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A Famous Car Auction Offers Some Answers For United States Auto Manufacturing Woes
This past New Year’s holiday weekend, I planned on the ritual television viewing of endless college and professional football games with my son. He’s home for Christmas break from college, and the last weekend of every year we’ve always dedicated to eating, being lazy, and yelling at the screen while teams we have no real interest in slug it out in endless gridiron skirmishes. However, this year, our viewing habits were turned upside down by a car auction rerun.
Every January, the Barrett-Jackson Classic Automobile Auction is held in Scottsdale, Arizona. The auction lasts for the better part of a week and features the most amazing cars in the world, selling for mind-boggling prices to super rich celebrities and collectors. If you like cars, and as a child of the 1960s I do, this is addictive stuff. My son and I saw very little football this weekend as the auction ran hour by hour, a repeat of the January 2006 auction as shown on the Speed Channel, and we were consumed.
Watching the auction was revealing on several levels: not only was the auction exciting, the cars were beautiful and unique, the bidding lively, but collector demand for American classics overwhelmed the market’s desire for all other types of collectible vehicles. That of Ferrari, Porsche and Maserati were offered and sold, however, all the record sales prices were achieved by American muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s.
Were ANY US auto executives present, watching on TV or even aware of the insatiable demand for their historic nameplates? At a time when Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, nearly all that remains of the once mighty American auto business, are losing market share, bleeding cash and fermenting factories, the demand for a once-pedestrian-priced rolling stock is huge. Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge Hemi, Chevelle, Camaro, Firebird, Mustang, and dozens of other American car models, all once widely sold and, at prices practically every man could afford, commanded prices as high as $2 million. That’s right: $2,000,000!
The reproduction of the Barrett-Jackson 2006 auction underlined clearly what is suffering the American car business and what the prescription for a return to the glorious days must include. The engineers and designers of the American cars of the middle of the 20th century loved the industry: They were car people first, last, always! Their designs and performance improvements reflected passion. Cars were more than just mass transportation; they were statements of creativity, art and American leadership and inventiveness. Can any of these characteristics be applied to today’s bland, similar, pedestrian offerings coming our way from Detroit?
Harley Earl at GM, Raymond Loewy at Studebaker, Lee Iacoca at Ford, John DeLorean at Pontiac, and Virgil Exner at Chrysler were craftsmen whose designs and style cues influence the global automotive design industry to this day. Can you name the lead designer of any contemporary American car model working today? They are as faceless, and colorless as their vehicles.
The classic ‘bird’, the Ford Thunderbirds of the 1950s, were allowed to atrophy, became gluttonous and boxy before being put to a long-deserved death in the 1990s. A few years ago, Ford announced to great fanfare that the Thunderbird would be re-offered in the original two-seat sports roadster guise. Expectations were high for the “new bird”, pre-production bookings encouraging and publicity generous in anticipation of the return of this American classic.
Unfortunately, the car proved a bust on every level. Performance was dull, lines and body silhouette a pale memory of the distinctive 1950s design and the public walked quickly away from the car. After only three years of disappointing sales, the new Thunderbird was discontinued.
Ford at least tried. My question, re-issued while watching the Barrett-Jackson auction in 2006, was this: Why didn’t the new “Bird” body look exactly like the old bird, gorgeous pastel colors, avant-garde styling cues, continental gears, but with modern mechanics. under the hood? The “old Bird” is a recognized classic. Every collector wants a classic Thunderbird in the garage. No one cared about the lame attempt at a pseudo-Bird as proposed by today’s Ford designers.
The contemporary American auto business is suffering for many reasons, including legacy costs, past management mistakes and bloated staff. However, the biggest flaw by far, and I believe any casual viewer of the Barrett-Jackson auction would agree, is the sparse, sameness of their contemporary offerings. When Cadillac, Buick, Hyundai and Toyota look the same, the car with the lowest price, best warranty and best service history will claim the lion’s share of the sales. Unfortunately these are not currently benefits associated with American cars.
The historical design pedigree, which naturally could and should be attached to American models, has largely been lost. When a 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda (original sticker price, $4000) sells for over $2 million and Shelby Mustangs regularly sell for $1 million the market is making a clear statement. Is any body in Detroit paying attention?
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