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