Is Change Bad?
A counterpoint to Brendan’s previous article on the stomach-churning upheaval we face in the auto industry.
By David Surace
As Blood, Sweat & Tears used to sing, “What goes up / must come down, / spinning wheel, got to go round.” The title of that brassy song, “Spinning Wheel,” is only slightly less apropos than the Grateful Dead song Mr. Moore queued up for his article, but the thrust of the lyrics (even if they’re not exactly better) is largely the same: fasten your seatbelts, hang on and enjoy the ride, because you’re on it. Yes, you.
The idea of staring at rock bottom from the vantage point of, um, a rapid rate of descent is indeed unnerving, unless you’re a heroin addict, or a base jumper in one of those flying-squirrel suits. Maybe both. But a lot of folks in the auto industry, and those who cover it, are most certainly not accustomed to looking at it, even when it is very clear that the ground is rushing up to make friends with them.
So, at this juncture of parachute entanglement, in which Fiat will suddenly have a badge for every European and American driver, Renault-Nissan-Penske will make a Franco-Japanese beach landing at Saturn dealers, Ford waits patiently for the other shoe to drop, the Chinese auto industry suddenly learns about how to build a safe car by assimilating Sweden, and India quietly goes about automotive empire-building, who’s looking at–
Yes, bounce. Contrary to popular opinion, we will be driving American-branded cars five years from now. Also contrary to popular opinion, some of them will be awesome. I’ll focus on Chrysler for the purpose of this argument, because it was the first to dip its toes into the angry waters of Chapter 11, which as we all know, “leads directly to Chapter 7”. We’re going to have to see about that.
But Chrysler has historically cherry-picked its most egregious and ignominious days of defeat to produce its “renaissance cars,” some of the best and most game-changing automobiles of their day. You could call it “working well under pressure”. How about some examples:
1981 Plymouth Reliant / Dodge Aries: Yes, the K-cars. Introduced to stave off the automaker’s first government bailout, issued at the beginning of the 1980’s. You and I don’t have to like these cars to see that they were an enormous success–they sold triple-digit numbers for their first eight years of production–because they were exactly right for their time. Economical, cheap to operate and own, and not half bad to drive. My family owned two. The K eventually spawned the Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400, and in other mutations, the Plymouth Laser and Dodge Daytona.
1984 Plymouth Voyager / Dodge Caravan: This is where the real innovation took place: a five-passenger living room on wheels which rode on the S-platform, a stretched and fortified version of the K-car. This also coincided with America’s last great economic crisis, by the way, with good interest rates hovering in the 19-20% range, and some massive inflation for a chaser.
1993 Chrysler Concorde / Dodge Intrepid / Eagle Vision: Another recession, another good Chrysler product. The LH platform, with its “cab-forward” architecture, carved out a niche for large automobiles when people weren’t buying large automobiles. By 1996, the Eagle and Intrepid were also the first cars available in North America with the ability to select gears manually from an automatic gearbox, or as Chrysler called it, Autostick.
2000 Chrysler PT Cruiser: It may be hard to remember this now, but this Brian Nesbitt-penned piece was a car that had people lining up at dealerships to pay thousands over invoice for the pleasure to own. It was the subject of design studies in graphic arts magazines, and even a Nightline piece. The initials “PT” are a nod to Plymouth Trucks, a brand the car was scheduled to wear, had it not been changed at the 11th hour and handed to Chrysler. Plymouth’s demise came in 2001.
2005 Chrysler 300: This came out at the tail-end of a nasty Daimler-Chrysler divorce, but you should have no trouble remembering the positive press their love-child, the LX platform, had received. With its suspension geometry and transmission derived from the Mercedes E-class, the 300, and its later sibling the Dodge Charger, are still the darlings of custom car culture, in a way that only genuinely cool cars can be. They’re somewhat cheap and milquetoast on the inside, but the street presence is so commanding, and the drive is so comfortable, so confident (especially with the Hemi V-8 underfoot), you would hardly know the company that made these would face bankruptcy only four years’ hence.
The difference we face now is that our future innovations may not echo from between the Hills of Auburn, so much as the Pines of Rome. Hold on. I just checked, and it’s still fine by me. Fiat has many credible cars that I’d love to drive over here, including the Grande Punto and Nuova 500, and I’d even look forward to seeing the Panda here (if they offer the hot 100HP variant that’s rocked the press).
The difference we face now is that the bloated, inefficient North American auto industry the press has been complaining about for decades is about to become the exact opposite: lean, hungry and terrified.
If there’s a lesson in history, and there always should be, it’s that bad times are no excuse to make crappy cars. In fact, bad times are an excuse to make cars that are awesome.
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