I had an interesting conversation with a old friend of mine over the weekend. When I met this fellow, he was past 30 years old, unemployed, living with his mother, lacking both a goal and a direction. He stayed that way into his early 40, when another friend of mine and I pulled some strings to get him a tech job. I exhaustively back-filled his resume with imaginary work and ensured that at least some of it would check out if necessary. For about six months, I surreptitiously trained him on-the-job and picked up his slack while he learned the trade. I figured he would thrive from there …
… and I was right, In fact, he wound up as a Very Important Executive Type for a major tech firm. He’s so important now, and so well-compensated, that he has become bored. Much of our Sunday brunch consisted of him lecturing me about all the opportunities I was missing out in California, both financial and, er, gynecological. The only response I had to this was that the most important opportunity in my life is the opportunity to be a present-and-accounted-for father to my son, so I was gonna stay in Hicksville, Ohio, until that particular job is finished.
Having agreed to disagree on the future desired course of our lives, we made small talk about various tech-industry trends and buzzwords. “As a platform architect,” he noted, causing me to choke a little bit because my allergen-buzzword-receptors became permanently overloaded around the time people started adding the phrase “as a service” to everything, “I’ve come to realize that my job is actually to limit choice. You can’t give people a bunch of choices, even if there are several very good options available. You narrow it down. My job is to narrow it down into a decision that any idiot can safely make, because most executives are idiots who were promoted solely on the basis of their height.”
It was then that I experienced what the Buddhists call satori, or enlightenment, in the matter of the Ford EXP and Mercury LN7.
Henry Ford might have limited the Model T buyer to a single color “choice,” but he offered a wide variety of body styles from “runabout” to pickup truck to three different sedans including the famed “centerdoor” variant. In doing so, he was simply respecting the “best practices” of the day, which called for a relatively limited number of mechanical platforms that could support an endless variety of coachbuilt styles. To a generation of buyers who had grown up in the actual horse-and-buggy era, this made perfect sense. Why wouldn’t you have a body style that perfectly suited your specific needs? It was common for well-off families to have multiple coaches that could all be drawn by different arrangements of their equine stock, from an open runabout to a post-chaise to the infamous “coach and six” that was sort of the Range Rover of the day.
It was common, therefore, for bachelors to have a small coach suitable for two at most, even though he expected to marry well before he turned 30. The same was true for ladies of quality who had the means to drive their own coaches. It would have been considered ridiculous for a dashing young Rawdon Crawley type to have a coach-and-six; after all, he had no sprogs to drag around!
This concept of the bachelor vehicle persisted into the Thirties, with various rumble-seated coupes and the like, and it was rekindled as the “personal car” exemplified by the first-gen Thunderbird and Corvette. You also had the various British sports cars, which were meant to seat two in pleasant intimacy. After settling down, a young man could choose between the various coupe, hardtop, sedan, convertible, and wagon arrangements of the full-sized American cars.
This was a lot of choice, and as my platform-architect friend would note, it didn’t appeal to everybody. As the dealer model shifted from order-your-car to delivery-from-stock, and as women rose from a minority to a majority of the decision-making population, the amount of choice available to the average car buyer dwindled rapidly. We’ve gone from having five or six body styles available on every platform to the banal duality of sedan-and-SUV versions — but even that is too much choice to satisfy the Millennials’ urge towards herd behavior so we are well on the way to the singular tyranny of every car being a five-door box.
The question is whether anybody will choose to rebel from this conformity.
If they do, perhaps something like the Ford EXP or Mercury LN7 will appear. The whole purpose of the Ford EXP was to proclaim that you did not need to carry extra people around with you. It was no faster than an Escort, just like the Honda CRX was no faster than the equivalent Civic hatchback. It was simply more stylish. It had style for its own sake. Even if you don’t like the way the EXP looked — few did — you have to admit that it was unique.
So today’s question is: Could you ever see yourself buying a car that was a two-seat variant of an existing vehicle, knowing that it had no extra virtues besides style? Would you buy a Focus EXP? A plus-sized CRX? A Mazda MX-3 without rear seats? Do you require the safety blanket of seats that will go empty? Or could you make it with just the two seats, if you tried?