The Big Two Point Five: Crossing Over
As the launch of Ford’s new Edge illustrates, the Big Two Point Five’s next “great white-walled hope” is something called the “cross-over.” It’s not a traditional SUV and it’s not a road-hugging car. It could be a station wagon on stilts with [optional] four-wheel drive and maybe even a hybrid powerplant, but it’s definitely not for towing [much] or plugging [deep] mud or surmounting [any] boulders. From the waves of hype you’d think this less-than-genetically gifted half-breed was a revolutionary development. Actually, it’s a vehicle design from the second half of the last century.
Back in the day, automakers mounted an engine, transmission and wheels onto a metal framework (called a “ladder frame” for its shape). The bodywork was then attached to the frame, which carried all the weight. It was simple, sturdy and made customization easy; whether turning a Model-T into a pickup truck or putting a custom body on a $10k Duesenberg chassis. The problem with this early construction technique was simple enough: weight. It takes more fuel to motivate heavy than light.
The next big idea in auto body construction came courtesy the airplane industry, where weight-saving is mission critical (yes I know it’s really “mass” physics boy, back off). Instead of setting the body on a load-bearing frame, the frame is the body, and vice-versa. The substantial weight savings delivered by this so-called unitary construction technique allowed for smaller engines and reduced vibrations. The first mass-produced American car to incorporate these ideas (and airplane-like streamlining) was Chrysler’s Airflow. It was a car that many manufacturers copied, but very few people bought.
Despite the Airflow fiasco, unitary construction slowly began to win favor within the American automobile industry. The Big Three lagged behind smaller companies like Nash and Hudson; body-on-frame construction was more practical for yearly model changes (since only the shell had to change). Even so, Lincoln went unitary in 1958, and other models slowly followed. Many of the American cars (and even the revolutionary Mini) kept a separate frame mounting to hold the engine, even when their bodies went unitary. While construction methodology changed, there was no great shift in the type of cars being built.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Back in the ‘60’s, a team at Ford developed an idea for a people-carrier built on a unitary platform. As detailed in David Halberstam‘s “The Reckoning,” despite great customer survey results, they were never able to sell the vehicle internally. One reason: it needed a new (front wheel-drive) platform. A decade on, most of the Ford team had moved to Chrysler (who had the requisite platform). The minivan was born.
While the minivan dented the ladder frame-based “conversion” market, the truck and van market remained the last great refuge of the old manufacturing technique (aside from the Ford Crown Victoria triplets). A ladder frame made it much easier to customize a chassis for special uses (delivery van, camper, flat bed, etc.). The extra weight involved was balanced by the need for additional strength for hauling/towing (which a commercial user actually needs). Plus, ladder frames are cheaper to build.
When SUVs began to take off in the late eighties, consumers discovered ladder frame construction’s weak points. The vehicles were heavy (i.e. thirsty), top-heavy (i.e. unstable), rode like trucks (of course) and interior space was not nearly as large as it appeared from the outside. The Big Three improved their truck’s brakes and fitted plusher interiors, but ladder frames ruled because, well, no one complained. And they’re cheap (i.e. more profitable).
Japanese automakers cashed-in on the SUV trend with whatever trucks they could muster. But they also saw a case for a small pseudo-SUV, especially in their own backyard. Toyota and Honda developed nearly parallel solutions on their small-car, unitary platforms: the RAV-4 and CR-V. The “uni-utes” found soon found fame and fortune on the other side of the Pacific. Eventually Honda and Toyota gave the same treatment to a family-size car, creating a macho brother to their mini-vans. Subaru already specialized in four-wheel drive wagons, so their Forester wasn’t much of a stretch (though interesting as a “missing link”).
While these “crossovers” couldn’t match their bigger brethren for towing or rock hopping, they carried more people for less gas and handle more like a car. In the last few years, The Big Two Point Five has finally responded, releasing a few crossovers to significant sales– without denting the existing competitors’ market share. And therein lies the problem with The Big Two Point Five’s desire to “cross over” into renewed prosperity: they’re not creating a new niche, they’re moving into an existing one. Sad to say, their track record in that regard leaves much to be desired. Besides, if you’re constantly changing your running shoes in the middle of a marathon, you may be quicker than you were, but you’ll also be last.
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