A few years ago, a tough competitor named James J. Nance deserted the electrical-appliance business to join the varsity of American industry in Detroit. He hadn't been in the motor capital long when, understandably awed, he made a shrewd observation. "This is the most important business in the country," said Nance, now president of Studebaker-Packard Corporation, "but for all its super-salesmanship, engineering know-how and manufacturing genius, it depends on the same kind of fickleness my wife shows when she buys a hat."
Motordom's fortunes, indeed, are geared to customer caprice. At the annual model change, Detroit's yearly salute to planned obsolescence, the carmakers unveil their latest steel, glass, rubber, chrome and plastic creations with fantastic fanfare. A car is built to run well for years, but even before the customer's proud grin of new ownership can evaporate, the industry toils to make him dissatisfied all over again.
Before Pearl Harbor, Detroit generally restricted its customer goading until autumn, when the curtain traditionally parts on the newest four-wheeled editions. But these days, the industry can't resist the delight of getting ahead of itself. Instead of keeping the cars of the future in their secret back rooms, auto men, wise to the ways of mass appetite whetting, now let the car-buying public in on their exciting plans.
The teasing news is spread by the experimental or idea vehicle, popularly known as the dream car. These dazzling futuristic buggies are crowd magnets in scores of auto shows, like General Motors' multimillion-dollar Motorama which opens in Los Angeles March 3 for a nine-day run. They also are seen in big city dealer exhibitions, state fairs and in less ambitious traveling displays which often wind up in individual retail showrooms. Mercury division of the Ford Motor Company expects 2 million people to see its XM-Turnpike Cruiser (opposite page), which early this month, after a number of auto show exhibitions, starts out on a seven-month, 15,000-mile coast-to-coast junket. It will be displayed in a $50,000 "Van-O-Rama," a mobile showcase with 20-foot glass picture windows on either side.
Dream cars, outside of their obvious sales promotional and public relations value (showmanship-conscious auto men say they would be worth the investment on this score alone), have accomplished many things. Not the least of these is to boost the morale of the automotive stylist, a relative newcomer to prominence in an industry long dominated by engineers, production experts, financial wizards and master salesmen.
Virgil M. Exner, the slim, silver-haired director of styling for Chrysler Corporation who is credited with the design that sparked Chrysler's dramatic 1955 comeback, stresses this "inspirational value" to his staff. Exner also points out that having a futuristic car that can actually be seen, touched and even driven, not only conditions the public to expect progress but has "educational importance" in the stylist's dealings with top management.
George W. Walker, the breezy, luxury-loving Ford vice-president in charge of styling, bubbles over with ideas, after permitting his visitors to recover from the shock of walking on thousands of dollars worth of black-dyed mouton which covers the entire floor of his otherwise nearly pure-white office. "Experimental cars," says he, "are libraries for hot ideas. It's important to have cars made up full-size so our people can see them in true perspective. Remember, a lot of the lowness we're all after has to be a visual effect, because I don't figure people ever are going to be willing to lie on their stomachs to drive a car."
General Motors, which pioneered the dream car parade with its famed "Y Job" in 1938 (it had fender extensions over the doors, electrically actuated convertible top and door windows, tail lamps recessed in rear fenders), emphasized the opportunity afforded by its experimental models to sample public opinion in advance of production. As Harley J. Earl, GM's burly vice-president in charge of styling, put it: "There was a time when we in General Motors styling felt we had to hold back on some of our design ideas because the public wasn't ready for them yet. In the showing of dream cars about the nation, however, we learned that the public's thinking in automobile design was ahead of ours, not behind. More than 2 million persons see our experimental cars each year in the Motorama alone. They talk about them, they say what they like—and what they don't like. And we listen, very carefully."
Just how carefully GM listens is demonstrated by the 15 research specialists from its customer research department which this giant of the industry sends out to each Motorama showing. These experts conduct about 2,500 ten-minute interviews on dream cars in each city, forwarding the answer sheets each day directly to Detroit.
Serious as auto makers are about obtaining the public's opinions, it can't honestly be said that the public designs the car of the future. But the dream car helps because, primarily, the customer's power over styling is a negative one. The average motorist can't design an automobile, but he can apply a mighty veto, to which the ghosts of 2,000 makes of cars no longer in existence bear mute testimony.