“Cadillac man” and why old U.S. auto companies might not die–completely

I love talking to customers on their turf. I enjoyed it nowhere more than at Cummins where I sometimes did this with diesel engine fleet customers–a pragmatic, calculating and pleasantly candid lot.

Recently, I was nearly leaving a parking space when what looked like a pink 1969 Cadillac DeVille with a white convertible top down rolled by.  I had to see it.  I came out of my seatbelt and briskly began on foot to find this car and driver—not a customer, but still a consumer with a product experience of personal interest.  For the record, (a) I’ve never owned an American car, and (b) when confronting customers, I mostly listen.  A silver-haired man (hereinafter, “Cadillac man”) emerged from a car and walked toward me.  This was our exchange:

me:  “Is that your DeVille?”

Cadillac man: “Yeah.”

me:  “Is it a ’69?”

Cadillac man: “Yeah.”

me: “I want to take a peek, if I may.”

Cadillac man: “Go ahead; it’s not too good up close.”

Cadillac man goes off shopping.  I look and slowly circle the car.  Driving slowing by, others are looking too.  He’s right–the interior is in bad shape.   I decide I want a photograph and go back to my car, retrieve a camera and come back to the Cadillac.  Cadillac man has returned too:

me:  “I talk about the U.S. auto industry on this blog and I want to take a picture.”

Cadillac man: “Sure go ahead.  My friend says it obeys the ’50-50 rule’.   At 50 yards away it looks 50% OK.”

<<laughter>>

me: “The geometries in the back are just beautiful–and the sides.”

Cadillac man: “The right side is probably in better shape than the left.”

I take a picture of the back with a view of the right side.

Screenshot:

me:  “And may I get one of the front?”

Cadillac man: “Sure, that’s the best part.”

I take a picture of the front.

Screenshot:

me: “I just think they’re beautiful.  Are you going to do anymore work to it?”

Cadillac man: “It’s a rust bucket; it’s been up north in too much of the salt.  I can’t save it.  You know the timing adjuster was wrapped in plastic.  After so many miles the plastic gets all over the engine—just a mess.  Great idea to wrap metal parts in plastic.  Good ‘ol GM.”

The last three words dripped in sarcasm.

me: “Really? At what point did that happen—the plastic in the engine”?

Cadillac man: “Oh about a 100, 120 thousand miles.  And it’s no good.”

me:  “You know there’s a brown one around.”

Cadillac man: “Really?”

me: “Yeah, with a white convertible top.”

Cadillac man: “I didn’t know that.  I know there use to be a white one, and it up and got gone and it’s sad because I would have bought it from the kid.  Oh well, have a good one.”

me:  “Thank you.”

Three take-aways from Cadillac man:

  1. “Collector behavior” aside, Cadillac man has an aesthetic appreciation for the 1969 Cadillac DeVille in a classically American way, as a main part of its value.
  2. He disliked the design and quality of the engine, which may have had a flaw.
  3. He isn’t crazy about GM but would buy another 1969 Cadillac DeVille they made.

I do wonder if anyone will ever want to own a 40 year-old Lexus. Perhaps. But Lexuses don’t age well–after a few years, most look like an old Camry.   “Age well”–I say this after seeing an engine-shot  “rust bucket” ’69 DeVille.  But that’s the point: something about Japanese cars—however reliable or energy efficient they are—is fundamentally disposable.  We don’t care to keep them.  It isn’t clear that one would come to  proudly don an Antique license plate as did this DeVille.  It isn’t clear  a “Lexus man” counterpart to “Cadillac man” can exist.  Clearly, “aging well” as I’ve suggested isn’t essential for an auto firm’s products like Honda or Toyota–at least as long as they enjoy a perceived advantage in quality, reliability and energy consumption.  If these are neutralized as points of differentiation in the consumers’ minds, however, I’m not sure what happens.

Concerning U.S. auto manufacturing history to date, I think:

Japanese cars are forks.  Plastic ones.  Not the ones you inherit from Aunt Sophie.  Maybe an indestructible plastic one, but still plastic. Yes, there’s a high end: some plastic forks are nicer than others.  But they’re inglorious.  Indeed, they are judged as such–they don’t have to be beautiful by American standards to be valued.

But American cars are shoes–utilitarian, but really indicia to style and story. They may even hurt sometimes. Jimmy Choos.  Crocs.  Stacy Adams. They aren’t shoes; they’re tribes—demographics tied to an aspiration.  Narratives.

American cars were never just about transportation—even when like the Model T they were just about transportation.  They were inseparable from story. Japanese cars never were. That’s fine in the U.S. because it’s not why we buy them.  We buy them as hedges—we don’t want to take the hit of bad reliability or fuel economy and we feel clever about buying something with supposedly superior engineering . We talk about cars as a monolith because they all have 4 wheels and drive.  But in the U.S., U.S. and Japanese cars might really be two different products. I could note how old Datsuns/Nissans/Hondas/Toyotas haven’t appeared in the video or film products of popular culture as  Bonnevilles, Impalas, and Fords have.  I could note how nothing about an old Lexus looks like it use to be a luxury car, whereas a 1969 Cadillac DeVille turns heads and looks like a special occasion no matter the day.

There is an American aesthetic and however successful Toyota, Honda and Nissan have been with sales in the U.S., I have yet to hear an American say, “I own a beautiful <insert “Honda”, “Toyota”, or “Nissan” here>.”  Aesthetics matter.  So much so that another American car recently did something that had never been done to me after my glimpsing only a corner of it in opposing traffic:  it made me do a U-turn to see what it was.  I was thoroughly surprised to find that it was (a) a Chevrolet, and (b) a Camaro.  Apparently, my head isn’t the only one turning: a recent NPR story indicated that it is selling extremely well and is strategically being produced on a limited scale.  This won’t save GM, and disappointingly, it (like the similarly striking Hemi engine-outfitted Dodge Challenger) has a poor “performance” mileage rating in the 13/20 range according to Consumer Reports.  But I wonder if the U.S. auto firms won’t figure out the quality (arguments exist that they have) and energy questions–which of course they can–and successfully communicate that to consumers, and return in some fashion to their relative fortes of channeling uniquely American style.  The easy part is engineering–decidedly fixable. The hard part is marketing and aesthetics and for the U.S. market there’s an argument—a strong one—that U.S. firms have an advantage in the latter over the Japanese. Finally, Americans love train-wrecks and resurrections; potential icing is if it becomes culturally cool again to drive American.

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