Ask Jack: A Thumb on the (Economies of) Scale?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
ask jack a thumb on the economies of scale

The narrowing of possibilities, the hardness of the automaker heart, the motions of grace. Or something like that. Imagine you’re a prospective Chevrolet buyer in 1955 or thereabouts. You can order your new car in at least the following styles: club coupe (two doors, B-pillar), utility sedan (two doors, wood platform in place of back seat, rear windows do not roll down), four-door sedan (four doors, B-pillar), sport coupe (two doors, hardtop without B-pillar), sport sedan (four doors, hardtop without B-pillar), station wagon (four door wagon), Handyman wagon (two door wagon with straight C-pillar), Nomad wagon (two door wagon with slanted C-pillar and unique roof), and sedan delivery (two door wagon with no glass in back).

Today’s logical, if depressing, successor to that ’55 Chevy is the Equinox. It comes in one flavor: bland box. Period. Something happened. Just what was that something?

Bruno from Brazil asks:

How is it possible that the Japanese automakers can field so many different and diverse models which vary not only in engine configuration but also driveline layout and body size, etc, in this day and age of mass-market models and the necessity for economies of scale? I mean: FCA’s CEO seems to think his company doesn’t have enough of that to stand on its own, yet Mazda was producing Miata coupes way before the PRHT and today’s Targa and Toyota makes special 86s nowadays, just to name a few. So why can’t Lincoln make a proper rear-drive, full-size sedan and coupe? Why can’t Ford endlessly spin Thunderbirds off the Mustang? Why can’t we have a new Talisman? Is it all down to legislation?

The truth of the matter is that even the Japanese are winding down the famous diversity of their home automotive markets.

Consider, if you will, the fact that pretty much every Japanese automaker used to field framed-window and frameless-window variants of all their major sedan lines. Our Lexus ES250 was just the Toyota Windom; the original Acura Vigor was the Honda Accord Vigor overseas, complete with longitudinal engine and err-thang. I’d be willing to bet that there are fewer different bodystyles and vehicle/engine/transmission combinations on the market in Japan today than there were at any point after, say, 1980.

Yet Bruno’s question can be easily rephrased as Why are cars more expensive than ever to engineer, yet less diverse than ever before? How is it that Chevrolet could build so many different family cars 60 years ago when they were limited to pen-and-paper engineering, but provide just a single mid-sized SUV in the age of effortless computing? Why can’t we have Mustang-based T-birds as effortlessly as Honda spun the boat-tailed Acura 2.3CL off the Accord in 1997?

I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few, and here they are: As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the lower volumes and smaller geographical area of Japan has always led to greater diversity. The Japanese don’t expect to keep their cars very long and they have lower expectations regarding service intervals and such. As a result, not every single variant of a car needs to be perfect. The owner of a Toyota Windom might be content with a little bit of leakage from those frameless windows. He doesn’t expect it to be watertight 15 years after it rolls off the line. And with a small dealer body broken up into several specialty lines, you have smaller minimum volumes to make and more room to play to special markets.

That explains why Honda offers more variety in passenger cars than Chevrolet does, anyway. It doesn’t answer the question of why everybody is spending more money and offering less diversity. I think it’s a matter of customer expectation married with increased regulations and a more competitive marketplace. It’s no longer acceptable to field a broad range of “good enough” cars. Every vehicle has to be finessed until it offers at least an incremental improvement in luxury, efficiency, interior space, and value over its predecessor. All of the easy gains were found a long time ago.

In a way, today’s consumer car market is like Formula One. There was once a time where you could throw some wacky wing or an extra set of wheels on the car and if it worked — great! If not — doesn’t matter that much! Nowadays everybody is spending $500 million a year looking at rough-surface aero effects on the leading edge of the rear wing. The same is true for consumer cars. Everybody from Seoul to Stuttgart knows how you make a crossover. You have to spend limitless money to get a small advantage over the other guy’s crossover. It sucks but that’s the way of things.

When will the next Pre-Cambrian explosion of automotive diversity come? I’m thinking it will happen with the first round of truly mass-market electric vehicles. Should the perfect E-car look like a Tesla? A Bolt? A McLaren P1? It’s all up for grabs and there will be some good money thrown after bad until everybody settles down into a pattern.

When that happens, cherish it — and try to buy something wacky if you can. That chance won’t last forever.

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7 of 105 comments
  • Gtem Gtem on Aug 29, 2017

    I will say, it is surprising to see the extent to which modern cars have been cost cut and homogenized. I recently got to ride in my brother's beater '96 Mercury Mystique GS that he scooped up for next to nothing from its original owner (245k miles). Soft touch everything, nicely trimmed door cards, high quality velour, nice little touches throughout the car like accordion type dust boots on the turn signal stalks, floor lights for driver and passenger, etc, a really slick shifting manual transmission, and a lively 2.0L Zetec with a 7000rpm redline. My wife's Camry frankly feels a bit cheap basic by contrast with scratchy cloth and creaking lower dash trim. Maybe it's a rose-tinted glasses thing since that's the decade I grew up in and fell in love with cars, but I find 1990s decade particularly appealing and I seem to have honed in on this range as my choice of vehicles (that and that's what's cheap I guess).

    • See 4 previous
    • ToddAtlasF1 ToddAtlasF1 on Sep 03, 2017

      @iNeon Price wise, the Contour competed with the Stratus and Breeze. The Escort was Ford's Neon competitor prior to the Focus.

  • Starskeptic Starskeptic on Aug 30, 2017

    We've gotta to the point where a car that has a clean look that isn't some mishmash of curves and angles or looks like an electric shaver is 'bland'.

  • Jeff S If AM went away I would listen to FM but since it is insignificant in the cost to the car and in an emergency broadcast it is good to have. I agree with some of the others its another way to collect money with a subscription. AM is most likely to go away in the future but I will use AM as long as its around.
  • BEPLA I think it's cool the way it is.If I had the money, time and space - I'd buy it, clean it up, and just do enough to get it running properly.Then take it to Cars and Coffee and park it next to all the newer Mustangs.
  • Dave M. I suppose Jethro’s farm report comes via AM, but there’s a ton of alternative ways to get that info. Move forward people. Progress is never easy.
  • BEPLA For anything but the base model, I'd rather have a pre-owned Polestar 2.
  • BEPLA "Quality is Job........well, it's someone's job, but it's not our job.Neither is building vehicles that people actually want or need.We only build what's most profitable. If only someone would buy our 97 day supply of SuperDutys."