Cracking Up on Thunder Road

Oped critical of Detroit's current focus on high-power engines all the while losing market share.

Published: 17-Jan-2003

0-mile-per-hour, 10-cylinder motorcycle? It seems this clattering
metallic nightmare stole the spotlight at the Detroit auto show.
Spectators were said to be quivering, no doubt even drooling, at the
sight of it. From the photos, it looked to me like a waste-water
turbine on wheels, but I confess that I parted company with the auto
show crowds years ago.

The ear-splitting detonations of the 500-horsepower engine apparently
sent some spectators -- chiefly those evolutionary throwbacks Homo
holeintheheadicus -- into full spin as they grabbed for their wallets
with both hands. It wasn't enough to see and listen to this macabre
"concept" of the future. They wanted to buy one right then: $250K.
Yee-haw.

Just think: At last a motorcycle that gets fewer miles per gallon than
an SUV! And loud enough to rattle dishes and frighten children all
through the neighborhood.

Here, friends, is the glorious metaphor for Detroit's demise.

The Big Three race along at 300 mph on the road to being the Smaller
Three.

In case you missed them, 2002 automobile sales figures showed this:
North American manufacturers provided an estimated $40 billion in
sales incentives to push their iron and still lost market share.

Quite a feat, if you ask me.

How can this be happening? Well, consider the Tomahawk. That's the
name Chrysler thought up when it stripped its Dodge Viper of ordinary
things like a body, paint, bucket seats, seat belts and stereo CD
player. The company bolted some handlebars across the engine and
called it transportation. Just what we need, a gas-guzzling motorcycle
that can go 40% the speed of sound. What a concept. Good thinking,
Chrysler.

You could say the same about the 16-cylinder, 1,000-horsepower
"concept" Cadillac that also set the motorheads buzzing at the car
show. I added up the horsepower of all the cars that I've owned in my
life and I still come up short of a grand. Yet I haven't been late to
work in years. Oh well.

Detroit simply cannot understand -- or accept -- that tastes are
changing, and changing with the imperatives of the time. Hello, Gulf
War? The Mideast? Oil? What in the world are these people thinking?

Yes, there remains a market for the absurd, as anyone in California
can attest. But with its troubles, you'd think Detroit would be
absorbed with mainstream tastes, not the nitwit niches.

I have seen a man riding a V-8 engine made into a motorcycle, and all
I can say is he looked as natural as a fellow astride his washer and
dryer.

But, of course, this is about image. The dreams that cars still, sort
of, evoke. Detroit still argues against every advance in safety or
mileage standards on grounds that consumers choose best. At the same
time, of course, the industry continues to spend millions trying to
shape our tastes so we'll choose big.

It's not working. But the Smaller Three cannot break the habit of
trying to compensate in torque and gross tonnage what they cannot hold
onto in customers.

The car shows in Detroit and Los Angeles are places where
manufacturers let us peek into their imaginations. We see the year
ahead and supposedly the fashion trends for the years beyond.

So what is emphasized in the face of a looming war in the Mideast and
rising foreign competition at home? More cylinders.

Detroit is still foolishly glamorizing muscle -- only now to absurd
extremes. It's not spotlighting cars that people drive. It's hyping
vehicles that shouldn't even be on the highway. Here is what GM says
about the "aggressive stance" of its 3 1/2-ton Hummer: "Created to
allow it go places cars and trucks just aren't supposed to go."

What a concept. Apply that standard to airplanes and we'd have
submarines.

If you read the second paragraph of the 2002 auto sales reports, you
see that most Asian manufacturers did not match Detroit on 0%
financing or other come-ons but still gained overall market share in
the U.S.

My colleagues who cover the auto business note that Detroit commanded
about 72% of the U.S. market only six years ago. Last year, the share
was down to 62%, and analysts say the Smaller Three are looking at the
possibility of dipping below 50% within five years. After that? Well,
you have to wonder how far behind you can fall with 10 cylinders at
Mach 0.4.

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