Last week, I polled TTAC readers on essential reading related to the car industry. Since most of the books are old, and don’t merit a formal review, I figured that opening the floor to discussion would better serve the readers, and myself, with regards to thinking about the book and the lessons contained within.
The first book up for discussion is “Car: A Drama of the American Workplace”. Mary Walton’s look at the development of the DN101 Taurus was so revealing that it set a precedent for Ford – never again would a journalist be granted such in-depth access. Car is a look at the triumphs and heartbreaks that go into the half-decade it takes to develop a car. How the various facets of the company interact, the clash of ideas that exist between engineering and design, the way that everything most conform to internal budgetary requirements, government mandates and qualitative targets set by the engineers. It’s astonishing that vehicles even get developed, given all the hoops that must be jumped through by all parties involved.
Personally, it left an indellible impression on my notion of a car review; it’s easy to criticize a choice of seat fabric or a funky instrument panel on a test drive. Knowing that millions of dollars, hundreds of hours and endless arguments were waged over that component, by people with much more experience and education than I, makes me feel unworthy at best, incompetent at worst. Automotive journalism is briefly touched on towards the end of the book, as Walton delves into the absurdity of the press trip circuit and how writers are coddled.
1) A successful new car can be just as much a product of timing and luck as it is effort and engineering. The DN101 was critically praised and designed expressly to beat the Camry, yet it was a sales flop. Given the long lead times for new cars and rapid shifts in market tastes, is there a way for car companies to hedge against this (see: Honda, which offered a decontented Civic, when high-content compact cars suddenly became the new thing in the industry).
2) The level of care and attention paid to the most minute components is humbling. The knobs and buttons on the Taurus’ instrument panel went through focus groups, committees and redesigns all before making it to production. We would laugh at their poor quality now.
3) All the focus groups and research clinics were enthusiastic about the styling of the Taurus; in the end, it proved to be the most controversial aspect with buyers.
Please feel free to bring up other points/criticisms in the discussion. The floor is turned over to you, the readers. I am reading these books as a means of building context. All contributions are welcome.