I can only imagine what it would take for me to again purchase a car built by an American auto manufacturer. So who better than me to make the case for how I can be won back.
As I was putting the final touches on my previous R&O, The Ostrich Syndrome, I accidentally stumbled on what I think is the way for the American auto manufacturers to win back America. I was writing about the new style of cars that were created in the mid-60s, first by Ford with the Mustang and then by Chevrolet with the Camaro. These cars revolutionized the American automobile industry back then – and that’s EXACTLY what has to happen – again. This time, however, the circumstances are different.
Before we get started, here’s a brief pictorial history of the cars I’ve owned since I was old enough to drive. The first three pictures are not the actual cars, but very close. I took the rest of the pictures of my cars, first with a $15 film camera (you’ll be able to tell because the focus is horrible) then with a decent Minolta film camera and the one I own now with my Blackberry.
My first car came from my parents – a 1965 Pontiac 4-door sedan. I purchased it through our bank, with my mother co-signing the loan for the car to be put in my name. I was around 18 years old at the time. My payments were $77.47 a month for three years. The loan included $600 for my first stage amplifier.
After I came back from the Jesus Christ-Superstar tour in the winter of 1971, I drove the Pontiac until the following spring. I then purchased a 1966 Mustang from Dane Donohue, who played Jesus in the show.
It was a 6-cylinder with quite a few miles, but lasted until the fall of 1973. Not having a lot of money, I managed to find a 1961 Comet for next to nothing.
After several months of driving a car that was probably unsafe to drive when I bought it, I purchased my first new car: a 1974 Chevy Impala. It had a V8 which made it nice for towing the large trailer I used for hauling band equipment. It was not without its flaws, but doing much of the light mechanical work myself, I was able to get 130,000 miles out of it.
Ten years later, it was time to buy another new car. I purchased a 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Since I wasn’t towing a large 12×6 trailer at the time, the smaller size was not a problem.
It was with this car, that I learned how much the American auto industry was duping car buyers.
At 27,000 miles, I took the car in for a front-end alignment to a shop that I had done business with ever since my first car purchase in the late 1960s. After they finished the alignment, the mechanic told me that many of the front-end parts would probably have to be replaced before the next alignment could be done. I learned that the suspension on my V8 Cutlass was the same as the 6-cylinder Cutlass. In addition, the front-end design on most GM cars had not been improved at all in 15 years. In most instances, the only thing that changed on GM cars was the exterior and interior designs. Mechanically, they had remained the same since the early 1970s.
I didn’t want to give up on GM, so I decided to trade in my Cutlass on a newly re-designed 1986 Oldsmobile Toronado. I went to the dealership to take a look. After being shuffled from salesman to salesman, all of whom did not seem to think I was serious about buying a new car (maybe it was my long hair) I finally got fed up. If they weren’t interested in selling me a new car with a two year old trade-in in immaculate condition, then I wasn’t going to beg them. I hopped into my Cutlass and drove straight to the Toyota dealership down the street a few miles.
My first Toyota was a 1986 Celica GTS Coupe.
During this time, I also found a great deal on a 1978 Corvette in excellent condition that was all-original with only 29,000 miles on it.
I sold it three years later having only added 6,000 miles to the odometer.
I kept the Celica until I purchased a 1992 Camry. By this time, I was hooked on Toyotas for all the well-known reasons. This car had a powerful 6-cylinder which made pulling my 5×8 trailer a breeze.
I traded the 1992 for a 1994. Although they look identical, the 1992 was a very dark blue, and the 1994 was jet black.
Then along came the all new Toyota Avalon in 1995. The dealership really wanted to move these new cars, so they gave me an incredible deal on an Avalon.
In mid 1997, I was at the dealership getting an oil change. While I waited, I wandered around the new car lot. There was a new Avalon that had been sitting on the lot since the previous time I was in for an oil change (about 3 months). A salesman approached me and asked me to make him an offer. I told him that my Avalon was barely two years old and that I doubted that he would agree to any offer I might make. He said, “Try me.” The car retailed at nearly $31,000. I told him I would buy the car for $26,000 out the door – not a penny more. He shook his head and said, “I doubt my sales manager will allow that much of a drop.” I agreed and walked back to the service area to see if my car was done. I wasn’t there 3 minutes when the salesman came in and said, “Deal.”
So, I went to get the oil changed on my 1995 Avalon and came home with a 1997 Avalon. My wife, Lonna, just shook her head in disbelief saying that maybe she should start taking care of the oil changes on our cars.
We all know that didn’t happen. :-)
I kept this one until I traded it in for a 2000 Avalon.
This picture was taken late in 2008. The car had 100,000 miles on it at the time. I’m still driving it. Other than routine maintenance, I’ve had virtually no problems with this car or any of the Toyotas I’ve owned. BTW – All of the Toyotas have been purchased at the SAME dealership. The Oldsmobile dealership that I left was out of business before Oldsmobile was no longer being made.
Now it’s time to get creative. Allow me to re-invent the American car manufacturer. Because I’m most familiar with their cars, I’ll use GM for this R&O.
Here’s the 4 BIG steps that I believe need to happen in order for America to take back the lead in this industry.
STEP 1: Create a new corporation, with a new vision and a new mission. This includes changing the name. Why? The General Motors brand has been associated with poor reliability for far too long to recover. Regardless of advertising campaigns, better mileage vehicles, better warranties and the like, GM will never have the reputation it once enjoyed before the foreign auto manufacturers stole the limelight. The brand needs to dissolve – especially in the minds of the consumer.
STEP 2: Eliminate the individual brands. Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and Pontiac are all inextricably tied to GM’s unreliability. Many have similar, if not identical parts. It’s very costly to maintain the large “family” of cars, and does not serve a purpose.
STEP 3: Eliminate the brands within the “family” of cars for the same reason as Step 2.
STEP 4: Focus development of new vehicles in these areas:
1.) Exterior and Interior Styling and Ergonomics
2.) Superb reliability
3.) Fuel Efficiency with Superb Performance
Exterior and Interior Styling and Ergonomics
You might wonder why I’ve put this at the top of the list. GM has always lagged behind the foreign manufacturers when it comes to contemporary styling. It is hopelessly bound to a look that gave them huge sales – in the 1960s! Since those “glory days,’ they have not shifted their basic concept about styling. New models get hamstrung with outdated, ridged exterior body lines and interiors that focus on racing-style gauges instead of clean, smooth and well-placed instrument panels and controls. The look is bulky – inside and out.
When I look at the nose of a 2009 Chevy Malibu, I see a truck, not a modern sedan.
When I look at the nose of a 2009 Camry, I see a sleek sedan.
Here’s the interior of the Malibu. It’s “busy” and lacks a 21st century “feel.” Note the chopped-up, thrown-together look. Even the steering wheel has many sections, as if parts of it were an afterthought. Also note the emphasis on the racing-style gauges.
The Camry interior has smooth lines and a unified look and feel. All the parts seem to fit together seamlessly. The layout “flows.”
The Malibu has the ridged look that I spoke about. Note the hard lines and wheel well emphasis.
By contrast, here’s the Camry.
Here are both from the rear. The differences are obvious. Also note that on the Malibu, the gasoline inlet door is on the opposite side of the driver. This is just stupid. If we drive on the right side of the road, we should be able to pull up on the right side of the pumps.
This is obvious. Even if the GM cars had ultra-sleek styling inside and out, if they aren’t reliable, forget it. Only one American made car is in the top ten in reliability – and it’s not a GM car.
There are many reasons for this lack of quality, most of which have nothing to do with the workers and the factory managers. Until we get healthcare costs off the backs of the manufacturers the way all the other industrialized nations subsidize these costs for their car companies, we don’t have a chance at matching the quality AND being competitive.
Even if we were to start subsidizing these costs tomorrow, and the reliability was improved to Toyota or Honda levels in the next 2 years, it would take another 3 to 5 MORE years before reports of the improved reliability would reach the consumer. This is the one big reason I believe that the General Motors brand needs to go into the archives.
We have the knowledge, the skills and the technology to create automobiles as good as anything coming from Europe and Asia, but if we don’t level the playing field, it doesn’t matter.
Fuel Efficiency with Superb Performance
Simply building cars that can get 40 miles to the gallon is not going to be the answer for the American manufacturers moving forward. Yes, cars powered with solar energy, natural gas, electricity and hydrogen will go along way to move us away from fossil fuels. But if American manufacturers want to revolutionize the industry like they did in the 1960s, they need to do more than just catch up to their competitors.
We, as Americans, have always had a love affair with “cool” cars. In the GM line it’s the Corvette, and the “SS” cars like Chevelle, Camaro, Monte Carlo, Nova and even the Impala SS (the one that had the Corvette engine and drive train). If we want to become the auto manufacturing leader once again, we need to find ways to build cars with this appeal AND make them visually appealing, fuel efficient, reliable, affordable and high-performing.
Now, using a little vision and imagination, let me introduce a new American automobile manufacturer.
The first car to roll off the assembly line will be the one that sets the trend for the entire line-up. It needs to have the WOW factor that makes people sit up and pay attention to the rest of the models. It has to make people say, “Whoa. I didn’t think that was even possible from an American car company!” About the only thing that it should have in common with other cars is that it sits on four wheels. It can be the sedan or the coupe. It better be fast and super fuel efficient (regardless of the type of fuel) and something that cannot be mistaken for anything else.
There is no shortage of great designers capable of creating a line of cars that are inspiring – inside and out. The challenge is engineering them to perform BETTER than any other car in their class – in ALL areas: fuel efficiency, power, handling, electronic wizardry, aerodynamics, etc.
I borrowed some designs to create this visionary car company.
Hopefully, you get the idea.
A company that produces cars that look like these and can perform as good as they look would bring me back to the American car manufacturer. I doubt that I’m alone in my thinking.
Americans can build ANYTHING our minds can conceive. We can build a 100 mpg natural gas or hydrogen engine that can go 0-60 in 6 seconds. We can build electric cars that can travel 200 miles on a single charge and then shift to a natural gas engine until the battery can be recharged – by its engine or a standard wall outlet. If we want to once again lead the world in auto manufacturing, we have to create a new mindset around how to build the cars of the future.
All this said, if someone wanted to give me a mint condition, all-original – or completely restored – 1959 Cherry Red Cadillac Convertible, I wouldn’t turn it down. :-)