In 2001, eight months before he was hired by General Motors to become new product czar, Bob Lutz dismissed some adventurous designs at the Detroit auto show as “angry appliances.”
To the delight of the press, he said some looked like trash compactors and snowplows. He didn't name names, but some of his barbs clearly were aimed at concepts shown by the struggling DaimlerChrysler Corp., which had just fired President Jim Holden and was going through a gut-wrenching reorganization.
The cartoonish proportions of that show's concepts, such as the Jeep Willys and Dodge Super8 Hemi, endured snickers from many in addition to Lutz.
But what Lutz — who is famous for creating risky, cool cars — and others failed to see, was that desperation was fomenting change within Chrysler's design studios. The bravado and what designers called “confidence-inspiring shapes” — not to mention some styling “anger” — were key ingredients for the over-the-top Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum. The 300/Magnum now are among Detroit's few recent home runs.
Despite their allegedly polarizing designs, they've logged steady sales for the past 12 months with only moderate incentives. Even in these fuel-conscious times, a high percentage is leaving showrooms with lots of high-profit options, including the powerful Hemi V-8. They look mean, and they are selling.
On the other hand, most of the latest products from GM and Ford do not appear to be even moderately ticked off. Their congeniality is not a hit with buyers.
Daring and sometimes outright frivolous cars and trucks have been saving Detroit's bacon for the last 50 years. Most critics thought a chrome-laden luxury version of the Ford Expedition, priced about $15,000 higher, was just silly. Instead, the Lincoln Navigator redefined “American luxury” and became one of the industry's most profitable vehicles ever.
The first-generation Cadillac Escalade, a gussied-up Chevy Tahoe, was considered even more foolish. Instead, it jump-started Cadillac's renaissance and made a ton of money.
The Big Three have a proud history of saving themselves from bankruptcy with groundbreaking products the competition needs years to imitate — not shrewd financial moves or renegotiated labor contracts. It was the sleek '49 Ford after World War II; the boxy Chrysler K-car in 1981; and the garageable minivan in 1983.
The aerodynamic Taurus saved Ford in 1985, despite being so different some Ford vice presidents couldn't stand it, even as it rolled off the assembly line.
While it's true they must cope with crippling health-care costs of about $1,500 per vehicle, Edmunds.com says GM and Ford nevertheless were offering incentives of $3,732 and $3,064, respectively, in March, compared with Toyota's $1,259 average and Honda's $445. If GM and Ford were able to erase health-care costs tomorrow, they still would be disadvantaged because their products, on the whole, are less desirable.
Dynamic products saved Detroit in the past. They need to be in the pipeline now. And they need to be very, very angry.
Drew Winter is editor of Ward's AutoWorld.