Americans and their Cars
4/18/2002 12:00:00 AM - George Will
DETROIT--One car company is running ads in which its suave 44-year old CEO underscores his love for the outdoors by saying, ``I won't even stay in a hotel if I can't open the windows.''
Another car company, its tone set by its 70-year-old vice chairman--an ex-Marine aviator--is putting up three billboards. One shows a 1957 Chevy's grill--think of Teddy Roosevelt's grin in chrome--and says: ``Proof your parents were actually cool once.'' Another shows the rear deck of a little red 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and says: ``They don't write songs about Volvos.'' The third shows the gritted-teeth grill of a 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS and says: ``Not everyone wants a car with a bud vase on the dash.''
Guess which company is doing best.
Bill Ford's problems at the company his great-grandfather founded are bigger than odd advertising. And there are many reasons why GM is soaring like the jet fighter Robert Lutz flies for fun. But institutions are the lengthening shadows of strong individuals, and Lutz is, in the elemental argot of this muscular city, a ``car guy.''
When GM lured Lutz back into the car business last summer, The Detroit News headline (``Lutz Rides In To Rev Up GM'') was of a size usually reserved for Pearl Harbors or two-game Tiger winning streaks. But are Americans still ``car people'' the way they were when Lutz was young, in the 1950s?
Then they were automobile voluptuaries, Detroit was in its rococo period and its great stylist was GM's Harley Earl, ``the Cellini of chrome,'' of whom it was said that if he could have put chrome on his clothes, he would have. Cars had front bumpers that were protuberant, not to say nubile, and tail fins. Cars looked, a wit said, ``like chorus girls coming and fighter planes going.'' Indeed, Buick's LeSabre emulated the F-86 Sabre jet.
Lutz, tall and trim, knows that today's Americans generally have a less erotic relationship with cars. They look upon many cars, he says, ``as more or less an appliance.'' As mere transportation. Utilitarian. Boring. Furthermore, 20 years ago a ``premium'' car meant one substantially more capable. Today premium technologies (e.g., high-tech engines, overhead cams) are everywhere.
But, Lutz says happily, your car is still ``an extension of your psycho-motor system.'' More than the other stuff we surround ourselves with--do you know the brand of your refrigerator? will you replace it before it breaks down?--your car ``continually makes an instant statement about you, even to complete strangers.''
So, Lutz insists, design is still central to success in the automobile business. Art is (BEG ITAL)supposed to ``evoke emotional responses'' and cars are art--``mobile sculpture.'' He also believes that when everybody else is doing it, don't. Most cars today have rounded aerodynamic lines. But the new Cadillac CTS, with angular lines, is described in ads as ``edgy.''
And when Lutz was at Chrysler a few years ago, he pushed through the development of the popular PT Cruiser, an echo of a 1937 Ford. Why? Surely not nostalgia. Probably most of the (mostly young) people buying these cars do not know who was president in 1937. Go figure.
Lutz believes that ``aspirational aspects overwhelm the functional differences'' when car customers make their choices. When that happens, the ``left-analytical brain has been defeated again,'' the ``right brain'' has prevailed and Lutz rejoices. But this does not mean people plunk down large sums merely for high-status brands. Chevrolet sells more vehicles costing more than $30,000 than do Mercedes, BMW, Lexus and Audi combined, but this is partly due to the popularity of light trucks, a category that includes sport utility vehicles. Today an ``extremely high-end demographic''--e.g., investment bankers and stockbrokers--are buying GMC SUVs.
Some Americans (let us avoid the term ``liberals'') hate fun, such as cheeseburgers, talk radio, guns, Las Vegas, and cars that are larger than roller skates and that look more interesting than shoe boxes. They hated 1950s cars that looked--as a sniffy critic said--like juke boxes on wheels. Such people love guilt, and want people to feel guilty about cars because cars have made possible suburbs, Wal-Mart, McDonald's and emancipation from public transportation.
GM's ``car guy'' knows that Americans generally keep their cars longer than they used to--creeping utilitarianism--and do not define automotive fun as they did in the gaudy 1950s. But he is betting that lots of them still are still guilty of letting their right brains rip when purchasing a car.