July 16, 2009

Getting Back to Being American

Justin Katz

On a Matt Allen Violent Round Table back in December state Senator Leonidas Raptakis (D, Coventry, East Greenwich, Warwick, West Warwick) and Paul Tencher opined knowingly that, if only American automakers had had the foresight to rush forward with fancy environmentally friendly automobiles, instead of pushing those darned gas guzzlers, they wouldn't need a government bailout. I pointed out that those gas guzzlers were what people actually wanted, and I'd caution GM's new union-and-government-backed executives that, however "new" they want to claim to be, Americans' tastes haven't changed all that much.

Amidst the descriptions of structural changes (and the oddly front-loaded gimmicks of eBay sales and "Tell Fritz" Web site to move customer suggestions directly to the new CEO) comes this observation from which conceptual brainstorming ought to proceed:

"For 100 years General Motors was among the world's greatest companies. It deserves to be there again and it will be there again," [Obama-picked Chairman of the Board Edward Whitacre, Jr.,] said. "I agreed to take this job because I know most Americans want this company to succeed."

One can picture the commercial: soft electric guitar in the background as the interior door to a sunrise-lit garage opens; the driver passes photographs of folks and their Chevys, a couple magazines with classic cars pass the camera, while that guy (you know that guy) with the deep voice and the vaguely Southern accent talks about America's car company — the memories, the confidence. A car door closes and the garage door opens. The music switches to the driving rock sounds of Americana, and into the morning sunlight rolls... a glass-and-metal bubble hybrid.

No. There's a reason that jars against the imagination:

One of his first customers was Scott Wilbur, a 40-year-old elementary school principal who bought a silver V-8 Camaro in June.

Mr. Wilbur had not purchased a G.M. vehicle in a decade, and traded in his Honda Civic hybrid to buy the Camaro.

He even gave up his California-issued sticker to drive in hybrid-only carpool lanes to get behind the wheel of his new muscle car.

"I might not be as environmentally friendly, but at this point I don't mind waiting in traffic to drive this," he said.

Almost as a means of absolution — a personal cap and trade, you might say — Mr. Wilbur put a deposit, sight unseen, on the hybrid Chevy Volt due out next year. Most Americans will stop with the first purchase and wait a number of years to reevaluate, which means that they'll skip the Volt, perhaps hoping that technology will bring them environmentally friendly muscle, but they'll be more interested in the muscle than the friendliness.

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I get real tired of the "cars Americans want". I am not sure it has anything to do with price, quality, fuel economy, etc.

A few years back I was at the PVD auto show. I believe Tasca had a Mercury Sable "special". A very fully equipped car, leather, sunroof, etc. IIRC $16,500. About $5,000 less than an equivalent Toyota. I did an informal survey about why would you prefer a Toyota. I got more excuses than a car thief going to jail. None of it held water, I left with the impression that a Toyota was more "correct". I think there is some social pressure to buy a Toyota that no one freely admits.

Then again, I always wonder about those 80K Range Rovers with all the "brush bars". I doubt they see a lot of "off road" time.

I think the auto marketing people know the truth and it is not what people will tell you.

Speaking of TV ads. I always recall the PBS SAAB ads from before PBS was really in the advertising business. A guy pulls up to his garage on a bicycle. The garage opens and there is a SAAB. The voice over talks about "when you really have use a car". Are PBS people particularly "green"?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 16, 2009 12:52 PM

Another tid-bit. GM had 14,000 deposits for a new Camaro, before it was officially "introduced". It could be that GM has a handle on the "cars that Americans want".

Let us not forget that the only President we have drove a Chrysler 300C (that is the "Hemi")before his election.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 16, 2009 12:56 PM

Car companies liked to build SUVs because they are more profitable (5-7X the profit they could get from a car); not just because people prefer them but because the government has a 25% tariff on foreign-built light trucks. As usual, whenever you see businesses making crazy decisions, it's usually because the government is screwing something up in the background. Never mind that one of the principle reasons people preferred SUVs in the first place was that they create the illusion of increased safety, no doubt brought on because fuel efficiency standards forced manufacturers to build all vehicles lighter and smaller.

Posted by: Mario at July 16, 2009 11:32 PM

Don't forget, umm, utility. As the father of a young family, I can testify that we probably would have opted for a sedan station wagon (maybe not with the wood paneling). Since fuel efficiency standards had driven those out of the market, we just moved on to SUVs and minivans.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 17, 2009 5:58 AM

While having the oil changed in my minivan (very efficient use of space) I spoke with a woman with an SUV. She told me that she used to have a minivan, but had "graduated" to an SUV. The terminology tells me something about the social positioning of the SUV (why won't people call them station wagons) and the more efficient minivan.

This is reinforced by the less courteous children of my friends making fun because I used a "mom van". My adult friends inquire why I don't have an SUV. Well friends, it is all about bang for the buck. I actually use it to move things and it has twice the space of an SUV. I am always amused by people who have an SUV because they "need the space". "It's for the children".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 17, 2009 10:09 AM

Tnis talk about "cars Americans want" reminds me of the origins of the SUV that became the environmentalists' chief villain and symbol of all that was wrong with the American auto industry - the Hummer. IIRC AMC was initially cool to the idea of marketing a civilian version of the HMMWV (High-Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle or Humvee) when interest in the vehicle rose after Desert Storm. A major action movie star paid a considerable sum to have a HMMWV custom made for him and AMC realized there was considerable demand for the vehicle. The rest is history. The movie star who bought the HMMWV was Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the CAFE raising governor of California. I wonder if he still flagellates himself nightly for the sin of releasing hundreds of thousands of these vehicles on the road.

Posted by: David at July 18, 2009 7:41 AM
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