Monday, August 31, 2009

Wanted: An ‘American people’s car’

This article in a Florida newspaper takes the biscuit for historical inaccuracy. Talking about the rise of Volkswagen in the United States the writer, one Nick Iannone, says: "Throughout this assault, Detroit neither responded with revised product nor adjusted market perception."
The writer must be unaware of the frantic efforts in Detroit to beat off the imports. The strategy was to offer a bit more car at a competitive price. The most obvious example is the Chevrolet Corvair from 1959, which copied the Volkswagen in concept with rear-mounted air-cooled engine. There were many other responses besides - in the early sixties compact cars like the six-cylinder Ford Falcon were designed to attract economy-conscious buyers although perhaps appealing more to little old ladies than college kids. The original Pony car, the Ford Mustang from 1964, was introduced to fix that problem. The later Ford Mustang II and Maverick likewise. In the early seventies the Ford Pinto, 1970, and Chevrolet Vega, 1971, were further flawed attempts to compete.
Many of these efforts lacked credibility. The Corvair was killed off by Ralph Nader who attacked the car in the book "Unsafe at any speed." The Pinto went down in history for bursting into flames in a rear-end crash. The Vega was lampooned as "made from old slot machine parts in Youngstown, Ohio." The quality of the Vega and Pinto was awful. The big three couldn't catch a break.
The Chevrolet Chevette of 1975 had a good run being the top-selling small car in the U.S. in 1979/1980. There was even a diesel version, with Isuzu motor, to go up against the Volkswagen Rabbit. VW's attempt to build cars in the U.S. ran out of road.
Remember the Saturn, another small-car GM brand, from 1985. Other efforts resorted to rebadging imports such as the Chevrolet Metro, the short-lived Geo brand and, more recently, the Pontiac Vibe. Your small Government Motors car likely came on a ship from South Korea nowadays.
The brutal truth is that the U.S. has never been much damn good at building small cars, Model 'T' excepted. Even now when cars like the Ford Focus offer credible basic transport nobody takes much notice. When you are late to the party who cares?

See also: Crosley "crackpots", Kansas electric.

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