True story: as a kid, every fall I’d ride my single-speed bike three miles to the local Chevy dealer. Inexplicably, the dealer staff let this mouthy, curious kid sit in their expensive, newly launched iron. In the autumn of 1968, I clambered into a brand spankin’ new ’69 Impala. Its lines were angular where the old ones were bulbous. As a “Chevy man” (boy), I was ready to show it some major love. But one detail grabbed my eye and just wouldn’t let go. Unlike previous Impalas, the dash and doors were covered with very large expanses of fake wood. A pet peeve was born.
If you haven’t spent quality time in a ‘70s GM car, you don’t what I’m talking about. The fake wood of the day was so bad it couldn’t fool a 13-year-old brand apostle who wanted to be fooled. The material had strange angular and cylindrical indentations: the obvious products of metal stamping. The screen-printing dots were so coarse they could be seen with the naked eye from a normal viewing distance. In short, the Impala’s fake wood made today’s Buick LaCrosse look like yesterday’s Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.
Decades later, I read there was a GM CEO who had a thing for fake wood. He thought the public would regard it as classy. So he ordered it installed into virtually every higher trim level GM product. Yet another clear case of the blind trying to lead the [perceived] dumb.
Fast forward a few decades, GM’s in decline, the transplants have arrived and horrendous fake wood is still with us. For example, the Hyundai Azera’s faux timber radiates a half-coagulated blood maroon unlike any tree product on planet Earth. It blights the dash, doors, console edges, shift knob and interior door handles. Worst of all, fake wood informs the majority of the steering wheel. It’s bad enough to make you long for the lower-line Azera with its all-leather helm.
Why do they do it? Most of the other materials that make the Azera’s living room so inviting are the real deal. The leather actually once said moo. The fabric over your head is real fabric. The gauges are real neon (I think). Why ruin this classy cabin by counterfeiting the one element that has no function whatsoever except to provide luxury?
It’s true: wood really has no business being in a car, save its historical connection and its aesthetic appeal. While other materials are longer lasting, more practical and cheaper, real wood takes us back to more elemental days, when these machines really were horseless carriages. It delights us with a sensuality that no man-made material can recreate. Fake wood? Fake boobs. Same pointless (no pun intended) thing.
Anyway, I admire VW for putting real timber in Passats and Jettas. I’m cheered to learn that Volvo has added a real-wood option as a replacement for the standard polymer lumber (until I learned it’s bundled with the accursed headroom-robbing sunroof). I even took one-and-a-half looks (I can’t sincerely say I got to the second-look stage) when Ford offered a hand-me-down of Lincoln’s real-wood wheel on the woebegone Taurus.
Do carmakers research this stuff, or do they just copy each other? Does the public really like fake wood better than no fake wood? Does the fake stuff come close enough, for enough of us, that the carmakers profit more by saving the cost of the real grows-on-trees stuff? Clearly, the wood thing has become a monster eating away the inside of my brain.
A sincere question, though, for my audience: does anyone out there know how much it costs to put real wood in a car interior? Is burnishing and fitting a bit of genuine elm so prohibitive that automakers must restrict its deployment to the tippy-top of their lines?
Acura steps up for the RL — but pulls the punch for everything beneath it. Infiniti boasts real wood on the G, but on the hidden edge of the ashtray/bin door the “wood grain” mysteriously disappears just as if it were made of ink. I, personally, would pay real money for the genuine article, excepting the painfully obvious sticky-back aftermarket add-ons (and yes, I’ve even looked hard at those). I would even almost sort of start liking a Lexus ES, just to have its shiny God-given veneers.
Some time back, I threw down a mental challenge to myself: If I were the poor soul who had to rescue Buick, what would I do? I ultimately decided I’d offer real leather and real wood on even the lowliest Buick in the showroom as standard equipment. It’s too late to win on technology, but they can still deliver the materials of real luxury.