Saturday, March 31, 2007

Clever execution of required elements

Whether it's cars, electronics, wristwatches, or whatever, I don't like stuff that doesn't do anything functional. With a few exceptions like cars that people use like jewelry and/or art, we purchase durable goods because we need them to help us perform a set of tasks. Usually I find any styling or other purely aesthetic consideration that interferes with that performance offensive.

On the exterior, cars generally require bodies, wheels, lights, vents, windows, and bumpers. Inside, cars generally require seats, an instrument panel, a steering wheel, and door panels. Designers that derive most or all of a car's styling from clever execution of required elements always have my respect, even if they go in a visual direction I don't particularly like.

Character line through the sheet metal all the way down the side? Sure, why not? The car has to have fenders, doors, and quarter panels; putting a stylized crease in them is trivial. Wood on the instrument panel? No problem. A car interior's wiring and controls need protection from everyday stresses, and if said protection is aesthetically pleasing, so much the better.

Today's lighting clusters, both front and rear, are often complexly styled. That's another legitimate arena in which a stylist can work, as cars have to have lights. They're also small and light, so the possibility of creating problems with other systems is remote. Look at the rear cluster on a first-generation Lexus RX300:

There were a few baby steps toward making rear light clusters a significant styling element before the RX300, but in my view this car was the first one on which designers said "hey--as long as it works, we can do all kinds of things with taillights and turn indicators."

So what happens when form trumps function? You get cars like the Infiniti J30. What likely happened with this car is that someone drew the profile and said "this is what the car will look like." Over the wall to engineering it went; "make it work" came the declaration. It's pretty, isn't it?

Unfortunately, with the J30, Nissan forgot something fundamental: above all, a mainstream car has to work. It has to be suitable for the way its customer will use it. This one wasn't. Prices paid for that swoopy backlight and droopy rear: no headroom in the rear seats and a tiny trunk.

Remember the severely oval Ford Taurus, ca. 1996? "If it can be oval, make it oval," seemed to be the guiding principle on that effort, both inside and outside. Check out the stereo and HVAC controls:

Think you could use that easily at night? What's involved to put an aftermarket stereo in there? User considerations be damned; it was oval, and that's what was important.

So how do you get style without sacrifice? The Chrysler PT Cruiser isn't my cup of tea, but it's an excellent example of a distinctively-styled car that sacrifices no function for its form.

Essentially it's a tallish station wagon: a practical but decidedly unhip concept. Yet it's made appealing by minor (from an engineering standpoint) touches that successfully evoke much larger, more extravagant cars of 60 years ago. The styling grabs attention and puts warm bodies in showrooms, but it's the car's massive interior and usability that keep it a hit. If looking cool was the only thing you could do with a PT Cruiser, it would have already died. But it works, so it sells.

The Honda Accord has been a benchmark of form following function ever since its introduction more than 30 years ago:
From the factory, everything on an Accord does something. (I say "from the factory" because in response to demand, Honda must offer $700 wads of resin called "spoilers" as dealer-installed accessories, for example.) Stimulating few and offending none, the Accord has always been one of the purest expressions of a vanilla family car available. (Don't forget, vanilla is #1 because it's plain, but also because it tastes good).

Automakers, keep your scoops (unless they actually increase airflow). Keep your spoilers (unless they actually increase downforce at speed). Give me something stylish and memorable using only what has to be there anyway, and I'm impressed.

Thanks to for the RX300 image. Thanks to Main Street Motors for the Taurus center stack image. All other images are from respective company literature.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Cadillac's near-death and rebirth

"The Standard of the World." That's chutzpah, isn't it? It was once Cadillac's slogan.

GM's luxury division has known huge triumphs and equally huge defeats. But in all of Cadillac's 105-year history, few would dispute the '80s were rock bottom.

No, It's a Cadillac, Really
Pressed by rising gas prices and the increasing threat of smaller German cars like the BMW 3-series, Cadillac moved its small car timetable up and hurriedly introduced the Cimarron, based on GM's J-platform that also underpinned the Chevrolet Cavalier, in 1982.

The J-platform cars improved to merely "mediocre" by the end of their lives in 2005, but when they were introduced in 1982 they were horrendous. They were underpowered, noisy, and handled poorly. What a great starting point for an entry-level luxury car, eh? Onto this, GM slathered leather, exclusive colors, and all of the electric toys, and christened it a Cadillac.

If you think it sounds like a whored-up Cavalier at twice the price, you nailed it. And Ernest Borgnine in drag that makes him look like a $1,000 hooker is still Ernest Borgnine.

Of course, manufacturers still share platforms among different models. But today the starting points are better, and more effort is usually made to differentiate. The Cimarron is possibly the worst example of platform-sharing ever. In fact, according to Car and Driver, current Cadillac product director John Howell has a picture of the Cimarron on his office wall captioned "Lest We Forget."

When the Cimarron was introduced, Cadillac had already laid a few recent eggs--the V8-6-4 cylinder deactivation was a technical fiasco, and the bustleback Seville was, uh, controversial--but the Cimarron was the first and worst in a series of true turds that nearly killed the division.

Small and Styleless, But Still Expensive as Hell

In addition to this insult, GM was busily shrinking all of its larger cars, including Cadillac, dramatically. Acting largely on the bad advice of a single consultant (perhaps apocryphal, but oft-repeated), GM became convinced that $3/gallon gasoline was a sure thing by the late '80s. So the "large" cars GM starting trickling out in 1985 were anything but. Further, they all looked alike, with pinched front ends and near-vertical backlights. A Cadillac Seville looked way too much like an Oldsmobile Ninety Eight with a bunch of Cadillac crests and an eggcrate grille slapped on (because that is essentially exactly what it was). The Pontiac Bonneville of the era was a little more distinctive, but its corporate roofline still gave it away.

A Beautiful But Average Car, Built Very Inefficiently

Cadillac even blew the Allanté, its exclusive Italian-bodied convertible introduced in 1987. Few deny it was a gorgeous car, but it was front-wheel drive and still only marginally competitive with its target, the Mercedes-Benz 560SL. Also, in what was then called "the world's longest assembly line," the car required two transatlantic flights to build. The chassis was assembled in the U.S.; it was flown to Italy to have the body installed; and then flown back to the U.S. to be finished. Sounds efficient, yes? The car was beautiful but underpowered until its last year, when it received Cadillac's new Northstar V8. GM then promptly killed it. So far, despite total Allanté production of only 21,000, 1993 has been the only Allanté year to be even somewhat collectible.

Worse, the Allanté was the wrong car. Cadillac desperately needed a competitive 4-door sedan, not a low-volume plaything for the rich (the '87 Allanté stickered for $54,000, roughly $96,000 today). Hopes that it would make a good "umbrella" car were misguided, as everything under it in the line was too mediocre to be credibly elevated.

Finding the Way Back
Cadillac's renaissance started with the 1992 Seville.

It drove, rode, and handled well. It was well-equipped, competitively priced, and a stunning styling success--the first truly pretty 4-door Cadillac in many years. With the addition of the Northstar V8 in 1993, it became the first credible alternative to the European and Japanese luxury cars of the time that an American manufacturer had ever fielded. (All trims are called STS today.)

They didn't rest. The DeVille was next and retained the "poshmobile" role in the line, but with modern attention to detail and engineering. (It's called the DTS today, and if your grandmother has always had Cadillacs and won't drive anything else, this is the one to recommend.)

The Catera, a rebadged (and therefore sometimes compared to the Cimarron) Opel Omega MV6 from the European market, was introduced. Though it was not very successful, its successor, the CTS, has been. (Incidentally, comparisons to the Cimarron are largely unfair; the Omega MV6 was a much better car than was the Cavalier.)

They've done the Allanté correctly. The Cadillac XLR is stylish, fast, and luxurious. It shares its platform with the Chevrolet Corvette and is built in the same plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. No transatlantic flights are required for assembly.

The Escalade has gone from hurriedly-rebadged GMC Yukon Denali to icon status. For a big blingy SUV with a lot of buttons to push, which is exactly what its buyers want, it has no equal. The SRX crossover SUV, though a fine car, has been less successful. How Cadillac reacts will tell us a lot about its crisis management skills in this new, successful world.

Cadillac's new V-Series division produces even higher-performance versions of the CTS, STS, and XLR, with dramtically upgraded suspensions, engines, and styling cues. The V-Series cars are intended to compete with other manufacturer "tuner" houses, like Mercedes-Benz's AMG.

Restoring Distinction
Cadillac has rediscovered a consistent design language as well, giving the line its most distinctive visual identity in decades. During the '60s (and for some of the elements, the '70s and early '80s), the cars had a long hood and short deck; stacked headlights; distinctive grills; and narrow, vertical taillights. To these, a modern addition is a long center high-mounted stop lamp (CHMSL), requiring most of the width of the car.

When I first heard that Cadillac was going to restore these visual cues to their cars, I had my doubts that they could all be pulled off attractively in a modern styling idiom. But restore them they have, and though the look is not universally loved, was it ever? Cadillacs look like nothing else again, and in a new car world in which it's impossible to purchase a truly bad car, distinction is critical.

Keep It Up
So, is Cadillac "The Standard of the World" again?

No. But no one is, really. All of the major manufacturers build good cars, GM included, and the key is giving the consumer something s/he will want to choose. Cadillac is doing that magnificently, with cars that stack up well within their segments, and yet are not substantially similar to any of the competition. In many niches, including luxury cars, that is success in today's auto industry.

Cadillac's back and hitting on all cylinders, even if there is an occasional bump in the road. Though history is less than fully encouraging, let's hope GM leaves the division alone. There is much wrong with the American auto industry, and though sustained successful products can't save it singlehandedly, they are a necessary component. Keep it up, Cadillac.

All images are from GM literature.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Wow, dude, your front end sure is tall

It's gorgeous, isn't it? Form following function, with character lines in all of the right places and an appealing, aggressive stance. Let's go for a ride! Honda swears it's the 2008 Accord.

I think the current Accord coupe is an attractive car, but this one is swoonworthy. To me it has a British gentleman look about it; certainly not something you'd expect to discover a Honda badge on. I could see this automobile labeled the newest Jaguar or Aston Martin coupe and never have a second thought about it.

Unfortunately, I fear it's a harbinger of monotonous styling to come. How can that be? Well, see how high the front end is? You don't really notice it until it's pointed out, and then it's all you can look at. (That's true for me, anyway.) In any case, that's to meet new pedestrian safety standards in Europe that require a lot of empty space between a car's "skin" and anything underneath it. This car is novel; ten followers that look just like it won't be.

So we have this regulation, which works directly against a lot of other recent advances (most notably to me, lighting technology that permits extremely low-profile, yet still effective, headlights). What's it mean to styling? Well, we'll have a lot of broad-side-of-the-barn front ends. Hopefully it will be temporary; just until the designers draw a car from the beginning of its cycle with this regulation in mind and we have unusually-located radiators and what-not to permit a swoopier face.

Perhaps it will be like the new bumper regulations in the mid-'70s, that gave us weirdness like the '73 Corvette and the oh-so-homely "bumperettes" slapped on the 911. Automakers had trouble with the changes in the short-term, but gave us pleasing designs on the following cycles. Perhaps this new regulation is an impetus for styling that we can't predict, but will enjoy.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

It's not like it comes when you call it

That's some bratty 20-month-old kid standing next to Herkemer, my mother's '69 Chevrolet Brookwood station wagon, in December 1972. Mom had a '62 Impala before this that overlapped a little bit with my first days, but Herkemer is the first car I can remember her driving.

Mom named all of her cars. After Herkemer, the '77 Buick Estate Wagon she had was Osnoggle. Her Caprice Classic was Rosemary. Her '92 Accord was Camelia.

I tried it for a while, probably a little bit because a close friend had named his car. His last name is Dickerson, and his ultra-cool '69 Ford XL was the Dickmobile (DM in mixed company). My first car, a '77 Celica, was Ben. My '87 Taurus was Annabelle. I half-heartedly named my '88 Integra Liza, but I think by then I was largely disinterested in the idea, and that was my last car to have a name.

The only one that stuck was Ben, and my bud Charles and I still just say "Ben" whenever we have occasion to talk about my first car.

Maybe I'll have a fun car one day for sunny weekends, and feel compelled to name it. But I can't see naming my daily driver anymore.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The best of times for new car buyers

I have the privilege of being the "car guy" in a lot of people's lives. When I was at Intergraph, I'd get three or four calls a year from across campus from people I didn't know who'd say "yeah, I'm thinking about a car and I hear you're the guy to talk to." I read the rags; I drive the cars when I can; I start conversations about B-pillar design out of the blue. I'm that guy. Selecting a vehicle is a big decision that to some significant degree, people trust me with, and I take that seriously.

I'm pleased to announce that these are heady times for new car buyers. 2007 America is Valhalla. Plain family sedans make more power than many sports cars did 20 years ago. Full-sized trucks turn in fuel economy numbers that were once unthinkably high. The true economy cars turn in astronomical numbers, and will still do fine on an on-ramp. All manufacturers have answered the consumers' collective call for cars with personality. And so it goes. Apart from the financial (more on that below), it's essentially impossible to make a mistake. There are simply no truly bad vehicles on the new market.

There are stars and there are second-stringers, of course. For example, there are better choices than GM's and Ford's current minivans. At the same time, the Chevrolet Uplander and Ford Freestar are competent vehicles that will likely give fine service. That they are not particularly competitive in their segment speaks to the excellence of the Chrysler vans, the Toyota Sienna, and the Honda Odyssey, not to any huge flaw in the Uplander or Freestar.

The bottom line is that if you've driven a new vehicle, if you like it, if it meets your needs (space, fuel economy, and the like), and you can afford it, get it.

But (you knew there would be a but), the financials have to be solid. If you're one to turn your vehicle every two or three years, buying it new every time is by far the worst thing you can do. People who keep cars for a very long time (10+ years) are really the only broad demographic for whom it makes any sense. If you like swapping your car often, there are almost always attractive leases available, and of course there's the used market. (More on both in future posts.)

The happy result of this all-around goodness that shopping multiple vehicles head to head, you can drop to appearance as a criterion guiltlessly. So a large part of it is finally really about what the manufacturers have wanted to you to believe it was about all along--style!

When the reality of the product has caught up with what marketing's been telling you all along, we're having good times, folks. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007


Hello, and welcome to Cowl Shake!

Cars are a lifelong passion of mine. I started this blog when I realized I had too much to say about them for my regular blog, WmWms, to comfortably accommodate.

I have lots of automotive affection in my blood. My dad had an endless stream of cool stuff in and out of the garage when I was growing up.

He owned:
  • '53 MG-TD, green, then red. This was our ice cream car when we were little. It's on its third owner since Dad sold it, but fortunately (uncannily?) it's gone to only people he went to high school with and still knows well. So I could still visit it anytime. Expect a post or two on this little British beastie.
  • '67 Riviera, gray (above). This was my dad's daily driver for fifteen years, and mine for two. I'll have much more to say about the "Big R" in the weeks to come.
  • '69 Corvette convertible, black (below). I learned to drive a manual transmission in this car. Dad's logic was that if I could deal with this torquemonster, I could deal with any other stick I was likely to encounter. His logic, as usual, was solid.
  • '71 Corvette convertible, silver, then gray
  • '79 Corvette, black
  • '84 Corvette, black

He owned briefly, restored, or helped restore:
  • '46 Chevrolet pickup, black
  • '53 Chevrolet panel truck, orange
  • '56 MGA, white
  • '56 Packard Caribbean, turquoise and white
  • '60 Mercedes-Benz 190SL, white, then red
  • '62 Corvette, white, then red
  • '63 Continental retractable, black
  • '64 Riviera, beige
  • '64 1/2 Mustang coupe, beige
  • '65 Mustang coupe, red
  • '65 Satellite, beige
  • '65 Thunderbird Special Landau, copper. This was my first exposure to sequential turn signals, and I loved them forevermore.
  • '66 Mustang coupe, dark green
  • '66 Mustang convertible, red
  • '66 Mustang GT convertible, red
  • '67 Cadillac convertible, red
  • '68 Shelby Mustang GT500KR convertible, white (below). This was the crown jewel of everything that ever came through the garage (only 318 produced).
  • '68 Datsun 1600, silver
  • '69 Firebird convertible, green
  • '69 MGB, orange
  • '74 Fiat 124 Spider, white
  • '74 MG Midget, red
  • '75 Caprice Classic convertible, dark red. This is a beautiful unrestored beauty to this day, with something like 38,000 miles on it. It belongs to one of Dad's old high school friends.
  • '79 Corvette, white
I grew up thinking that engine exhaust wholly untouched by emission controls was one of the sweetest smells in the world. I still do. It smells like good, wind-in-your-hair times: an ice cream cone with my family, or a trip to the auction with my dad.

In addition to that stream of constant stimulation, I have a couple of significant dealer connections. My great uncle (paternal grandmother's brother) is a longtime Buick dealer in Birmingham, and my maternal grandfather was the controller for one of the largest Chevrolet dealerships in the Southeast.

And I sold them myself. I had some good and memorable times as a leasing and sales consultant for Jerry Damson Acura-GMC in 1993-94.

In short, I was the kid who was always helping my dad whenever he was turning a wrench; the kid who saved his allowance for a Road & Track subscription. I've had my nose in one or another of those magazines for 30 years.

I have particular interest in American cars from 1960 to the present, as well as the strategies and tactics of all automakers worldwide, from 1970 to the present. I enjoy sales war stories. I'm not much of a racing fan, but may touch on it from time to time.

And please, don't look for a pattern. I may breeze through 50 years of engine history in a paragraph, and then I may turn around and burn 500 words on taillight lenses. I'll have a bit to say about the cars I've owned; not many of them particularly remarkable, but all of them special to me in one way or another. It'll be about what turns me on, and I really don't know whether it will turn anyone else on. That's part of the experiment. I promise competent writing and occasional irreverence, and I'll be discovering the rest as I go.

I anticipate a slightly more leisurely pace for Cowl Shake than I do for my regular blog. Expect a post or two a week. And I'm sure I'll find time to gussie it up a bit in the next few days, too.

Welcome. I'm glad to have you along.