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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Car Brands

What does a certain car brand “mean?”

This, as much as any material reason, explains the downfall of the Sloan Ladder.

Is it really any wonder why Oldsmobile, arguably the blandest marque, was the first one to be shut down by GM?

 

More Motor Companies

So, it’s time to have more motor car companies that have emerged out of my mind.

One is Ueno Motors, a smaller Japanese manufacturer in the country’s north. Named after the family name of its founder, I’ve envisioned it as having to roll uphill thanks to its poor geography and size. The exact state of Ueno, beyond “Seen better days” and “wallowing along with six figure units and mass-market pricing”, depends on my mood. Sometimes they’ve found a niche with weird nostalgic styling that conceals their aging platforms, other times they’re the makers of the blandest blandmobiles of all time.

Another is Mosaic, or whatever the equivalent of “Mosaic” in its native language would be. Mosaic can be applied anywhere, being formed from the merger of a disparate number of car companies into one body (hence the name). Whether it reaches the height of General Motors or the depths of British Leyland also depends on my mood.

Third is a revision of my old Barton Motors. It’s still a New Jersey based manufacturer that drops out of the mass market, but I’ve moved it away a bit. Barton makes a good transmission for the time and keeps it up. They even supply other automakers with their transmissions, which helps as their own cars fall behind in other ways (the drivability image given by this only lasts so long). So, they leave the final-assembly business but remain as a parts supplier, and achieve success that way. It may be ahistorical, but hey, I’ve thought it up.

Sedans

Sedan sales have been dropping. After helping my family move, and seeing the cargo stuff hatchback and crossover cars bring, I can see why.

Cars and Superheroes

I go through superhero phases, and am in one right now. So far my characters range from a superheroine who can “pause” time to a supervillain with no powers except his maniacal training and sharp intellect.

I institute a rough basic chart of comparison, with “Punisher-equivalents” at the bottom (skilled normal humans) to “Superman-equivalents” (cosmic level characters) at the top. The problem with that is in between, and not just because some superpowers are apples and oranges. Given the inconsistency of comics, where is a “Spider-Man equivalent” compared to a “Wolverine equivalent”?

Then I realized that I’d run into the same problem GM did with its array of brands between Chevy at the bottom and Cadillac at the top. The middle is more inherently blurry. The problem was amplified when you had internal competition-as was the case with comics as well.

Arrows And Torpedoes

Now, only recently have I looked more in-depth at the legendary Preston Tucker and his failed attempts at building cars.

The SEC charges were rather weak and there is no evidence to indicate that Tucker was an outright scammer, but even many of his defenders state that he was unaware of what going into the brutal auto industry actually meant. Kaiser-Frazer and Crosley, started by far more successful businessmen with more resources, still failed.

(The car itself did have many innovative and unique features, but even some of those were pared back in development. Never facing the stress test of sustained use marketing gives the vehicle an unnaturally rosy picture).

The Tucker cars remind me of another lost vehicle that attracts a disproportionate amount of nostalgia. This vehicle is the Avro Arrow. The Arrow was at best a limited F-4 or Western equivalent of the Su-15. Its main reason for being dropped dramatically after the Soviets shifted to missiles.

What makes the Tucker and Arrow stand out is the belief among far too many devotees that their success would have been game-changing. With the Arrow, Canada would be cranking out hordes of fighter jets. With Tucker, Detroit would have been nimbly pushed into shape, so that when the imports started arriving, they’d have far less of an opening.

I find both of these claims highly dubious.

Two Unusual Cars

A long time ago, I remember a semi-serious story draft. I needed two cars for the antagonists to be driving, one old and one newer. Knowing much less about cars than I do now, I basically flipped around at random and got a Honda Fit and Buick Riviera.

Now that I know more about these cars, what I got was a contemporary small car and and old giant landyacht. Together they’d look goofy more than anything else. Well, now I know more.

(As an aside, it says something about the utter failure of the 1986 Riveria redesign that even back then, I saw it as looking far less impressive than its previous model).

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)

Alternate History and Economic Reality

Few industries are as ruthlessly grinding as mainstream automobile manufacturing. This makes alternate histories where the “independent” American auto companies stay in business extra-challenging.

Historically, most of the independents were wiped out by the Great Depression. After an artificial postwar spike thanks to demand after a lack of car production in the war, the survivors were forced to consolidate in the early 1950s after a production race between Ford and Chevrolet glutted the market.

Studebaker-Packard was out of the auto business in a decade. Nash and Hudson “merged” into American Motors (in reality Nash essentially kept Hudson’s dealers and obliterated everything else), and were only saved by investing in an inherently counter-cyclical compact just in time for the 1958 recession.

This could only happen once. Domestic compacts and imports moved in to hit AMC’s niche, and they were forced to play an innovation game with few resources for the remainder of their existence.

And that was the successful one. Kaiser Frazer fizzled out simply because it didn’t have enough money.

All this happened before the 1973 gas crisis, and before the bulk of emissions and fuel economy regulations came into effect. Tough business, the auto industry. This, combined with the inability of GM itself, much less a smaller competitor, to sustain a giant multi-brand lineup without large quantities of badge engineering, makes me skeptical of timelines where the independents stay active.