I’ve been pondering this lately, with the pending (and now announced) bankruptcy of General Motors. Actually, i’ve been thinking about it for about 25 years, since i was first interested in cars.
The first car i remember my family owning was a ‘72 Buick, and i remember climbing up on its trunk to escape a horseshoe crab on a beach in New Jersey in about 1973. It was pretty cool for a family car, with the steel mag-style wheels and metallic bronze paint and dangerously-hot-in-the-summer plastic seats. There were other cars that made an impression early on too; the Chevy cargo van on which i learned to drive manual shift (3-speed on the tree), my grandfather’s brown Pontiac and most of all, my grandmother’s silver (formerly seafoam green) 1968 Camaro. From an early age, i was predisposed against Fords and sat firmly in the GM camp. Until, that is, i was ready to buy my own first car, because by then i wanted a VW Beetle.
I came of car buying age in the mid 1980s, which was the very bottom, the Mariana trench, of US auto design and manufacturing. Rebounding from the gas crisis and the recession of the early ’80s, what we got in the ’80s were the K-cars and the other companies versions of K-cars. There were about 4 different GM cars in that era, differentiated across divisions only by paint, the badge on the trunk and the color of the seats; a Chevy was a Pontiac was an Olds was a Caddy. Even the Corvettes of the mid-80s were ugly, for chrissakes, though thankfully not built on the same platform as say, the Citation like the abomination that was the Ford Capri-based Mustang.
My mom had a 1980 Chevy Citation; piece of crap. Her subsequent Cavalier was somewhat less bad, but not really good. The big 3 US auto makers were coasting on inertia, residual good will and crossed fingers, but it didn’t last. My first car was a VW not just because i loved the mechanical simplicity of the air-cooled engine, but because i found one in good shape. Most of the late ’70s US-built cars i could afford in 1984 were either total gas hogs (yes, i cared about that even with $0.99 gas), or literally falling apart. I was impressed that the knobs and switches on the 12-year-old Beetle worked as expected, and when pieces inevitably failed i enjoyed working on it. I was an enthusiastic kid though; more telling was that my mom’s next car was a Toyota Camry.
For high school graduation, an uncle gave me the gift of a share of GM stock. It was an expensive gift at the time, even for a single share, and i remember that he had waited for the share price to drop a bit. It was a vote of confidence in my then-current intention to become a mechanical engineer and design cars. As i worked through college and owned more cars (2 Chevy Monzas, VW Fastback, Datsun 210, Volvo 240, Pontiac Grand Am, VW Fox) and rented or borrowed others, i compared and contrasted them inside and out. I inspected with interest the first Saturn cars as they were previewed outside of the Engineering building at the University, marveling at the lost foam engine casting and other new ideas in action. I later rode in the Saturn production models and was disappointed in the fit and feel and execution of those neat designs.
I switched tracks to Journalism mid-stream and the glittery shine of the automotive world faded as the wider world and increased bicycling put it into better perspective. I’m no longer interested in building cars, though i appreciate a good car and generally pay some attention to the industry. It’s been disappointing how much time and energy they spend defending the status quo and fighting any sort of regulation and innovation. They blame the unions and the markets, but really, they’re stagnant institutions chasing the low-hanging fruit. They’ve been sitting on a virtual transportation monopoly for 50 years that has been driven by cheap fuel and a public willingness to support the infrastructure that automobiles demand. Now that we’re seeing gas prices rise and the likely decline of the petroleum age, the public is increasingly demanding more from their cars and improved alternatives to cars, but the auto industry is too busy circling the station wagons to take the lead.
What the auto industry needs is its own Apple; a company with enough brains and guts to define a next step, any next step, to get people thinking again. The Saturn division had some promise in this area, but ended up as just an alternative to buying a Chevy. What Saturn (or some other division) should have done is to produce small runs of concept cars that aren’t watered down by the marketing department, fine-tuning new ideas much as the smaller bicycle companies have done with city commuter bikes and cargo bikes; defining new categories, and finding new markets. What we have had here is a failure to innovate, and an over-reliance on three companies who refused to step up.
On a larger, related note, perhaps it’s time to reconsider ideas such as “too large to fail”, and wonder when a company is too large to be of use. There are great examples of companies who make a virtually unimprovable thing, and should continue to do it well indefinitely, but when it comes to something that so widely effects the health and safety of virtually every citizen on the planet (as automobiles do) having a leaner, more responsible and more innovative corporate culture might be a healthier thing for us all.
Kottke has an identically-titled post collecting some other, more pithy commentary on the matter too.