My take on the fading car culture

2003 MINI Cooper S

As I read through my feeds, I noticed a headline about the fading car culture. It seems a Nissan executive has noticed how interest in cars is waning due to congestion costs, interest in public transportation, and a desire to spend money elsewhere, like gadgets.

I also noticed something disingenuous in that article. It was his response to the 35 mpg mandate by 2020: “It is not an issue,” he said. Really? Is that why Nissan was one of the car companies that lobbied against it? I don’t want to lay the blame for this on Nissan alone, as most of the major car companies lobbied against fuel regulations in the past and some are still doing it. By the same token, the blame for the fading car culture does fall on most car companies, though there are other factors at play.

For one thing, car designs got horribly bad at some point in the late 60s. While cars are made better and they last longer, car designs have lost their soul. There isn’t that visceral response to a car nowadays that one has when they look at a classic car, one that was built to look good, not just function well. Everything is about streamlining nowadays — the wrong kind of streamlining, that is. There are no bold design decisions made anymore. Every great conceptual design gets neutered before it enters the production floor. I’m talking about curves that serve no purpose other than to make the cars more appealing. I’m talking about bold grilles, wooden or metal accent dashboards, gauges and textures that make you want to touch them. I’m talking about classic design elements. Just look at cars made in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

The old Mercedes

Fiat

Tears from the headlight

Stout and solid back

I’m not suggesting these photos are the best examples. This is what I have in my photo library, so that’s what I used. I’m sure there are a ton of great examples out there, and those familiar with car history know what I mean. That’s what I’m talking about. And that’s exactly what you won’t see on the market today. The few companies that might still include classic styling elements don’t do it wholeheartedly. We’ve got most people driving around in boxes nowadays. And they’re supposed to like it?

Another reason is an increase in fuel prices. Let’s face it, it’s no fun to drive around in a car that will put a serious dent in your monthly budget. Who’s to blame? Well, besides things that can’t be helped, like a dwindling oil supply, unstable world conditions and an increase in demand, I can think of a certain group I could finger: car companies. After all, they’ve been lobbying against fuel economy regulations for some time, and they’ve also refused to focus on economical models. Well, that same desire to save pennies on the dollar on improvements here and there is now going to cost them dollars — lots of them, and they’re the ones that have helped to dig the hole they’re in.

What’s another problem? Congestion on the roads. It’s no fun to drive bumper to bumper. Yet, increasingly so, that’s what driving has come to mean for those living in urban areas. When driving equals commuting, and when commuting means teeth-gnashing and extra stress you don’t need, do you really think people will want to drive, or that they’ll associate their cars with warm, fuzzy feelings? With the cost of new roads being so prohibitive, we know this isn’t going to change. If anything, we’ll start incurring more tolls in the future.

Congested highway

There are other costs that are driving this trend, such as car insurance and the high cost of traffic tickets, particularly when they’re falsely given out, which happens quite a bit when police departments want to put some money in their coffers. It happened to me, and that false ticket not only cost me about $150 but a day in court as well, and an extra $700 as well because of an increase in my car insurance. You think someone’s not going to consider public transportation options when driving starts costing them that much, particularly when they did nothing wrong? And what do you think they’re going to think about the crooked police officers that put them in that mess? I tell you, every time I remember what that thieving bastard did to me, smoke comes out of my ears. I hope he gets all that’s coming to him for what he did to me and probably to countless others…

More importantly perhaps is this: public companies react in unhealthy ways to market plateaus. That’s because they’re geared toward constant economic growth. Their market share or number of products sold or profits have to continually increase in order to satisfy the hungry appetites of investors and market analysts. Anything less than an increase on last year’s take is considered a failure. An extreme case of this very screwed up way of looking at things is Intel’s current situation. They earned 45% more in 2007 than in 2006, and yet their stock price dropped when they announced that their projected earnings in 2008 would be about the same as those of 2007. Instead of rejoicing over a stellar performance, our faulty economic expectations want more and more out of a market that’s performing very well.

That puts public companies in a very awkward and hard to sustain position. We’ll leave the microprocessor market alone, since I’m talking about cars at the moment. But do they honestly think that they can sustain (no, increase) their growth rate in a plateauing market? Who are they fooling? The demand for cars is going to continue to plateau, and quite possibly decrease. Sure, China and India are starting to develop, but they haven’t got the infrastructure or the economy to sustain a similar car-per-family ratio that we see in the States or Europe. What’s more, petrol supplies have already peaked. They are now going to start decreasing. Even if their infrastructure and economies could support a lot of cars, the Earth couldn’t, thank goodness. Have you driven in China or India lately? Their urban areas are packed chock full with cars of all makes and 2-cycle scooters already. They’re polluted to high heaven. I doubt we’d want more cars in those places. Add to that the upcoming flooding of the car market with cheap cars (enter India’s Tata car), and you’ve got a worldwide car market in serious trouble.

It seems to me there are a few things that could be corrected:

  • Stop the insanity of always expecting more from the market. Economic supply is not unlimited. Economists that made up that cockamamie idea should be taken out and horsewhipped, and recordings of those punishments should be posted to YouTube… Car companies need to realize that demand for their products will plateau. It’s a given. (Do I really expect public companies and their investors to change their perspectives? Yes, but it’s not going to happen. People are inherently greedy.)
  • Boring designs need to be retired for good. Serious inspiration needs to be drawn from the era of automobiles when the term motoring really meant something. Give people a reason to be passionate about their cars. Look at what Apple is doing with computers. Well-designed cars will sell, but they’ve got to look and feel so good people will drool over them.
  • A true focus needs to be placed on fuel efficiency and alternative propulsion methods. Ethanol-enhanced gasoline or even pure ethanol is not going to be the solution. I doubt it, and only one of the reasons is that corn agriculture cannot be sustained at the levels needed to mass-produce ethanol without turning all of the fields into dust bowls. Read up on soil erosion in agriculture if you want more info on this. Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive and still need oil to be produced. Not viable long-term. Now is the time to really look at other ways, such as bacterially-produced fuels, or steam/other water-based fuels. Electricity, if made through solar or wind power, is infinitely sustainable, and electric cars are already viable alternatives.
  • Car companies could focus on producing efficient, well-made public transportation vehicles in addition to personal vehicles. We know they’re going to be needed more and more in urban areas, and yet very few of the major car manufacturers have focused their efforts on fleets. Buses are still horribly inefficient when it comes to fuel usage, and they’re ugly and non-aerodynamic to boot. They usually get 5-8 miles per gallon, they’re loud, slow, unsafe, and they start rattling after only a few months of usage. They could stand a lot of improvement. The market is there and will continue to grow. Did you know, for example, that the Washington, DC metro cars were made in Italy and are very expensive? While it’s nice to know that DC metro goers ride in Italian-made wagons, why couldn’t they be made here in the US?

These are just a few ideas, but they’re meant to get the discussion started. Want to know what Nissan is doing about it? They’re ready to follow in the footsteps of the Tata car, and are readying their own designs for a cheap car. How that’s going to play out in the large scheme of things, no one knows for sure. But what we do know is that we don’t need more pollution and more congestion…

I leave you with a photo of the car that acted as a catalyst for change back when it was introduced. It can be done again, and in all the right ways. We just need a daring and willing company.

The classic MINI


3 Comments

  1. hey how you doing i love these minis and would like to purchase one how and were can i find one like this

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    1. Jose, do a search for classic MINIs on the internet and I’m sure you’ll find some you can buy. Or if you want a new one, just drop by any BMW dealership and see if they have any in stock.

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  2. You must have been listening in on our dinner table conversation last night, part of which covered the classic Mini, the Fiat 500, and the Smart.

    I work from home, and am quite happy that I don’t have to take the freeways. My husband commutes about five or six miles to work, and he takes his motorcycle whenever he can. Partly for fuel economy, but mostly because he enjoys the heck out of it. He’s fortunate that he doesn’t have to get on the freeway to get to work. I suspect that Dallas is going to outdo LA in terms of traffic congestion. It’s a madhouse here.

    I’m very glad to see that there’s a huge waiting list for the Smart cars. I hope that sends a message to Detroit (and Tokyo) and there is a market for this type of car.

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