The Blog

More on American Car Design…

I recently got a comment from a reader, who took issue with some of my past comments on why it seems that American car manufacturers seem to design “less than attractive” cars. His points were that so have the Japanese & European manufacturers…and with attitudes like mine, no wonder the American automotive industry is in such crisis.

I applaud his brand loyalty. There are plenty of things I’m also loyal to – and I wish one of them was cars from the American car industry. But, his logic is flawed, in my opinion. Based on his note, the problem isn’t that we’ve built ugly cars, it’s that people just need to buy American. To a degree, he’s right – if we’d bought more American cars, we wouldn’t see GM shedding brands and declaring bankruptcy, nor would we see Fiat now a large owner of Chrysler.

But, let’s take my opinions out of the equation for a moment. Reality – the American buyer votes with his bank account…and there are a multitude of reasons why he/she hasn’t voted American nearly as much recently as, say, back in the 1960’s.

So, let’s take a look at “1969 vs. 2009”.

  1. Market Penetration. In 1969 – there wasn’t Datsun / Nissan, or Honda, or Toyota, or Subaru, or Mazda, or Kia, or Hyundai….and the list goes on. What the American automotive machine was competing against was either poorly made cheap British & Italian cars, or the VW Beetle. And, American build quality was world-leading. But, the cars were simple. Frame, body, engine, carburetor, wheels, suspension, brakes. Performance was measured by adding a bigger engine, and maybe cutting down on the overall mass of the car – which is how the muscle car grew in popularity initially. Competition between GM, Ford & Chrysler kept the lines moving. And, yet, when it came to performance cars, American cars were a good value. Now, 2009. American cars have to compete not only with their much improved counterparts “across the pond”, they also have had to compete with a whole new group from Asia, which even if everything else was even, would still contribute to a loss of market share over the last 40 years.
  2. Value for the Money. In 1969, as I mentioned above, you could build a car for a pretty inexpensive amount of money. Safety requirements, emissions requirements, reliability expectations were all much lower. So, there was not only room to pay the labor costs associated with the car, but still make a good sized profit. Now, in 2009, labor costs, along with the costs of meeting safety and emissions requirements, have caused the cost to build a car to explode. Unions still expect their workers to get paid the wages they’ve negotiated, retired workers still need their pensions, and shareholders still want their ROI. So, the accountants have gotten involved – and even though the overall reliability of American cars has drastically improved over the last 20 years, they still feel “cheap” inside. Hard plastic, cheap materials, and lost options abound on the lower-tiered cars in order to hit their price points. Yet, with lower labor costs, no union pensions, and a different shareholder perspective, have allowed European and Asian manufacturers to create cars that “feel” more expensive in comparison.
  3. Management Myopia. 1969 had the “Big Three” competing with themselves for the most part. When the rush of inexpensive, and eventually reliable, Asian cars rolled in during the 70’s gas crisis, it seems that one of two things happened. Either management ignored the threat, or with our American desire for “instant gratification”, the Big 3 shareholders handcuffed management’s need to change the companies and their resulting corporate cultures to chase after the “immediate ROI”. I suspect it was a bit of both. Case in point – GM was the early innovator in the late 1990’s with battery / hybrid technology with the EV1. Yet, they killed the car because they felt the need to chase Ford & Chrysler for SUV market share – and transferred those development dollars to Hummer. Now, Hummer is being sold to a Chinese company, and Toyota currently leads the way.

To be fair, not all American cars suck. The new Chevy Malibu – very attractive, and back to providing good value for the money. Same with most of the Cadillac line. Dodge still builds some of the best trucks, not to mention most attractive. But, of the three, Ford in my mind still leads the way. The Mustang – just about perfect. The truck lines – spectacular. And, unlike the other two, Ford does know how to build small cars – the Focus has always felt more expensive than it was, and the upcoming Fiesta is a world leader.

It’s not that I want the American car industry to fail –far from that. I want to see them truly regain the position that they’ve lost over the last 40 years. But, to “Buy American” just because it’s American – doesn’t keep us competitive. It doesn’t force us to do our best. Competition is good. It’s even better when – finally – it seems that the Big 3 have woken up, and realized that they aren’t competing anymore with each other – they are now on a world stage, and have to cut back, build attractive cars that provide safety, reliability, value – and are just as attractive from a design perspective as anything from Europe or Asia.

Here’s hoping they do it!

Why the economic downturn can drive good design

We’ve just come out of a time where, let’s face it – the conspicuous consumption of the last 10 years dwarfs what we saw during the 80’s. We’ve had reality shows that show young girls being chauffered in Lamborghini’s to “sweet 16 parties” that cost the same amount of money that AIG employees got (or now, might just get taxed out of) for bonuses.

And, things moved on at such a swift pace, that as long as it was “pretty” – people would buy it. 15 years ago, who ever heard of the term, “Do you speak Prada?”. Now, with budgets scaled back, and people actually taking the time to think about what they are buying – now is actually a great time for products that are built on the concept of “form follows function”.

I’ll use Chrysler vs. Ford as one example. Both companies have, over the last 15 years, built vehicles that are attractive. But design goes beyond “pretty”. Design isn’t just how it looks – it’s how it works. Good design means you don’t have to think about how to use it – you just use it. In the most recent surveys done by Consumer Reports, had both GM and Chrysler at the bottom of the list in reliability, with Ford fourth from the bottom. (USAToday – 27 Feb 09). And, yet, both design cars such as the Dodge Viper, the Chrysler 300M, the Ford Mustang, and even the now discontinued Ford GT – that are quite attractive.

Another example is Apple products compared to…well, just about any competing product. During the downturn, Apple has introduced the new “unibody” Mac’s, the iPhone, new iPods, and now the Shuffle. Sales may have dropped a little, but to hear that Lenovo (which makes great systems, by the way) has had to lay of people at their factories in China – seems to be showing that the combination of good visual design, good ergonomic design, and good mechanical design – are what are becoming key to sales.

Basically, it’s coming down to this – if people are going to spend, they want it to last, and they want to be proud of it. Architect Sarah Susanka has been a proponent for years of smaller spaces, with money spent on the details. Over the last “boom” – the goal seemed to be to buy bigger homes – yet, not necessarily better homes. Last year, for the first time in 10 years – the average square footage of new single-family homes actually fell from 2,629 in the second quarter, to 2,343 in the fourth quarter, according to US Census Data.

We’re seeing a return to common sense. We want more out of less. We want to feel connected to what we have spent our money on. Those who produce designs that help create a long-term emotional bond to the brand, to the product, and to the company that produced them, will be the winners once we rebound out of this downturn.

Why do American car manufactures design such ugly cars?

It seems that time and time again, American car manufacturers force on the buying public, some of the ugliest cars known to mankind. Don’t believe me? Two words for you – Pontiac Aztec. This abortion-on-wheels had to have been one of the worst excuses for “design” that the motoring public has ever known.

Pontiac Aztec

I remember that one of the major car magazines (I’m thinking it was Automobile Magazine) – did a pre-production road test of this car – and totally ripped it. They went so far as to tell GM that this would be a huge mistake to put on the road. GM had tried to make a minivan into a minivan/SUV crossover…like we really need that. It also had the look of “designed by committee” – where a designer was assigned to design, say..a fender. Another – the front grill. And, in a horrific example of silo-management, combined with political protectionism – no communication seemed to take place between designers, creating a hodge-podge, disjointed combination of angular panels that screamed “drop something heavy on me – just so I don’t look this bad!”.

Yet, when these same manufacturers put their mind to it, they can also design some of the most beautiful cars we’ve ever know. Cars like the current Ford Mustang, Chevy Corvette, and many of the new Saturn line. But what bugs me is cars like the new Pontiac G8. Which is really a Holden (a GM subsidiary – in Australia). The new Saturn Aura – which is really a Opel (a GM subsidiary – in Europe).

It’s not that we don’t have good designers in this country – we do. One example that comes to mind is a gentleman that designed a car that almost 30 years later – still looks modern. When this car came out, it was the mid-late 70’s, when we were getting American cars like the Pinto and the Vega – yet, Tony Lapine (and American designer) – came up with the design for the Porsche 928.

I think the big problem – is most of the American car manufacturers are run by accountants – people who love numbers, not design. It’s hard to cost-justify prior to product launch, why an attractive design will sell more – and be more profitable – than a basic design. And, with the focus the past 30 years (emphasis on each of these varying, but still important nonetheless) – on fuel economy, reliability, and safety – all of these things add costs to the price of the car – so the places we see cut back on are areas like the quailty of interior materials & related design, for example.

Yet, we’ve also seen what happens when bean-counters run these companies. Mercedes-Benz – once the epitome of quality – decided it would be more profitable to cut cost out of production – and reliability suffered, killing sales. So, there is a valid argument that cutting design won’t hurt sales like cutting production & manufacturing costs. Additional proof of this is most of the cars coming out of Japan (and now South Korea as well) – these cars aren’t known for being…well…beautiful – but knowing your Honda or Toyota will rarely break down – is important.

Yet, the problem remains. Cars – especially American cars…are usually pretty bland, if not downright ugly – unless you spend over $50K. Why is this? Does it really cost that much more to make a car that’s beautiful? Especially if you’re trying to compete against other foreign brands that are attractive, reliable, or both?

I think part of the problem is – many of these companies are entrenched in their own design philosophies. And only rarely venture outside of them. Example of stepping out? Cadillac. Now, I’m not a Cadillac fan. Many of the parts are really from a Saab – and I’d rather have one of them. But, they took a step into a new design philosophy about 8 years ago – and look at what it’s done for their sales! And…an example of not stepping out? Buick. They have this stupid philosophy that says that the front fenders of their cars must have 3 portholes. Because they did 50-60 years ago. OK…if you’re target market is people in their 70’s – great. Once they are gone…so is your brand. Simple truth – innovate or die!

Of course…that brings me to my last point – maybe they design ugly cars…because people buy them anyway? How else can you explain why people would order a Buick or Cadillac…with a fake vinyl top that looks like it would be a convertible..but isn’t?