Remember the good old days when fins and chrome and sex appeal sold cars?
Remember those days of "planned obsolesence," before gasoline lines and Japanese imports and miles-per-gallon ratings, when cars were deliberately redesigned every two or three years and an old-style car was an embarrassment?
Well, it's time to bring those days back, says Gerald C. Meyers, chairman of American Motors Corp.
If the U.S. car market is to be revived from its current depths, lowest in almost a quarter-century, Detroit is going to have to start dressing its cars up again and put some excitement back into car buying, Meyers said in an interview.
"It's time to return to planned obsolescence," Meyers says. Detroit is spending billions of dollars to make its cars small, fuel-efficient, clean and safe, Meyers said. The next chunk of money should go to "satisfying the wants and the egos of consumers," Meyers said.
"Not fins and chrome," he said. "That's phony; it's gone, and I hope it never comes back." But the car companies must stop copying each other, he added. "We have all gravitated toward cookie-cutter, repititious styling" in a quick scramble to make cars smaller and less wind-resistant, he said.
"People used to buy a car because of how it feels, how it performs, yes, how it looks," Meyers said. "That has greyed-out over the past four or five years with this deep concern for responding to energy, safety and emissions problems," he added.
The result is that a car is becoming just another commodity that is sold based on price, Meyer said, and that is the greatest danger of all confronting the industry.
Meyers remarks, in a series of speeches and interviews, hit head on against some of the accepted wisdom in today's car market. The public presumably has rejected planned obsolesence and regular styling changes as wasteful. Engineers have been forced to follow common designs to make cars as aerodynamically efficient as possible. Buyers want cars to last four, five, six years or more because the sticker prices have escalated so, industry analysts say.
The tailfin, inspired by the profiles of World War II fighter planes and the symbol of the old Detroit hard sell, seems a distant relic. Even Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the former General Motors Corp. chairman, in his 1963 history of GM, observed that "the rapid movement in styling in the late forties and fifties sometimes seemed to many people to have become too extreme."
But wait, Meyers says. The next round of aerodynamic styling will give companies a chance to try some "unusual shapes." There also will be opportunities to make cars distinctive with electronic controls and displays and other interior options.
Finally, cars can be tailored to appeal to smaller segments of the auto-buying public, he added. AMC designed its four-wheel-drive cars to fill that need and that strategy will continue.
The new AMC sports model called the Fuego, coming out next spring, is intended to generate a distinctive appeal, Meyers says.
"We're going to strive for originality. We're going to take some risks," Meyers said.
Unconventional as Meyers remarks sound, at first blush, they reflect a consensus that spreads throughout the U.S. auto industry--a need to make the new lines of cars distinctive and special in whatever ways work, as a way of justifying the prices the auto companies want to charge to recover profitability.
Front-wheel-drive is one approach. Diesel engines, promising greater miles-per-gallon performance is another. And Detoit will try "excitement" and sex appeal again. Chevrolet Motor division general Manager Robert D. Lund is saying customers are beginning to "turn back to excitement.