I kicked away the frozen snow and slush blocking my shed door. The finches, juncos, and white-crowned sparrows twittered from the nearby trees, impatiently waiting for me to fill the feeder and get out of the way. As I scooped millet and sunflower seeds, a glint of gold color caught my eye. Above the seed hung my old fishing reel, a Penn 550SS. It was the first serious piece of saltwater fishing gear I ever bought. I was twelve years old and bought it at a small, rural fishing shop called “Rods N Things”. I matched it up with an Eagle Claw fishing rod. The whole outfit was $72.00. In 1978, that was a pretty good chunk of cash for a kid but it was worth it. At the time, Penn reels were all made in America. In fact, most were made right up the road in Philadelphia. I’ve literally caught thousands of fish on that reel. The rod suffered a major failure from fatigue some years ago but the reel continues on. It went back to the factory once for some work and that was due to user error. (Sometimes preventative maintenance doesn’t go as planned.)
Since 1978, Penn began slowly moving production of their reels overseas. Virtually all of their competitors have been made abroad for a long time. I’d like to give them kudos for keeping production at home as long as they could, but they were a little sneaky in the move. For years they advertised “Made in America”. But when the production move occurred, the ads didn’t begin reading “Made in China”. Funny how that wasn’t touted as a good thing. I mean, the Chinese have been building stuff for thousands of years since long before America existed. In fact, competitive products from companies like Diawa and Shimano have been built in China and other Asian manufacturing centers for years and those companies products are held in extremely high regard. That said, my first Chinese built Penn was a disaster. It lasted for one . . . count them . . . 1 . . fish before it failed almost completely. That failed reel ruined a fishing trip and left a bad enough taste in my mouth that, despite several reel purchases since, I haven’t (and probably won’t) buy another Penn product.
After my bad Chinese experiment with Penn, the reader might assume I do my best to buy American and that American-built products are substantially better products. Hmmmm. Well, let’s discuss. Continuing with the Penn fishing example, they do still produce their top end products in the USA. This is their offshore line of Senator and International reels. These reels are typically used by people with expensive boats who spend several thousand dollars per trip on fuel, bait, ice and tackle to go offshore and chase pelagic species of tuna and billfish. Many times they are competing in big-dollar fishing tournaments. These people aren’t going to be happy with a product that fails even once on a potentially game winning fish. There are highly respected competitive products from other brands that are waiting to take away Penn’s dominance in the offshore fishing game at the first hint of poor manufacturing quality. So design and manufacture of these top-end products stays at home and no expense is spared to keep these products at the top of the fishing food chain. Good for Penn and good for rich fisherman.
But what about the rest of us and the rest of American made products? How are we doing otherwise? Is it worth it to try to buy American? From a purely moral and altruistic perspective, I’d rather see my money go to an American worker than to be sent overseas though I’m sure the Chinese, and Malaysians, and Taiwanese are all very nice people doing their best to provide for their families. Assuming I can actually find an American made product is it worth it? Since “Made in America” is so highly prized, shouldn’t I expect a modern American-made product to be as reliable and durable as my old Penn reel? I’d like to think so but, sadly, it doesn’t necessarily work that way anymore.
We all know about the decline and fall of the American automobile industry. Heck, most people my age lived it. Detroit became arrogant in the idea that people would always buy cars and they would always be American cars. They laughed at Toyota when the Japanese company first introduced the Corolla. Americans liked big cars with big engines. Not little pipsqueak 4 cylinders. Then the gas crunch hit in the early 1970s and Detroit was unprepared. Their gas guzzlers fell out of favor, and their attempts at economy cars were, for the most part, dismal failures. It has only been in recent years that American car manufacturers have begun to level the playing field in quality and these days car manufacturing is a global endeavor. One would be hard-pressed to find a single car built in one country.
But what about the rest of American manufacturing? We all know there isn’t much left. The global economy and cheap foreign labor have sent most manufacturing jobs abroad. We can talk about labor unions and poor corporate management decisions in a later post (though it sounds pretty boring), but what about products that are still designed and built purely in the USA? Better stuff, right? Let me share some of my experiences.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a hunter and shooter. I enjoy bowhunting, gun hunting, and just taking a variety of firearms to the range and shooting whether it be for fun, practice, or a competition. Turn on the evening news almost any given night and you will hear how the USA is an anomaly in the world with the number of privately owned guns. It is true. Americans own and use more guns than anyone else in the world. In addition to the civilian market, we have a standing military and reserves of well over a 1/2 million serviceman most of whom are armed. Add to that a nation of police officers and you can see America is a major consumer of guns so we should be pretty good at building them. One would certainly think so but my recent experiences certainly haven’t born that out.
If you’ve followed the news over the last year, perhaps you’ve heard of the giant spike in gun sales through the course of 2020 and continuing to today. If you’ve been in any gun sales establishment you’ve likely seen empty shelves and been told orders are backlogged for weeks. Despite this, I’ve added to my personal collection over the course of the year not because I’m paranoid about a zombie apocalypse but I wound up purchasing new guns I’d have acquired regardless of the panic. Most of these purchases were guns made right here in the US of A. Sadly, one failed almost immediately requiring a trip back to the factory which, in today’s over-paranoid gun culture, is no easy task. It seems an inoperable firearm packaged by itself in a box with no ammunition is somehow capable of freeing itself to go on a shooting spree. A second gun, an expensive rifle supposedly highly-crafted in an American factory in Colorado, had to be returned because it didn’t shoot as well as I can shoot at 100 yards with my bow. Another gun just doesn’t function as it should and I’m told that is “normal” and to live with it. (Not by the factory but by virtually all users of the product.) Meanwhile, the Austrian-built Glock I purchased, like every Glock I’ve ever purchased, simply goes BANG and hits where I’m aiming every time I pull the trigger no matter what I feed it and how poorly I care for it. In fairness, I do have two other newer American made guns that have been well, bullet proof. Both are very old, reliable designs that have been built by their manufacturers for decades.
Shifting gears a bit, we have been RVers for going on 14 years now. Two years ago, we bought a brand new 2019 Georgetown GT5. After almost becoming completely defunct in 2008, the RV industry has been on a tear for several years. COVID-19 has not done anything to lessen sales. RV travel is seen as much safer than public transportation so sales of campers continue to boom. Unlike cars and some boats, RVs are sold almost entirely in the country or at least the continent they are built in. Our Georgetown is no exception. It was built by American workers in Elkhart, IN. Elkhart is to RV manufacturing what Detroit had been to to automobiles. Now you may be picturing a plant where every facet of the RV is built in-house but, like most manufacturing, many components are outsourced. Doors, windows, appliances, some furniture, fixtures, and electronics are all typically made by someone else, purchased by the RV builder, and incorporated into the final product at the insert-brand-here RV factory. The “someone else” is dominated by one or two major players in the industry. For example, our Georgetown uses an overwhelming amount of parts supplied by Lippert Components, Inc. and their holdings.
I’ll diverge down a somewhat boring rabbit hole for a moment. It is noteworthy that prior to the Great Recession of 2008, the RV industry was made up of a large number of small to medium players. It was a diverse group of mostly independent builders and suppliers. Competition was fierce. Small, dedicated shops provided parts and supplies to RV builders. In 2008 as the economy was collapsing, we visited the Winnebago plant in Forest City, Iowa. (By the way, there is neither a forest nor a city.) On the factory tour, I watched proud workers demonstrating their craft. Care and thought went in to each step. Winnebago took pride in the amount of parts and components they built in-house. Leaving the factory, I felt pretty good about my purchase. In fact, after 12 years of ownership and use our Winnebago product was pretty reliable and fairly problem free.
Fast forward to today. The RV industry has changed dramatically and is now made up of conglomerates. There are few if any small manufacturers left either involved in the production of RVs or their components. Names like Thor, Forest River, Fleetwood, and Winnebago own nearly all previously private brands. Lippert Components is the player in components and have bought up companies involved in nearly every facet of RV production. Is this consolidation a bad thing? Well, not necessarily. It certainly gives manufacturers great buying power and the ability to share technology across product lines. In most cases, the original facilities haven’t been closed or altered greatly and in a lot of cases the same people are still working the same jobs. But with corporate ownership there is always corporate cost cutting and with cost cutting comes, ultimately, suffering by the consumer. The system also severely limits competition and choice.
When we began shopping for our new coach a few years ago, I thought for sure we would purchase another Winnebago product. We had been so happy with the first one and the pride of workmanship of the good people working at the Winnebago factory had stuck with me. But when we looked at newer Winnebago motorhomes, it was easy to see both corporate cost cutting, and a far lesser quality of build. I get that lean manufacturing saves time and money but it also removes personal craftsmanship. The time for a worker on the assembly line to do the right thing is tempered by the need to move finished products off the floor and out the door. Perhaps Winnebago got a little too lean. Not only were expensive motorhomes cheapened with plastic sinks and faucets and other questionable choices, but the manufacturing process showed poorly finished trim, lack of attention to detail, lack of sealing in critical joints, and an overall feeling of cheapness and shoddy workmanship. Looking under the covers, it didn’t take long for one to discover very poor work indeed including tools and trash left behind by hurried workers.
So we moved on from Winnebago and ultimately purchased the Georgetown. In buying new in 2019, I knew we probably weren’t going to get the same degree of quality we had in our pre-recession RV but, from what I’d seen of Georgetown at shows and in dealer lots, I was willing to take the chance given that the thoughtful design and floor plan was in line with our needs. Happily, it was a good decision. The build quality exceeded my expectations. When we put our new coach under a microscope, it definitely passed muster but all was not beer and skittles.
We got the motorhome in late February of 2019. My hope was to use it for a season and hopefully not have any major system failures that would keep us from being able to enjoy the camping season. I assumed we’d find issues that needed attention and we’d return it to the dealer in the fall with a list of things to be corrected while still under warranty. Despite the overall quality I felt we had in our Georgetown there were places where the builder failed. The screen door was a mess. It turned out the whole thing was assembled twisted. A panel in the utility compartment had been over-tightened and cracked, in turn cracking the outside shower. The pocket door on the bedroom had not even vaguely been installed properly. All in all very minor things and I picture some poor assembly worker knowing of these problems but unable to slow the line enough to allow for correction. At least I hope that is the case rather than said worker jamming a screen door into place hurriedly before a lunch break.
Georgetown and Forest River (the owners of Georgetown RV) along with our dealer, Keystone Mega RV Center, did a phenomenal job of making these small issues and a couple of other things right. We got our motorhome back in February of 2020 and the repairs were better than good. We went on to enjoy a sensational, COVID-shortened camping season. At season’s end, I always go over the RV thoroughly to see what if any items need attention over the winter season. My findings can be summed up in one word: Rust. Specifically, rusty steps. While there was some surface rust forming on metal framing exposed to the elements, that isn’t necessarily unexpected. What was unexpected was the almost complete destruction by rust of our electric, retracting steps.
The steps are a brand called Kwikee. Kwikee has been building steps for motorhomes for decades. Our old motorhome had Kwikee steps and, aside from a motor replacement (fairly normal), the steps were as good the day we sold the RV as the day we bought it. No rust, no unusual wear. At two years old, the steps on our Georgetown looked as though they had been dropped in the ocean prior to installation. Paint was peeling off in sheets, virtually every bit of hardware was rusted including one bolt so badly corroded it sheared off when I attempted to remove it. The steps themselves barely functioned due to corroded parts on the untreated motor. I get lean manufacturing. I get the push to meet demand. What I don’t get is how even the most vaguely competent assembly person would be unable to raise their hand and ask “Why are we putting zinc hardware on something that will be 100% exposed to the elements?”. Zinc is meant for indoor use. RV steps are exposed to rain, wet roads, dirt and grime, and potentially road salt if used in northern winters like those in Indiana. The use of cheap, non-stainless or non-galvanized hardware is inexcusable. The finishing process of the steps themselves needs to be more robust than slapping a coat of thin spray paint on steel. Finally, Kwikee purchases their step motors from a Korean manufacturer. That’s fine. I’m sure they are very reliable motors probably used in millions of automobiles all over the world. But when they are delivered from the manufacturer unpainted they need to be protected prior to installing them one foot from the road surface behind the tire of a motorhome. If this is “Made in America” and I had a choice I’d have replaced the whole thing with steps made in China for half the price. They couldn’t have been built worse. The real kicker is that Kwikee is literally the only game in town. They have the market cornered. Motorhome builders and buyers wanting self-retracting steps can only choose their products. There are not other choices. With that in mind, Kwikee should charge $50.00 more, finish the product properly, and pass the cost along to the consumer. We are already shelling out the amount of a second home to buy a camper. Paying a few bucks more to not be dealing with an enormous amount of rust in two years won’t really bother us.
Any American consumer knows how hard finding certain goods has gotten since COVID-19 shutdown much of the manufacturing infrastructure in China. Supplies of a lot of products and materials have dried up putting a lot of small manufacturers in the US and around the world out of business entirely. Apparently, this dependence hasn’t been lost on our new President. I see executive orders encouraging the Federal government to buy American and continuing some Trump-era tariffs. I’m not sure I ever agree that tariffs of any sort are a good idea. I certainly applaud the recommendation to spend tax payer dollars domestically even as we hand out trillions of dollars in COVID-19 relief checks to all creatures great and small. That said, It would be nice to see American manufacturing earn our hard-earned dollars. The American Wal-Martian has driven much of manufacturing to the cheapest bidder but for those of us willing to pay a little more, it would be nice to see a return to pride of workmanship. I don’t mind paying more if I’m getting a Penn 550SS that will last a lifetime. But if I’m paying a lot of money for slapped-together cheap garbage that won’t last, it may as well come at a cheaper price from a foreign land.