The Big Three's dramatic U-turn

A 2013 Ford Fusion is displayed at the Ford exhibit at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Monday, Jan. 9, 2012.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Nearly given up for dead a few years ago, American carmakers are in the fast lane once more, as Lee Cowan reports in our Cover Story:

It was only two years ago that Detroit - and the Big Three U.S. automakers - were in a ditch so deep many thought they might never get back on the road. Both Chrysler and General Motors were bankrupt, and Ford was teetering on the edge.

But after hitting rock bottom back in 2009, U.S. auto sales are on the rebound - poised for a second straight year of profitability.

Which is why at this year's Detroit Auto Show, it wasn't just the headlights that were beaming. Ford CEO Alan Mulally was like a kid in a suped-up candy store.

"Look at the styling!" he beamed. "It's all integrated, very aerodynamic, you know great stance, and the inside matches the outside."

It's his new toy he's talking about: Ford's redesigned Fusion, which includes a plug-in hybrid version that may get the gasoline equivalent of 100 miles a gallon.

It's already winning awards, including Best in Show in Detroit this year.

And the view of the future through the windshield has the Big Blue Oval's boss so excited, he blurts out sales slogans in mid-conversation.

"Ford. Feel a difference. Drive one. Because you're gonna go further with Ford!" he laughed.

"Are you surprised at where you are now?" asked Cowan.

"Well, I kind of pinch myself, because you know, it's a big transformation," he replied.

It's been a big transformation for the entire U.A. auto industry.

With nearly 13 million vehicles sold last year, the Big Three ALL posted increases, not only in market share, but double-digit sales growth as well.

Ford was up 11 percent. General Motors: up 13 percent. And Chrysler was up a whopping 26 percent.

"I think it's extraordinary how quickly the industry has recovered," said Bill Vlasic, who has watched the rebound from his perch in the Motor City. He details the Big Three's recovery in his book, "Once Upon a Car."

"I think Detroit is more agile. I think they're more competitive. They're certainly leaner, but they're determined to prove that Detroit can build cars and trucks that are as good as any in the world," he said.

From the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, it seems almost hard to imagine how far the Big Three fell.

In 2008 Chrysler became the first major U.S. automaker to file for bankruptcy since Studebaker in the 1930s.

General Motors, once the bluest of the blue chip stocks, got a black eye, and was nicknamed "Government Motors" after it (along with Chrysler) was forced to take a federal bailout.

Ford managed to avoided bankruptcy, but was hanging on by a wiper blade.

"This was a reckoning that had been predicted for many, many years," said Vlasic. "But when it finally happened, this town in particular - I think the entire country - was astonished by how much trouble Detroit had gotten itself into."