Ueno Motors

This is a fictional car company that I’ve done a few sample cars of in Automation.

Ueno Motors, named after its controlling family (surname example), is a car company headquartered in outlying Hokkaido. In broad terms, it’s followed the industry’s path. However, I’ve made it more successful than my previous interpretation/version of it-then, it was in US terms a wheezing bottom-feeder. Here, it’s a more successful niche manufacturer.

Ueno has been defined by paradoxes. Its cars, for the most part, are knowingly sedate, knowingly bland. Yet its actual business exists in an attitude of frenzied pushes, the kind of risky lunges one must make to compensate for structural weaknesses. Ueno has, for the most part, succeeded in this. It went upmarket in a large way, because it needed higher per-car margins to counteract everything from the vagarities of currency and trade to the costs of shipping parts from Honshu-and did so with its own brand name, not creating a sub-brand.

This sort of strange mixture leads it to do varied things-it has rushed plants over into markets where it fears being shut out, yet is hesitant to expand. Its leadership has moved with surprising speed and ruthlessness in ditching its lowest-margin products, yet persists in making (as one example) clunky four-speed transmissions as a cost-saving measure.

Brand image for Ueno is clear and has been so for decades, with its mainline models keeping the same names for very good reasons: This is a relaxing car, a reward for a hard life’s work. Thus squishy comfort is (generally) prioritized over sportiness. When styling is emphasized, it’s done in a retro fashion, because Ueno, unlike many other car companies, does not shy away from having their vehicles be labeled “old people cars”.

Even by the grueling standards of the auto industry, Ueno is notoriously difficult to work for or with. While the family and company’s reputation for “thrift” has played a role in the legitimate accomplishment of keeping it alive and independent for over a century, it manifests itself in obvious and terrible ways. In Hokkaido proper, its already-natural clout is furthered by its status as the area’s largest industrial employer-one does not step on the toes of such a beast lightly.

In automotive terms, Ueno offers a fairly conventional lineup of vehicles, ranging from low-premium to the occasional $60,000+ flagship. Certain niches, especially low-margin ones, are avoided-Ueno has long since stopped its kei car business and relies on badge-engineering deals for some “niche” models (including keis in the JDM). But not others-it was successful by having one of the last personal luxury coupes remaining, grabbing a few big sales off a two-door, brougham-upped version of an otherwise-conventional car.

Ueno achieves decent sales in North America and Eurasia, and is a surprisingly big fish in the shrinking pond of the JDM.

In-game, Ueno represents one of the hardest challenges-making a car that’s just a little bit “premium”, not on the extremes of econobox or supercar. And some of my desires clash with the company ethos (c’mon, you’d think stately luxurious penny-pinchers would greenlight an engine with an exotic five-valves-per-cylinder head?), but it’s still fun to play.

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Barton Motors

How to keep a small American car company alive and independent? The thought kept going through my mind, and went to the forefront after the release of the latest open beta for Automation.

Barton Motors is one of my concept car companies. An independent auto manufacturer in New Jersey, it survives World War II and then…

Something. I want it to be a general purpose producer, at least at first. The only problem is that general purpose is in many ways the toughest segment. The only options for a poor independent once the artificial boom of the late 1940s subsides are:

  • Go head to head against the Big Three with fewer resources. This was tried by AMC’s Rob Abernethy in the 1960s, with predictable results.
  • Try to fill a niche. At first, compact cars were the niche, the problem being that every independent tried to pile into a small market. Then came AMC’s Ramblers, followed by renewed competition from the Big Three compacts and imports. This need not be limited to compacts-if an independent got a Mustang-style car before the Mustang (or something else), a similar logic would undoubtedly occur.

 

What I decided was Barton getting enough of a certain image to survive by going upmarket. Starting as a mass volume producer, it decides to live on as a low tooling cost, niche producer after one device fails. Of course, this means it goes from thousands to hundreds of employees, but at least it’s still in business for longer.

To my knowledge, there is no real life precedent (the closest is BMW, who built everything from tiny bubble cars to giant luxury vehicles before settling on the upper-mid premium market.) There was, however, an attempt-the Alchemy proposal for the MG Rover group, that would have slimmed it down to a low-production sports car company. This was rejected in favor of a politically preferable bid that kept the workforce employed in full, the disastrous Phoenix Four.

There’s skepticism that the original offer was actually viable-other British sports-car firms have gone decades without making a profit. But the theoretical precedent is there. I still wouldn’t bet on Barton surviving to the present. But you never know.

 

Car Company Names

What do I name my car companies? The car companies across the world have many historical precedents.

  • Founder names (Ford). These are the easiest-I just need to find a family name of the appropriate nationality and slap it on.
  • Geographic names (BMW). The example of BMW stands for “Bavarian Motor Works”, which fits its initial business as an aircraft engine manufacturer. One of my companies, TAZ (Tashkent Avto Zavod/Tashkent Auto Factory), has a geographic name. These are harder.
  • Non-founder/non-geographic names (Mitsubishi). The absolute hardest, especially for non-English names (which I’ll admit I’m not good at pronouncing, much less understanding).

So far, an incomplete list of companies, for Automation and imagination:

TAZ (Russia/USSR, general purpose, geographic)

Lelli-Folino (Italy, supercars, founder)

Barton Motors (US, general purpose, founder)

The Car Engine is Thirsty

Trying to get back into Automation, my cars have never been able to get that high mileage. This is for several reasons, including my own lack of skill. However, the two biggest ones are that I tend to have either a monstrous stereotypical American giant engine, or a stereotypical European displacement-tax dodging engine that revs like crazy to squeeze every last kilowatt out of its small frame.

Neither is conducive to fuel economy.

My own tendency to go to extremes exacerbates the problem. If not that, it’s a small city car engine. Even then, I tend to rev it to maximum power to get every last drop of-you see where this is going.

The Horsepower War

I chuckle at the ridiculous horsepower figures given for the latest internet supercars.

(To make a long story short, the limitations of tires if nothing else means that increased engine power will pass the point of diminishing returns before it reaches the theoretical limit.)

In my Automation playthroughs, the jewel in the horsepower crown has been a 574 horsepower engine with development starting in the mid 1980s and, going by engineering time, being ready for mass production in the early 1990s. It’s a V8 rather than a V12.

Naturally, the car is a two-seat supercar with an inflation-adjusted price of over $300,000.

Enter this creative writing exercise.

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“Now, this sort of thing only happens once. We seek a partner, and can use the marque as an overall luxury one. We have a perfectly good plant for high-end, low value production, and we have the Folino brand. Otherwise, we run up a ton of debt trying to build a successor to the Power8 and hope lightning strikes twice.”

Samuele Lelli had heard a variation of that argument a million times before. From a business perspective, it made total sense.

Sell most of-but not all of your stake in L-F, then start or join a small engine tuner, and live your performance dream there.

But his heart didn’t want to put engines in Fords, Cadillacs or Tatras. What his heart wanted was to build a car from the ground up, a street car that could win the war. Leapfrog ahead, with the dream. The years he’d spent designing the Power8 had been the happiest of his life, and he wanted to keep going, to reach the goal of-

10,000 horsepower. Ten. Thousand. Horsepower.

 

 

 

Supercar Struggles

I made a supercar in Automation. The 80s supercar I made is an illustration of just how tough the supercar business is.

Designing the car itself wasn’t the hardest part-I had to use different size tires to brute-force my way to a decent understeer score without digging into the suspension (turns it wasn’t unheard of, especially on RWD performance cars). The “markets” segment was when it hit.

Development costs for a supercar are incredibly high. So are development costs for everything car-related, but here you’re pushing the limit. It’s making an SR-71, not a Piper Cub.

And you can’t rely on volume. The only strategy is to roar up the price a lot and hope your supercar stands out from the pack. Most really big supercars are experimental platforms/advertisements, and are expected to lose money.

So, my supercar, similar in backstory if not mechanically to the (failed) Cizeta-Moroder V16T   gets a few mulligans. A celebrity backing, arriving at exactly the right time for a pent-up urge to splurge, and good luck. Even then, it’s probably going to come at the expense of other supercar firms. And be temporary.

 

The Monster I4s from Central Asia

My latest obsession is something that succeeds because it finds a way for me to be different within an inherently limited structure. It also succeeds in that it appeals to my weird alternate history sense (i.e, yes, politics are totally different, but what of the cars?)

So, in my latest project in Automation, I struck gold. Monster inline-four engines, by a producer that, in the timeline, has become the biggest foreign brand in the US by market share.

The inspiration started when I looked at World War II Soviet jeeps and saw one powered by a three liter inline-four engine. This engine style was, thanks to its huge size and common block configuration, both build-able and different. (A more exotic engine configuration could be imagined, but would fall victim to Automation’s understandably limited engine types, while I wanted something different from a smaller I4).

There’s a good reason why I4 engines normally aren’t that big. The Super Three, as I nicknamed it, has the bulkiness of a large engine with the inherent limitations of an I4, and has an incredibly low RPM that is spared from being even lower by its rugged parts.

Once the Super Three got built in the engine maker, in 1946, I had to make over a decade worth of later cars that used it. Engine limitations like this are both more realistic and challenging than simply giving each new car a custom-built engine. So far, the cars built only stood out in the “muscle” category-understandably.

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Now for the “background”. This is based on the The Big One timeline, and I make no real claims to total, or even much plausibility. Said timeline would be a total mess regarding cars-Germany is nuked to ruin, which takes out both its car industry and machine-tools that set the rest of the world back, Japan remains economically backwards, and the US hogs all the remaining advanced tooling for its military-industrial complex. Thus its cars are even clunkier, to the point where the author said that to keep gas prices “down”, they have to not tax gasoline.

Also, Russia and Eastern Europe go capitalist far earlier, which could mean something other than old Fiats coming out of their lines.

(Incidentally, the main timeline is such a boring wish-fulfillment pushover that I find thinking about cars much more interesting than the main divergences. TBO was the ‘existing alternate history setting’ I mentioned in this old post.)

Enter the company TAZ. It stands for a Russian translation of “Tashkent Auto Factory” (Tashkent Avto Zavod).

TAZ’s fictional history is such-it starts out as a wartime plant producing military vehicles and/or engines for such in the safety of Central Asia. To survive after the war and privatization, it takes its one product-the Super Three engine, and turns itself into a maker of civilian autos.

The engine is far more suited for utility vehicles than passenger cars. But for whatever reason, TAZ ends up deciding to make such vehicles in addition to light trucks. Stuffing the Super Three into an auto gets you-a proto-muscle car. It’s too big to fit into smaller city cars, and doesn’t match the power of the true monsters, but it has the raw force in a smaller package.

As a niche car, it sells well enough to keep both its parent and said parent’s auto business functional. They begin crossing the oceans (where they become low-end muscle cars), and they give TAZ a foot in the door and a “theme” of power that helps them stay distinct. Although not the sole engine once they expand, the fondness for the Super Three keeps large I4s under the hoods of subsesquent TAZes.

Although technological progression and trends would be far different beyond the initial 1950s period given the previously mentioned differences, I reimagined a more modern TAZ, making a “3-21” three liter, 21st Century inline-four-and am in the process of building the “3-21” series in Automation now.

Question marks for TAZ remain. Their big engines are vulnerable to oil price increases, the inherent limitations of large I4s could work against them, the geography of their initial location isn’t the most efficient, and there’s politics that could harm them.

(Canon TBO reverts the USSR back to a large Russia while glossing over the inevitable awkward politics surrounding the non-Russian republics. Solidarity around an even bloodier Eastern Front and a postwar boom would repress it for a while, but it might very well come back after another bust).

Still, as an exercise, it’s very fun.

The Chrysler Yugo

So I was rereading an excellent history of one of the world’s most infamous cars-Jason Vuic’s The Yugo.

One of the things that jumped out at me was a possible sale of the Yugo rights to Chrysler that Malcolm Bricklin refused. From the revealed potential figures, Bricklin would have made a massive profit and Chrysler would get a new low-end car.

Yet he refused, being, as Vuic cited, someone for which business “it wasn’t the money, it was the chase” (The Yugo, p. 112). The book did not paint the auto entrepreneur in a very good light, and he seemed to combine the worst attitudes of a business leader. On one hand, he lived very large on an ornate ranch, on the other he had zero regard for actually maintaining value instead of racing from one stupid scheme to another.

If the Yugo had been Chryslerized, I feel confident in saying that it wouldn’t have the pop-culture impact it did. Being sold as its own standalone brand would give it a standout character that the economy model in an existing company wouldn’t. One does not see many jokes about the Mitsubishi Mirage , the current Thai-built super-econobox in the US market. (Previous-generation Mirages were actually rebadged by Chrysler as the Colt).

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In any case, Chrysler would have lost the Yugo when its native country collapsed, if poor sales hadn’t stopped it already.

One thing that got me reading the Yugo story again was articles about the Eastern European cars that were popular in the United Kingdom for a time. There was indeed a market for ultra-cheap boxes based on previous-gen Fiats. Naturally, my newest projects in Automation have centered around making such cars. The latest model regretfully needs a safety upgrade to be sold in “Western” markets, and I’ll see if I can do that without increasing the price too much.

Organization Size

So, this began as a post about the types of car companies I was imagining in Automation. They included (with the closest real world analogies there for reference)-

-Standalone/car dominant companies (Ford, Volkswagen)

-The automotive arms of giant conglomerates (Mitsubishi, Hyundai)

-Niche companies (Tesla)

Of course, auto makers in the third category frequently end up as subsidiaries of the first two. This then turned for a way to bring up another post idea I’ve had for a while-it’s easier to make a big organization do small things than the reverse, whether they hunt the supernatural or make cars.

 

 

Automation Game Projects

In my list of games I like to play, I’ve previously mentioned my liking of Automation: The Car Company Tycoon Game. In that game, I’ve built all sorts of cars in it. However, there are a few ones that I keep fine-tuning. Not in terms of any specific file, but a general class of cars.

 

Kabans.

 

Kabans (the name comes from a Russian word for “boar”), are compact cars that I build with the following characteristics/priorities.

 

-Good off-road performance.

-Fuel efficiency via direct injection and light panel materials.

-Modest attempts at cost control.

 

I’ve built a line of Kabans ranging from early 2000s ones to contemporary designs. Most get decent enough grades in the tycoon part, and are fun to build (if not ride in, given that I make the suspension prioritize ruggedness over smoothness).

 

Breakout-Car.

 

Breakout-Cars are the nickname I give to my array of designs that I took a particular interest in with the engineering and tooling cost changes in the latest update. They represent budget cars built by countries with revving up (no pun intended) auto industries. The goal is simplicity-simple parts that could theoretically be made easier by domestic suppliers, and simple construction.

 

Thus the only advantage of breakout-cars (especially for a developed-world consumer) is their price. The first breakout-car was so bad that I nicknamed it “Crappy-Car”. Hideous acceleration, pollution, and fuel consumption made it a car people would only buy if they had no other choice. Later cars are better, but still not ideal.

 

Speedsters.

 

And of course, there are the high-end luxury and sports cars. The exact opposite of breakout-cars, they’re simple to explain-high end in everything, including cost.

I like seeing the production numbers, even if “cars per day” is misleading.. A large plant can produce over a thousand Kabans a day, and smaller plants (to represent the still-lacking physical capital) make slightly fewer breakout-cars. But for the super-luxury ones-small plants and perfect attention to detail means that for the two plant sizes I used, it maxed out at three and four cars a day.
So, enjoy a ride in your Kaban, or, worse, breakout-car that the next Malcolm Bricklin wants to import.