“How To Save a Life” – An Essay Written for Ford and GM

I wrote this back in the Summer of 2007.  It’s lengthy, wordy and obscure.  Perhaps most importantly though, it’s sharply to-the-point.  What a lovely coincidence that the ‘Big 3’ took heed shortly thereafter and utilized many of these same recommendations.  Please feel free to share your thoughts.

-D

Introduction

Date: January 26, 1986

Place: Parents’ House

Event: Chicago Bears vs New England Patriots: Super Bowl XX

After a ferocious game of Candyland with my Dad, I settled into our big red armchair to watch the Bears take on the Patriots to capture their first NFL title since 1963.  No doubt, this was to be an exciting game.  My entire family was mildly intoxicated and cheering loudly in the living room.  Our 1980 Honda Accord and 1985 Chevrolet Celebrity Wagon were parked quietly in the garage.  That wagon was my new favorite thing to talk about.  I proclaimed how, when I got older, I would own one just like it.  Light blue with a blue interior, 2.8 liter V-6, and the rearward-facing third-row seat.  Ahh, how times were so carefree back then…Okay!  There goes the game!  I’m practically drooling a small lake on the floor as I watch in catatonic excitement.  Before I know it, we have hit the first commercial break.  

‘Introducing the all-new 1986 Ford Taurus.’

I will never forget that commercial.

There I sat, eyes aglow, looking at the black beauty gleaming across the twenty-seven inch screen in front of me.  It had six cylinders of fuel-injected power.  Digital instrumentation.  Luxury seating for five or six.  Looks that could kill.

I was in love.  I was three and a half years old, and my obsession with cars had just begun.

Halftime rolled around and I was formulating, on the backside of a coloring book, my best interpretation of the digital dashboard I had just seen.  I was fascinated.  Captivated by an American car, I now swore I wanted to be a car designer when I got older.  From that point on, I did everything I could to exhaust the country’s supply of crayons, pencils, markers and construction paper to draw nothing but cars and dashboards.  Just ask my parents.  (I don’t care what they say, they loved it)

Date: January 1993

Place: McCormick Place

Event: Chicago Auto Show

Tom Gale.  Chief designer for Chrysler.  This man was my idol.  Forget my Dad’s 1989 Acura Integra LS, I was captivated again.  ‘The all-new 1993 Chrysler LH cars.’  Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision, Chrysler New Yorker, LHS and Concorde.  Cab-forward design for more passenger room, brand-new 3.3L and 3.5L six-cylinder engines, and one heck of an eleven-speaker Infinity sound system.  Not to mention, of course, the coolest feature of them all:  Autostick.  How in the world could you shift a four-speed automatic transmission without a clutch?  Pioneers, this Chrysler group.  I wrote Mr. Gale a letter, along with a picture of what I thought the ‘next-generation’ Intrepid should look like.  I received a personalized letter of thanks from him shortly thereafter, assuring me that my ideas would be genuinely taken into consideration.  That made my day, my month, and my year.  I had a voice at ten and a half years old.

My Ideas Would be Genuinely Taken into Consideration

Motor Trend Magazine recently interviewed Jim Press, President and COO of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.  He discussed Toyota’s success in the American market and the launch of their new Tundra full-size pickup truck.  More importantly, he elaborated on Toyota’s rise to fast becoming the world’s number-one automaker.  His secret to success was easy to decipher:  Listen to what the people tell you they want rather than what you think they want.

Most of America is not as into cars as me.  They see their vehicles as transportation appliances.  Something to safely get persons A, B and C to points A, B and C with minimal risk or drama.  I am in the midst of starting up an automotive consulting practice.  The following are some of the actual comments from my first clients, in regards to most Japanese and Korean vehicles.

“Eight airbags?  Great.  Stability control?  Don’t know what that is, but it sounds like it could save my ass.  Sign me up.  All-wheel-drive?  Perfect for the winter.  Is it safe and reliable?  Excellent.  Good warranty?  Great.  I can get leather, xenons, Bose, and a Nav system for under $25 grand??  Plus it says the resale value is good.  I’ll take it.”

This is what most people I interviewed thought of when they read the brochures describing most any average American family car.

“Side airbags are optional?  No standard ABS?  No roadside assistance?  It looks like a rental car.  The inside looks like it will fall apart if my kids touch it too much.  Why do I need 18 cup holders and a heated washer fluid reservoir?  I’m 35 years old; I’m still too young for a Buick.  It’ll only call the paramedics for me if I pay to activate this plan?  Doesn’t the Camry come with all this stuff standard? 8 Cylinders and FRONT wheel drive? The steering wheel will knock my fingers off if I accelerate too quickly.  My last Ford wasn’t worth anything when I went to trade it in.  It’s made in Korea?  I thought it was a Chevrolet.”

The Answer Man

People have been asking me for advice on buying cars since I was fifteen years old. 

In 1997, my Dad brought me to a Chrysler dealership and given his budget, I picked out the perfect Chrysler Concorde LXi in the perfect color with the perfect options for him.  He loved that car, as it was truly what he wanted at a price he could afford.  At 37,000 miles, the cooling system had sprung a leak.  Shortly thereafter, the car started missing second gear (this, after my Mom’s 1992.5 Plymouth Grand Voyager had the transmission replaced at 36,100 miles).  It was averaging 11-12mpg, and the check engine light would come on intermittently.  The passenger-front dash speaker (full-range) would only work if you hit it with your fist, and the ABS/Traction Control only worked half of the time.

When asked in November of 1999 if he wanted the new 300M or the new Infiniti I30, he chose the I30 solely on the fact that he knew it would be mechanically sound.  Now, nearly eight years and ninety-five thousand miles later, the car belongs to my brother and sister, and has only been in the shop twice.  Once for a starter motor at 75k and once for an oxygen sensor at 85k.

At that time, I was still relatively indebted to American cars.  My best friend’s Mom had a 1993 Saturn SL2 that she loved, but had caused more headaches and breakdowns than she could ever possibly have imagined.  She had thought her car was simply a fluke, and I had heard some relatively good things about Saturns.  In May of 2001, I decided to purchase a 1996 Saturn SL2 with a five-speed and a sunroof.  One owner, new OEM exhaust, OEM brakes and tires, 64,000 miles, regularly maintained, clean carfax, no accidents.  $6500.  Sounded like a winner.

Fast-forward to September of 2002.

The Saturn now had 90,000 miles on it, and was in desperate need of repair.  I had, however, already repaired it several times.  It now had gone through two oxygen sensors, an alternator, two batteries, a new sunroof motor and module (the parts were not sold separately) and two wheel bearings.  At that point (when I sold it), it needed another new muffler, new front pads and rotors (after only 24,000 miles), a head gasket, a water pump, and a CV joint.  Possibly a control arm, too.  And to think, I maintained that car immaculately, and only at Saturn dealerships.  It had still never been in an accident.  Plus, it was only worth $4000 private party without all of the problems.  (CarMax offered me $1800 to trade it in).  My love affair with American cars was over.  No questions.  I wrote a letter to Saturn not for sympathy or reimbursement, but simply to inquire as to why their division, slated to directly compete with the Japanese market, simply could not keep up.  I never got a response.

A Mechanical Cry for Help

By this time, I was very interested in automotive politics.  I kept track of GM, Ford and Chrysler stock and quarterly reports to stay informed of their stake in the marketplace.  I began hearing rumors of Toyota taking over the number one spot within the next ten years.  I had been reading most every article in most every major automotive publication since 1992.

I listened to ‘Click and Clack’ religiously on NPR Saturday mornings with my parents.  Week after week, people would call in having problems with their cars.  Of course, from time to time a Japanese one would squeak in there; But what would you think if you heard the show I did where three callers had less-than-five-year-old American cars and the fourth had a twenty-year-old Honda?  You would be frightened to know how many of my friends and relatives will not buy another American car because of ‘potentially life-threatening safety recalls.”  Tire failure, shorts under the hood could ignite raw fuel causing a fire, liftgate could pop open.

My friend’s sister bought a brand new 2000 Ford Focus ZTS back when they first came out.  Leaving the lot of the dealership, her clutch pedal snapped off its housing and stalled her car in the middle of oncoming traffic.  Another friend, merely two months ago, had to execute a pedal-to-the-floorboards emergency stop in his 2005 Ford Ranger to avoid hitting a clueless pedestrian.  The truck stopped two feet short of the man in the intersection, but not before the bar that held the clutch, brake and gas pedals shattered, leaving the clutch disengaged, the gas pedal floored, and the brakes locking all four wheels.  His car was dead in the middle of Colfax, one of the busiest (and most dangerous) streets in Denver.

My girlfriend’s Mom has a 2005 Saab 9-3 Arc convertible.  It has only 18,000 miles on the odometer and is now more than two years old.  The car is in the shop practically every two to three weeks with another issue.  The same thing happened to our fleet of 9-3 Linears we had at my old Enterprise Rent-A-Car branch.  Light bulb after light bulb would burn out.  The cars wouldn’t run right when it was cold.  The whole interior would rattle after just a few thousand miles.  The engine shook the whole car at idle.  The window regulators were worse than Volkswagen’s ‘mark four’ platform cars (1999-2004 Jetta, Beetle, Golf).  She wants to get rid of her car but can’t, as it is worth less than half of what she paid for it new.

Capitalize On Your Strengths

On the contrary, my girlfriend’s Dad has a 2005 Ford F-150 XLT with the 5.4-Liter Triton V8.  He has put nearly 75,000 miles of hard work and abuse into it just in the last two years.  Not to mention $25,000 in modifications (Roush supercharger, exhaust, intercooler, upgraded ECU, huge lift kit, 22’’ wheels, among a bed-length toolbox and many other things).  This would have destroyed any normal vehicle.  His company also has a 2000 Chevrolet Silverado K2500 with nearly 260,000 miles on the clock and no problems to speak of.  It is still on the original block and transmission, too.  Here’s where I start to see hope.

These trucks were built around the concept of ‘give America what they want.’  The Silverado/Tahoe/Suburban, in that generation, was consistently at the top of the list for best-selling vehicles in the US.

The F-150 has managed to stay right up there as well.  Its re-design in 2004 revolutionized the market for American-built pickup trucks.  Incredible rigidity and refinement.  An American vehicle had finally set a benchmark.

The new Silverado just won Motor Trend’s coveted ‘Truck of the Year’ award.  You listened to what America wanted and delivered.

The F-150, however, is now placing last in several comparison tests with the new Silverado, Tundra, and even Titan.

I have always said that if I were to need a pickup truck or large SUV to haul materials or tow a boat, I would turn to Ford and Chevrolet before anybody else.  With all of the new competition in the running, however, I will eventually need an even more compelling argument.  Nonetheless, capitalize on your dominance of the American truck market; But don’t bet the farm on it.  Your compact trucks have a long way to go (Ranger/Colorado), and Ford, the durability of your new twin-turbo Powerstroke was even flawed at launch, just like the last generation.

What to do, old friend?

Here’s where I start to get honest.  I by no means have the qualifications of a road test editor, automotive executive or even well-versed businessman.  I am a server at Morton’s the Steakhouse by night, occasional Automotive Consultant by day, and genuine friend, brother and fiancé 24/7.  I just enjoy helping friends and family look for the perfect car, as I have been doing since I was in middle school.  This is my greatest passion.  To talk, read, write and simply learn about cars.  I have compiled what I know through thousands of articles from every different publication.  Not to mention simply talking to people I know, both formally and informally.  I’ve had the opportunity to drive many of these cars through working for a major car rental company.  More recently, I have found myself traveling to dealerships (locally and abroad) to check out and drive new and/or improved models.  Plus, my Father is in rental cars virtually five days per week.

To all of you who might be reading this, the following is my best advice to you.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY


General Company Ideas

-Drop the Mercury nameplate.  It is a waste of money.  I have never once heard of anyone going out with the intent of buying a Mercury vehicle.  Nearly every person I talk to is unable to differentiate between a Ford and Mercury (appearance aside).  Chrysler lost Plymouth and has not looked back.

-Drop Jaguar.  Now.  They are hemorrhaging badly and are quickly crossing the point of no return.

-Drop Land Rover.  Seriously.  Somebody will pick them up.  Do not wage their success on the new LR2; it will, I believe, only be a moderate success (read: Freelander)

-Keep Mazda.  This company will continue to be profitable through way of innovation.  Do not develop another minivan for them, and do not develop another compact pickup truck.  Drop the RX-8 or turbo charge it like it used to be.  Mazda will become your ‘sporty’ brand.

-Keep Volvo.  Although, if you cannot improve their reliability in a cost-efficient manner, drop them altogether.  (S40, XC90 are ranked very poorly in this regard).  The new C30 is amazing.

-Stay away from Hybrid technology.  You heard it right.  The cost of the materials needed for R&D as well as production, I believe, far outweigh actual fuel savings.  Work harder instead on making your engines ‘greener,’ (ULEV; SULEV…take a look at Honda) and more fuel-efficient.

-On that note, utilize systems on your six-cylinders similar to BMW’s Valvetronic and variable-length intake manifolds.  If my Dad’s Z4 3.0si can realistically average 25/31mpg (city/highway), your powerful (ie; non-184hp, made-in-china) six-cylinders can, too.

-Make ABS standard on EVERY model

-Make stability control systems standard on EVERY model.  If this is too expensive, make it an inexpensive option.  Cut the costs from somewhere else.

-Enhance your new vehicle warranties.  Promote these enhancements heavily.   You need to start building value/dependability in your vehicles again.

-4/50 Bumper-To-Bumper

-4/50 Powertrain

-4/50 Roadside

-Extend, for the upcoming model year, powertrain and roadside to 7/70.  However, charge a deductible beyond the expiration of the factory 4/50 warranty.

-Incorporate an optional factory maintenance program a’la BMW, Audi, etc.

-Example:  For $750, include all scheduled maintenance, oil changes, tire rotations, brakes, clutches, bulbs, belts, hoses, etc for 3/36.

***This will improve your vehicles’ resale values***

Make this program standard for all new Lincoln/Luxury brand vehicles.

-Keep the Fusion and MKZ, but drop the Milan.  Get ready to update the Fusion.  Soon.  The Mazda6 platform is aging quickly.

-Stop talking about these new recovery plans involving layoffs, consultants, etc.  You know where the problems exist, as do your loyal, tenured workers.  FIX THEM.

GM


General Company Ideas

-Drop Buick.  For God’s sake, nobody except Tiger Woods gives a crap about these cars.  You will never captivate a ‘younger’ market, and your cars are simply too ‘target demographically-confused’ to ever be successful.  See ya later.  Nobody needs a poor-man’s Cadillac.

-Drop GMC.  What in the world is the difference between a Chevrolet truck and a GMC truck?  I sure don’t know, and I know my cars pretty well.

-Drop Saab.  You are destroying their heritage, their customer base and their cars.  Saabs have always been quirky, but never overpriced and unreliable.  Take a peek at what a 2004 9-3 is going for on the used car market.  You’ll see what I mean.

-Drop Hummer.  You have the H-3.  That’s it.  Who cares about the same old 5.3L V8 dropped into the same unrefined Colorado/Canyon platform?  The H2 fad is over, and the H1 is simply ridiculous.  Hummer is as good as dead.  Replace the H3 with a serious off-road version of the Tahoe.

-Keep Pontiac.  Revitalize them in a way never before seen.  They will be your sporty brand.  Do not make a GXP Torrent.  Nobody wants it on this side of the Atlantic.  In fact, don’t make the Torrent at all.  Invest the money instead into turning the Vibe into a good-performing, all-wheel-drive hot hatch.  I love the concept that car had back in 2003.  Make it an Impreza-killer.  Drop the Montana.  Look into making the next-gen G6 coupe Rear-Wheel-Drive.

-Keep Saturn.  You’re doing something right here.  North American car of the year??  Way to go, ladies and gentlemen.  The Sky is hot (and affordable).  Be careful with the Astra; It’s underpowered and does not offer all-wheel-drive.  This is not an economy car.  Drop the Outlook and Relay.  They do not sell.  At all.

-Keep Cadillac.  I would almost say that, at 25 years old, I want a 6-speed CTS for my next car.  The Escalade is overpriced, but a looker.  The STS is crap; re-design it.  Clean sheet.  On that note, get rid of the DTS; Make the STS your top-of-the-line.

-Keep Chevrolet.  Your new Malibu looks and sounds great; but the front end still looks like a rental car.  Get the Camaro on sale as soon as possible.  The Mustang is losing its footing (literally; no thanks to an archaic live-rear-axle).  Do not delay the release of the convertible.  Do not let the Camaro tread into Corvette territory, either.  Otherwise, you will wind up killing sales of the base Vette and have to stick with the Z06 on its own.

-More option packages, less stand-alone options.  Stand-alone options are for trucks.  Want to save money?  Do what Honda does.  A few standardized trim levels with various available accessories.  There; Your manufacturing costs just got significantly cheaper.

Overall?  STOP PLATFORM SHARING.  Nobody wants the same steering, suspension, interior and feel on three cars that just look a little different.  Make ONE of each model and focus on it.  Yes, you can share engines, transmissions, radios, etc; But put them in DIFFERENT cars.  Platform sharing is killing your brand’s image.  The public is catching on.

In The End

I see no real reason to conclude or sum up my points.  Everybody skips to the end of the story to find out what happens before they read the rest.  This stuff is important, folks.  Nobody thought Pan-Am would go out of business, and they did.  Even United Airlines seems to be on the verge of collapse.  First-Class meal upgrades prepared by famous chefs do not appease your bread-and-butter crowd.

Carlos Ghosn, when he took over Nissan, traveled all over the country to speak with his bread-and-butter crowd.  Except that he realized one important detail.  To please the public, you have to please your employees.  Not just high-level management, either.  Ghosn visited with factory workers, janitors, salesmen, and parts counter clerks all over the country.  He sat them down for meetings about manufacturing processes, sales goals, and cost management.  He even bought pizza for them if the meetings were taking too long.  As intimidated as these entry-level workers were at first, they did become at ease with Ghosn’s policies, and ultimately believed in his promises.  They believed in him because he set forth these new policies and goals strictly based on what they (and the public) wanted.  Guess what happened, GM and Ford?  That’s right.  Nissan is now profitable again, and has enjoyed tremendous success, especially with the Altima and 350Z.

Treat your workers with respect.  Every last one of them.  Eliminate only the positions which you know you do not need.  Give the Mercury, Land Rover, Jaguar, Buick, Hummer, Saab and GMC workers plenty of warning and help them find other jobs within the field.  Most of these factory workers you are laying off have no formal post-secondary education like you do.  Where else are they going to find jobs?

Your employees and the public can fix your companies.  Listen to them, I beg of you.  Everyone I talk to has an idea, a concept, a belief, and faith.  Remember that you have a place right in the heart of every American consumer.  We know you have worked hard.  Prove to us that you care by building on your strengths.  We will be there to help you along the way with all that we can give.  Just ask.

Regards,

Daniel Ari Buxbaum

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