Archive for the ‘cars’ category


If FCA kills Chrysler today, then it’s another chapter of a company weakening its brands

01.06.2018

There’s a rumour circulating that Fiat (specifically, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, or FCA) will kill the Chrysler marque today.
   The range currently consists of two models: the ageing 300 and the relatively fresh Pacifica.
   It seems to be another step in the mismanagement of car marques, especially US ones, something I wrote about many years ago when Condé Nast Portfolio was still running. (Note: it was a published letter to the editor, not an article.)
   Marques do disappear, but when the wrong ones get killed off, long-term it leaves the company in a weaker state.
   DaimlerChrysler found that out in the early 2000s when it decided Plymouth was surplus to requirements. Suddenly, its entry-level budget brand was gone—a very bad move when the recession hit later that decade. Plymouth had been conceived as a low-priced line that kept Chrysler afloat during the Depression.
   DaimlerChrysler then found itself having to sell Plymouth products under the Chrysler marque, which was traditionally the priciest between Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler.
   Today’s Chrysler resembles, at least in market ambition, the one of old, where it offers reasonably good quality vehicles, with Plymouth a distant memory.
   It also offers Fiat a relatively premium brand in the US market. It’s not Jeep, Ram or Dodge, all of which have very different brands, messages and brand equity.
   The fact it is light on product could have been solved long ago if Fiat had adopted the sort of platform-sharing that is now commonplace in the car world—you only have to look at Volkswagen and the Renault–Nissan Alliance, now Renault Nissan Mitsubishi. Even Jaguar Land Rover is realizing economies of scale with Jaguar SUVs and a car-like Range Rover (the Velar).
   While Chrysler found that the 200 had flopped, there was always room for a premium, American SUV to take over from the Aspen, for example. If Jeep can build SUVs on Punto and Giulietta platforms, why couldn’t Chrysler, aimed at very different buyers?
   The truth is that Fiat has a very confusing platform strategy, something I alluded to in earlier posts both here and in Drivetribe, and there appear to be no signs of bringing any harmony to the mess.
   The firm hasn’t been properly merged, and not enough thought has been given to reducing platforms, and sharing them between marques. There’s more in common on this front between Fiat and British Leyland than between Fiat and Volkswagen, which it once vied with to be Europe’s number-one.
   The domestic range has cars on platforms shared with Ford, Chrysler and GM, not to mention OEM vehicles from Mazda, Mitsubishi and Peugeot. I might not love SUVs, but the public does, and the Fiat range is light on them. There’s not enough of a global effort, either: the Ottimo and Viaggio are Italian-styled, based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta (or more specifically the Dodge Dart), and they are only sold in China—a ridiculous situation when Fiat doesn’t have a CD-segment saloon in any other market. The rationalization of the range in South America has helped, with the Argo and Cronos streamlining a confusing array of Palio, Linea, Siena and Grand Siena models, but they bear little resemblance to the models on offer in Europe.
   Lancia, which had benefited from Fiat platforms, is practically dead, its 500-based, Polish-made Ypsilon being deleted this year. As models at Lancia died out, they were not replaced. Yet things could have been so much better, had Fiat allowed Lancia the sort of freedom it needed to sell Italian luxury and innovation. Those values are different from Alfa Romeo’s, yet through its conduct, Fiat seems to think that if Alfa and Lancia have similar prices, then they must vie for similar buyers. They never did. It seems to believe that costs will be saved through axing marques and model lines, which can be true in some cases—but those cases tend to presume that what remains, or what replaces them, is stronger.
   I’m not being a Luddite or pining for the “good old days” when it comes to Chrysler. I hold no romantic notions for the brand. But I do know that once they’re gone, the firm doesn’t necessarily find its resources are freed up to pursue surviving lines. It finds that it’s lost a segment that it once fielded.
   It’s sadder to realize that Chrysler, as a group, was much stronger in the early 1990s, with record development times and good platform-sharing. Plymouth was in the process of developing its own identity—the PT Cruiser and Prowler heralded a new retromodern design language that was to spread throughout the range, while utilizing the same platforms as Chryslers and Dodges.
   Fiat itself, too, was a strong company at this same period, riding high on great styling, with a reinvigorated line-up. Think Bravo, Brava, Barchetta, Coupé Fiat, 456, Quattroporte, Delta, Dedra, Kappa, 145, 146, GTV and Spider. A lot of these vehicles were talked-about, and considered some of the most stylish in Europe.
   Last year, in Europe, luxury marques Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi all outsold Fiat, supposedly a mass-market brand. Its market share in Italy and Brazil, traditionally places where it was strong, has continued to dip.
   In the US, it’s the same story, with Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi all outselling Chrysler both last year and year-to-date.
   It’s all very romantic, and good press, to show off premium Alfa Romeos and Maseratis, or money-making Jeeps, but many of these models don’t donate any of their architecture to Fiat’s troubled brands.
   In 2018, when you see that certain Fiat marques aren’t getting access to platforms, you have to wonder why—especially when so many other big players don’t place such restrictions on their brands.
   A new 500 and Panda might be around the corner, but we’ll need to see far more logic applied to the business, especially with Alfa’s Mito and Giulietta looking more dated, Fiat’s range in a mess, and Chrysler barely making an effort in China, a market where its sort of positioning would have attracted luxury-conscious buyers who might prefer foreign brands, such as Buick.
   Even if Chrysler gets a stay of execution, Sergio Marchionne’s successor will have a very tough job ahead.

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Posted in branding, business, cars, China, marketing, USA | No Comments »


Autocade hits 13 million; and what’s the deal with Nissan’s withdrawal from mainstream passenger cars?

21.05.2018

Some time during May, Autocade exceeded 13 million page views. I can’t tell you the exact day, since it wasn’t a milestone that we’re socialized into noticing: I just happened across it one evening last week. It’s currently on 3,665 model entries, the latest being the Porsche 944. Admittedly, we haven’t added the premium brands as quickly as some mainstream ones.
   Since I’ve kept a log of this since the site’s inception (for reasons unknown to me now!), here’s how the traffic has progressed:

March 2008: launch
April 2011: 1,000,000 (three years for first million)
March 2012: 2,000,000 (11 months for second million)
May 2013: 3,000,000 (14 months for third million)
January 2014: 4,000,000 (eight months for fourth million)
September 2014: 5,000,000 (eight months for fifth million)
May 2015: 6,000,000 (eight months for sixth million)
October 2015: 7,000,000 (five months for seventh million)
March 2016: 8,000,000 (five months for eighth million)
August 2016: 9,000,000 (five months for ninth million)
February 2017: 10,000,000 (six months for tenth million)
June 2017: 11,000,000 (four months for eleventh million)
January 2018: 12,000,000 (seven months for twelfth million)
May 2018: 13,000,000 (four months for thirteenth million)

   In other words, it has had more visitors in the last four months than in the same period prior to that. If the June 2017–January 2018 period was anomalous, then we could say that Autocade is getting progressively more traffic.

Incidentally, Nissan, in both Australia and New Zealand, stopped selling passenger cars (apart from the 370Z and GT-R) last year, but it was only recently I came across their explanation. I had thought it was supply and demand, that people were heading into trucks, crossovers and SUVs more, but the official explanation is that Nissan knew about new Euro 5b emissions’ regulations and couldn’t be arsed to meet them.
   There are some supply and demand issues here: Nissan claims they were small volume, and the Pulsar ‘was mostly sold directly as a rental.’
   Still, to turn away even the rental market and hand it over to someone else doesn’t make sense, especially as a well understood rule in marketing is that it costs a lot more to get a new client than it does to retain an existing one.
   There’s no way Nissan didn’t know of this impending change, and it’s a shame it has exited a sector which it once sold very well in (remember the Sunny, or Datsun 120Y, of the 1970s?). With Renault New Zealand even more patchy in passenger-car sales, Renault Nissan Mitsubishi could find itself with a very small footprint here with passenger cars, especially as petrol prices hit their highest level yet. I’ve seen one sign where 95 octane is going for above NZ$2·40 per litre, and I paid a few cents shy of that last week.
   There are Qashqais and X-trails everywhere here, and maybe the group is perfectly happy with the economies it gets with those models’ Renault Mégane IV platform. And we’re not exactly a massive market.
   It just seems a bit short-sighted to me.

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Posted in business, cars, general, marketing, New Zealand, publishing | No Comments »


Ford to stop selling passenger cars in the US and Canada, save for Mustang and Focus Active

26.04.2018


The Ford Focus Active: by the turn of the decade, this will be the only four-door passenger car Ford will sell in the US and Canada

In a surprise move, Ford has announced that it will cease selling passenger cars in the US and Canada by the early 2020s, excepting the Mustang and the Focus Active.
   The announcement was actually for ‘North America’ but as Ford of México does a reasonable trade on Figos and Fiestas, it’s hard to see the policy be uniform right across the continent.
   It’s a cost-cutting exercise, designed to save $25,500 million in five years, and trucks and SUVs simply make more money for them. Small cars mean small profits. In fact, car sales lag those of the F-series, Escape and Explorer in the US. Shares have risen on the news.
   That means Americans and Canadians will say goodbye to the Fiesta, Fusion (the four-door sedan counterpart to the Mondeo) and Taurus, the last of which is already superseded in China. If you liked the cooking RS and STs, then too bad. Lincolns are losing money for Ford, too, so maybe the Continental will vanish—given the Fusion is history, the MKZ will follow. That doesn’t leave much in the Lincoln line-up.
   My initial reaction was that the economies of scale would worsen: if you’re not developing for a global market, will development costs be successfully amortized in the same period? We have, however, seen the Japanese do reasonably well with products strictly for the North American market, e.g. certain Acuras and Hondas that are sold only in their neck of the woods. We also know most of the costs of the car are in the platform and architecture, and Ford has shown decent adaptability, particularly with the C519 Focus (the recently released Mk IV).
   Ford says the cuts will come from sales and marketing, engineering and product development, as well as material costs, manufacturing and IT, in that order, according to Automotive News.
   The fact that product development and engineering rank so highly there is worrying to me.
   They’re bandying the word efficiency about a lot, and that always has me worried. That’s the word you used to hear from corporate raiders like Slater Walker. Things can look efficient while they’re being weakened.
   CEO Jim Hackett says he’s feeding the healthy parts of the business, ‘and deal decisively with the parts that destroy value.’
   While it’s true that the crossover, SUV and truck markets are strong, as they are in many parts of the world, I can’t help but think that Ford isn’t preparing itself for tougher future scenarios.
   Energy crises can come unpredictably, for one. Ford was late to the downsizing game in the 1970s because it saw the dollar signs with big cars. By 1977, GM had stolen a real march on Ford. By the turn of the decade, Chrysler was back from the brink with fuel-efficient cars while Ford sailed into the red.
   Chrysler found itself too truck- and SUV-heavy with the recession of the late 2000s, and its entry-level nameplate Plymouth had already vanished, thanks to mismanagement by Daimler earlier in the century.
   While there’s not always a need for a full line—AMC taught us that extending yourself too far isn’t always wise—I wonder if Ford is leaving itself vulnerable.
   Crossovers like the Escape, which might outsell the Fusion, are being beaten in the market-place by the likes of the Toyota RAV4, so it’s not as though Ford is that strong in all the markets it wishes to remain in.
   GM, having pulled out of Europe and Russia, might be in better shape because of its position in China. Ford trails GM when it comes to its Chinese footprint, although it will remain in Europe.
   Ford’s Jim Farley says the company is looking at new types of vehicles that are spacious, versatile and economical, which hopefully will fill the gap should economic surprises surface. Because you need something cheap to hook buyers and get them to the brand. That’s not going to happen if Focus Active is the smallest car in the line-up.
   Ford is likely to have these on global platforms. But that signals to me a real need to remain strong in R&D. Failing that, Ford is looking to partner up with someone, and it may already have an idea who that is.
   I am speculating here, since I don’t have any figures outlining what proportion of revenue is devoted to that area.
   Nevertheless, this sounds like an appeasement of Wall Street.
   That leaves one concern over nameplates. Ford has successfully introduced nameplates over the years because the product was right: Cortina, Mustang, Escort, Capri, Fiesta and Focus among them. But it has also failed by killing nameplates and replacing them with ones that had no real goodwill, such as Five Hundred and Freestyle.
   Whatever Ford has in mind, I hope for their sake that the new product is compelling, as much as the Mustang and Fiesta were when they appeared on the market. Both emerged in the wake of economic recessions, with Ford innovating because it had to.
   In this century, Alan Mulally’s time at Ford had a measured, sensible approach, where you could understand the future. There are question marks over what Hackett has planned, and usually we have some clue what these new products will be four years out. All I know of is that the Ranger will make it to the US again, boosting truck sales, but that’s hardly an innovation. That’s just filling a market niche with familiar product.
   Will Ford do Brasil come up with something that can be sold in both North and South America? Perhaps the next-generation Ecosport?
   There are lessons in history that shouldn’t be ignored, and Ford has one of the most interesting pasts of any car maker. There is, however, a feeling from the announcement that this heralds a time of retrenchment, as its profits fall globally, and net income in the US rising for the first quarter in part due to a lower tax rate.
   Remember, Isuzu also once thought it was a good idea to stop selling passenger cars and focus on SUVs and trucks. And they’re no longer around in North America.

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Posted in business, cars, China, globalization, marketing, USA | 1 Comment »


Happy birthday: Autocade turns 10

07.03.2018


Above: Autocade can be hard work—and sometimes you have to put up less exciting vehicles, like the 2001–7 Chrysler Town & Country, for it to be a useful resource.

March 8, 2018 marks 10 years of Autocade.
   I’ve told the story before on this blog and elsewhere, about how the site came to be—annoyed by the inaccuracies and fictions of Wikipedia (who said the masses would be smart enough to get rid of the mistakes?), I took a leaf out of the late Michael Sedgwick’s book and created a wiki that had brief summaries of each model, the same way Sedgwick had structured his guides. I received an emailed threat from a well known British publisher (I’m looking at you, Haymarket, and as predicted in my reply, your thoughts proved to be totally baseless) when we started, and 12½ million page views later, we’re on 3,628 models (I think we finished the first day on 12), with our page on the Ford Fiesta Mk VII leading the count (other than the home page).
   Autocade began as a wiki but with so many bots trying to sign up, I closed off those registrations. There have really been about six contributors to the site, all told: myself and Keith Adams for the entries, Peter Jobes and Nigel Dunn for the tech, and two members of the public who offered copy; one fed it in directly back in the day when we were still allowing wiki modifications. I thank everyone for their contributions.
   A few years ago, I began running into people online who used Autocade but didn’t know I was behind it; it was very pleasing to see that it had become helpful to others. It also pleased me tremendously to see it referenced in Wikipedia, not always 100 per cent correctly, but as Autocade is the more accurate site on cars, this is the right way round.
   When a New Zealand magazine reviewed us, the editor noted that there were omissions, including his own car, a Mitsubishi Galant. Back then we were probably on 1,000 models, maybe fewer. All the Galants are now up, but Autocade remains a work in progress. The pace of adding pages has declined as life gets busier—each one takes, on average, 20 minutes to research and write. You wouldn’t think so from the brevity, but I want it to be accurate. I’m not perfect, which is why the pages get changed and updated: the stats say we’re running on 3·1 edits per page.
   But it looks like we’re covering enough for Autocade to be a reasonably useful resource for the internet public, especially some of the more obscure side notes in motoring history. China has proved a challenge because of the need to translate a lot of texts, and don’t think that my ethnicity is a great help. The US, believe it or not, has been difficult, because of the need to calculate cubic capacities accurately in metric (I opted to get it right to the cubic centimetre, not litres). However, it is an exciting time to be charting the course of automotive history, and because there are still so many gaps from the past that need to be filled, I have the chance to compare old and new and see how things have moved on even in my four-and-a-half decades on Earth.
   Since Sedgwick had done guides up to 1970, and paper references have been excellent taking us through the modern motor car’s history, I arbitrarily decided that Autocade would focus on 1970 and on. There are some exceptions, especially when model lines go back before 1970 and it would be a disservice to omit the earlier marks. But I wanted it to coincide roughly with my lifetime, so I could at least provide some commentary about how the vehicle was perceived at the time of launch. And the ’70s were a fascinating time to be watching the motor industry: those nations that were confident through most of the 20th century with the largest players (the US and UK) found themselves struggling, wondering how the Japanese, making scooters and motorcycles just decades before, were beating them with better quality and reliability. That decade’s Japanese cars are fascinating to study, and in Japan itself there is plenty of nostalgia for them now; you can see their evolution into more internationally styled product, rather than pastiches of others’, come the 1980s and on. The rise of Korea, Spain, China, India, Turkey, México and other countries as car-exporting nations has also been fascinating to watch. When Autocade started, Australia still had a domestic mass-produced car industry, Chrysler was still owned by Americans, and GM still had a portfolio of brands that included Pontiac and Saturn.
   I even used to go to one of the image galleries and, as many cars are listed by year, let the mouse scroll down the page. You can see periods grouped by certain colours, a sign of how cars both follow and establish fashion. There are stylistic trends: the garishness of smog-era US cars and the more logical efficiency of European ones at the same time; smoother designs of the 1980s and 1990s; a creeping fussiness and a concentration on showing the brand’s identity in the 2000s and 2010s. As some of the most noticeable consumer goods on the planet, cars make up a big part of the marketing profession.
   The site is large enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing an academic look at industry using the data gathered there; and I always thought it could be a useful book as well, bearing in mind that the images would need to be replaced with much higher-resolution fare.
   For now, I’m going to keep on plodding as we commence Autocade’s second decade. The Salon de Genève has brought forth some exciting débutantes, but then I should get more of the Chrysler Town & Country vans up …

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Posted in cars, China, culture, design, globalization, India, internet, marketing, media, New Zealand, publishing, technology, UK, USA, Wellington | No Comments »


Instagram-created art

27.02.2018

I don’t know if Instagram does this on all phones, but when I make multi-photo posts, it often leaves behind a very interesting image. Sometimes, the result is very artistic, such as this one of a Lotus–Ford Cortina Mk II.

You can see the rear three-quarter shot just peer in through the centre. I’ve a few others on my Tumblr, but this is the best one. Sometimes technology accidentally makes decent art. I’m still claiming copyright given it’s derived directly from my work.

PS., March 3: Here’s a fun one from my visit to Emerson’s Brewery.

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Posted in cars, interests, New Zealand, technology, Wellington | 3 Comments »


The path of least resistance: we humans aren’t discerning enough sometimes

04.02.2018

I came across a thread at Tedium where Christopher Marlow mentions Pandora Mail as an email client that took Eudora as a starting-point, and moved the game forward (e.g. building in Unicode support).
   As some of you know, I’ve been searching for an email client to use instead of Eudora (here’s something I wrote six years ago, almost to the day), but worked with the demands of the 2010s. I had feared that Eudora would be totally obsolete by now, in 2018, but for the most part it’s held up; I remember having to upgrade in 2008 from a 1999 version and wondering if I only had about nine years with the new one. Fortunately, it’s survived longer than that.
   Brana Bujenović’s Pandora Mail easily imported everything from Eudora, including the labels I had for the tables of contents, and the personalities I had, but it’s not 100 per cent perfect, e.g. I can’t resize type in my signature file. However, finally I’ve found an email client that does one thing that no other client does: I can resize the inbox and outbox to my liking, and have them next to each other. In the mid-1990s, this was one of Eudora’s default layouts, and it amazed me that this very efficient way of displaying emails never caught on. I was also heartened to learn from Tedium that Eudora was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s email client of choice (‘The most important thing I use is Eudora, and that’s discontinued’). I’m in good company.
   However, this got me thinking how most users tolerate things, without regard, in my opinion, to what’s best for them. It’s the path of least resistance, except going down this path makes life harder for them.
   The three-panel layout is de rigueur for email clients today—all the ones I’ve downloaded and even paid good money for have followed this. Thunderbird, Mailbird, the oddly capitalized eM. All have had wonderful reviews and praise, but none allow you to configure the in- and outbox sizes. Hiri’s CEO says that’s something they’re looking at but right now, they’re not there, either. Twenty-plus years since I began using Eudora and no one has thought of doing this, and putting the power of customization with the user.
   But when did this three-panel layout become the standard? I can trace this back to Outlook Express, bundled with Windows in the late 1990s, and, if I’m not mistaken, with Macs as well. I remember working with Macs and Outlook was standard. I found the layout limiting because you could only see a few emails in the table of contents at any given time, and I usually have hundreds of messages come in. I didn’t want to scroll, and in the pre-mouse-wheel environment of the 1990s, neither would you. Yet most people put up with this, and everyone seems to have followed Outlook Express’s layout since. It’s a standard, but only one foisted on people who couldn’t be bothered thinking about their real requirements. It wasn’t efficient, but it was free (or, I should say, the licence fee was included in the purchase of the OS or the computer).
   ‘It was free’ is also the reason Microsoft Word overtook WordPerfect as the standard word processor of the 1990s, and rivals that followed, such as Libre Office and Open Office, had to make sure that they included Word converters. I could never understand Word and again, my (basic) needs were simple. I wanted a word processor where the fonts and margins would stay as they were set till I told it otherwise. Word could never handle that, and, from what I can tell, still can’t. Yet people tolerated Word’s quirks, its random decisions to change font and margins on you. I shudder to think how many hours were wasted on people editing their documents—Word can’t even handle columns very easily (the trick was usually to type things in a single column, then reformat—so much for a WYSIWYG environment then). I remember using WordPerfect as a layout programme, using its Reveal Codes feature—it was that powerful, even in DOS. Footnoting remains a breeze with WordPerfect. But Word overtook WordPerfect, which went from number one to a tiny, niche player, supported by a few diehards like myself who care about ease of use and efficiency. Computers, to me, are tools that should be practical, and of course the UI should look good, because that aids practicality. Neither Outlook nor Word are efficient. On a similar note I always found Quattro Pro superior to Excel.
   With Mac OS X going to 64-bit programs and ending support for 32-bit there isn’t much choice out there; I’ve encountered Mac Eudora users who are running out of options; and WordPerfect hasn’t been updated for Mac users for years. To a large degree this answers why the Windows environment remains my choice for office work, with Mac and Linux supporting OSs. Someone who comes up with a Unicode-supporting word processor that has the ease of use of WordPerfect could be on to something.
   Then you begin thinking what else we put up with. I find people readily forget or forgive the bugs on Facebook, for example. I remember one Twitter conversation where a netizen claimed I encountered more Facebook bugs than anyone else. I highly doubt that, because her statement is down to short or unreliable memories. I seem to recall she claimed she had never experienced an outage—when in fact everyone on the planet did, and it was widely reported in the media at the time. My regular complaints about Facebook are to do with how the website fails to get the basics right after so many years. Few, I’m willing to bet, will remember that no one’s wall updated on January 1, 2012 if you lived east of the US Pacific time zone, because the staff at Facebook hadn’t figured out that different time zones existed. So we already know people put up with websites commonly that fail them; and we also know that privacy invasions don’t concern hundreds of millions, maybe even thousands of millions, of people, and the default settings are “good enough”.
   Keyboards wider than 40 cm are bad for you as you reach unnecessarily far for the mouse, yet most people tolerate 46 cm unless they’re using their laptops. Does this also explain the prevalence of Toyota Camrys, which one friend suggested was the car you bought if you wanted to ‘tell everyone you had given up on life’? It probably does explain the prevalence of automatic-transmission vehicles out there: when I polled my friends, the automatic–manual divide was 50–50, with many in the manual camp saying, ‘But I own an automatic, because I had no choice.’ If I didn’t have the luxury of a “spare car”, then I may well have wound up with something less than satisfactory—but I wasn’t going to part with tens of thousands of dollars and be pissed off each time I got behind the wheel. We don’t demand, or we don’t make our voices heard, so we get what vendors decide we want.
   Equally, you can ask why many media buyers always buy with the same magazines, not because it did their clients any good, but because they were safe bets that wouldn’t get them into trouble with conservative bosses. Maybe the path of least resistance might also explain why in many democracies, we wind up with two main parties that attract the most voters—spurred by convention which even some media buy into. (This also plays into mayoral elections!)
   Often we have ourselves to blame when we put up with inferior products, because we haven’t demanded anything better, or we don’t know anything better exists, or simply told people what we’d be happiest with. Or that the search for that product costs us in time and effort. Pandora has had, as far as I can fathom, no press coverage (partly, Brana tells me, by design, as they don’t want to deal with the traffic just yet; it’s understandable since there are hosting costs involved, and he’d have to pay for it should it get very popular).
   About the only place where we have been discerning seems to be television consumption. So many people subscribe to cable, satellite, Amazon Prime, or Netflix, and in so doing, support some excellent programming. Perhaps that is ultimately our priority as a species. We’re happy to be entertained—and that explains those of us who invest time in social networking, too. Anything for that hit of positivity, or that escapism as we let our minds drift.

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Posted in business, cars, culture, design, internet, politics, publishing, technology, USA | 2 Comments »


The last American Falcon

25.01.2018

I’m fascinated by the 1970½ Ford Falcon for a number of reasons. The first is the obvious one: rarity. This car was built for only half a model year, from January to August 1970. If you think it looks like a contemporary Torino, you’re right: it’s basically a very stripped-down Torino. Yet you could spec it with any of the engines from the Torino, including the 429 in³ V8 (and some did). Which brings me to the second reason: why would anyone really bother with it, if you could get a Torino for a bit more? (That answers why this car only lasted half a model year.) And that leads me to the third reason: what was going through Ford’s mind at the time? That’s where it gets interesting.
   At this time, Ford was undergoing managerial changes, with Henry Ford II firing Bunkie Knudsen (who had been lured away from GM). That happened in September 1969, by which time the decision to go ahead with the Falcon had already been made. This is, in other words, a Knudsen initiative.
   Federal regulations made the 1966–70 Falcon obsolete because it had a dash-mounted starter—the rule was that they had to be in the column. However, it’s curious that Ford made this call to put the Falcon nameplate on a mid-sizer, considering it had made its name as an ‘economy’ car (by US standards). If you read the brochure, you’ll find that this was all about size. Ford bragged that the car was 2 ft longer. Yet for this half-model year, it was still marketed as an ‘economy’ car.
   I imagine as the US headed into the 1970s, there was no sign of the fuel crisis on the horizon, so there was nothing wrong about size. Why not spoil the average Falcon buyer, used to a smaller car, with something much larger? Hadn’t upsizing already happened on every other model line out there—by this point the Mustang was about to grow into a monstrosity with massive C-pillars and terrible rear visibility?
   Ford (and the other Big Four makers) had been known to blow one model line up, then start another little one, and the Maverick had already been launched for 1970, and was now doing the compact work. By that logic, Falcon could grow more, even though other solutions might have been to either replace the Falcon with the Maverick or simply shift the Falcon nameplate to the Maverick—but both would have involved “downsizing”, and in 1970 that was not in the US car industry’s vocab. The panic hadn’t set in yet.
   Fourthly, this is a beautiful shape. Unnecessarily big (till you consider it had to accommodate the 429), but a beautiful shape. The 1970s hadn’t really started in earnest, so we hadn’t seen some of the really garish shapes that were to come. This has that 1960s classicism coupled with 1970s uncertainty. There’s still some optimism with jet-age inspiration, but the lack of practicality foreshadowed the style-first, single-digit mpg “road-hugging weight” cars that were round the corner, cars which no one truly needed but Detroit, in its optimism (or blindness), believed Americans did. There’s still something very honest about the last US Falcon. After this, only the Australians and Argentinians kept things alive, but those are other stories.

Also published at Drivetribe.

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It took a little longer, but Autocade reaches 12 million views

03.01.2018

It’s a little disappointing to note that Autocade has taken slightly longer to reach 12 million page views: it ticked over to its new milestone earlier today. I really had hoped that we’d get there before 2017 was out, but it was not to be.
   Part of it might have been the slower rate of models being put up—life’s been busy, and a site that earns a fairly small amount of money compared to our other businesses doesn’t warrant as much time. But 100 models have gone up since June 2017, when Autocade reached its 11 million milestone, with the 3,600th model the Nissan Rasheen (and no, I didn’t plan this one—it’s quite an oddball vehicle).
   So here’s the running tally as I’ve been keeping on this blog, for really no reason other than pedantry.

March 2008: launch
April 2011: 1,000,000 (three years for first million)
March 2012: 2,000,000 (11 months for second million)
May 2013: 3,000,000 (14 months for third million)
January 2014: 4,000,000 (eight months for fourth million)
September 2014: 5,000,000 (eight months for fifth million)
May 2015: 6,000,000 (eight months for sixth million)
October 2015: 7,000,000 (five months for seventh million)
March 2016: 8,000,000 (five months for eighth million)
August 2016: 9,000,000 (five months for ninth million)
February 2017: 10,000,000 (six months for tenth million)
June 2017: 11,000,000 (four months for eleventh million)
January 2018: 12,000,000 (seven months for twelfth million)

   It’s a shame that the four-month time-frame needed to reach 11 million could be an anomaly rather than part of a trend.
   I also wonder whether the odd PHP error—we have had quite a few since we began hosting at AWS—has impacted on search-engine rankings. However, server management has become far, far more complex over the last couple of decades, and the controls I see at AWS mean nothing to me as someone outside the computing industry. The help pages may as well be in Serbian. The notion that software gets easier to use and the expectation that this level of computing would become democratized have not come to pass, certainly not over the last 10 years. It seems the industry wants to sew things up for itself, and the last thing needed are amateurs like me getting into the nuts and bolts. I’m not Facebook or Google: I can’t afford heaps of employees to look after this stuff. (Or, in Google’s case, maybe a couple here and there.)
   Incidentally, I may begin removing the sharing links under each headline soon. I’m concerned about the standard Facebook ‘like’ button tracking readers, and there are Po.st links under ‘Share this page’ to the top left of this page (if browsing via desktop) if you want to show Facebook friends something from here. Po.st does have its own cookies (linked to a company called Radium One), but it’s far easier to opt out of those through their site. I’m unconvinced that anyone can opt out of Facebook’s data collection.

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Wikipedia corrects serious error after 12 years

05.11.2017

Well done, Wikipedia, you got something right. It only took you 12 years.
   Nick, who appears to be a senior editor at the site, fixed up the complete fabrication that a user called ApolloBoy entered about the ‘Ford CE14 platform’ in 2005, after I wrote a pretty scathing piece on Drivetribe about Wikipedia’s inadequacies, in part based on an earlier blog post I wrote here.
   I am grateful to Nick who I expect saw my story.
   However, errors still abound, and as I pointed out in Drivetribe, another user called Pmeisel, who appears to have been an automotive industry professional, said back in February 2005 there was a real confusion between development codes and platforms on Wikipedia.
   While Nick has largely fixed the problem—he has noted that it was the European Ford Escort of 1990 and its derivatives that CE14 should refer to, and not much earlier American cars—there remains the lesser one that there is still no such thing as a ‘Ford CE14 platform’, just as there is no such thing as a ‘Ford C170 platform’, and so on.
   Ford did not use these codes to refer to platforms, they used them to refer to specific models.
   Let’s see if the Wikiality of this page will at least begin to disappear from the ’net, 12 years after ApolloBoy made up some crap and allowed it to propagate to the extent that some people regard it as fact.
   I have enquired into Wikipedia from time to time, enough to know it is full of mistakes. But the errors do seem to happen far more often in the Anglophone one. Perhaps those of us who speak English are more willing to commit fictions to publication. Goodness knows we have seen an example in print, too. Does this culture lend us to being far less precise with a poorer concern for the truth—and does that in turn lead to the ease with which “fake news” winds up in our media?

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Consumer’s choice: how I bought a car from the UK over the ’net and shipped it home

01.10.2017

Originally published at Drivetribe, but as I own the copyright it only made sense to share it here for readers, too, especially those who might wish to buy a car from abroad and want to do the job themselves. It was originally written for a British audience.


Above: The lengths I went to, to make sure I didn’t wind up buying a car with an automatic transmission: source it from the UK and spend ten months on the process.

One consequence of Brexit was the pound falling, which makes buying out of Blighty very tempting for foreigners. When it comes to buying a car, the savings can be substantial enough for a buyer in the antipodes.
   My situation in New Zealand was neither driven by politics nor currency: it was the lack of manual-transmission cars. When I last bought a car for myself in 2004, the market was roughly 50–50 between manuals and automatics. Today that figure is 90 per cent in favour of automatics, meaning those of us who prefer shifting gears ourselves face a major difficulty. We either limit ourselves to the few cars that come on to the market that are manuals, or we switch. Considering it was my own money, and a five-figure sum at that, I wasn’t about to contemplate getting something that I didn’t like. Britain, it seemed, would have to be the source of my next car.
   There were certain circumstances that made this a lot easier.
   First, you need friends in the UK.
   Secondly, you should browse Auto Trader, Parkers and other sites regularly for months on end to get a feel of the market.
   Third, you should be looking for something that’s relatively new, to ensure compliance with the laws of both the UK and your own.
   When my old Renault Mégane I Coupé was written off in an accident, the logical thing would be to buy the Mégane III Coupé. However, if you live in a right-hand-drive country and you’re not in the UK, Ireland or South Africa, you’re out of luck, unless you fancy going to an RS. And I simply didn’t need 250-plus horsepower to go to the post office or up the coast.
   There were two powerplants common to Renaults in New Zealand: the 110 bhp 1·6, and the 2·0 automatic. That left me with one choice, and 110 bhp was sufficient for what I needed. I also looked forward to the better fuel economy, even if New Zealanders pay less at the pump than Brits.
   I was fortunate that I didn’t need a replacement car in a hurry. For years I had a “spare car”, one that my father had bought and I could use now that he had developed Alzheimer’s. The other stroke of luck was that I had contemplated getting a newer Mégane III Coupé anyway, and had been browsing UK sites for about six months at that point. I knew roughly what a good deal looked like. Finally, the esteemed motoring editor, Mr Keith Adams, and one other school friend, Philip, had offered to check out cars should I spot anything in their area.

I advise strongly that you use a company specializing in the importation. That’s where Jake Williams and Dan Hepburn at Online Logistics of Auckland came in

   While my circumstances were unique, there are plenty of other reasons to look to the UK for cars.
   A friend looking for a Volkswagen Eos reckoned he would save NZ$10,000 (£5,850) by sourcing one from the UK. This is largely fuelled by the greater depreciation on UK second-hand cars, and the savings potentially mount on flasher motors, such as Audi Q7s or Bentleys.
   While Japan is closer, and the source of many used cars in New Zealand, some buyers have had to buy new radios to match New Zealand frequencies. There’s also the disadvantage of dealing in a foreign language with a very different legal system should you choose to do it yourself.
   The disadvantage of a UK import is that speedometers will be in mph, whereas New Zealand adopted the newfangled metric system decades ago. However, on a more modern car with a digital dashboard, the switch shouldn’t be an issue, and that was the case with the Mégane.
   For a Kiwi buyer, the first step is to check the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) website, which has useful worksheets on private car importation.
   In summary, the car must comply with New Zealand standards, and it helps—for now—that cars that have EU type approval will. The car must have a vehicle approval plate or sticker, or a statement of compliance. The NZTA worksheets and website are detailed and go through further specifics.
   You should, for peace of mind, order an AA or Dekra inspection. AA members in New Zealand can expect a discount from AA in the UK, and this shouldn’t exceed £200. Any faults need to be remedied before you purchase the car, or you should walk away.
   Of course, you need to be able to prove the ownership of the vehicle: that means an invoice showing that you’ve purchased it (this should have the VIN on it), plus the V5 registration document. Since it’s being exported outside the UK, the relevant part of the V5 noting thje car will be leaving the country will have been sent to the Department for Transport by the seller. The seller needs to put this in the courier to you.
   I advise strongly that you use a company specializing in the importation. You can do a lot yourself, but it pays to have an extra pair of eyes to ensure you’ve dotted the is and crossed the ts, and in New Zealand, that’s where Jake Williams and Dan Hepburn at Online Logistics of Auckland came in.
   Online Logistics isn’t interested in profiting based on the price of your car, unlike some services. They set standard fees for shipping, and arrange insurance, which it’ll need on the way to New Zealand. They do ask that the car departs from Felixstowe, and they will ship it to Auckland.
   They will require the VIN, so they can double-check that the car meets the required standards, the invoice, and the original copy of the V5.
   Once it’s on New Zealand shores, it has to go through several inspections.
   The first is an inspection by the Ministry of Primary Industries, which makes sure that there aren’t any bugs. It could order that the car be fumigated, and this can set you back around NZ$400. Once done, you’ll get an MPI sticker saying the car’s passed the biosecurity inspection.
   Customs will then sting you GST (the equivalent of VAT) on cost, insurance and freight.
   An NZTA-approved organization will then inspect the car to check for structural faults. Online Logistics took care of this part, so you don’t need to hunt for an approved one yourself. Once that’s done, you’ll get a pink sticker from NZTA.
   The fourth step is getting the car certified. Again, Online Logistics has a company it contracts to do this, and this is where you’re likely to see your car for the first time. Certification will confirm that the car meets safety and emission standards, gets the VIN recorded into the database, gives you a registration form so you can get the car registered in New Zealand, and issues a warrant of fitness (MOT). Certification can be strict: cars that have had a poor repair job done in the UK will not pass until it is redone in line with New Zealand standards, and this is where the importation process can fall to pieces. That’s why it’s important to have that check done in the UK before purchase. Stay well away from category D cars, and aim for low miles.

Having identified the model I wanted, I had to trawl through the websites. The UK is well served, and some sites allow you to feed in a postcode and the distance you’re willing (or your friend’s willing) to travel.
   However, if you rely on friends, you’ll need to catch them at the right time, and both gentlemen had busy weekends that meant waiting.
   VAT was the other issue that’s unfamiliar to New Zealanders. GST is applied on all domestic transactions in New Zealand, but not on export ones. This isn’t always the case in the UK, and some sellers won’t know how any of this works.
   One of the first cars I spotted was from a seller who had VAT on the purchase price, which logically I should get refunded when the car left the country. I would have to pay the full amount but once I could prove that the car had left the UK, the transaction would be zero-rated and I would get the VAT back. I was told by the manager that in 11 years of business, he had never come across it, and over the weeks of chatting, the vehicle was sold.
   Car Giant, in London, was one company that was very clued up and told me that it had sold to New Zealanders before. They’re willing to refund VAT on cars that were VAT-qualifying, but charged a small service fee to do so. The accounts’ department was particularly well set up, and its staff very easy to deal with long-distance.
   Evans Halshaw, however, proved to be farcical. After having a vehicle moved to the Kettering branch close to Keith’s then-residence after paying the deposit, and having then paid for an AA inspection, the company then refused to sell it to me, and would only deal with Keith.
   Although the company was happy to take my deposit, Keith was soon told, ‘we will need payment to come from yourself either by debit card or bank transfer as the deal is with yourself not Mr Yan,’ by one of its sales’ staff.
   I wasn’t about to ask Keith to part with any money, If I were to transfer funds to his account, but not have the car belong to me, and if Keith were to then transfer ownership to me without money changing hands, then the New Zealand Customs would smell a rat. It would look like money laundering: NZTA requires there to be a clear chain of ownership, and this wasn’t clear. Evans Halshaw were unwilling to put the invoice in my name.
   I’m a British national with a UK address—again something a lot of buyers Down Under won’t have—but Evans Halshaw began claiming that it was ‘policy’ not to sell to me.
   The company was never able to provide a copy of such a policy despite numerous phone calls and emails.
   Essentially, for this to work and satisfy Customs on my end, Keith would have to fork out money, and I would have to pay him: a situation that didn’t work for either of us.
   Phil, a qualified lawyer, offered to head into another branch of Evans Halshaw and do the transaction exactly as they wanted: head there with ‘chip and PIN’, only for the company to change its tune again: it would not sell to me, or any representative of mine.

The refund from Evans Halshaw never materialized, and I found myself £182 out of pocket

   This farce went on for a month and involved a great deal of calls from me into the small hours of the morning.
   The matter eventually went to the group’s lawyer, David Bell, and between him and me, it was sorted in 10 minutes.
   Evans Halshaw did indeed have a policy not to sell to a foreigner, never mind that he was also a Briton. What their first staffer should never have done was take my deposit in the first place.
   Despite knowing it was me who paid the deposit, the Kettering dealer began believing it was Keith who was the buyer.
   When Mr Bell knew all the facts, there was a moment when the penny dropped for us both: he had been told that Keith was the buyer all along, and advised accordingly. Once I knew where the mix-up was, everything made sense.
   It wasn’t helped by belligerent staff who refused to answer questions directly.
   However, on knowing of their error, Evans Halshaw refunded my deposit (albeit minus the credit card fees I had paid) and offered to refund the AA check, in exchange for the report. I willingly gave them the report, but the second refund never materialized. Neither the dealer principal at Kettering nor Mr Bell responded, despite reminders, and I found myself £182 out of pocket, along with goodness knows how much in long-distance phone charges. I still wonder how this is one of the country’s largest dealer groups, with this blatant disregard for the customer.
   Two weeks later, the perfect Mégane popped up. It was all a blessing in disguise. It was the colour (Cayenne orange) of the car I had on my computer wallpaper years before. The mileage was very low. And another friend, Andrew, was willing to pop by and look at it, sold by a very easy-going seller, Andy Mudge of Thames Fleet Purchasing. In fact, he proved so amenable I referred others to him, and he was more than happy, as with many other dealers I had spoke to in the UK since the Evans Halshaw affair, to sell to a British national based abroad.
   The car passed the Dekra check with next to no issues, and Andy was willing to cap the freight charges of the car from his Maidenhead property to the port for £100. (It’s advisable to have the car transported, rather than driven, to the port, as I won’t have paid for the tax as the new keeper.)
   The car was non-VAT qualifying, making life easier for both parties. I paid Andy the amount by wire transfer, added a pony on top to cover the courier of documents (V5 and handbooks) and the spare key.
   The one feeling I hadn’t expected was to see thousands of pounds leave my account and have nothing to show for it. The car took just under two months before I witnessed it for the first time, having flown up to Auckland to collect it (another NZ$100), with a 600 km journey south back to its new home in Wellington.
   Many months later, I’m thrilled with my purchase. There are, to my knowledge, only two non-RS Mégane III Coupés in New Zealand, both in the same colour. It has an engine for which I can get parts, and there are sufficient commonalities with the Méganes sold here when it comes to brake pads and other items. It had taken a considerable amount of time but it was eventually worth it. After all, if it’s your money, you should get what you want. If you don’t want to drive the standard New Zealand car—and looking around that appears to be a Toyota Auris Automatic—then the UK is a very ready source of cars.

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