The American car business gets dumped on a lot, much of it for good reason but much of the criticism overlooks the unique that American car manufacturers bring to the party, a much edgier approach to design that is not constrained by rules about what cars are supposed to look like. This unconstrained approach to the market makes the U.S. market more competitive and innovative than anywhere else in the world, and I’m not just talking about the innovation of cup holders.
This is a reflection of the U.S. car market, which is more freeform than Europe, and it’s why U.S. designers have gone on to lead or senior designer roles at foreign companies (for example, Tom Kearns at Kia and the always polarizing Chris Bangle who recently left BMW). It is also why European and Asian companies have put their design studios in the U.S., almost exclusively in Southern California (15 in total, including Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan, Kia, Mitsubishi, and Honda). The American market isn’t just a large export market (dominant export market) for foreign manufacturers, it’s one that defines global trends as well.
Sometimes this freeform design works, like Chrysler’s 300C (it’s easy to forget that in the 1990′s Chrysler was the most profitable car company in the world), and sometimes it fails miserably, like the Pontiac Aztec which was a truly what-the-hell-were-they-thinking design (@pjozefak and I had one of these as a rental in Austin once, people stared at us with a look of dismay).
The ability of American manufacturers to create new vehicle categories and move utility segments upscale is also worth noting. The lowly minivan spawned a category that is now a mainstay for the majority of companies, pickup trucks used to have rubber floor mats, AM radios, and bench seats, today they are just as likely to be seen in the executive parking lot as they are on the job site, the “retro” trend in car design started with the Plymouth Prowler, an open wheel retro hot rod that never in a thousand years would have come out of Europe or Japan, and the mighty SUV category itself is a uniquely American creation that every manufacturer has fielded an entry in.
Speaking of SUVs, it’s easy to paint them with a scarlet letter but the fact remains that they fill a need for many buyers and not just in the U.S., market. The Mercedes M class is one of the most sought after vehicles for sale in European markets, and the emergence of the luxury SUV spawned offerings by every manufacturer in every market; who would have thought that a passenger vehicle built on a truck chassis would evolve to the segment it is today with classic SUVs, crossovers, and hybrid offerings?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that European and Asian cars are not beautifully designed, actually quite the contrary and given my own purchasing behaviors I am a case study in how European cars appeal to American buyers. European and Japanese car designs stand the test of time as well, the same cannot be said of GM, Ford, and Chrysler where a 10 year old model looks dated. Despite an abundance of impressive performance, quality, and styling coming in the market, there is something that Detroit used to offer that is very different and that is a sense of automobiles as fashion and lifestyle instead of just exercises in performance engineering.
The failings of GM and Chrysler should not overshadow the significant contributions these companies have made, nor should they be summed up as simply “not making the cars people want” or high quality because both are factually inaccurate statements. We should take down these companies because of decades of poor management decisions, fulfilling the promise of capitalism which is that the strong survive and the weak wither, but in the final equation it is likely that very little about the American car market sensibilities will change irrespective of whatever the Federal government wishes, the names on the badges will change but the offerings will remain the same.
Sadly, the Detroit that stood on the shoulders of great men like Harley Earl, Zora Duntov, Alex Tremulis, Ralph Roberts, and Elwood Engel is coming to an end and what will emerge is a big question mark.