An Open Letter To Detroit
originally published - April, 2002
I'm really sick of Detroit auto industry executives whining about people who buy foreign cars and destroy the country's infrastructure. (When they speak of 'foreign,' that's their code-word for 'Japanese,' since Detroit companies now own most of the European foreign brands. Or, in the case of DaimlerChrysler, vise-versa.) To these whiners I say, "You once had all the marbles. But you blew it. And you have no one to blame but yourself. And, instead of fixing your own mess, you cynically point fingers elsewhere."
We didn't buy foreign brands of cars because of the styling. Everybody knows that most Asian cars have indifferent, uninspired styling. You Detroit guys had the cool looks, but you traded them all away and today's Ford Taurus looks as bland as today's Honda Accord. Oh, sure. Every once in a while, you'll tease us with the new Thunderbird or the PT Cruiser. But that's no different than the Japanese teasing us with the Acura NSX or Honda S2000.
We didn't buy Japanese cars because of vast choices. Most offer very limited body styles, color choices and options. You used to offer all kinds of options - buy a light blue car and one could choose a dark blue leather interior to complement it. But try to get a blue leather seats in any American car today. Choices now seem to be limited to dark gray ("Icebound Anthracite") or beige ("Honeyed Taupe").
Americans buy Japanese cars because they are well-made and virtually trouble-free. The April 2002 issue of Consumer Reports uses the vast experience of their members to rate and predict reliability of cars. The data indicate that the Honda Accord is three times as reliable as the Pontiac Grand Am. The Cadillac Seville has four times as many defects as the Lexus GS300. The Mercury Cougar coupe has over four times as many problems as the Toyota Celica coupe. And the Ford Focus has almost seven times as many trouble spots as the Toyota Echo. These are embarassing numbers, Detroit. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
So, Detroit, if you want our business back, you need to stop copying the 'worst' of Japan and copy the 'best' of your worthy Asian competitors. Here are four things you need to do:
1. Start making reliable, trouble-free vehicles. Find the people in your firms who are responsible for the hideous reliability of your worst cars and fire them. Right now! They're destroying your reputation. Or what little you have left. (What are your worst vehicles? Based on Consumer Reports data, you should start with the Chevrolet Astro and GM Safari vans - 128% worse than average; the Ford Explorer Sport Trac - 91% worse than average and the Jeep Grand Cherokee - also 91% worse than average.) Quality influences sales and, ultimately, brand success.**
|** Art Spinella of CNW, an automotive marketing consulting firm, reports: If a person's first used car was a Toyota, the odds the person's first new car will be a Toyota are about 55%. If the person's first used car was a Honda, the number is 60%. If GM: 38%; Ford: 39%; Chrysler: 23%. Quality influences sales.
2. Start making cars that look cool - that people really want to buy. In recent years, DaimlerChrysler has done a good job of this for most of its line (PT Cruiser, Viper, Chrysler Sebring, Crossfire, Dodge Intrepid, etc.) and has picked up market share because of it.
Then there's Ford who announced the Ford Five Hundred at the 2002 New York Auto Show. It's targeted for people over 55; production will commence with the 2005 model year. They showed a drawing of it - a bland-looking, anonymous jellybean of a car. Come on Ford - how about something a little more inspiring for your target market? Something that makes those 55-and-older hearts beat a little faster. Play up you extensive American heritage - that's something your Asian competitors can't do.
To all Detroit producers of bland, look-alike cars: start making Chevys look like Chevys again. Same for Fords. Buicks. Lincolns. And others.
3. Stop forcing people into the same look-alike colors and options. Offer your cars with distinctive interior style options - especially the luxury brands. In 1985, you could buy a Lincoln or Cadillac with a rich-looking red leather interior. Why can't we have red leather as an option on one of these $50,000 luxo barges today?
Why must we buy the same mousy gray interior color you offer on on your cheap, entry-level cars? Give us choices - ones we're not getting now from Asia.
4. Shut up about the Japanese. Act professional. Stop implying that we're some-kind-of traitors by buying from them instead of you. Or else we may start implying that you're the real traitors who invented gas-guzzling SUVs which increase our dependency on oil from some of those terrorist-sponsoring Middle Eastern countries.
Update: This article was written in 2002. Obviously, Detroit (aka - the Big 2.5) haven't paid any attention to it. Things have gotten worse for them and, in October 2006, I penned another commentary on American car companies. You'll find it here.
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If I have slandered any brands of automobiles, either expressly or inadvertently, they're most likely crap cars and deserve it. Automobile manufacturers should be aware that they always have the option of trying to change my mind by providing me with vehicles to test drive.
If I have slandered any people or corporations in this blog, either expressly or inadvertently, they should buy me strong drinks (and an expensive meal) and try to prove to me that they're not the jerks I've portrayed them to be. If you're buying, I'm willing to listen.
Don't be shy - try a bribe. It might help.