Friday, July 27, 2007

"What's Good for General Motors is Good for the U.S."

Yesterday's post started me thinking about why some people become wed to specific automobile brands in the way that my family gave their heart to Ford. I honestly think that if my father had won a Pontiac or even a Cadillac in a contest, he'd run down to the Ford dealership and trade it in on a new Taurus. What inspires that kind of devotion and, in many cases, a visceral response? Why do I go weak in the knees when I pass an Austin-Healey or Triumph? I'm not familiar with the psychological analyses of car ownership, but no doubt there's a significant body of literature out there addressing the subject.

What we're more likely familiar with, however, are the "class" connotations inherent in owning a particular brand of car. Here in money-crazed Manhattan, that's especially true; one regularly sees the newest, flashiest and sportiest cars available. It's not unusual to see a Ferrari, Aston-Martin, Bentley, or even a Maybach. But what force "drives" these purchases?

Looking back to the 1950s and 60s when there were fewer choices for American consumers, the new car spectrum tended to be more stratified, often defined by where one lived and worked. At the time, General Motors was the largest industrial corporation in the world and sold the lion's share of cars in the U.S. (GM was so large, in fact, that impressions of the company in the 1950s are usually shaped by the oft misquoted words of Charles E. Wilson, who served as CEO of GM from 1941 to 1953, and as Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower from 1953 to 1957: "What's good for General Motors is good for the United States," he said.) In his wonderful book The Fifties, David Halberstam addresses this topic and points out that one usually bought a GM car based on one's position in the class system of the day. Blue-collar workers, for example, drove Chevys; white-collar families bought Pontiacs and, with a promotion or pay raise, might move up to a Buick. Oldsmobile tended to be the car of choice for doctors and lawyers, while executives opted for Cadillacs.

Today, with easier credit terms, the option of leases, and wider model selection, the auto-buying scene is a bit more fluid. Still, those old loyalties continue to play a role in our purchasing habits in the same way we develop brand loyalty to more mundane consumer goods. Just last month my father went out and bought a Ford Fusion, in the same color as the Taurus he traded in . . . despite my advice that he look into a more reliable Honda Civic or Accord. (Note my own brand loyalty and prejudice that a Honda would automatically prove "more reliable.")

My wife and I recently started talking about purchasing a new car at some point in late 2007 or early 2008. We need something that will hold the kids as they get bigger and allow us to take longer and more frequent car trips in comfort. Naturally I suggested a Honda, perhaps a CRV or Element. My wife, however, grew up with Volvos and suggested a Volvo Cross Country station wagon. (She even gave one a test-drive earlier this week!) It'll be interesting and fun to see what we eventually drive home. Some people loathe the car-buying experience . . . people like my parents. But I actually enjoy it . . . the hunt for just the right vehicle, one that will satisfy one's practical nature and elicit that visceral response.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

Those Volvo station wagons are the coolest looking things. Especially in black. Please don't get an Element, PD will make fun of you... ;-)