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!

More on the American Car Dilemma

So…now it sounds like GM is going to loose Hummer & Saab, scale back Pontiac, and may kill off Saturn as well. And, both GM and Chrysler want a few billion more to stay alive until they can get their acts together.

Only Ford is staying out of this mess for now. And, much of the blame goes to an emphasis on trucks, and now that gas prices have changed buying behavior, they couldn’t react fast enough to meet the new demand structure.

I realize that it’s not just the “Big 3” that are suffering. Toyota has reported a loss for the first time in 70 years! Demand is down. We’ve demanded that cars last longer. We don’t go and buy a new car every 3-4 years like we used to. Reliability means that even buying a used car doesn’t need to be a nightmare.

But I look at companies like Audi or BMW. They produce a narrow line of cars. BMW, for example has the 1 series, the 3 series, the 5 series, 2 SUV’s, and the Z4 sports car. All of this is less than what Chevrolet offers. So, minimal platforms means they can much more effectively market their brand. But the Big 3 – how many different car lines, trim levels, and overall brands must they carry? Their strategy hasn’t changed since the days prior to the wave of reliable European & Asian manufacturers.

Back in the 60’s, American cars were strong. Reliable. Design leaders. Now, everything is derivative of their past designs. Their most exciting cars bank heavily on nostalgia. But from a design point of view, their “bread and butter” cars – are boring, and don’t exhibit any style that drives “passion” – good or bad. Chris Bangle just left his post at BMW – I think the best thing that GM should do as part of their restructuring plan – is to hire him to pen the next wave of trend-setting cars! At least GM would get other press from his appointment than their CEO pointing out a hybrid car that looks like a toaster!

Of course….there’s the risk that the toaster-car would then have a “Bangle-Butt”.

GM and the upcoming bailout…

With the upcoming bailout of the “Big 3” Automakers, it’s got me thinking again about “bad design. Of the three, Ford is actually in the best position financially. GM…is in the worst. GM is also thinking of shedding a few of it’s lines, including Saturn, Buick, and Pontiac.

The funny thing is, with the exception of the Corvette, the upcoming Camaro, and the (of all things) – new Malibu, nearly all of Chevrolet’s products are, well, bland. Yet, the new Pontiac G8 (really a Holden designed in Australia) and the Solstice, the nearly all of the Saturn lines, and the newest Buick products – are actually attractive! With car sales down 37% or more over last year, it seems insane that GM would get rid of the lines that might actually have products worth buying, and keep the lines that, well, pretty much suck. Furthermore, they keep talking about the Chevy Volt – the car that will “save the company” when it comes out in 2010.

Speaking of the Volt, I’ve read complaints that the car is “boring” – not very exciting to look at. Now, it does look a bit less like a toaster than the Toyota Prius does, but here’s a chance for GM to show the world that a breakthrough automobile, that can go 40 miles on it’s batteries before kicking in a small gasoline engine for recharging them, can also be beautiful. Yet, they responded to the criticism by saying that people would buy the car not based on looks, but based on it’s technology.

I believe that this is additional proof that the movie “Idiocracy” was really a documentary!

Oh…and they’ve also announced that they expect that they won’t make a profit on the Volt, due to the enormous R&D costs they’ve incurred during it’s development.

And we wonder why GM is in trouble?

Thoughts on things “after the election”

Now that the election is over, and we’re now inundated with the media’s “Obama-mania” – I have been thinking about what all of this really means.

I just read an article on CNN that Obama is planning on “rebranding” the United States. The full article appears at https://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/11/19/obama.world.image/index.html, but the gist of the piece is that although he’s poised to re-brand the United States image in international markets, his actions will have to live up to his rhetoric.

I, for one, don’t think that this is going to go well for him. Simply because I don’t see how anybody, at this point, could do it. The damage we’ve suffered within the international community over the last 8 years has been huge. From a branding perspective, when your brand has taken a hit – even if your customers want your brand to recover, and want to believe in you, turning your brand image around quickly is extremely difficult.

Think of General Motors. Up until the early 70’s, General Motors could do no wrong. They built large, gas-guzzling vehicles that had gobs of power, but were horrible for the environment, and burned through fuel as if it was always going to be cheap and plentiful. Between tightening emissions and a gas crisis in the early 70’s, they tried to turn on a dime, building cars like the Chevy Vega – pieces of crap that rusted on the showroom floors, that broke down constantly, and depreciated to the point of being worthless about the time they drove off the dealer’s lot.

35 years later, GM has never truly recovered. And, they’ve done a wonderful job of repeating their mistakes of the late 60’s – early 70’s – and are now facing bankruptcy without a huge injection of taxpayer money (which is really what a bailout is) – to keep them afloat. Now, yes, I understand that much of their problems are also due to UAW demands driving up labor costs, keeping their cars from being price competitive to other competing brands. But in terms of overall quality – there is still the perception that GM vehicles are not as reliable as, say, a Honda. Even when the quality of their vehicles has improved to the point where they may very well never break down.

Does this mean that people want GM to fail? No. But they’ve had 30 years to turn around their brand perception, and they’ve had the help of some of the best marketers in the business. Obama – he has 4 years – or less – to turn around the United States brand position. And, he also has to focus on our wars in  Iraq & Afghanistan, an economy in crisis, all while fulfilling the expectations of every voter that believed his promises enough to vote for him.

As a country, I think it’s in our best interest to support our new President. But, it’s not just his responsibility to improve our country’s image overseas. It’s our job too. A 2002 National Geographic study indicated that nearly a third of young Americans could not locate the Pacific Ocean. So, go learn a language. Learn about another culture. Befriend someone that you might have just met from another country – and learn about their experiences growing up somewhere else. And, if you travel overseas – be humble – and appreciate the country your visiting – learn from  it, and bring the best of it back here. Our country was built by people that brought their culture here – let’s show the rest of the world that we can still learn from them, rather than impose ourselves on them.

It might just make Obama’s job a little easier.

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?