No Fixed Abode: They Paved Manuals, and Put Up a Four-Door Coupe

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode they paved manuals and put up a four door coupe

I come to bury Derek Kreindler, not to praise him.

No, wait.

I come to praise Derek, not to bury him.

Scratch that.

I come to agree with Derek, and to disagree with him. And to agree with him again. Wait a minute, it will make sense.

One of the several admirable ways in which my erstwhile boss and even more erstwhile employee diverged from conventional auto-journo thinking was his relentless focus on the real reasons behind automobile manufacturers’ product-planning decisions. Every time some writer for Social Justice Hooning And European Vacations trotted out the usual complaints about the lack of brown diesel-powered, stick-shifted, MB-Tex-interior, E30-sized station wagons, Derek would unleash hell on the poor fellow, pointing out that American consumers get the model mix they’re getting because it is the model mix for which they have voted, again and again, with their wallets. He never tired of forcibly redirecting the assignment of responsibility for today’s tepid dealership inventory from the OEMs to the buyers.

In doing this, he was breaking the fourth wall of automotive journalism a bit. Everybody in the business talks to the same product planners and has access to the same numbers, but nobody wants to annoy the reader by pointing out his culpability in the disappearance of enthusiast-focused automobiles. It’s a funny double standard. You’re allowed to injure the customer by pretending that the Porsche IMS issue and a hundred other similarly offensive quality problems don’t exist, you’re allowed to screw him over by puff-piecing junk product, but you’re not allowed to add insult to those injuries. Instead, the writer conspires with the reader after a fashion, by pretending to believe that the reader is ready to buy a brown diesel manual wagon the moment one appears. This gratifies the reader, who as a consumer of automotive media fancies himself to be quite different from the two million other people who took delivery of a CR-V-shaped nonentity-mobile in the past year. All those other people bought CR-V-esque things because they are idiots, but he did so because the hipster wagon of his dreams did not happen to be available. This mild conspiracy is widely held to benefit all parties involved and it leads to many people writing very complimentary things in the comments section – but Derek didn’t play that.

Young Mr. K’s refusal to give new-car buyers a pass on that matter, even if they were valued members of the B&B, was both admirable and charming. Yet as a grizzled old veteran of the showroom sales floor, I have to wonder if all of the blame for – say, the existence of the BMW X4 – can be placed directly on the shoulders of the American middle class. Could there be another reason that we, the *ahem* enlightened cognoscenti showing our black fleece in uneven and miniscule distribution among endless flocks of white sheep, cannot get the cars that we are truly ready to buy?

Or, to strip the veneer of genericity from the question – why the fuck did I have to buy a two-door car in order to get a manual transmission in a Honda Accord V6?

Let’s apply Derek’s reasoning to that question. Is it because nobody wants a V6 manual Accord sedan? I doubt that. Somebody wants it. I want it. I’ve talked to other people who bought a stick-shift coupe or an auto sedan because they couldn’t have the manual sedan they wanted. The problem is that we, the Would-Be Stick Sedan Buyers Of America (WBSSBOA), are not Honda customers. We think we are, and the auto-journo-industrial complex pretends that we are, and the TV ads pretend that we are, but we are not.

We are the customers of Honda dealerships. Honda dealerships, in turn, are the customers of Honda. When Honda sells a car to the floorplan bank of a dealership, son, that car is sold in Honda’s eyes and it doesn’t matter if it sits behind the detail shop for seven years before getting a temp tag on it. In practice, of course, dealerships almost always move the metal sooner than that, even when the metal is garbage. And in exchange for agreeing to borrow money to buy millions of dollars’ worth of inventory that they then have to sell using regional TV spots and newspaper ads and free popcorn and deceptive business practices and whatnot, the dealers get to tell Honda just how the fuck it’s gonna be. Their power is not absolute – note that you can now have A/C and/or a stereo factory-installed in a Honda, which breaks the heart of the scumbag dealers who loved the profit from those add-ons the way John Bonham loved alcohol – but it is formidable.

Now let’s sit down for a moment so Uncle Jack can tell you a story. In 1995, I worked at a very small Ford dealership. We had room on our lot for fewer than 200 cars and trucks of all kinds, period, point blank. But you can bet your sweet bippy that at least ten of those trucks would be absolutely identical Explorer 4WD XLT 945A package trucks in Medium Willow Green. Why? Because we could sell every one we got. If an eleventh Explorer 4WD XLT 945A package truck in Medium Willow Green showed up and we didn’t have room for it, we’d make the service employees park down the street.

How many Explorer Eddie Bauer trucks did we have? Never more than two, and usually none. It was simple. The Bauers didn’t sell in volume significant enough to justify keeping one in stock. Ninety-five percent of the people who came on the lot looking for a Bauer could be moved to an XLT 945A. The reverse was not true, because the Bauer cost so much more to lease due to its lack of “top to bottom sticker discount”, a concept on which I shall perorate further some other time.

“But Jack,” you say, “why didn’t you keep five Willow Green XLTs in stock and five Bauers (or, G-d help me, Limiteds) in stock?” Good question. The answer is simple. We could never be assured of a constant allocation stream for Willow Green XLTs. So we needed to get every one we could get, even if it meant occasionally having fifteen in stock, because that way we didn’t ever face a situation where we sold six of them in a weekend (happened All. The. Time.) and had none left. Faced with a choice between the certainty of selling a Willow Green XLT and the possibility of selling a red Bauer, we chose the XLT, in bulk, constantly.

Every Ford model had the equivalent of the Willow Green XLT. For the Escort, it was the cheapo LX hatchback in Jade Green. For the Taurus, it was the GL sedan in silver. For the F-150, it was the XLT supercab in red. We could not afford to be out of stock on these items. Being out of stock on these items would lead to losing the customer to another dealer who had these items in stock.

As a result, our under-200-unit dealership lot, viewed from the air, had a very monocultural look to it. We really only sold about twenty different combinations of model and equipment. Everything else was a special order. If you special ordered, you could have that black Explorer Limited 2WD. But you’d wait. And this is America, where people don’t wait.

If you go to Europe, on the other hand, you’ll see that car showrooms are just that — showrooms. You look at the car they have, then you order the car you want. You are the customer. The dealership is the delivery method. This method is so radically different in all of its implications for the underlying business practices that I feel it should be repeated:

And swear I meant that there so much that they give that line a rewind

In Europe, You are the customer. The dealership is the delivery method.

In America, the dealer is the customer. And the dealer wants quick-turning inventory. He does not have a lot of space to store that inventory and he doesn’t have unlimited funds with which to purchase it. Therefore, it isn’t just important a potential in-stock unit have a buyer; it’s important it have a buyer right now.

Let’s say that Honda brought the V6 manual sedan back. And let’s say that they needed a minimum production run of 10,000 in order to make it worthwhile. That’s about eleven units for every Honda dealer in America. Can the dealers sell eleven manual V6 sedans each in a year? I bet they could. But they would rather have that spot for an automatic I-4 sedan, because that car is a guaranteed quick sale. They can sell that spot in the lot more than eleven times a year with an I-4 automatic EX. And here’s the thing: they can use that spot on their lot for an I-4 EX in another color, which keeps customers on their lot. Customers like seeing all the available colors of a car in stock. It helps sell cars that aren’t in that color, because it creates the illusion of choice. Towards that end, we always had one white XLT 945A next to the green ones – so people could look at it and then buy the green one. So the reason you can’t get a manual V6 sedan is simple: the dealer loses money keeping it in stock, even if/when it sells, compared to the potential for stocking more popular choices in that space.

Why can’t you special-order a V6 manual sedan? The same reason Honda wouldn’t sell me a brown V6 manual coupe, even if I paid extra and waited for it. Manufacturers are extremely allergic to small-batch production. Honda does not want to sell 2,000 special-order manual V6 sedans a year. It creates an entire extra model to EPA certify and put in the brochure and observe for recalls. It’s too much hassle. Similarly, they don’t want to sell 500 brown V6 manual coupes. Better to force that small buyer group into just a few colors.

“But Jack,” you’re saying, “you’re describing conditions that have been in place for thirty years. What’s changed?” Well, what’s changed is the model mix, particularly at manufacturers like BMW. It’s exploded. They used to make one 3 Series – the 320i – and it had two doors, no choice. Now they make so many variants of the Three that some of them are called Fours and others are called X3s and others are called X4s and cut-down ones are called X1 and 2 Series.

The BMW dealer of 1980 just needed space for a few 320i coupes. Today’s BMW dealer needs guaranteed in-stock inventory of no fewer than a dozen highly popular variants of the 3 Series. When the X4 debuted, your local BMW dealer needed to make room on its lot to stock, say, five X4s in silver with Premium and cold weather packages. Where’d that space come from? Did it come from high-profit stuff like the 760Li or M6 Gran Coupe?

Of course not. It came from oddballs, the 328i Sport manuals, the Z4s, the non-DCT M3s. The space came from inventory that doesn’t have a guaranteed turn. The same is true for the V6 manual Accord, which used to be available for sale even though it was low-volume. That space can be better used for the HR-V or a Pilot Touring or any of the dozen-plus other vehicles Honda didn’t sell in this country twenty years ago. Where do you think the space for the repugnant CLA comes from at your local Benz shop? Not from gloss-black S-Classes with basic option packages. Not from GLE350s or whatever they’re called now. It comes from manual SLK250s and C250 Sports.

Is there a fix for the situation? In the short term, absolutely not. In the long term, it is possible that local assembly and more flexible supply lines could reduce the wait time for new-vehicle orders to a window that the average American could accept. Say, one week. I think if BMW could deliver a 3-Series to its customers seven days after they specced it out, as many as half of those customers would choose a custom order. Too bad that scenario won’t come true until long after the last vestige of character has been entirely removed from all available automobiles. By the time Honda can just-in-time me a brown V6 manual Accord with cloth interior and 17″ wheels, it won’t be possible to make one.

In the meantime, what can you do? It’s simple. Buy something weird. Order something the dealer doesn’t have. A different color. An odd combination of options. A lime-green coupe with a brown interior. Vote with your wallet for something else. Doesn’t matter what it is. Because when you order a car from the factory and refuse to consent to taking a dealer-traded vehicle or the next-best thing they have in stock, you become something you’ve never been before.

You become an automaker’s customer.

Join the conversation
2 of 273 comments
  • Warrencar Warrencar on Apr 23, 2015

    Jack, just want to say this is about the best automotive-based article I have ever read. Thoroughly enjoyed your eye-opening segment...and very well written. You have true talent as a writer. And the way you got into the story kept me engaged. Thanks for your article. Keep it up

  • MrCharlieWhyoming MrCharlieWhyoming on Apr 26, 2015

    So true everyword you wrote. I wonder if the fascination with Tesla is the chance for people, who can afford Tesla, to go around traditional car delivery systems?

  • Inside Looking Out In June 1973, Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Washington for his second summit meeting with President Richard Nixon. Knowing of the Soviet leader’s fondness for luxury automobiles, Nixon gave him a shiny Lincoln Continental. Brezhnev was delighted with the present and insisted on taking a spin around Camp David, speeding through turns while the president nervously asked him to slow down.
  • Bobby D'Oppo Great sound and smooth power delivery in a heavier RWD or AWD vehicle is a nice blend, but current V8 pickup trucks deliver an unsophisticated driving experience. I think a modern full-size pickup could be very well suited to a manual transmission.In reality, old school, revvy atmo engines pair best with manual transmissions because it's so rewarding to keep them in the power band on a winding road. Modern turbo engines have flattened the torque curve and often make changing gears feel more like a chore.
  • Chuck Norton For those worried about a complex power train-What vehicle doesn't have one? I drive a twin turbo F-150 (3.5) Talk about complexity.. It seems reliability based on the number of F-150s sold is a non-issue. As with many other makes/models. I mean how many operations are handle by micro today's vehicles?
  • Ravenuer The Long Island Expressway.
  • Kwik_Shift A nice stretch of fairly remote road that would be great for test driving a car's potential, rally style, is Flinton Road off of Highway 41 in Ontario. Twists/turns/dips/rises. Just hope a deer doesn't jump out at you. Also Highway 60 through Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. Great scenery with lots of hills.