Indie Auto: Did Detroit Give Us the Dinosaurs?

Indie Auto: Did Detroit Give Us the Dinosaurs?

Indie AutoIndie Auto: Excusing Detroit?

Steve Salmi’s Indie Auto is an inter­est­ing opin­ion web­site for car nuts, focus­ing on auto his­to­ry, most­ly Amer­i­can. It’s worth a vis­it for free­wheel­ing thoughts and sec­ond-guess­ing tri­umphs and tragedies. Recent­ly Steve reviewed a book I’d for­got­ten, The Com­plete His­to­ry of Gen­er­al Motors 1908-1986 (with Jan P. Nor­bye; Skok­ie, Illi­nois: Pub­li­ca­tions Inter­na­tion­al, 1987.) “Lang­worth and Nor­bye,” says the review, “made excus­es for Gen­er­al Motors’ big-car fixation”:

The authors were pre­sum­ably respond­ing to Brock Yates’ (1983, 2018) con­tention that Detroit failed  ade­quate­ly to respond to a ris­ing tide of for­eign small cars because its top exec­u­tives were “Grosse Pointe myopi­ans” who lived such insu­lar lives that they did not com­pre­hend the cul­tur­al shifts tak­ing place in the likes of California.

It’s nice to be remem­bered, even crit­i­cal­ly, for some­thing we wrote near­ly 40 years ago. (As I recall, we refused to write beyond 1975 or so, giv­en the sor­ry state man­age­ment had reduced GM to by then; the edi­tors brought it up to date.) But I was left per­plexed by the accu­sa­tion of “dia­tribes” and “mak­ing excus­es” for Detroit’s post­war fetish with big cars. I assured Indie Auto that my late friend Jan and I were not respond­ing to some­thing Brock Yates said. (If Brock actu­al­ly wrote that car sizes were dic­tat­ed by “Grosse Pointe myopi­ans,” he was just stir­ring the pot—something at which he was a master.)

Age of the Dinosaurs

I remem­ber a 1973 remark of our bril­liant Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly edi­tor Don Vor­der­man, to the great Ital­ian design­er Gior­get­to Giu­gia­ro. “Amer­i­cans,” said Don, “gen­er­al­ly buy the biggest car they can afford. Euro­peans buy the best car they can afford.” Giu­gia­ro, Don recalled, “just sad­ly shook his head. Per­haps we should, too.”

Indie Auto
1950 Nash Ram­bler: first of the post­war econ­o­my com­pacts, remained a niche prod­uct until mid-decade. (Hen­ry Ford Muse­um pho­to by Michael Bar­era, Cre­ative Commons)

Of course, that was a long time ago, and we know more about cars now. But it’s always good to look back and ben­e­fit from past foolishness.

Indie Auto stat­ed: “U.S. automak­ers ignored the growth of imports until they intro­duced decon­tent­ed com­pacts in 1970.” While Detroit’s Big Three did ignore imports when they were a small slice of the mar­ket, they brought out small­er cars in 1960, after Ram­bler sales soared and the Lark tem­porar­i­ly saved Stude­bak­er. Caught nap­ping, they rushed out the Cor­vair, Fal­con and Valiant, the first so-called “com­pacts.” Almost imme­di­ate­ly, mar­ket forces dic­tat­ed the arrival of larg­er “inter­me­di­ates.” Thus the Chevy Cor­vair was soon accom­pa­nied by the Chevy II, and then the yet larg­er Chev­elle, which hand­i­ly out­sold both.

“The com­pact Ram­bler sold well enough that it sin­gle­hand­ed­ly saved Nash,” states Indie Auto, “while the sales of its big cars slowed to a trick­le.” Nor­bye and I “failed to acknowl­edge that Amer­i­can Motors Cor­po­ra­tion sales fell off when the com­pa­ny began push­ing big cars again.”

Both state­ments are true. The Ram­bler surge was almost whol­ly due to pub­lic demand for more eco­nom­i­cal cars dur­ing the late Fifties and ear­ly Six­ties. Demand increased dur­ing the 1958 Reces­sion, the death knell for medi­um-priced big cars like the new­ly-intro­duced Edsel. Long-estab­lished makes like DeS­o­to, Nash and Hud­son disappeared.

George Romney: right place at the right time

George Rom­ney, pres­i­dent of Amer­i­can Motors in 1954-62, had a car buy­ers want­ed, and Ram­bler sales took off. When his suc­ces­sor, Roy Aber­nethy, opt­ed to turn AMC from a niche man­u­fac­tur­er into a full-line com­pa­ny, he ran into the Big Three’s dom­i­nant prod­ucts, and AMC’s mar­ket share collapsed.

Of course Rom­ney also brought in enlight­ened man­age­ment that helped build a more effi­cient com­pa­ny. But I always thought he hap­pened to be where he was at the right time. The first Nash Ram­blers (1950) were lit­tle more suc­cess­ful than oth­er “econo-cars” of the era: the Hen­ry J, Aero-Willys or Hud­son Jet. It took a shift in pub­lic taste to inter­est buy­ers alter­na­tives to what Rom­ney called “gas-guz­zling dinosaurs.”  The Ram­bler became a game-saver vir­tu­al­ly by acci­dent, when a small but grow­ing seg­ment of the U.S. buy­er mar­ket began think­ing econ­o­my. It was there to sal­vage AMC, which would oth­er­wise have been stuck with mid­dle-priced losers dur­ing the 1958 recession.

Rebuttals and “plucked chickens”

Steve and Indie Auto game­ly replied, ask­ing two ques­tions: (1) Where is the evi­dence that the pub­lic want­ed ever larg­er Chevro­lets, say between 1954 and 1969?  Answer: The same place as evi­dence that they want­ed larg­er Cadil­lacs. (The Vor­der­man-Giu­gia­ro dia­logue.) For most of the 1960s, those big Chevys, pow­ered by ever more potent V-8s, sold like hotcakes.

Indie Auto
In 1962 Ply­mouth, along with Dodge, down­sized dras­ti­cal­ly. The resul­tant “plucked chick­ens” sold slow­ly, and both mak­ers quick­ly revert­ed to larg­er mod­els. (Pho­to by SG2012, Cre­ative Commons)

(2) If the 1962-63 down­sized Dodge and Ply­mouth were such dis­as­ters, how come they out­sold their full-size coun­ter­parts? Because the full-size mod­els were more cost­ly and nat­u­ral­ly pro­duced in low­er volume.

Design­er Vir­gil Exn­er called those small­er cars the “plucked chick­ens.” They were the result of a basic mis­cal­cu­la­tion: Man­age­ment had thought GM intend­ed to bring out down­sized Chevys in 1962. Real­iz­ing too late that this wasn’t the case, they rushed out the full-size Dodge Cus­tom 880 to give Dodge deal­ers a big car to sell. (Ply­mouth deal­ers already had one, since they were dualled with Chrysler, whose New­port sold for only $250 more than the pre­vi­ous year’s Fury. The Cus­tom 880 was sim­ply a Dodge-badged Newport.)

Of course the “dinosaurs” car­ried a high­er price and did not out­sell the “plucked chick­ens.” The 880 was also a stop­gap to cap­ture the mar­ket vacat­ed by drop­ping DeS­o­to. (Iron­i­cal­ly, before its demise, there were clay mod­els of the pro­posed 1962 DeS­o­to with styling sim­i­lar to Ex’s “plucked chick­en” Ply­mouths and Dodges. For­tu­nate­ly, that mis­take was avoided.)

Indie Auto was, how­ev­er, right to empha­size the fac­tor of imports, although Detroit paid lit­tle atten­tion to them until their mar­ket share rose above 10%. Volk­swa­gen was a unique threat because unlike its rivals, the com­pa­ny insist­ed on exclu­sive deal­er­ships with ade­quate parts stocks and mechan­ic train­ing. In addi­tion, VWs offered high qual­i­ty and the abil­i­ty to be dri­ven flat-out all day. This gave the Bug a leg up that Renault, Fiat and Austin didn’t have. VWs were sell­ing well before the ’58 recession.

Who demanded land-yachts?

Jan Norbye’s and my point was that the pub­lic deter­mined what Detroit built, not the oth­er way round. When Detroit guessed wrong we got the Hud­son Jet and the Edsel. When they guessed right—the 1965 Ford Mus­tang, for example—they were in fat city.

Indie Auto said we were “disin­gen­u­ous” to state that the pub­lic kept demand­ing larg­er cars than the orig­i­nal com­pacts. Yet their own graph shows Dodge-Ply­mouth sales bot­tom­ing  after intro­duc­ing the “plucked chick­ens.” And they admit that the 1961-63 Buick-Olds-Pon­ti­ac Y-Body com­pacts “did not sell near­ly as well as their mid-sized suc­ces­sors intro­duced in 1964.”

Their take, Indie Auto says, is “more sub­tle.”  As the Amer­i­can econ­o­my improved in the ear­ly 1960s, “a grow­ing pro­por­tion of car buy­ers grav­i­tat­ed to larg­er and fanci­er cars.” Which is noth­ing more than we not-so-sub­tly wrote in our book. No argument!

In the hey­day of Detroit, com­pa­nies spent mil­lions try­ing to under­stand what buy­ers wanted—and act­ed accord­ing­ly. It wasn’t a case of “Grosse Pointe myopi­ans” dic­tat­ing their pref­er­ences. Almost every notable failure—from the Hen­ry J to the Edsel to the longer-wider-faster Amer­i­can Motors mid-60s models—was an exam­ple of prod­uct plan­ners mis­read­ing mar­ket forces. And every notable suc­cess, from the ear­ly Ram­bler to the pony­car to the SUV, was an exam­ple of get­ting it right—or stum­bling into reality.

For what­ev­er they built (and they built some pret­ty bad cars), as we said in our book: Don’t blame Detroit. Blame us.

2 thoughts on “Indie Auto: Did Detroit Give Us the Dinosaurs?

  1. Richard:
    I came out to Rootes Cana­da from Coven­try in 1962, a prod­uct of a Rootes Group man­age­ment train­ing pro­gram. So I was small-car loy­al, firm­ly believ­ing that the Hill­man Minx was all that the aver­age Cana­di­an real­ly need­ed. Inevitably I quick­ly came to rec­og­nize short­com­ings of British (and French and Ital­ian) cars when it came to cop­ing with North Amer­i­can cli­mate and road con­di­tions but, that aside, the thing that dis­heart­ened me most was that the mechan­ics at Rootes-Canada’s retail deal­er­ship in Toron­to, most of them immi­grants from Britain, main­ly drove domes­tic cars—the big­ger the bet­ter. Such cars were what they wanted—indeed lust­ed after. Those cars exem­pli­fied for them a new stan­dard of liv­ing achieved—proof they had “arrived.” Detroit was giv­ing them, and their Cana­di­an friends and neigh­bours, exact­ly what they want­ed. Inci­den­tal­ly, in my library I do not have the Lang­worth and Nor­bye book re Gen­er­al Motors dis­cussed by you here, but I do have your Com­plete His­to­ry of Chrysler and Great Cars of the 20th Cen­tu­ry, both val­ued ref­er­ence works. And, of course, fre­quent­ly vis­it­ed because of my love of the Renown, Tri­umph Cars.

    Peter: In my youth I was a devot­ed Rootes fan, owned four Sun­beams and a Hum­ber Impe­r­i­al. Always thought they offered an attrac­tive com­bi­na­tion of sporti­ness and crea­ture com­forts. But you’re right about lack of under­stand­ing among British pro­duc­ers of the North Amer­i­can mar­ket. Kjell Qvale, that phe­nom­e­nal­ly suc­cess­ful British car deal­er in Cal­i­for­nia, used to talk about the MG 1100—thought at one time a rival to VW. Exec­u­tives back in Eng­land could not under­stand why 1100s were wear­ing out engines in LA and clutch­es in SF—two cities so close on the map! They’d nev­er been to Cal­i­for­nia… —RML

  2. Where do I start? Indie Auto: though there’s food for thought it is lit­tered with lat­ter-day wish­ful think­ing and hard­head­ed biased dia­tribes, in my hum­ble opin­ion. Not that I don’t have my own. I do agree that there was, and is, what I call Michi­gan Myopia. Dur­ing the 1960s-70s I devoured Brock Yates’s col­umn and Car & Dri­ver, prob­a­bly where my thoughts were orig­i­nal­ly for­mu­lat­ed. I can’t say I’ve been dis­suad­ed. Where I dis­agreed was the broad­ly thought “Euro­pean cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty” mind­set. Europe sold two cars: expen­sive, fine­ly engi­neered cars for the wealthy, and econobox­es for the com­mon man. I’ve always main­tained that the Rolls-Royce Shad­ow was real­ly noth­ing more than a com­pli­cat­ed hand-built Chevro­let Caprice. An Amer­i­can plumber could afford the Chevy. Why wouldn’t he buy one?
    Back in the ear­ly sev­en­ties, as a young man in SoCal, I thought that Detroit had lost its way and was laugh­ably behind the times. For exam­ple, Pon­ti­ac brought out The Judge, and I winced at the clue­less attempt to be “hip.” It was an embar­rass­ment. Until recent­ly, the Mid­west was full of Detroit iron, where­as nobody I knew bought any Big Three prod­ucts except trucks. We bought Japan­ese. Not as “styl­ish” but solid­ly built.
    Oth­er notes: The Ford Fal­con was a run­away suc­cess, and the Chevy II was rushed in as a vir­tu­al Fal­con clone. The Cor­vair was an abject fail­ure, sales­wise in its orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed econ­o­my car mar­ket. Fal­con out­sold the Cor­vair 3 to 1 in 1960.
    The hoary old the­o­ry, “Amer­i­can Motors failed try­ing to com­pete with the Big Three” over­looks the main rea­son for its decline. When the 1964 “Ram­bler-sized” GM inter­me­di­ates, specif­i­cal­ly the Chev­elle, were intro­duced, the mar­ket Ram­bler dom­i­nat­ed was flood­ed with prod­uct. The failed ’62 down­sized Ply­mouth and Dodge were a ready-made inter­me­di­ate, and sol­diered on in this mar­ket, after the bizarre styling had been mut­ed. Rambler/AMC had nowhere else to go… but mus­tered on for anoth­er 20 years. Thanks for suf­fer­ing my own diatribe.

    Scott, thanks for the inter­est­ing thoughts. Brock Yates was a great writer, but he did ride the reverse-snob­bery wag­on. Don Vorderman’s quip that Amer­i­cans bought the biggest, Euro­peans bought the best, did not sug­gest “Euro­pean cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty,” just car buy­ing habits. Indeed lots of US prod­uct plan­ning was clue­less, but against the sil­ly Pon­ti­ac “Judge” you have to lay the GTO, which vir­tu­al­ly invent­ed the mus­cle­car, one of those phe­noms where Detroit lurched into a real pub­lic desire—and the pub­lic respond­ed. About AMC, we’re real­ly say­ing the same thing. True, the Big Three react­ed to Ram­bler with Ram­bler-clones. I’m not sure ANY approach would have ulti­mate­ly saved AMC. Whether it was Roy Abernethy’s full-line com­pa­ny or Romney’s niche com­pa­ny, the trail was nar­row­ing because AMC did not have the same economies of scale. Jan Nor­bye once said GM was so big, and made so much mon­ey sell­ing stuff to itself, that if you start­ed man­ag­ing it bad­ly you wouldn’t see the results for ten years. That was in 1973, around the time they start­ed man­ag­ing it badly—and ten years lat­er, sure enough!) —RML

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