/motorsport/story/2346.html

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      I want to believe.

  11. Ross Ballot Avatar
    Ross Ballot

    How about theories that are no longer true? Once upon a time, Porsche was conspiring against itself in that they wouldn’t build a Cayman/Boxster to be better than the 911. Today I sincerely believe that time to have passed…

    1. JayP Avatar

      Because the 911 moved into the 928 slot.

      1. nanoop Avatar

        Well observed! I was lamenting on IntenseDebate that the 911 is rather a quick S class than a track weapon, but I didn’t connect all the dots.

  12. mad_science Avatar

    GM hobbles any car that approaches the Corvette in performance.
    See: Banshee, Good versions of the Fiero, Good/better versions of the Kappa Platform, etc.

    1. JayP Avatar

      Also that GM runs a 5 yr plan where they finally get the car right after 5 years then kill it.

      1. Ross Ballot Avatar
        Ross Ballot

        A la 5th-gen. Camaro…

        1. Vairship Avatar

          And Corvair (much improved 2nd gen introduced in 1965, and engineers told to stop working on it (other than to maintain legal standards) the same year).

      2. boxdin Avatar

        Several GM divisions conspired to eliminate the Fiero. Imagine Chev providing bent reject conn rods for the Iron Duke, no wonder so many came apart so quickly in 1984, combined w 3 qt total capacity, no money for a new oil pan? When it became very good in 1988 it had to go.

        1. MarkT Avatar

          Make me miss my iron duke go cart, thanks!

  13. mad_science Avatar

    I have a story that’s not really a conspiracy and a know for a fact that part of it is true.
    In about 2001, my dad wrote a letter to Daimler-Chrysler. He pointed out that he took his brand new TJ and did a ton of modifications, throwing away factory parts and replacing them with aftermarket stuff at great cost. Specifically: low-geared axles with selectable locking diffs, 4:1 transfer case with a fixed yoke, sway bar disconnect, rocker armor, mud tires. He pointed out that Jeep’s probably not going to get away with selling a Wrangler with a factory lift and 33 or 35″ tires, but that first $3-4k in mods could go to Jeep instead of 4Wheel Parts Wholesalers. He even suggested a name for this special edition: Rubicon.
    A funny detail is that he pointed out he had ARB air lockers on his TJ. The first edition of the Rubicon had weirdly designed air lockers, with the pumps mounted on the axle. It had the look of a design where someone put a random/unnecessary constraint (“They have to be AIR LOCKERS, not E-lockers!”).
    They sent him an NDA/release form in response. Somewhere he has a copy of that letter.
    I refuse to believe they weren’t already working on something like the Rubicon already. There’s no way one random letter would’ve had that much of an effect.
    So, anyway…that’s my crazy automotive conspiracy story.

    1. Ted Odell Avatar
      Ted Odell

      True story indeed. I did send the letter and the specifics. Later that year we ran the Rubicon trail, and Jeep was there running some test mules. For all we know, they were the future Rubicon edition.
      Jeep did say thank you and that they own all the ideas. Go figure.
      I’d like to think my letter was significant. But, I’m with Tim thinking they were already working on it.
      We will never know.

  14. Monkey10is Avatar

    Glucker was framed!

  15. discontinuuity Avatar

    John DeLorean was set up and entrapped by the FBI, but who knows whether other car companies were involved.

    1. MistrX Avatar

      I used to work with a guy who was in the room when DeLorean was busted.

  16. Gee Nick Avatar
    Gee Nick

    I love hearing Jay Leno make excuses for various rear-engined swing-axle cars that inherently handled uncontrollably in emergency maneuvers…not limited to the Corvair, but further back to the Tatras driven by the Nazis.