My Plan for the Auto Industry
I am told that when I had just learned to talk my favorite activity was shouting out the names of the cars we passed on the road: “Ford,” “Chevy,” “Cadillac,” “Plymouth,” “Studebaker.” There were cars called Plymouth and Studebaker back then. The former was the entry-level brand of the Chrysler corporation; the latter was a sporty looking car manufactured in South Bend, Indiana, within sight of Notre Dame’s “Touchdown Jesus.” According to my mother I could name every car on the road. A feat I could not duplicate today.
Cars used to be unforgettable. A dream car was something you really dreamed about.
It was exciting to be a kid in a car in those days, with no kiddie seat or even seatbelts to hold you back from bouncing around like a ping-pong ball, IDing every bogie on the road. We weren’t strapped in like astronauts; we even rode in the front seat, not having to worry about having our crania crushed by our cars’ safety features. But I digress.
My lack of car-naming ability today is, I believe, not due to any diminished mental capacity (as is my decreasing ability to remember the names of acquaintances), at least I don’t think so. No, I blame the auto industry, because even though there are far fewer brands and models on the market today, they are so much less memorable. A Stutz looked like a Stutz. A Rambler looked like a Rambler. What does a Hyundai look like? It looks like a Toyota trying to look like a Mercedes.
Back in the good old days Chryslers had fins, Buicks had portholes on the front fenders, and Continentals and Imperials had snazzy tire cases on their trunks. If silhouette alone wasn’t enough you could ID a car by its distinctive grille design or its gun-site-like hood ornament. The Pontiac featured an Indian head alluding to the Native American chieftain the brand was named for. The Oldsmobile had a rocket leading the way and one of its best models was the Rocket 88, which was celebrated in a great R & B song by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner.
Today there are some distinctive cars on the road. You can’t help but recognize the Hummer elbowing you off the road, or a two-tone Maybach; that’s the one with drapes. But most automobiles of our day have assumed a rather homogenous shape, with wind-tunnel designed lines and abbreviated back ends. Gone are the fins and the chrome and the scoops and the dramatic bumpers. Gone are the two-tone paint jobs. Even color is a rarity, aside from a handful of metallic tones that sort of blend into the smogscape. Today you’re in luck if you like black or white or a silver resembling the dull side of aluminum foil. You can still find a red car from sportier brands, but good luck finding orange, brown, turquoise, navy, or anything non-metallic except black or white. Why? Who knows. Maybe these colors look better dirty. But the chromatic monotony of the American automobile has contributed to the general turdliness of design abroad in the industry. Even expensive cars come in boring colors. I would have loved to have my S Class in British Racing Green but the closest I could get was a metallic green that looks like it should be on a fishing reel instead. But I wasn’t going to be just another black Benz cat—I’d feel like a chauffeur. If you want a cool color you have to order a Mini, which is fine for kids, but I need a family sedan.
It wasn’t all that long ago—well, actually it was decades—that Mercedes and Porsche offered real colors. The 911 came in fantastic colors—chocolate brown, mustard yellow, pumpkin orange.
So did many a Benz. Mercedes offered a fire-engine red station wagon, and two cars ago I had one in navy blue. I don’t think that’s available any more. Why? There can’t be any good reason. Why are most rental cars the color of Ocean Spray cranberry juice? It’s a mystery.
What’s wrong with lime?
The days when toddlers could name the brands were the great days of the American automobile, the days when a large, powerful vehicle was a crucial component of the American dream. You identified with a brand. A certain kind of wealthy person drove a Cadillac, another drove the Continental, and rich oddballs drove Chrysler Imperials.
So excuse me for this, but I don’t really blame the decline of the American auto industry on union contracts, the superiority of Japanese and German engineering and manufacturing quality, the price of gas and the industry’s lack of response to same, or even the dumb management style which maintains too many brands and models with too little differentiation. I blame the decline of the industry—from the long-ago death of Studebaker and American Motors to the recent insolvency of the Big Three—on sheer lack of creativity. What killed the American car was a lack of glamour. Those other things factored in, but I figure that when they dropped the convertible, phased out 9-passenger wagons, forgot about suicide doors and landau tops, killed the hood ornament, and emasculated the muscle car, they had pretty much given up.
I have a plan for the American auto industry. Hire artists to revive it. If I were running Chrysler I’d hire Richard Prince to bring back the Charger and the Road Runner and the Duster. How about a John Chamberlain car that looks crashed but isn’t? Artists could straighten things out in Detroit. It was 33 years ago that the prescient artist Chris Burden showed the B-Car which he built himself to achieve 100 miles per hour and 100 miles per gallon. If I were running GM I’d hire artists to rethink the whole thing and I’d hire consultants like Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z and the artist James Rizzi to vet designs for a revived Eldorado Biarritz Cadillac. Why should absurdly rich athletes have to buy Maybachs? They should be able to buy American convertibles just as long with options such as bulletproofing, saunas, and hot tubs. The great industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who designed the Coke bottle and the Lucky Strike pack, also designed a great American car, the Avanti, that was so architecturally beautiful its survived the company that produced it, and it’s still made today.
Here’s a ’62 Avanti.
Supposedly we live in an era of great industrial design. How about a Ron Arad sports car? A Philippe Starck limo? A Michael Graves taxi? A Karim Rashid cop car? Instead we have design by corporate committee and cars shaped like cockroaches.
Here’s what we want: Bright colors and two-tone cars. Convertibles. Big station wagons (not SUVs). Bucket seats, especially ones that swivel like the captain’s chairs in the old Chrysler 300 series. Crazy names. Futurist aesthetics, like the Citroen. Design references to high technology. Cadillac has gone halfway there, taking design cues from American military Stealth aircraft design, but if they were really good the CTS would be invisible on radar, too. Why not a Ford Shuttle with a heat diffusing tile exterior?
The Detroit fat cats don’t need cars shaped like jets anymore. They have their own jets to fly to D.C. in and beg for tax dollars. Hey, the head of G.M. actually owns a fighter jet or two, too. But somehow the personal gusto of the execs has failed to make it to the drawing board or translate into cars that fire the imaginations of the kids of today. My kid isn’t yelling out “Camry!”, “Civic!”
Even if a kid could name every car today, he’d probably be too embarrassed. The names are pathetic. Mercury Milan? Hyundai Tiburon? Subaru Impreza? Toyota Yaris? Nissan Versa? Volkwagen Tiguan? Ford Focus? The people naming these things must be the same ones naming prescription drugs. They must be on those drugs.