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A Famous Car Auction Offers Some Answers For United States Auto Manufacturing Woes

A Famous Car Auction Offers Some Answers For United States Auto Manufacturing Woes

This past New Years holiday weekend, I had planned on the ritual television viewing of endless college and professional football games with my son. He is home for Christmas break from university, and the last weekend of each year we have always devoted to eating, lazing and yelling at the screen as teams with which we have no real interest slug it out in endless gridiron skirmishes. However, this year, our viewing habits were turned upside down by a re-run of a car auction.

Each January, the Barrett-Jackson Classic Automobile Auction takes place in Scottsdale, Arizona. The auction takes the better part of a week and features the most stunning car stock in the world, selling for mind numbing prices to ultra-rich celebrities and collectors. If you like cars, and as a child of the 1960’s I do, this is addictive stuff. My son and I saw very little football this weekend, as the auction ran hour after hour, a repeat of the January, 2006 auction as shown on the Speed Channel, and we were consumed.

Watching the auction was revealing on several levels: not only was the auction exciting, the cars beautiful and unique, the bidding spirited, but collectors demand for American classics overwhelmed the markets desire for all other types of collectible vehicles. Ferrari’s, Porsches and Maserati’s were offered and sold, however, all of the record sale prices were achieved by American muscle cars from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Were ANY American automobile executives in attendance, watching on television or even aware of the insatiable demand for their historic nameplates? At a time when Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, virtually all that is left of the once mighty American auto business, are losing market share, bleeding cash and shuttering factories, the demand for once-pedestrian priced rolling stock is immense. Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge Hemi, Chevelle, Camaro, Firebird, Mustang, and dozens of other American auto models, all once widely sold and, at prices virtually every man could afford, commanded prices as high as $2 million. That is right: $2,000,000!

The re-run of the Barrett-Jackson 2006 auction underlined clearly what ails the American automobile business and what the prescription for a return to the glory days must include. The engineers and designers of the mid-20th century American cars loved the industry: They were car guys first, last, always! Their designs and performance enhancements reflected passion. Cars were more than mere mass transportation; they were statements of creativity, art and American leadership and inventiveness. Can any of these traits be applied to today’s bland, look alike, pedestrian offerings coming to us from Detroit?

Harley Earl at GM, Raymond Loewy at Studebaker, Lee Iacoca at Ford, John DeLorean at Pontiac, and Virgil Exner at Chrysler were craftsman whose designs and styling cues influence the worldwide auto design industry to this day. Can you name the lead designer of any contemporary American auto model working today? They are as faceless, and colorless as their vehicles.
The classic “baby bird”, the Ford Thunderbirds of the 1950’s, were allowed to atrophy, became gluttonous and boxy before being put to a long deserved death in the 1990’s. A few years ago, Ford announced to great fanfare that the Thunderbird would be re-offered in the original two-seat sport roadster presentation. Expectations were high for the “new baby bird”, pre-production bookings encouraging and publicity generous in anticipation of the return of this American classic.
Sadly, the car proved a bust on every level. Performance was dull, lines and body silhouette a pale memory of the distinctive 1950’s design and the public walked quickly away from the car. After only three years of disappointing sales, the new Thunderbird was discontinued.

Ford at least tried. My question, re-issued while watching the 2006 Barrett-Jackson auction was this: Why didn’t the new “Bird” body look exactly like the old bird, gorgeous pastel colors, cutting edge styling cues, continental kits, but with modern mechanics under the hood? The “old Bird” is a recognized classic. Every collector wants a classic Thunderbird in the garage. No one cared for the lame attempt at a pseudo-Bird as offered by today’s Ford designers.

The contemporary American car business suffers for many reasons, including legacy costs, past management mistakes and bloated staffing. However, the biggest mistake by far, and I believe any casual viewer of the Barrett-Jackson auction would agree, is the stodgy, sameness of their contemporary offerings. When a Cadillac, a Buick, a Hyundai and a Toyota look the same, the car with the lowest price, best warranty and best service history will claim the lions share of the sales. Unfortunately these are not currently benefits associated with American cars.

The historic design pedigree that naturally could, and should be attached to American models has largely been forfeited. When a 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda (original sticker price, $4000) sells for over $2 million and Shelby Mustangs regularly sell for $1 million the market is making a clear statement. Is any body in Detroit paying attention?