(With this morning’s news of yet another pedestrian hit and killed by a vehicle, that’s what now, 4 in the past 4 days?, we excerpt another passage from John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death of the Automobile. “Accidents” like this are simply the natural outcome of a transportation system and hierarchy perverted by the relentless product push of the automotive industry. An industry… a-hem, a-hem… driven by whimsical business practices and dependent on what Jerome calls a ‘captive market’.)
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The Smugness of Abundance, and Vice Versa
There are men in Detroit whose sensibilities are not blunted to the anguish of the country, men sensitive enough to recognize the reasons for their own insularity and humble enough to seek external, non-automobile-industry assistance in understanding the public who buy their cars. The very best help is sought: psychologists, motivational researchers, men whose scientifically sound research methods yield computer-quantifiable results, as well as men to whom public accolade gives credit for certifiable wisdom. The purpose of the seeking is additional profit, of course, and no great amount of money is spent on these pundits – nothing like the sums invested in a new rear-fender shape, for instance. But wisdom is sometimes sought. Even the advertising agencies – high-priced agglomerations of professionals trained to gauge public taste – are consulted. The industry gets a lot of advice, not all of it worthless. That it chooses so consistently to ignore the advice it purchases is not, in view of recent history, entirely surprising. It sought the advice that generated the compacts, in 1960 – but it misunderstood the advice it got (it often does), and turned an intelligent marketing gambit into a short-lived defensive reaction. Somewhere the industry must have gotten the advice that it could ignore pollution and safety for a long, long time.
A great deal of the industry’s imperviousness to advice undoubtedly comes from the sales figures. Against the insubstantialities of external market advice, the industry can point to the reality of 7 million passenger cars sold, on average, every year since 1955. If we are so insulated and unresponsive to public needs, the industry seems justified in saying, why are we so rich?
Given the traditional public faith in the sovereignty of the free market, the argument is tough to refute. We bought ‘em, we must love ‘em. Perhaps Detroit does give the people what they want, as the industry is so fond of saying. If the numbers are to be believed. One might even go so far as to assume, as Detroit has assumed, that the industry has some kind of magic taste-indicator – the stylists claim to live five years ahead of the desires of the great unwashed – and can therefore unerringly fashion machinery and sheet metal to match that taste.
A number of counterindications, however, undercut the industry’s self-proclaimed position as ultimate arbiter of public taste. The infallibility of that taste produced “up” years – upward rising scales curves – in only a little more than half of the model years of the golden era. Of course sales successes are always triumphs of judgment and perspicacity, but slippages are the result of “the economy” – or strikes. That 7-million-car average hides wild fluctuations of sales totals – a drop of 47 percent between 1955 and 1958, of more than 25 percent between 1968 and 1970 – despite the best efforts of the industry’s planners to gear for consistent production figures. The sales charts do mirror the major economic indicators, although no one seems quite willing to say whether car sales push or are pulled by those indicators. At any rate, if the economy is responsible for the plunges of the sales curve, it seems quite likely that the sales peaks are also a result of national economic health, rather than the product of specific design responses by the industry to the public’s ineffable aesthetic needs.
Imported car sales also seem pegged to more stable indices. The imports began to come into this country in statistically significant numbers before the beginning of the golden era; Detroit said it would begin to worry about the imports in the, heh heh, unlikely event the little bugs (“shitboxes” is the almost universal familiar term among Detroit’s forward thinkers) ever got 3 percent of the market. The little bugs did. Detroit revised its worry point upwards to 6 percent; the imports surpassed it. By 1959 the foreign cars were getting 10 percent of the market while Detroit sales were sagging badly. Detroit counterpunched in 1960 with the compacts (in the works since about 1957) and scored, and foreign-car dealerships throughout the land began closing their doors. But with two or three years out for retrenchment (and for some makes, badly needed redesign to fit American driving habits), the little cars began slowly and steadily chomping off those percentage points again. In 1971 import sales peaked out a just below 20 percent of the market; Nixonomics thereupon scrambled the picture so badly that the future of imported cars sales in this country is virtually unreadable, but no less a seer than Henry Ford II has estimated that the imports will hold a steady 15 percent for the foreseeable future.
The imports are, by and large, “rational” cars, predicated on economy, functionality, simplicity (sports cars excepted, of course). Their manufacturers have not engaged in styling wars, attempting to anticipate in sheet metal the fickleness of American tastes. In fact the import manufacturers haven’t worried much about “giving the public what it wants”; they’ve simply produced as many cars as they could, to their own standards, and in the case of the more successful makes in which a high level of quality is clearly present – Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz – they’ve sold all the cars they could spare for the American market. Meanwhile the domestic small cars – counterpunch number two against the Old Country menace – seem to be succeeding primarily in taking percentage points of market share away from their own big brothers.
The compacts eventually died because they were not profitable enough as “economy” cars, and so Detroit loaded them with extras and let them balloon in size. The new domestic small cars are clearly less profitable than the old compacts, and their chief function so far seems to be to reduce the sales for domestic big cars. It is little wonder that the moguls are crying poor about profitability these days. It is little wonder also that the industry looks askance at the outside advice; everyone told them they had to stem the foreign invasion, but nobody told them how to do it and continue to make money.
In the final analysis there is, as ex-Department of Transportation aide John Burby has pointed out, a market for about 8 million new cars a year in the U.S., come what may. The figure will expand gradually with population growth until the detrimental aspects of car ownership outweigh the service it provides. “Market” isn’t precisely the term – “rate of consumption” might be more accurate. That “market” is virtually captive. Our motorized miles per year mean that 86 percent of our travelers use private cars, for 79 percent of the trips (by number) that are taken. Commercial airlines absorb another 13 percent of the trips, leaving a full 8 percent for all of the other transportation systems in the U.S. to grow rich over – and expand to the point that they can relieve us of the necessity of pouring our personal wealth into private automobiles. No less than 82 percent of our commuting workers use automobiles to go to and from work; the same percentage of our families now own automobiles. Sixty percent of our poverty-level Americans “own” cars, as do 25 percent of the under-$1000-per-year population (The figure must include a lot of teen-agers). The statistics roll on and on; they are the Automobile Manufacturers Association’s own, published annually in a paperback horror story of overconcentration of an industry.
It is pointless to try to convince ourselves otherwise: we have a single transportation system in this country, pure and simple, with a couple of curious small-time competitors in the form of airplanes and railroads. We have a population pushing 210 million, and we throw away more than 7 million cars a year. The manufacturers – those fellows who defend every tasteless and wasteful gimcrack tagged onto the cars in the effort to stimulate sagging public enthusiasms with the justification that they are giving the public what it wants, nay, demands – know their market so well that in 1970, 25 percent of it slipped away they know not where, and their miniaturized competitors from across the seas stole away almost 20 percent of what was left.
We can, perhaps, be thankful. If the industry really did know how to give the public what it wants – rather than simply grinding out units of production to stuff into the gaping hole of otherwise unfilled transportation needs – our nation might be even more desperately unbalanced in its transportation network, its economic centricity, its misplaced social priorities, than it already is.
— excerptly submitted by Cityslikr