Design by Committee GM Cars Do Not Work! A Global Corvette? PLEASE!
Subtitle: Is the next Corvette headed for Hall of Design Shame? A Look at Corvette History for American Design Inspiration.
By K. Scott Teeters
Is There Something WRONG With This 2010 Corvette???
You can tell the the Corvette rumor mill has been starved for a scrap of red meat. On March 8, 2010, AutoWeek served up a short, hot little article that made the Corvette blogosphere explode. Here’s a link to the AutoWeek article…
The comments are breathtaking and I won’t even get into them. I’ll just stick to Ed Welburn’s statements.
Ed Welburn as GM’s vice president of global design, recently invited GM’s 10 worldwide styling studios to submit design proposals for the next Corvette.
“Some were absolutely phenomenal… There is a lot to pick from… We have challenges in the States with the Corvette. The average age of the customer is really rising…. The execution, materials selection [of the Corvette’s interior] — it’s got to be a much better interior. Our customers desire that… We have to develop a design that feels trimmer, meaner, to go along with the incredible performance that the car has… It is a key time in the development of the Corvette. There is a lot of debate and a lot of study on the bandwidth of Corvette. It can’t mutate into something that gets so far away from Corvette that it is no longer a Corvette…The direction that we take is very important, and the decision has not been made….”
First off, I’m not a GM insider, I know no one inside GM, and I have no inside connections. I used to work as a designer at the world’s largest toy company, Mattel Toys, in the now defunct, Mattel Mt. Laurel Division. That division is dead, in my opinion, because of its top officers – almost all of whom got new executive positions in Mattel, Inc., as a “thank you” for their fine visionary leadership while managing Mattel’s East Coast division. Like the designers at GM and other car companies, we followed the direction of upper management. It was a great education into how corporations function because at MML, we all could clearly see to the top because the division was so small. And if one was paying attention, one could learn how executives think.
In order for a corporation to survive and thrive, it MUST have a single leader with extraordinary vision and a true egocentric persona. While these types of leaders can be very successful, they can also be real pains-in-the-ass. Corporate bean counter-types don’t like them because they lead with their gut. The true visionaries do not depend on focus groups and invitations to design centers around the world to survive. The best contemporary example I can think of is Steve Jobs and Apple Computers. The man is a visionary genius and from what I’ve read, not always fun to be around. Were it not for Jobs’ return to Apple after John Schully’s disastrous leadership, there would be no Macs, iPods, iPhones, and iPads. Apple would have been history.
2009 was a disastrous year for GM. In one year, they chewed up and spit out two CEOs – Wagoner was fired by President Obama, and long-timer, Fritz Henderson abruptly quit for undisclosed reasons. (probably extreme frustration). Now, Ed Whitacre gets to drive the bus. The GM bus is in such bad shape that an international search for a new CEO yielded NO ONE! No one wanted the job! So Whitacre gets to be Ralph Kramden (the bus driver). Right from the get-go, Whitacre said, “I don’t know a thing about cars.” That should be our first sign of serious trouble.
When executives know nothing about the nature of the business they are supposed to be guiding and leading, they turn to their marketing minions because they think it’s “the smart thing to do.” They’ve been away from the design element for so long and have been living a a world of budgeting and scheduling meetings for so long, that they’ve forgotten that breakthrough designs don’t come from marketing surveys. (Check out the Hall of Design Shame pictures at the bottom of this post) Most of the time, marketing people are clueless as well because they’re always looking in the rear-view mirror to see what happened in the past.
The fact that there even is a Corvette can be traced back to the visionary thinking and creativity of one man – Harley Earl. In ‘53 there were NO American sports cars, in the traditional sense of the term “sports car.” And when the Corvette came out in ‘53, most Americans didn’t understand the expensive little Chevy. Were it not for an enthusiastic Russian race car guy named Zora Arkus-Duntov, with a passionate vision of a competitive America sports car, the Corvette would have withered and died by about ‘57. From ‘53 to ‘55, only 4,640 Corvettes were built.
The design mantle was then passed on to another automotive visionary, William Mitchell. Bill had the vision that lead to one of the all-time automotive design classics, the ‘63 – ‘67 Sting Ray. While Bill didn’t sort out all the details of the design, Larry Shinoda and a small team of stylists did. They followed Mitchell’s direction – his vision. Mitchell repeated his performance again with his totally original Mako Shark II design that shaped the design of all Corvettes from ‘68 to today. Duntov may have made the Corvette into the hell raising brute it became famous for, but if Zora had his way, the Corvette would have looked like a 550 Porsche. He was NOT a stylist.
The entire Corvette mystique is an alloy of function and form, and one can not live without the other. Detroit has come a very long way since the dark days of the ‘70s when it looked like we would never again have real performance cars. Thanks to computerized, electronic-controlled technology, today’s Corvette is faster, quicker, stops better, rides better, handles better, and gets over double the fuel mileage than anything from the old glory days. It has matured into a true, GT (Grand Touring) performance car. This was accomplished by having AMERICAN designers maintain the Corvette tradition and not letting the car become “something else,” such as a 4-door coupe!
Now, back to the AutoWeek story. Whitacre made his mark in the upper strata of the corporate world when he ran AT&T’s cell phone business. Remember how in the ‘80s computers were for geeks and nerds? Then personal computers opened up desktop publishing. But PCs didn’t explode until the Internet began to take off. Suddenly, everyone HAD TO HAVE one so they could get on the Net. The same thing happened with cell phones. These devices had been around since the early ‘80s, but it wasn’t until they became cheap and the networks were setup, when EVERYONE HAD TO HAVE ONE. So, Whitacre road the wave at AT&T. He didn’t invent cell phones. And now he’s running the show at GM. He’s admitted that he doesn’t know much about cars (but he said that he’s going to learn. Good move Ed!). So we’re supposed to believe that he’s going to reinvent GM and the car industry by getting rid of all the “old GM” people and inviting designs from GM design centers around the world.
This only makes sense from someone with NO VISION.
Back to William Mitchell. Bill never asked anyone, “Well, should I make the Corvette like this, or like that? Have a look at these 15 design concepts and tell me what you like.” NO! He designed the Sting Ray and said, “Here’s the next Corvette!” In an interview, Mitchell said, (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Do you think that Frank Lloyd Wright knocked on the doors of homeowners and asked, “So, what do you think a house should look like?” No, this is what happens when marketing people have no vision or clue. They need to have people TELL THEM what they want. And their bosses, the executive-types, are comfortable with “data” that tells them what to do. It’s a rational, linear, decision process with no heart. Mitchell used to like to say, “I got gasoline in my veins!” Does Mr. Whitacre?
What I read from the AutoWeek piece was a blinking, red neon sign that says, “NO VISION, NO LEADERSHIP, and NO CLUE.” This global design idea is a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that in ‘09 Corvette sales tanked 48%! So, of course the Corvette is under scrutiny. It may well be in its last few years of existence! If GM has another two years like ‘09, GM might be history! They simply can not sustain losses. Since the new C6 came out in ‘05, sales have been as follows:
‘05 – 37,372 units
‘06 – 34,021 units
‘07 – 40 561 units
‘08 – 35,301 units
‘09 – 13,934 units.
So, what happened? Did interest in sports car suddenly die? Sports car sales across the board were way down in ‘09. Was the ‘09 Corvette just a dog and the market finally figured it out? HARDLY! Now, if we were living in a robust economy with full employment, THEN one could point to the design. But, if one is paying attention to the real world and not the happy-happy blather of politicians and ra-ra cheerleader “we’re making changes” corporate leaders that have been living in their 6-figure income bubbles, one can not miss the fact that, excuse me, but there’s SOMETHING IN THE PUNCH BOWL!
Let’s stop candy-coating what’s going on. REALITY CHECK! We are now in the midst of a world-wide DEPRESSION, with no sign of recovery. PERIOD! And my saying so isn’t what’s making it so. Is it Obama or Bush’s doing? Clinton? No, not any single one of them, ALL of them, AND Congress too. We are in this deep hole because they have created it and allowed it to happen by the laws that they pass. It’s not the sub-prime people that somehow duped all those smart CPA loan officers, or dumb Americans charging up those credit cars, or union workers and their good benefits. The American people DID NOT create and allow the derivatives market that is at the root of this disaster we’re all facing and being asked – ordered to pay for. And unless you’re a member of “The Big Club” and have already made your fortune, you WILL be facing this because there is NO RECOVERY that will automatically happen because life follows a bell curve. PISH!
Back to the Corvette dilemma. Look, from the very beginning, Corvettes have always been a premium car, costing at least twice as much as a regular Chevy. Today you can buy a basic Malibu for around $25,000 and a Corvette cost around $50,000. Corvettes and other sports cars aren’t selling because we have a nearly 20% unemployment rate when you factor in the underemployed. Health insurance rates have exploded in a workforce that isn’t getting raises. Weekly hours are reduced and there’s NO OVERTIME – unless you work in the fields of security and police work. So, how is an average guy or gal supposed to save for a new Corvette while maintaining everything else? Answer: THEY AREN’T! And until Americans get back to work, with well paying jobs, instead of buying a new Corvette, they’ll buy an old Vette because that’s all they can afford, if they can even afford that.
So, back to the C7 Corvette. What should GM and the Corvette team do? Does the C6 need a new interior? Sure! So, make one! But they shouldn’t be trying to justify possibly $1 Billion to develop a “world” Corvette. (It cost $250 Million to develop the C5 back in the early ‘90s). Keep making the highly successful and competitive C6 a better car. There’s more that can be done to the car. The platform and engine is the best. Keep making it better! An enormous expenditure for a car that no one really “needs” and isn’t a terribly useful day-to-day machine, is just plain STUPID. Unless a divine miracle happens and the economy magically turns around, who’s going to buy a C7 Corvette – even if it is a “global design?” Or are we designing for the European market now?
To quote my least favorite politician, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Hey Whitacre! Hey Welburn! Forget the Europeans! They won’t but the car, just for spite. They’ve got their knickers in a twist because the Corvettes are whipping their sacred cow’s butts on the world racing stage, Le Mans. What, you’re going to FOLLOW the Europeans? Since when does America FOLLOW?! Or, is this the new America? Is it that we don’t know what to do any more? Is it that we can’t build world-class performance cars and our time is over? Who said we have to be world-citizens and FOLLOW?
Here are some of my favorite “design by committee” GM cars. Enjoy the freak show!
70’s Chevy Chevette – Once referred to as “Cockroach tough.” Nice!
Star bursts and imitation lace hub caps didn’t help. Remember, you can polish a t—!
80’s Cadillac Cimarron – CADILLAC???
80’s Chevy Citation – The X-11 and fancy wheels DIDN’T help.
‘02 Pontiac Aztec – The ULTIMATE committee car. I hope someone was fired over this.
‘01 SS Camaro – While not “ugly” it certainly had lost its way. And WHO inside GM walked away from the Camaro and let Ford have the pony car market all to themselves with the retro Mustang? So much for marketing focus groups. Ford sold hundreds of thousandsof new Mustangs because they’re COOL!
It took GM HOW LONG to bring back the Camaro???
The ULTIMATE Corvette abomination – the proposed 4-seater ‘63 Sting Ray. Marketing people asked, “What would a 4-seater Sting Ray look like, to compete with the Ford Thunderbird? (Hey, let’s FOLLOW Ford, guys!)
Answer: A FREAK! The Corvette would have been DEAD in three years had they gone in this direction. Story has it that a tallish executive couldn’t get out of the back seat, so the project was dropped. Should have left him there!
Save the Wave,
K. Scott Teeters
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