Posts tagged ‘car industry’


Reflections about Lee Iacocca—unfortunately, not all of it is positive

03.07.2019


The car Lee Iacocca will be remembered for, the 1965 Ford Mustang on the right.

Before I found out about Lee Iacocca’s passing, on the same day I Tweeted about one of the cars he was behind when he was president of Ford: the 1975 US Granada. Basically, Iacocca understood that Americans wanted style. That really was at the core of his thinking. It’s also why the Granada—really a warmed-over, restyled Falcon that had its roots in the late 1950s—was always compared to Mercedes-Benz models. It was a mass-market American pastiche of the German car, with the same size. It had a grille and hood ornament. But it was frightfully slow, underpowered, and heavy, one of the most inefficient cars that Americans could buy.
   It’s the antithesis of the Mustang, which Iacocca arguably spearheaded, though in his autobiography, he noted that so many people claimed to be the father of the Mustang that he didn’t want to be seen with the mother (or words to that effect—the book’s next to my partner who’s already gone to sleep as I write).
   That was a stylish car, too. It was a Falcon-based coupé. But it could be specified with the right power to match its looks, and it was priced and marketed brilliantly. Ford hit a home run, and Iacocca’s reputation as a car industry guru was sealed.
   He was also the man who came up with the idea for the Lincoln Continental Mark III. No, not the 1950s one (which technically wasn’t a Lincoln), the one that came out in the 1960s (Ford didn’t really follow a sequential numbering system—remember it went Mark, Mark II, III, IV, V, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII). The idea: stick a Rolls-Royce grille on a Thunderbird. It beat the Cadillac Eldorado, and Iacocca finished the ’60s on a high.
   I felt that history hadn’t been kind to the Mustang II, which also came out under Iacocca’s watch. The fact was it was a sales’ hit, at a time when Detroit was reeling from the 1973 fuel crisis. No V8s initially, which in the 21st century looks like a misstep; in 1974 it would have looked smart. Growing up, we didn’t think the II was as bad as history remembers.
   But the US range was, in some ways, lazy. GM was downsizing but Iacocca noted that people were still buying big cars. To give the impression of downsizing, Ford just renamed the Torino the LTD II. Look, it’s a smaller LTD! Not really: here was yet another car on old tech with another pastiche luxury-car grille.
   When Iacocca was fired from Ford, he went to Chrysler, and pulled off his greatest sales’ job yet: to secure loan guarantees from the Carter administration and turn the company around with a range of modern, front-wheel-drive cars. The K-car, and its derivatives, were a demonstration of great platform-sharing. He noted in his autobiography that Chrysler even worked out a way to shave a tiny amount from the length to fit more Ks on a railroad car. And Iacocca’s penchant for style re-emerged: not long after the original Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries, there were fancied up Chrysler LeBarons, and a woody wagon, then a convertible, the first factory US one since the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado. Most importantly, Chrysler got the T-115 minivans on sale before Renault got its Espace out, though after Nissan launched the first MPV, the smaller Prairie. Nevertheless, the minivan was an efficient family vehicle, and changed the face of motoring. Iacocca was right when he believed people want style, because it’s the SUV that has succeeded the MPV and minivan. SUVs are hardly efficient in most circumstances, but here we are in 2019, with minivan sales projected to fall, though Chrysler has managed to stay the market leader in its own country.
   Chrysler paid back its loans years early, and it was under Iacocca that the company acquired American Motors Corp., getting the Jeep brand (the real prize) in the process. And it’s thanks to François Castaing and others who came across from AMC that Chrysler wound up with its LH sedans, the “cab-forward” models that proved to be one of the company’s hits in the 1990s.
   While having saved Chrysler, it was burdened with acquisitions, and in Iacocca’s final full year as Chairman Lee, the company posted a $795 million loss, with the recession partly to blame. The press joked that LH stood for Last Hope.
   It’s an incredible record, with some amazing hits. They do outnumber the duds. But what really mars it is an incident of sexual harassment I learned some years ago that never appears in the official biographies. Now, I don’t have a sworn affidavit, so you can treat this as hearsay. But until I heard that from a good friend—the woman who was harassed—Iacocca was a personal hero of mine. I bought the autobiography. I could forgive the financial disgrace Chrysler was in for 1991—one year out of nearly a dozen isn’t a bad run, even though the writing was on the wall when so much money was spent on acquisitions, hurting working capital.
   I know, his daughters and their kids won’t appreciate what I just said. That it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, especially when they can’t answer back. You could say that that was the era he was from, in an industry steeped in male privilege—his boss at Ford, Henry the second, was carrying on an affair behind his wife’s back. You might say that one incident that I know of shouldn’t mar this incredible business record. He has left his mark on history. It’s just when it happens to one of your own friends that it’s closer to home, and it’s hard for me to offer the effortless praise I would normally have done if not for that knowledge.

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Posted in business, cars, culture, leadership, marketing, USA | No Comments »


Bypassing the media, Carlos Ghosn tells it as it is

10.04.2019

I haven’t blogged much about Carlos Ghosn, though I’ve Tweeted aplenty since his arrest last November. Earlier this week, his lawyers released a video of Ghosn stating his position, and it echoes much of what I had Tweeted. He couldn’t make a personal appearance at a press conference himself, thanks to some conveniently timed (for Nissan) evidence that prompted another arrest by the Japanese authorities.
   The way the original exposé was done and the way the Japanese mainstream media lapped up the one-sided story and propagated it verbatim told me immediately that something was rotten inside Nissan. A lack of investigation should always tell you that not all is what it seems.

   While it’s true that Nissan is worth more than Renault now, we can’t forget what a terrible shape it was in at the time the alliance was forged. While Nissan could have declared the Japanese equivalent of Chapter 11, it’s interesting to speculate how it would have emerged: would it have saved face or would consumers have lost confidence, as they have with Mitsubishi? And in the wake of Ghosn’s arrest, stories in the western media began appearing: Nissan’s performance was faltering (‘mediocre,’ says Ghosn). It had had a recent scandal and a major recall. More likely than not, it meant that certain heads were going to roll. To save themselves, they rolled their leader instead.
   We’ll see if there has been financial impropriety as things proceed, but to me there’s an element of xenophobia in the way the story has developed; and it was a surprise to learn at how ill-balanced the Japanese legal system is.
   I’ve been vocal elsewhere on how poorly I think elements of both companies have been run, but Ghosn does have a valid point in his video when he says that leadership can’t be based solely on consensus, as it’s not a way to propel a company forward.
   I’m keeping an open mind and, unlike some of the reporting that has gone on, maintaining that Ghosn is innocent till proved guilty. It’s dangerous to hop on to a bandwagon. It’s why I was a rare voice saying the Porsche Cayenne would succeed when the conventional wisdom among the press was that it would fail; and why I said Google Plus would fail when the tech press said it was a ‘Facebook-killer’. Ghosn deserves to be heard.

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Posted in business, cars, culture, France, leadership, media | No Comments »


Autocade passes 15 million page views, as SUVs and EVs take hold

11.02.2019

Over the weekend, I noticed Autocade’s page-view stat had ticked over the 15,000,000 mark. In fact, it was at 15,045,000, and I estimate that it hit the milestone around February 6—fitting for it to have taken place as the (lunar) year began.
   With how busy things have been, Autocade has been updated less, but the traffic stats are promising, especially as Stuart Cowley and I film more segments for the Autocade video channel. As the year has started in earnest, there will be more updates, and the Salon de Genève next month usually pushes me to write more. Hopefully that will give our page-view rate a bit of a boost, considering it has slowed since September 2018, when I last posted about this topic.
   The trouble these days is that a lot of entries are about same-again SUVs: at the time of writing, of the last 20 newest entries, there are the Volkswagen Tayron, the Yusheng S330 and S350, the Chinese Ford Territory (based on the Yusheng S330, so it seemed logical to do these at the same time), Lexus UX, Acura RDX (TC1), Volkswagen Tharu, and the Brazilian and European incarnations of the Volkswagen T-Roc (they are different cars; and the Chinese one hasn’t been added, either). Once upon a time, such vehicles would have been relegated to an appendix in publications such as Auto Katalog, but now it’s regular motor cars that are becoming the niche products.
   The electric revolution has also been interesting, but also frustrating, to cover. Autocade is fun when you’re examining lineages; at this point in history, none of these electric models actually replace a petrol or diesel one completely. It’s also been tough getting technical data on some electric cars, the kWh rating, for instance, which we’ve been using as the equivalent for cubic centimetres in the entries. Hence the updates have slowed, because it’s harder to paint a complete picture about some of these cars.
   With China responsible for so many new releases, translation can be slow, especially for someone whose grasp of written Chinese is roughly that of a child’s, though at least I bridge two cultures well enough to weed out some of the obvious errors (e.g. people reporting that the Senova D80 was based on a Mercedes-Benz, which could not possibly be true).
   Following my tradition on this blog, here is how Autocade’s viewing’s going.

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)
September 2018: 14,000,000 (four months for fourteenth million)
February 2019: 15,000,000 (five months for fifteenth million)

   In September, Autocade had 3,755 model entries; it’s now up to 3,781—not a huge jump, possibly accounting for the traffic rate decrease as well.
   Here’s hoping for a bit more as the year progresses. I’d like to add in an entry for the new Mazda Axela, for instance, but sometimes you have to wait till the company itself publishes public data on its website, just for that extra accuracy. We’ll wait and see.

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Posted in business, cars, China, internet, New Zealand, publishing | No Comments »


Capturing a buyer: some advice to Renault New Zealand

01.01.2019

2017 Renault Captur

On this Pope Gregory Arbitrary Calendar Start Day, I wrote to a contact of mine at Renault New Zealand.
   In mid-2018, I joked that, since Renault had no dealers in Wellington (never mind what’s listed on their website—the only people who can see a dealer there are psychic mediums), I could sell them out of my house.
   Today, I may well have gone some way toward doing that, as someone I know would like a test drive of a first-gen Captur after I put it into her consideration set. After all, I put my money where my mouth is with Renault, so when I recommend one, I do so with some authority.
   In the same note, I detailed some observations about Renault New Zealand’s marketing. I have since forwarded it to their top man in the country.

   • Renault NZ’s marketing has been really stop–start over the years. Every time it feels like there’s a revival, there’s a ra-ra moment that lasts a few months, then nada. Just in the last decade and a half I can think of Clio IIIs being pushed, including a giveaway in the Herald, and the price was right, then nothing. There was some talk about pushing the Mégane III at the turn of the decade, and again it fizzled out. (You may know that in 2010, IIRC, Renault sold 14 cars that year.) The Instagram account itself is an example of a flurry of activity, then it goes quiet for ages.
   • I know within the group there are other brands that management see as more profitable, but I see massive untapped potential. You know you’ve got it right with Captur and Koleos: relative to the promo budget you are moving them, and that says the product is what Kiwis want. It’s worth investing in, and I reckon you should get fans like me, and the South Island club that’s quite active, to help you push it. Land Rover does well with its loyalists in Britain, and I think this is something Renault really needs to do—reach out to us and get some word of mouth going. If I have got you one sale already, there are many others who’d do the same.
   • Kiwis want to see continuity in model lines, which is why the Auris never became the Auris here—Toyota NZ was smart enough to keep the Corolla name going. Fiat’s fatal mistake is letting so many model lines die: not that long ago, it killed every passenger car range in New Zealand in favour of just the 500. Loyalists who bought Bravos and Puntos had nothing to trade to. When the Punto came back—actually a totally different car and a far less advanced Indian import—the goodwill had gone. There’s the same danger here with all those old Mégane, Scénic and Clio buyers of the 2000s. There aren’t many as loyal as me who take matters into their own hands and do a private import. So do think about continuing some lines. Captur will get your Clio buyers, but us Mégane ones have nowhere to go. Fluence was a flop (eight in NZ all up?) but as heated as the C-segment is, not everyone wants a Corolla, 3 or Golf. It might still be worth bringing in lesser Méganes, and the wagon will get those lifestyle buyers. A well-specced wagon would actually have very few rivals in NZ, if pricing and marketing are right (again, get the fans involved). Alaskan will work—but only if we truly see that Renault is here to stay.

   I concluded all that with, ‘And I reckon Hiroto Saikawa is dodgy and he was trying to cover up his own incompetence by framing his old boss and mentor. But that’s another story.’
   Even if I sold one car, I might become the city’s top Renault seller. ‘If you find a better car, buy it.’

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


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 »


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 »


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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Posted in cars, culture, internet, publishing | 6 Comments »


Too many white cars make fake news

17.09.2017


A photo taken in Wellington with a test car I had for Lucire. White cars aren’t the over-represented colour in New Zealand: guess from this photo what is.

A friend of mine put me on to this Fairfax Press Stuff article, entitled ‘Silly Car Question #16: Why are there so many white cars?’. It’s a silly question all right, because I haven’t noticed this phenomenon in New Zealand at all, and if any colour is over-represented, it’s the silver–grey tones. It seems like “fake news”, and if you read on, then there’s more to support that assertion.
   ‘It’s because every second car imported from Asia is white – literally. Latest research tells us that 48 per cent of all vehicles manufactured in Asia, particularly Japan, are painted white.’ (My friend, of Chinese descent, summarized jokingly, ‘It’s our fault,’ and my thought was, ‘Not again.’)
   Let’s break this one sentence down. The author says that we source a lot of our used cars from Japan, hence this 48 per cent figure is reflected in the New Zealand fleet. But you only need to ask yourself a simple question here: how many of those white cars made in Japan (or Korea, or India, or Thailand) stay in those countries to become used imports to New Zealand? These nations are net exporters of cars, so whatever trickles on to the Japanese home market will be a smaller percentage of that 48. How many are white—we don’t have that statistic, but, as I noted, it’s certainly not reflected in the cars on our roads. Now, if we’re talking Tahiti, where there are a lot of white cars, then that’s another story—and that is likely to do with white reflecting light in a hot climate. As this is a foreign-owned newspaper group, then perhaps the author does not live in New Zealand, or if he does, maybe he hangs around taxi ranks a lot.
   Let’s go a bit further: ‘Statistics gathered by Axalta Coating Sytems, a leading global supplier of liquid and powder coatings, showed that worldwide 37 per cent of all new vehicles built during 2016 were painted white, which was up two percentage points on 2015’ and ‘All this leads to the next obvious question: why are all these cars painted white? / It may be because that’s what the manufacturers want.’
   From what I can tell, this article was cobbled together from two sets of statistics. A bit of research wouldn’t have been remiss. However, it is a sign of the times, and even we’re guilty of taking a release at face value to get news out. But the result on Stuff just doesn’t make much sense.
   James Newburrie, a car enthusiast and IT security specialist, has a far more reasonable answer to the high number of silver (and dull-coloured, which includes white) cars, which he gave me permission to quote in May 2016:

Car colours are fairly well correlated with consumer confidence. In an environment where consumer confidence is high, regular cars are likely to be available in all sorts of bright and lurid colours (purple, green, yellow, etc). As consumer confidence tanks, people start to think more about resale value and they chose more “universal” colours (the kind of colours no one hates: Silver, conservative blues, etc).
   Cars directed at young people tend to be cheaper and maintain strong colours throughout the cycle – but to keep costs down they tend to stay around red, black, white, blue and silver, perhaps with one “girly” colour if it is a small car. Cars directed to financially secure people as second cars, like sports cars for instance, tend to be more vibrantly coloured, because your buying into the dream.
   So, in the 1950s while the economy was good, people bought cars in bright colours with lots of colours, the oil crisis comes along and they go to white and beige, the 80s come along and we all vomit from car colours, the recession we had to have leads to boredom, then everything is awesome again and you can buy a metallic purple Falcon, or a metallic orange commodore – then the great recession and we’re all bored to death again.
   Consumer confidence probably is just starting to recover now. If history is any indication, there will be a point where people just go “oh screw worrying” and then they will see that other people aren’t worried anymore and they’ll say “screw worrying” etc … and we will snap back.

   Follow that up with what car dealers are now selling, and bingo, you might have a serviceable article.

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Fun for car anoraks—till you get to the factual errors

08.07.2017

I bought Steven Parissien’s The Life of the Automobile: a New History of the Motor Car, which started off as a good history. I’m 300-odd pages in now and the mistakes are really worrying. There’s also a shocking lack of editing (one part repeated, albeit in different language, and spelling and grammatical mistakes) in the parts I’ve got to now; it’s as though the editor got tired after the first 10 chapters and stopped caring. But the biggest errors are factual.
   I am astonished to learn, for instance, that Harley Earl was responsible for the concept of the Ford Thunderbird (p. 255), that Triumph TR7 production was transferred to Speke in 1982 (p. 293, though Parissien later contradicts himself with the correct fact), and that John Z. de Lorean was a protégé of Lee Iacocca (p. 309). I really have no idea how, but as far as I know, de Lorean was never at Ford, and he had a Chrysler stint long before Iacocca got there. I also never knew that ‘In 1968 the Toyota Corolla became the first Japanese car to be manufactured in the US’ (p. 314; that was the year it went on sale there, and from memory the Corolla didn’t get built there till the NUMMI deal in the 1980s) or that the Opel Ascona C was also sold as the Opel Vectra (p. 337). The Italian Job was released in 1969, not 1967 (p. 224).
   I am frustrated with this book—and now it makes me wonder if the stuff earlier on, which I know less about, was accurate.
   I can understand an editor not grasping the subject as well as the author but there is less excuse in professional publishing for the other problems. Maybe there are few professional proofreaders left, now that spellchecks have been around for a generation or more. I was prepared to recommend this book even a week ago and tolerated the spelling and grammar, but these factual mistakes are worse than what can be found in Wikipedia, and I often label parts of that site as fiction.

PS. (September 17): How much worse can it get, as I continued through? A lot.
   On p. 320, we get an admission that Parissien was wrong on p. 314: the Honda Accord was the first Japanese-branded car to be made Stateside. At least an earlier error was corrected. But they begin again on p. 321: Parissien claims the V30 Toyota Camry dominated the US mid-size car market (it was never sold outside Japan; he’s thinking of the XV10, or the Japanese-market Scepter, which was badged Camry). Correcting his error on p. 322, the Camry was not specifically targeted at the US; it was Toyota’s attempt to create an efficient car from the ground up, and it was not done in 1980, but 1982 (the 1980 Celica Camry was not sold outside Japan). The Paykan deal was cemented long before George Turnbull got to Iran (p. 324), though local content rose in the 1970s for it to be truly Iranian-made and Parissien might mean the shifting of the engine tooling there, if I’m being generous. There is only one world, not multiple ones (also p. 324), unless Parissien knows something about parallel universes that the rest of us don’t. Surely Chrysler managed to launch its T-115 minivan (Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager) before Renault launched the Espace (p. 330), and the Triumph Acclaim was never called the ‘Ronda’ (p. 334), though its successor was.
   On p. 360, in a single paragraph, Parissien makes several errors. The MG 6 launched as a five-door car, not his claimed four. There is no such thing as the Roewe 150, in China or elsewhere. The MG 3 has five doors and is not a three-door counterpart to the 6. The five-door MG 6 launched not in 2011, but in 2010, and the Magnette name was only used in the UK for the four-door. The founder of Chrysler was Walter Chrysler, not Walther (p. 364). The Lancia Delta only became a Chrysler in the UK and Éire, as far as I know (p. 365), and remained a Lancia in most countries. The Belgian designer is Dirk van Braeckel, not van Braeckl (p. 368); Mercedes-Benz never bought an 18·53 per cent stake in Volkswagen (p. 369); and Citroën’s BX was not the last car in that range to have ‘pneumatic suspension’ (p. 372). The Malibu was not a Saturn, but a Chevrolet (p. 375), and Buick was never sold off (p. 376). The Ford Mondeo did not replace the Telstar in all Asian markets (p. 377), and it shared far more than the ‘windscreen, front doors and rear’ with the Contour and Mystique (in fact, the rear was not shared, though there were common engines, platform, and plenty more). It’s not entirely certain that the US market judged the Contour to be too small (p. 378), but there was a lack of marketing (which would have made an even better story than the one Parissien writes about). Ford subsequently filled the Contour’s niche with the smaller Focus Stateside. The CD338 Fusion was never sold in Australia (also p. 378). Ford never resurrected the Taunus in Germany under Alan Mulally (p. 381)—this invention is incredible. VAZ did follow up the 2101 with something similar after it ended production in 1983 (not 1984, p. 382), viz. the 2105, which was about as similar as one could get to the 2101.
   On p. 384, Parissien claims Acura’s Legend sales were ‘disappointing’, after saying they were ‘beginning to sell rather well’ 50 pp. before. The Hindustan Ambassador was not based on the 1954 Morris Oxford (p. 389): that car was actually the Hindusthan Landmaster. The Ambassador was based on the 1957 Morris Oxford III, and was in production from 1959, not 1958. The Red Flag (or Hongqi) marque was not reborn on an Audi A6 (p. 391), but the marque had been used on a version of the Audi 100 C3 from 1988, and no Hongqi bore an Audi–Chrysler–Hongqi brand name. The Chinese company is Dongfeng, not Dongfen (p. 391), and Parissien’s claim that the Everus was sold in the west (p. 392) is news to me, as I am sure it is to its own management. I’ll stop there for now.

P.PS. (September 18): Some bedtime reading, or should I say error-finding, last night. On p. 394, Toyota and Aston Martin did not jointly develop the Cygnet: Toyota developed the IQ in 2008, and Aston Martin converted that car to become its Cygnet, and ‘hot hatch’ is a very optimistic description for a city car. Toyota did not launch the Cygnet in 2008 as Parissien claims, nor did it have a say in what customers were expected to purchase the Cygnet: it was aimed specifically at existing Aston Martin owners, not ‘Toyota and Aston expected initial demand to be limited to those who already owned an Aston Martin sports car.’ It was certainly no ‘eccentric experiment’ of Toyota, but of Aston Martin. Volvo never made a model called the A40 (p. 395), and I bet Nissan is surprised to find that the original Qashqai was designed ‘at the firm’s Milan design centre’ (p. 397) when it was designed in London. Maserati never launched a Jeep-based SUV called the Kubang (p. 397), but it did have a concept of that name, and the Levante appeared in 2016 after the book was published. There is no such car as the Porsche Cajun, and if Parissien refers to the smaller Porsche crossover, then that is called the Macan, and it has five doors, not the claimed three (p. 397). The Volkswagen New Beetle was not on a Polo platform (p. 399), but a Golf one, as was its successor (though a newer Golf); and Ford would dispute that its Mustang is a sedan (p. 401). If J Mays’s first name is J (as footnoted), then there is no need to refer to him as ‘J. Mays’ (p. 401). The Ford Ka’s name is not derived from StreetKa (p. 402): that was a model spun off from the Ka in 2002; and some would regard the Mk II model was being superior to the Fiat 500 on which it is based (especially as Fiat adopted some of the changes for its own model). I have yet to see a Smart with a Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star or marque anywhere, unlike Parissien who seems to think they are badged Mercedes (p. 403), and a Smart SUV does not exist unless Parissien is reporting again from his parallel universe (p. 403). There is also no such car as the Kia Exclusive (p. 410).

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Selling Opel: what’s good for China is good for General Motors

15.02.2017


Above: The Opel Astra K: on the roster.

I’m not so sure that GM going into talks to sell Opel and Vauxhall to PSA (Peugeot–Citroën) is that big a surprise.
   We obviously hold a lot of nostalgia for these brands, and it’s only right that we perceive GM as selling its family jewels. Opel has made some great cars over the years, and Buick in China and the US, Vauxhall in the UK, and Holden in Australia rely on this division to provide it with product.
   But it wasn’t long ago that I said I foresaw the next Holden Commodore being a four-door booted model based on a Chinese Buick Regal that’s on the same platform. While I’ve been proved wrong with scoop photos and inside information from journalists in the immediate term, longer-term this doesn’t look so far-fetched, in a future where Peugeot owns Opel–Vauxhall and GM has no choice but to consider Chinese sourcing seriously.
   Therefore, GM isn’t thinking that it’s selling off the family jewels, at least the GM where Chinese partner SAIC is overwhelmingly calling the shots.
   What they are thinking is this: ‘We should be able to develop the whole lot in China.’ They weren’t nostalgic over Holden, and they won’t be thrilled with the losses at Opel. It’s willing to sacrifice it to make its own position stronger. We’ve already seen that SAIC has called it quits when it comes to British assembly at Longbridge—that’s now all done back in China.
   There’s been such a massive technology transfer from the US to China over the last few years that Europe is seen as surplus by the folks in Shanghai. They have all the platforms on which they can make products globally. They may even, rightly or wrongly, think that the remaining brands can get them into Europe, even if GM had pulled its Korean-made Chevrolets out of there.
   Holden can be used to westernize the product and the Australians have shown they can do it well.
   I’m not saying I agree with this, as a long-time Opel fan. I was looking forward to the new Commodores coming out of Rüsselsheim. The car looks the business, it’s roughly the size of the recently deleted Ford Falcon (therefore, I’m not sure why people are so upset about its size), and the majority of buyers don’t even know which set of wheels the power’s going to. I’ve got an Astra K coming in a few months at Lucire.
   What you’re going to see is GM basically being a Shanghai-run firm with China supplying global markets and the US operations kept going for their brand cachet.
   In the meantime, a hypothetical PSA-run Opel will continue with the existing plans till the end of these models’ life cycles, then China will become the manufacturing hub for numerous markets.
   SAIC already makes a load of Cadillacs, Buicks and Chevrolets for the domestic market, and they’ll want to pump them out more widely.
   They’ve also shown that they can take new GM platforms and turn them into Roewes—or old GM platforms and turn them into Baojuns.
   PSA, meanwhile, with 14 per cent controlled by Chinese firm Dongfeng, will pursue a strategy of streamlining platforms and be focused more on Europe. It could pay off as cross-town rival Renault has done well with Nissan, Mitsubishi, Samsung, Dacia and AvtoVAZ, but it won’t nearly be as secure. The two French groups have been obsessed with one another for as long as I can remember, for years spending more time rivalling each other than actually coming up with what customers wanted.
   Dongfeng may have to cough up more lolly and it could become a larger shareholder than the Peugeot family or the French government. But will it have the sort of geographical coverage that Renault has?
   That’ll be what PSA will be asking itself, knowing that it’s reasonably strong in China—but also realizing that it hasn’t been clever at creating models that can be sold globally (the current Citroën C6, DS 5LS and the DS 6 among them, sold exclusively in China). Nevertheless, there are savings to be had, though the most obvious fear is that Opel and Vauxhall will go the way of Panhard and Talbot, brands that fell into either Peugeot or Citroën’s hands over the years and become defunct at the expense of the parent companies’. Is there a desire to extend the group’s brand portfolio beyond Peugeot, Citroën, DS, the various Dongfeng lines, and the ex-Hindustan Ambassador?
   The official statement is non-committal enough and gives nothing away: ‘PSA Group and General Motors confirm they are exploring numerous strategic initiatives aiming at improving profitability and operational efficiency, including a potential acquisition of Opel Vauxhall by PSA.
   ‘There can be no assurance that an agreement will be reached.’
   In any case, we always said that SAIC was playing a long game. MG was a toe in the water. GM is the real deal.
   Controlling GM means they can do as they please, and what’s good for China is good for General Motors.

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