The Allure of Classic Cars

The Life of the Automobile by Steven Parissenien (2014, Thomas Dunne Books) presents a panorama of automotive invention and innovation over the past 150 years.  There have been many hits, for example, Ford’s Model T, Mustang and Taurus; GM’s ’55 Chevy, GTO, and Escalade; VW’s Beetle and Golf, and Citroen’s 2CV and DS.  The number of failures far exceed the successes, for instance, GM’s Aztec, Corvair, and Vega, and Ford’s Edsel, Festiva, and Pinto.

Why do cars fail to meet a company’s market objective’s that they were intended to meet?  First, many cars, once they emerge, do not meet the market’s needs and wants.  Second, the system development process employed does not yield a high quality vehicle.  How does this happen?  Mismanagement is the central cause.  Executives, who are almost always men, consider themselves “car guys” and use gut feelings to make terrible decisions.

Parissenien reports many examples of this happening leading to enormous financial losses for companies, and often loss of the company itself.  He argues that 1959 was the zenith of the US auto industry, featuring the Cadillac Eldorado, Chevrolet Impala, and Ford Galaxie.  It has been downhill since then, driven increasingly by competition from Germany, Japan, and Korea.  American car companies rely on large SUVs and pickup trucks for their profits.

A few years ago, we conducted a study of 12 cars that had been withdrawn from the market, four each in the 1930s, 1960s, and 2000s.  Only one was withdrawn because of the nature of the car – people were unwilling to pay Packard prices for Studebaker quality, the companies having merged in 1954.  The other 11 vehicles were victims of financial and general mismanagement, as well broader market forces.

Parissenien provides a wealth of examples of lack of visionary leadership, failed processes, and not infrequent forces of greed.  Investors acquiring poorly run auto companies and then making matters worse seems to be a common trait of auto executives.  Unfortunately, a trait lacking for many car guys is discipline in terms of corporate finance, vehicle design and manufacturing, and supply chain management.

As I read this book on my Kindle, I used Google to access images of each of the cars mentioned.  Many of the non-US cars were unknown to me.  This combination of Kindle and Google made for a quite enjoyable experience.  It also provided a panorama of rather unattractive cars, with occasional gems of classic artistry and elegance.  Of course, if everything was a classic, the concept would not be meaningful.

It is quite natural to primarily remember the classic cars, even though they have been the exceptions.  Not surprisingly, we forget about Corvairs and Pintos.  Yet, failed offerings, particularly mediocre offerings, have been the rule rather than exceptions.  Nevertheless, I visit car museums whenever I encounter them when traveling — which has not happened lately.  There is definitely an allure to the classics.  While this tends to true for all the arts, the automobile has played a special role in many of our lives.

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