Larry Burns: Reinventing the car

Comments

  1. #1 george.w
    December 11, 2008

    Wow, they’re spending a whole billion dollars to develop an entirely new technology? Chrysler spent a third more than that just to develop the extremely pedestrian Neon, and Ford spent $6bn to develop the very nice but not exactly revolutionary Contour. So forgive me if I don’t swoon at how serious they are about it.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 11, 2008

    It is quite possible that Ford and Chrysler were doin’ it wrong.

  3. #3 Lurkbot
    December 12, 2008

    To be fair, Ford had a habit of developing world-changing technology on experimental cars, never bringing any of it to market, and then stealing the well-publicized name and slapping it on some cookie-cutter car.

    They started that 45 years ago with the Mustang, which was supposed to be a two-seater with a transverse midships engine like the Fiat X 1/9 or Pontiac Fiero. By the time a car named Mustang came out, it was just a Falcon with the trunk shortened.

    Another example was the series of aerodynamic experiments called “Probe”. By the time they got to the Probe V, it (rather unexpectedly to the designers) had a drag coefficient of .18! But you remember the disaster they eventually threw away the name on.

    The Contour experimental car had, among other things I can’t remember, a new engine design with the flywheel in the middle with helical gears, so you could have an inline 4, 6, or 8 mounted transversely in front, but still have the transmission longitudinal. Its “paint” was a very tough plastic coating molded to the exact shape of the car in a similarly-shaped die and glued on in one operation.

    They may very well have spent $6 billion on the Contour project, but none of that saw the light of day. I guarantee very little of it went to bring over the European Ford Sierra and stick a badge on it saying “Contour.” (A friend of mine had one where they couldn’t even decide if it was a Ford Contour or Mercury Mystique: it had the Mercury logo on the rear quarter windows.)

  4. #4 george.w
    December 12, 2008

    To be fair, Ford had a habit of developing world-changing technology on experimental cars, never bringing any of it to market, and then stealing the well-publicized name and slapping it on some cookie-cutter car.

    That’s really interesting about the history of the Contour. But in doG’s name, why?

    GM had a habit of dabbling in innovation too, then retreating. First front-wheel-drive US car? GM. Also there was the Corvette, the Corvair, the aforementioned Fiero, and the Saturn EV-1 (or the whole Saturn company for that matter). But like Ford and Chrysler they clung to doin’ it wrong with the tenacity of a drowning man. And the hydrogen car project had US Dept. of Energy and Shell Hydrogen funding help.

    Any one of the big three could have owned the market by now, if they weren’t so chicken-hearted.

  5. #5 Lurkbot
    December 12, 2008

    The Chevy Volt is a real tragedy–GM had the chance to leapfrog everybody with a true hybrid. Now it’s probably never going to happen.

    I’ll bet people would be flabbergasted at how seldom their engine actually started. Mine would probably burn a few gallons of gas 3, maybe 4 times a year. What a waste!

  6. #6 Art
    December 12, 2008

    As I understand it a lot of those Billions that went into ‘development’ were caught up in a corporate loops of design proposals presenting versions of how it might look, marketing experts to determine how the customers should feel about it, study and focus groups to determine how the public does feel about it, and artistic and image advisers to make sure it all fits into how the corporation thinks about itself. All with interlocking and dependent layers of middle management and consultants added at each intersection.

    Most of the effort went into how it will look. Grill design and the colors ate up a lot of it. Another major portion went into important issues like cup holder placement.

    This process is the legacy of the auto industry in the late 40s and 50s when the industry got into redesigning the auto body every year to increase demand and make the vehicle a fashion accessory. This process is mostly about aesthetics, style and marketing. In most cases the actual mechanical works of the vehicle remained largely the same year to year.

    So when a smaller company says it can do for a Billion dollars what the big three can’t manage for many times that I have few doubts that it is possible. Possible yes, but based on previous historic attempts, not highly likely.