Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Detroit enters the Fifth Dimension

If you are a career auto executive in Detroit today you must feel like someone "electrified" the municipal water supply. Chrysler is now owned by a foreign automaker that hasn't sold cars in the US in over 30 years (FIAT). GM is busy divesting itself of just about everything but Chevrolet. Saturn is being sold to Roger Penske who is said to be considering filling the showrooms with Renault Samsung products which are actually Nissans built by South Koreans. Opel(GM's Euro Division) has been sold to Canadian parts giant Magna International. No one can guess where they plan to sell cars. Doesn't matter much since no one has any idea when Americans will start buying cars again and what they will want when they do.

Two days ago a municipal dump truck totalled my sister's beloved Honda CRV so she's in the market.She lives less than 100 miles from ground zero in Detroit but the Chevy Cobalt she got as a rental is making her cringe at the thought of buying American. Tata Motors of India is said to be thinking of bringing their "cheapest car in the world" Nano to the States if they can somehow cobble it into compliance with US safety standards. They already are partnered up with Chrysler's Italian owners to build Fiats under license in India. The Beat Goes On.

All this has me thinking about what the signature American car for The Great Recession might look like.Citroen (which along with it's partner Peugeot are about the only manufacturers not being mentioned in current US scenarios) once tackled this problem in post WWII France. They spec'd a car that would carry a family across the rutted fields to market without breaking the bushel of eggs in the back seat. It needed to be simple, reliable and affordable by nearly all. The result of this design exercise was the 2CV which sold without many changes for more than 40 years.

Of course a design like this looks silly to modern eyes but that's not the point. It met the needs of it's time in a radical and innovative way and at a price point that allowed a working family to afford and maintain a new car. It created jobs for French people while doing so. While it made for a very leisurely vacation to the mountains it would do almost everything else people wanted a car for quite adequately and at low cost. Besides, you can't really take much of a vacation if you have a cow at home that needs milking.

My fervent hope is that Detroit's current acid dream yields a vehicle that meets those same criteria, produces it domestically, and with the same lasting joie de vivre. American style.

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