By on August 29, 2017

2017 Honda CR-V - Image: Honda

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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105 Comments on “Ask Jack: A Thumb on the (Economies of) Scale?...”


  • avatar
    ash78

    I would argue we have TOO many models right now. Jack’s point about the options on a ’55 Chevy are good, but the post-war economic boom and the easy of BOF construction both helped provide all those options.

    At the moment, there’s so much overlap between segments, I don’t know how anyone can make much sense of them anymore (except to rely ever more on the marketing and style of a car). Back in those post-war days and earlier, there would typically be meaningful gaps in price and equipment between models and brands — exponentially more so than today.

    I’m a broken record on this point, but sometimes companies should focus on offering more options in a single model rather than creating a whole new model that does 90% of the same thing. There is absolutely some waste here, and that waste must be passed along to consumers at some point in the form of prices. So the next time you buy a car, look around the showroom at the model slotted below it. Now look at the one above it. Now try to pretend that the profitable one isn’t helping subsidize the other two. Why not focus model lines and make them better, more efficient, and cheaper instead?

    (yes, this is an oversimplification of manufacturing, but it’s still true. I fully welcome a shrinking and consolidation of lines, for consumers, dealers, and shareholders).

    • 0 avatar
      burgersandbeer

      Agreed to some extent. I’m all for choice and don’t necessarily want to limit that, but it is frustrating to see a company like BMW increasingly limit availability of manual transmissions, yet the X6 exists.

      It boggles the mind that the X6 makes sense but there is a rapidly shrinking business case to offer manuals. Sigh.

    • 0 avatar
      hpycamper

      ash78: Could not disagree with you more! There are not enough options available now like there used to be. Adding more trim levels, useless doodads, screens etc. drives me nuts.
      I’ve been a ready new car buyer more than once and been disappointed by the choices available. The last time, I just gave up and bought a used car; I’ll bet I’m not the only one.
      Bring back the Rancheros, coupes, convertibles and 2 door wagons and buyers might come back. Not everybody wants an SUV or sedan and I don’t need to be “connected” in my car.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    “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.”

    There you go. Car engineering today is less about the big picture and more about sweating the tiniest details. You are spending weeks finding that little tiny wind noise rather than laying out your “hardtop” variant.

    It’s the same thing in the commercial aircraft world, where all the aircraft are starting to look exactly the same to a layman (two bulky underwing engines, long wings with wingtip devices, long fuselages) and the real money is in tiny changes to wing shape and invention of ever more exotic materials to save a few grams.

    • 0 avatar
      scott25

      All airplanes have always looked the same to the layperson, beyond basic categories, just like all motorcycles, boats, etc. I’m sure someone like Jack can tell all motorcycles apart but to me they’re either a Harley, sportbike, or BMW, the only differences are colour.

      I’m sure cars are like that and have always been like that for people with zero interest in them. I can’t tell most brands volume models (beyond the iconic ones) apart prior to the late 60s since all cars looked the same before then to me. A normal person can’t tell the difference between a Biscayne, Impala and Bel Air so why bother?

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    We’ve got everything and nothing.

    2.0 ltr turbo sedans that will blow the doors off of most of the cars that we wax nostalgic about, full size trucks that have 4 doors, seat 5-6 and get almost 25 mpg…

    But so many vehicles with no direct competition. The Wrangler is in a segment of one, as is the 4Runner, no one wants to compete directly with the Grand Cherokee, a Hemi Charger and 300 are basically without direct peer at the price point…

    We have everything and nothing.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      “We’ve got everything and nothing.”

      Nononono, that’s Everything Or Nothing.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eon_Productions

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Give a man everything and he’ll still want for something.

      We have so much but are never satisfied. For example, I want a big giant modern sedan. Everything on the market short of maybe the S class is too small. I want something with the interior space and power of a full size truck, but in a sedan body. Take a full size truck chassis, lower the ride height and drop a car body around it, I don’t care. Gimme 1.1B, I’m going to product committee and I don’t care if anyone else wants one.

    • 0 avatar
      Pete Zaitcev

      Sorry, Dan, I don’t think I agree, on the basis of cross-shopping. People totally cross-shop Wranglers with 4Runners, or — for other people — with Pilots. You’re right to observe that there’s no another Wrangler, but there’s plenty of competition from midsize trucks. The WK2 Grand Cherokee has plenty of competition from BMW X3 and X5. Yeah, if you want off-road capability in a luxury SUV, then GC competes with Lexus GX. But if not, then you’re not even wedded to the longitudinal layout and there’s plenty of choose.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    ” — and try to buy something wacky if you can. That chance won’t last forever.”

    This is what is pushing my love for a Fiat 500c Abarth over a GTI or even a Fiesta ST. I know it’s not a great car. I know it’s not THAT quick. The interior is not for dash stroking. The depreciation from new is fairly epic and there is always the FCA build quality/reliability question.

    But, for how long will you be able to buy this tiny car with a ridiculous exhaust note, manual transmission and a pseudo-convertible roof? Maybe it’s the pushing 40 and never owned anything cool. Maybe it’s 2 years of boring Cruze ownership. But the Fiat speaks to me in a way the GTI doesn’t. I had an 01 Focus, so the Ford hatch question has been answered too. But the Italian car made in Mexico? That’s a new one.

    I drove a leftover ’14 500c GQ edition earlier this year ( GQ is all the Abarth stuff with a slightly nicer interior and more “gentlemenly” styling). I couldn’t stop grinning as I drove the thing around, roof open in February. Just couldn’t do it then (though I should have), but with the Cruze lease ending in December, I could now.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I’m soft on the 500c as well (not so much the Abarth). I love the retractable roof design on it, which is quite strong and unique. With unlimited resources, I’d definitely add one to my fleet, but it doesn’t make sense for my station in life.

      They’re giving them away, due to Fiat’s sliding sales. I say go for it.

      • 0 avatar
        gearhead77

        I’ve had my eye on multiple ones. 2 year olds with under 10k show up for around 15k, which is great. But there’s a new one on a CJDf (the small f because they never have many Fiats) lot in pickup truck country two hours away that’s grey with a grey top and the bronze wheels. It’s a, well, uniquely sharp looking car to my eye. The only thing it’s missing is leather, but since it has heated cloth front seats, not that big of a deal. It’s been there for nearly a year.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      You’re touching on something I’ve been pondering for a few weeks.

      I’ve never bought anything other than sedans, but I’m not getting any younger. But that doesn’t mean I’m dead. So I drove an Alfa Stelvio.

      Man oh man. It’s pure Italian to the core. It’s rather plain on the inside, doesn’t at all compete with the goodies on a $50K GM or Toyota SUV, and the back seat is demonstrably smaller than the competition–but at the same time, neither does the competition compete with the Stelvio in the absolute hoot to drive department.

      Plus it’s a good looking car.

      The Stelvio is probably one of the less rational ways to spend $50K, but I want one.

      • 0 avatar
        gearhead77

        Jalop, the Giulia on lease is tempting me too. I can’t do QV money, but a base or Ti RWD seems to be about $300/mo on lease. If the wife says no to the 500…

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Do it. They’re fun. And cheap in a relative way.

    • 0 avatar
      Truckducken

      …and here I thought Jack was encouraging us all to go pick up an i-MiEV.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      I owned a ’13 Abarth for two years from new. It was insanely fun, and had absolutely no issues at all. I now own a ’17 GTI, because I needed one car to do everything at my place in Florida. The GTI is pretty much the perfect do everything car if you can only have one, but it is not even in the same universe of fun as the Fiat. In-between was a ’16 M235i which was fantastic, but too single-purpose to be an only car.

      Go for it, you will love the thing.

    • 0 avatar
      Synchromesh

      I haven’t driven a 500C but I’ve driven a base Fiat coupe as well as Abarth. The base car was quite awful – handling was bad, engine was weak, interior sucked. Abarth addressed most of those shortcomings but it’s just not nearly as much car as my WRX in just about every way. So I passed.

    • 0 avatar
      IBx1

      And that’s why I bought an Abarth cabrio as my current daily.

  • avatar
    relton

    I think the buyer in 1955 would have had to wait until 1956 for that 4 door sport sedan, 4 door hardtop.

    Still, a very good point. Even more impressive is that all these body styles were engineered and produced in less than 2 years.

    Bob

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      Beat me to it. I still remember dad’s ’56, two tone white and red. I still remember the car because the day he brought it home he had to rush me to the hospital that evening with a 104 temperature and lobar pneumonia. I almost died that night.

    • 0 avatar
      stingray65

      But the 1955 Chevy buyer could get a convertible, which Jack forgot to include on his list.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      “Even more impressive is that all these body styles were engineered and produced in less than 2 years.”

      On the other hand, these were the engineers NOT responsible for sending men to the moon AND RETURNING THEM SAFELY TO THE EARTH.

      I call them, “the shop class of American industrial engineering”.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        And what have you ever designed or produced? I’m guessing “nothing.”

        • 0 avatar
          jalop1991

          Well, some people have to be last in their class.

          Welcome, GM engineers.

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            what a delightful non-answer. you’ll fit right in here with all of the other guys who have never made anything of value in their lives, but believe they’re uniquely able to criticize everyone who has.

            “If you can, do.
            If you can’t, do your best to tear down those who can.”

        • 0 avatar
          jalop1991

          You mean, anyone who isn’t like you working on the line is by definition useless.

          Good to know.

          In the meantime, you know life isn’t just about taking raw materials and making something, right? You can make anything you want–but if you don’t need it, why make it?

          To sell it. GM doesn’t need cars. GM needs cars so it can sell them so it can make money.

          And GM makes crap cars. Always has, always will.

          The buyer is the ULTIMATE critic of the product. He chooses whether it meets HIS needs or not.

          No doubt you and your fellow union members are incensed when someone chooses not to buy YOUR product. You no doubt feel ENTITLED to your jobs building things, and ENTITLED to be supported in this endeavor by people who–by your own comment–are too stupid to know what’s right and good for them. Because after all, they didn’t build it–or build ANYTHING–and so they can’t POSSIBLY know what’s good for them.

          Right? Right.

          I know what has value in my life. So does everyone else. And the public has spoken regarding the value of whatever it is you’ve built, regardless of what YOU think.

          • 0 avatar
            87 Morgan

            jalap, your comments are over the top.

            Has GM built some poor cars? Sure. Are they all crap as you say? No. My eyes see way too many still plying the streets of America.

            Is GM your brand of Vodka? Clearly not. But, to your point the public has spoken and a lot of them, north of 1 million a year in fact that the GM builds a good product delivered at price point that provides value.

      • 0 avatar
        Flipper35

        Really, who do you think was the prime contractor for the Redstone and Saturn V? Hint: It was an auto manufacturer.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    because back in 1955 all of those “models” were the same car.

    The One-Fifty, Two-Ten, and Bel Air were all the same car*, the only difference was trim and content. I don’t consider two-door hardtop, two-door sedan, two-door pillared coup, or four-door sedan to be distinct enough to consider separate bodystyles (the presence of a B-pillar doesn’t change the car.)

    Likewise, the Nomad, Sedan Delivery, Townsman, and Beauville were all just trim levels on the same basic two- or four-door station wagons.

    the introduction of the Corvair and Chevy II (Nova) set everyone down the road of having a full model lineup.

    If automakers did things the same way today the Malibu would be sold as four separate models based on trim, so you’d have the choice of:

    – Chevrolet L
    – Chevrolet LS
    – Chevrolet LT
    – Chevrolet Malibu (as the top trim level.)

    * (seriously, at a car show this weekend someone had their restored 1955 Two-Ten. it looked identical to a nearby 1955 Bel Air save for the lack of trim and farkle.)

    • 0 avatar
      doug-g

      JimZ made the point I had planned to. I would also add that there were fewer manufacturers competing back then. Chevrolet by itself had about 25% of the market. Then the big three had different makes that used the same basic body. For many years all of GM’s basic cars were built off the B and C bodies. GM had it made back then because it owned the mid-priced and luxury segments and built all those cars with few different bodies.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        I have to agree.
        I recall Ford having the Galaxie 500, Custom, LTD, XL and just plain Ford in 2 dr, 4 dr, HT coupe, fastback, convertible etc and they all were variations of the same vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yes the 150/210/Bel Air/Biscayne/Impala were all pretty much the same car with different trim. So it was a case of the mid and high line model sheet metal going through one more step that punched in the trim holes.

      However yes the 2dr hardtop and 2dr sedan were unique models with many unique parts. You don’t just leave off the door frames and pilars, there are other components needed to make that glass go up and down in the proper position and other structural enhancements. Plus they often had completely different roof structures in many years that also needed unique quarter panels and trunk lids as well as other inner structural pieces. Then there are things like the convertibles and station wagons getting a frame out of thicker material or with added reinforcements and in some cases different wheelbases.

      However the big difference was volume, GM sold over a million full size Chevrolet in many years. Then you have the fact that the model was supposed to run for 3 year. That meant for example if they were all 4dr sedans with the same roof they would need several sets of the dies to both keep up with demand and ahead of wear on the die. At the time the dies were made by hand by skilled craftsmen. That meant there was no real savings on making 10 sets of roof dies the all the same or a couple for the standard 4dr sedan, one for the fastback, one for the formal, a couple of the 2drs ect.

      There is also the fact that the chassis and power train technology wasn’t changing rapidly. In some years that all new body shell was draped over essentially last years chassis, powered by last year’s engine through last years transmission.

      If you look at today’s top seller you’ll find that it offers many body styles and a whole host of trim levels not that far removed from the full size cars of the 50’s and 60’s. You can get your full size in 2dr, 4dr coupe, 4dr sedan, 4dr wagon, long 4dr wagon and trim ranging from W/T or XL which is akin to the 150/Biscayne or Custom to top of the line models like the Caprice or LTD. You can still select from a number of engines though your choice of transmission has largely been replaced by a choice of driving one or both axles.

      So it just comes down to the fact that segmentation and mfg proliferation has made it so that they can’t afford to offer as many variations on a them with the lower volume.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        “However yes the 2dr hardtop and 2dr sedan were unique models with many unique parts.”

        *sigh* I know that, but that’s all under the skin. Are you going to tell me the presence (or lack thereof) of a visible B-pillar is worth b!tching about the “loss of a unique body style?”

        I mean, this is a 2-dr sedan:

        http://www.55classicchevy.com/images3/1955-Chevrolet-210-Delray-Club-Coupe-2.jpg

        this is a 2-dr hardtop:

        http://cdn.barrett-jackson.com/staging/carlist/items/Fullsize/Cars/43962/43962_Side_Profile_Web.jpg

        wow. the latter has no visible pillar, and the side lite surround is a bit different. I don’t really see those as different body styles.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          Well the premise of the article is about economies of scale. So I was pointing out why we lost those body styles because the dis-economy of scale was no longer there to make it just as cheap to offer both body styles.

          On the other hand yeah I miss having 2dr hardtops and it is worth bitching about the loss of them.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      I was wondering how long it would take for this to be pointed out. Shoulda known it’d be you, Jim.

      In 1955, you had the Chevy car/wagon and the Chevy truck. Lots of variations and differences, but fundamentally, it was just two vehicles that came in a variety of styles and configurations.

      Today, you don’t walk on a Chevy lot and have just two vehicles (with many styles between them) to choose from. You’ve got a Chevy for just anything you need or want.

      You don’t just go to a Chevy dealer and see ONLY the Equinox and Silverado, with both offering some variations. You have the Trax, Equinox, Traverse, Tahoe and Suburban, and that’s just the utilities. A Blazer will also be added soon. The difference between an Equinox and a Tahoe alone is FAR greater than anything in the 1955 Chevy car lineup.

      Was there an A, B, C and D segment offering from Chevy in 1955? No. There was one car, with some variations, but still just ONE car line. Now, Chevy alone has **7** completely different cars, not even counting the Cruze or Sonic sedans and hatches as separate models, nor the convertible versions of Corvette and Camaro v.s the coupes. You can get a big one, a tiny one, and anything in between.

      We have MORE diversity these days compared to then, not less. You have a vehicle for every niche, just about, many times parked on the same new car lot.

      Why was it so easy to design a “new” Chevy or Ford every year back then? Because Chevy and Ford had just ONE car, once the basic engineering is done, its easy to make changes every year to the body lines, trim, etc. I bet a lot of those “different” cars from one year to the next look damn near exactly the same underneath (as in the frame and mechanical layout, and so on) for several years at a time. When they had just ONE car, it was easy to devote the time needed to update it so frequently.

      Now, it takes several years *per model* of development time. Today’s cars require far more engineering and designing than they did. We have many more features, many of which have to be extensively modified to work in different cars due to size and styling differences. For example, Chevy doesn’t have just one window regulator design for use in everything car they offer, but I bet they did in 1955.

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        *yes, there was a Corvette in 1955, so two different cars then v.s. seven today.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        One of the reasons they could afford to change the fenders and grills every year was yes due in part to the fact that they had the single car in the 50’s. However that continued when GM had expanded their line up to include a compact, intermediate and sporty coupe. The reason was the dis-economies of scale that meant the tooling that was used across all the versions of the car, like the front end sheet metal, bumper, grille ect was often near its end of life by the time the model year was done. I know I’ve heard that Cadillac replaced their dies much more frequently than they did on a Chevy to maintain better fit and finish throughout the model year. So since the dies needed to be replaced it was just as easy to make some changes to some of that tooling as it was to make another just like the one they had worn out.

        And yes they had different window regulator designs because those hardtops and convertibles needed hidden tracks to keep them in place since there is no window frame to guide and restrain the window. Then in the back you had the fact that the rear windows on 2dr hardtops and convertibles often had to tilt on their way down to fully disappear. Then for some vehicles they started needing another set of regulators when power windows became optional. So yes a lot was shared across all the body styles but there were a lot of unique items too and of course the basic chassis and engine design didn’t change for many years at a time.

        However as I pointed out above the Full size truck is today’s replacement for the 50’s and 60’s full size car and they can still afford to make them in many different body styles and power trains thanks to the dis-economies of scale. Most are available in 3 different cab styles and in the case of GM and Ford 2 different station wagons, 3 different bed lengths, 4 or 5 trim levels and with 3 or 4 engine choices. The only thing we are really lacking are the convertible versions, though you can get the panoramic sunroofs on some.

  • avatar
    slap

    Back in 1955, Chevy offered a bunch of variations of one model. Today Chevy offers a bunch of various models, in a number of different size catagories.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      “various models, in a number of different size catagories. [sic]”

      Which are mostly variants of each other.

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        But clearly not as closely related as a Bel Aire and a 210, for example. Yes, the Malibu and Impala are related to each other, but it’s not like the difference between them is just trim and the number of tail lamps. You can’t take the hood or decklid from a Malibu and bolt it on an Impala. It won’t work. But, it probably would have in 1955, the only differences being minor. Yes, your base model might look like an uplevel model then (or vice-versa), but the point is, they’re fundamentally the same.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Badge engineering vs so called platform sharing. I’m not an engineer to tell you how different the models are, but I suspect they are more closely related under the sheet metal where you can’t see, which is cheap to change. Remember the MQB was supposed to be a cookie cutter platform with a few common elements. Not quite badge engineering, but sounds closer to it than GM Zeta being based on GM Sigma.

  • avatar
    relton

    Jack’s list forgot the convertible.

    Anyone who thinks that a hardtop and a sedan are the same body has obviously never engineered a body.

    Bob

  • avatar
    MartyToo

    Another way to say this was that in 55 we had fewer competitors cranking out more models per brand. Today there is similar choice but you have to move a few feet down the road to the next dealership to avail yourself of that choice.

    There aren’t as many full size Chevies but there are a boatload of Equinox clones to choose from. They just aren’t all produced by GM.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      here’s a 1955 Chevy One-Fifty:

      http://i.imgur.com/rufhXYL.jpg

      Here’s a 1955 Chevy Bel Air:

      http://i.imgur.com/Rb6UCZH.jpg

      those aren’t “models.” They’re trim levels.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    You can still get a compact BMW as a:

    Coupe
    Sedan
    Wagon
    Convertible
    Hatchback (3 series GT)
    4 door coupe (4 Gran Coupe)
    X3
    X4

    These vehicles aren’t as similar to each other as the 55 Chevy example but are probably the closest thing available now. Of course the point about lowered quality vs modern expectations rings more than a little true here.

  • avatar
    whitworth

    The simple answer is, the government is a lot more involved in car production than it was in the 1950’s and there are huge compliance costs for each new model of car. So car companies can’t just offer a dozen different engines, transmissions, and body styles without making sure each of those models satisfies every agency.

    Just a small example, even things like brake light lenses have a D.O.T. certification and number on them. Grab a light from a 1950s car and see if that stamp is on there.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      anyone who claims they have a “simple answer” to a complex question is almost always wrong.

      • 0 avatar
        whitworth

        What a stupid throw away line that is.

        If you disagree with my conclusion, tell me why

        • 0 avatar
          Toad

          Does the sun rise in the East? Yes.

          Simple question, simple (and correct) answer. Simple answers are not inherently bad or wrong.

          Whitworth is correct in his analysis. In the 1950’s there was limited competition and little consequence for engineering mistakes. If your new engine design failed after 50k miles it was the consumer’s problem, not the manufacturer’s. If a design proved unsafe, well, driving was considered to come with some inherent risks.

          Now there are high regulatory requirements for safety and emissions (good!) and serious consequences for quality deficiencies (see GM’s 50%+ market share loss). The required engineering and production costs show up as fewer model choices, but the remaining choices have far higher quality, safety, efficiency, and feature content than vehicles of a few years earlier.

          Progress always comes at some cost, but the public has decided their automotive preferences by voting with their dollars .

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            “but the public has decided their automotive preferences by voting with their dollars .” which is the reason so many body styles went away. Ford isn’t spinning a T-Bird off of the Mustang chassis because people stopped buying personal luxury coupes. The few buyers that still want coupes prefer sporty coupes and today’s Mustang is available with things like power windows, leather ect that used to require stepping up to the T-Bird to get.

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            coupes are a pain in the ass if you ever have to get into (or put anyone) in the back seat.

          • 0 avatar
            Zykotec

            I love coupes, and I’ll hate to see them dissapear from the new car market, but luckily they made and sold enough model A coupes and 55 chevy coupes to last my lifetime and then some.

          • 0 avatar
            JimZ

            “Simple question, simple (and correct) answer. Simple answers are not inherently bad or wrong.”

            except I said “simple answers to COMPLEX questions.” I’m surprised at how few of you can actually read.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            Coupes certainly can be a pain to get into the back seat but as the owner I never intend to get back there and with the long doors and tilting seat of the traditional coupe it was not a pain to put things you might typically carry in the back seat. Plus you had a nice big trunk if you had the large box that was to big to wrestle into the back seat.

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    I think regulations and broad model lines are the reasons for less diversity of specific models. The Equinox is one box. The Malibu and Impala are two others. Then there is the Cruz, the Sonic, the one I can’t remember, the Camaro, the Corvette, the Traverse, the Tahoe/Suburban and a variety of pickup trucks that see private vehicle usage. In 1955, there was the Chevrolet in a dozen versions, the Corvette, and a few light trucks used by individuals as private vehicles. None of the 1955 Chevys had to preserve the service lives of crash test dummies, or emit exhaust that you could survive in a garage with for a minute.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    “utility sedan (two doors, wood platform in place of back seat, rear windows do not roll down), ”

    I think there’s a farkin’ reason that died out – looking at the pictures, it’s awkward and lame.

    It’s kind of insane (though also awesome) that they even *tried* that as a model.

    But there’s a reason nobody would today, because seriously.

    • 0 avatar
      operagost

      The fold-down rear seat back pretty much blows this away. I know that part of the need was to lower the cost, which actually is higher for the extra hardware, but just get a pickup. If you don’t EVER need more than one bench, get a pickup, dude!

      • 0 avatar
        Syke

        Back then that was a salesman’s car. You know, on the road guys who wore a suit and tie in the course of visiting their customers. You were never seen in a pickup truck wearing a suit and tie, unless you were at the dealership and selling the vehicle.

        And that massive missing rear seat space and trunk were for carrying catalogs, samples, and other relatively clean items of your trade.

  • avatar
    Eggshen2013

    “Today’s logical, if depressing, successor to that ’55 Chevy is the Equinox. It comes in one flavor: bland box.”

    YES Jack! Box, box and more boxes.

    So happy to see you describe these things for what they are.
    When I read writers describing how this “box” is cooler then that “box” it makes me sad.
    I am happy right now.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      “YES Jack! Box, box and more boxes.

      So happy to see you describe these things for what they are.
      When I read writers describing how this “box” is cooler then that “box” it makes me sad.”

      You’ve just described pretty much every smartphone (slabphone) review ever.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Development time and time-to-market are critical now. Nobody cares as much about variation in the line, as they care about what’s *new* in the line.

    “Stale” used to be 5 years, now it’s 3 years.

    Also, you can’t make as much money on that many variants.

    On a smaller scale, that’s why the V6 and the manual transmission are disappearing from mid-size vehicles – it’s too expensive to engineer a car to fit a variety of drivetrains when your buyers select only one of them 95% of the time.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      You do know that Detroit changed styling every year and chassis design every other year in the ’50s, right? 1957 was an exception for GM as the proposed cars weren’t ready, but then the 1958 GM cars ran for only one model year. If you look at the number of cars produced per-design, amortization of tooling and design wasn’t that much different than it is today, but it was all done in one year instead of four to eight years.

      • 0 avatar
        stingray65

        The tooling on a full-size Chevy was worn out by the end of the model year back in those days of 1+ million units of the same basic body design. Might as well come up with something new if you have to replace the dies anyway, which is what they did every year. Now it takes 5-6 years of selling one model without major styling changes to get to that level of annual Chevy production from the 1950s and 60s.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        that’s a lot easier to do when you have one platform and 60% marketshare. GM today has at least 11 platforms and numerous models, and 15% marketshare.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          GM didn’t have one platform. Before 58 they had 4 different body shells and until the late 60’s 5 different chassis just for the full size cars.

          Of course by the mid 60’s they had reduced the body shell count for the full size but had added the Z, Y and X and reintroduced the A. Now the A was pretty rationalized across the brands from the beginning but the Y was a hot mess under the common body shell with Pontiac cribbing some stuff from the Z so it had a Transaxle out back and cut in half V8 up front.

          Speaking of body specific engines yes the basic architecture of the Olds and Buick 215 V8 was the same there were a lot of unique things about the Olds because they were strapping a turbo on some of them.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        It was Chrysler that upset GM’s system with their Forward Look cars. So as the 58’s were going to the presses they instituted a crash course to come up with something new and even disposed of the A, B, C, and D body system and made everyone line up with Buick’s doors and use Buick’s windshield. That was done because the basic body shell tooling was scrapped after one year. Because that quickly went of style as many felt it was a step too far they kept the next body shell for 4 years.

        The 58 chassis was an evolution of the 55-57 units, and should have ran until 60. To get that lower longer wider they desperately wanted for 59 that frame was scrapped and they came up with the X frame that lasted until 64 largely unchanged.

        The difference today is certainly in part due to volume but also due to the changes in design and manufacturing of tooling. Now much is done with CNC machines so it is cheaper to make another just like the other and the advancement in metallurgy and modern manufacturing techniques has made it possible to make tooling that will last longer.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      “Development time and time-to-market are critical now. Nobody cares as much about variation in the line, as they care about what’s *new* in the line.”

      Then they should quit putting so much functionality in hardware, and put more in generic software that’s easily changed out without affecting the car.

      Make the dashboard a couple of computer displays, and make the body computer more adaptable. Do it like Tesla–dynamic updates to the functionality and even look-and-feel as new stuff comes out, without my having to trade the damn car in and get a new one.

  • avatar
    bikegoesbaa

    I see the 2017 Chevrolet US lineup currently consists of:
    -Hatchback city car
    -Hatchback subcompact
    -Sedan subcompact
    -EV hatch subcompact
    -EREV Kammback compact
    -Compact hatchback
    -Compact sedan
    -Midsize sedan
    -Fullsize sedan
    -Fullsize RWD sport sedan
    -2-door pony car
    -2-door sports car
    -Subcompact crossover
    -Compact crossover
    -Fullsize crossover
    -Fullsize BOF SUV
    -Larger fullsize BOF SUV
    -Midsize pickup (multiple door and bed configurations available)
    -Fullsize pickup (multiple door and bed configurations available)
    -HD pickup (multiple door and bed configurations available)
    -City Van (multiple configurations available)
    -Cargo Van (multiple configurations available)

    There does not appear to be any lack of choice or specialization available; I doubt that there was a functional niche Chevrolet was filling in 1955 that is not filling today.

    They just do it with different model names rather than 25 variations of the same parent model.

    I like when automakers offer a wide variety of designs for different purposes. I am not especially concerned with what they call these designs. Whether it’s an Equinox or a “Malibu XT Wagon” is largely immaterial to the buyer.

    • 0 avatar
      nvinen

      What is the fullsize RWD sport sedan? The Chevy SS is no longer being manufactured and no new stock will be available. There may be a handful still available but that’s it. Is there another RWD sport sedan that I don’t know about?

      http://gmauthority.com/blog/2017/05/holden-produces-final-chevrolet-ss-sedan/

      Which leads me to the real question that’s on my mind, which is: why are there so few proper American four-door sports sedans being made? I guess the answer is that there isn’t enough demand but I don’t understand that. To me, that’s the ultimate car, especially for single men (or men with a small family who still want to have fun).

      With the end of the Chevy SS, is the Dodge Challenger the only remaining domestic vehicle in that segment?

      • 0 avatar
        bikegoesbaa

        Yes, I was thinking of the SS. I was going by what you could buy as MY2017, not what is being manufactured this week.

        I assume the dearth of old-school RWD sport sedans are a result of:
        -More power and capability everywhere. Now even pedestrian midsize family sedans accelerate and handle like sports cars of yore.
        -Better packaging, where you can get sufficient space for rear passengers with a smaller overall car.
        -Trucks are becoming more popular and displacing big cars generally, largely because trucks are now designed like passenger vehicles instead of agricultural implements.

  • avatar
    stingray65

    Of course in 1955 the entire VW lineup consisted of Beetle (2 door sedan, Cabriolet), and Van (with a few variations in window count).

  • avatar
    Syke

    Back then, they took one car and made lots of models and trim variations out of it. Today, they’re different models, floorplans and bodies to cover the difference.

    In 1955, if you wanted the bare bones Chevrolet, you bought a 210 2-door sedan. If you wanted the most luxurious, you bought the Bel Air hardtop coupe or convertible. Same car, slight difference in structural bracing to make up for the lack of a B-pillar.

    Today if you want the cheapest Chevy, you buy a Spark. If you want the most luxurious (limiting this to cars) you buy an Impala (or SS). Neither of which have anything to do with each other, besides the name on the hood and the dealer’s lot its sitting in.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    We look at the past for how we wish it to have been, while looking at the present for everything it isn’t. As others have said we are spoiled for choice, to the point that manufacturers are dropping from the market or pulling back. And that’s not even counting crossovers.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    GM in the 50’s was completely insane in too may ways to list. And it kept on through the 60’s too. They shared a lot of components between brands that made them look similar, while keeping the mechanical components different.
    (looking at it from an engineering and economical/adult perspective, as a car enthusiast/inner child I still love that it was done the way it was done)

    A Chevrolet and a Pontiac in 1955 looks more or less like the same car, but with different trim and different front/rear fascia. But under the shell they were completely different cars with different mechanicals, and even frames.
    The smaller Buicks and Olds models also shared the same basic body, while the larger shared the body with Cadillac if I recall correctly?

    There was probably a lot of pride in each brand (and each customer group) that made it hard to change this, and I honestly don’t know how much harder it was to press body panels in the 50’s, but whoever was in charge of cost cutting and R&D really should have been fired by 1958.

    Imagine having to design and produce 5 completely different v8 engines with different characteristics ranging from 160 to 250 hp (SAE) including several variants of each engine, not all being able to share the same transmission because of different bolt patterns etc. Imagine having to purposely design your frame ‘worse’ than the more expensive model. Imagine that this would get even worse after 1955, cause later they ‘invented’ big blocks too. (and don’t forget they still had a bunch of inline sixes to engineer)

    All of this is exactly the opposite of what everyone else does today.
    Nowadays VAG can get away with using bascally the same mechanical components from Skoda(Chevrolet) through Seat(Pontiac) then VW(buick) and Audi(Oldsmobile), while still making cars that look and feel quite different.
    Bentley(Cadillac) doesn’t have to share quite as many parts with the plebes. But they still share part of the family design language.

    In the future, as we get more and more different designs to fill even smaller niches, we will eventually get even fewer platforms to build all these cars on. Things that affect the environment and crash safety will have to become ‘shareware’ sooner or later.
    Electrical drivetrains (with or without ICE generators) will make this easier too, as transmissions and axles just complicate things.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      The degree of fractionation in “Old GM” was never more evident to me than when I learned that they were making multiple series of RWD engines and transmissions with different incompatible bell housing bolt patterns.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        There were two bellhousing patterns, Chevy and BOP or Buick, Olds, Pontiac. At least until the Olds took off and exceeded their ability to produce “Rocket” engines. So they started making a universal TH350 which had the extra holes for both patterns though to be fair the dowel locations and the lower 4 holes were the same between the Chevy and BOP patterns.

        Fact was with the volume that GM was doing the dis-economies of scale meant that it really wasn’t that much more expensive to have different engines for the different divisions because they needed multiple foundries and production lines.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Before Ford and Chrysler upset the cart, and caused a panicked GM to scrap their 58 line up for all new 59 cars this was GM’s line up.

      A body All Chevrolet, Junior Pontiacs
      B body Senior Pontiacs, Junior Olds and Buick
      C body Senior Olds and Buick, Junior Cadillacs
      D body, Senior Cadillacs

      For 59 and 60 they all shared the same body shells but kept their unique frames.

      By 65 they were back to A, B, C, D body designations but the A was the intermediate all the lesser brands started their full size cars with the B body while the senior Olds and Buck were C bodies shared with the junior Cadillac and the D was still the senior Caddy.

      However it was not until 1969 that they started sharing frames across the brands, that meant while the upper part of the body may have been shared they had different floor pans to mate up to each division’s unique frames. The also did not share their automatic transmissions across the board until the later 60’s.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    The automotive market is more competitive than ever, and vehicles have more content and considerations than ever. Not much thought was given to things like crash protection in that 1955 Chevy, let alone the multitude of testing modern vehicles have to pass in order to get an acceptable or good rating.

    The Toyota 86 or FRS whatever it is wouldn’t exist without the BRZ. The new Miata wouldn’t exist without the Fiat 124. They needed these economies of scale because they knew they wouldn’t sell all that many.

    The same applies to mainstream passenger vehicles. General Motors knew they could reliably sell half a million fullsize Chevrolet cars in a given year in the 60’s (plus the accomodating Pontiac, Buick and Olds models). So it was easy to offer those nameplates in different shapes and sizes.

    Today, they have to split that market share with not only Ford, Chrysler and to a lesser extent AMC, but not Toyota, Honda, Hyundia, Kia, FCA, Nissan, Mazda, VW, etc. Nowaydays, even a top seller might crack 400,000 on it’s own which in it’s own right represents a much smaller slice of the overall market.

    Customers today have as many or more choices than ever, but they have to shop different brands and manufacturers to find them.

  • avatar
    jmiller417

    Cars are bland these days, but it’s not fair to compare a single model like the Equinox with a basic car that covered all the niches. They weren’t as able to different things with a platform back then.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    ” those frameless windows. He doesn’t expect it to be watertight 15 years after it rolls off the line”

    But I do, and they were, 20 years after my ES300 rolled off the line (some windnoise did creep in). My Maxima however could not even prevent water leaks from getting through the cowl/windshield seal.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    Knowing that you will never relive the heady times of “fat” Japanese cars:

    http://www.vanlifenorthwest.com/1992-toyota-hiace-super-custom-limited/

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Today’s vehicles are bland and more appliance like. True they are more reliable but they are more costly even after the inflation rate is taken into effect. Still I would go with today’s cars with better safety features and more longevity. Maybe it all balances out.

  • avatar
    jalop1991

    “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?”

    Because 60 years ago, nobody gave a damn if the thing folded up like a cheap suit if it hit so much as a signpost.

    And nobody blinked when it was all used up at 40K miles. 50K miles? Good God, get rid of that thing!!

    This is not unlike Wheel Of Fortune, at the end when the winner is choosing 5 consonants and a vowel. It didn’t take long for EVERYONE to converge on SNRTL and E. Same with the single mid-sized SUVs that all look the same: convergence on what makes the most sense.

    It’s called a mature market.

    Look at computers nowadays compared to 30 years ago.

    Is anyone surprised?

    Jack, I’m shocked at such a shallow article from you.

  • avatar
    gtemnykh

    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).

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      I agree on love for the decade but the Contour/Mystique was not known to be overly reliable, I am curious as to how this model held up so long. Perhaps the 2.0 was a great motor after all and most of them were shipped with the 2.5 V6? Church followers know what happens to cylinders of six less than litres of three…

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Mondeo_(first_generation)#Ford_Contour_and_Mercury_Mystique

      • 0 avatar
        gtemnykh

        The key to this particular example’s longevity is a) a meticulous first owner who owned it for the first 2 decades and b)manual transmission, avoiding the infamous Ford CD4E 4spd auto, oh and it being a southern PA car so the rust is minimal. My brother put a timing belt on and some other maintenance work over the last few years so he knew the history, so when the owner finally decided to sell and was having a hard time getting any bites on Craigslist even at a bottom feeder price of $500, my brother jumped on it. I feel like a lot of mechanics drive vehicles like this: cheap older cars that are mechanically sound, bought for pennies from customers. It needs an oil pan gasket and a clutch finally, and he’s done the rear struts and springs and a control arm up front. A very satisfying car to drive, definitely has some European flavor to how it rides and handles, as well as the interior touches.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      That Zetec was the best 4 cylinder engine Ford ever offered, if not the most refined engine they ever sold period. I rented a Contour with it and couldn’t have been more impressed by the job the engine did moving the car around while sounding almost Honda-smooth and unstrained. It was pretty much the opposite of the Plymouth Breeze 2.0 liter I rented a couple of years earlier. The rest of the car didn’t make much of an impression, but I rented it from one of those Manhattan independent rental outfits for a seven hundred mile weekend trip. Mostly I was impressed by the stains on the inside of the back window. A certain scene from Pulp Fiction came to mind.

      • 0 avatar
        iNeon

        Breeze was a size class up– 5 cubic foot larger interior volume.

        Contour/Mystique were more in-line with neon than Cirrus/Stratus/Breeze. Chrysler was pushing a ‘bigger is better’ mantra in their 1990s renaissance– we can kind of blame them for the huge cars we have today.

        Cab forward was amazing.

  • avatar
    starskeptic

    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’.

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