Though divided by 50 years and two continents, these cars actually have quite a bit in common…
As a follow-up to the great article written by Nigel Tate on the Sears Allstate a few weeks back, let’s compare this vehicle with a more recent entry from Toyota. Let’s get the obvious comparison out of the way first – both these cars are “aesthetically challenged”, not the most attractive of designs. But it turns out they also had one other major similarity: they were both innovative efforts by their respective manufacturers to market a vehicle outside the normal dealer network.
First, let’s take a look at WiLL (“Guest Writer” previously did a nice post here). In the late 1990s, Toyota was looking for creative ways to expand their sales in the ultra-competitive home market. One idea was to create a new brand, and partner with other retailers to have a variety of products under that brand (not just cars). Toyota named this new brand WiLL, and set up separate “Vista” branches which were much more like a regular retail store than a dealership. Toyota then entered into agreements with other companies to sell a variety of WiLL badged products: cosmetics (Kao); alcoholic beverages (Asahi); electronics (Panasonic); and candy (Glico). The broad family of WiLL products were geared mainly toward a younger clientele, mostly female.
Vi Cypha VS
As to the cars (there were three separate models), they were “different”, at least on the outside – basic chassis were carry-over from other Toyota models. While Japanese styling was becoming somewhat mainstream by the 80s and 90s, Toyota went in a different direction, at least for the Vi and Cypha – for these vehicles Toyota tried for a retro-French, urban-chic motif. Or, maybe the discussion between the stylists went something like this:
“Hey, I was watching Godzilla Versus Megalon last night and it gave me an idea. What if we took one car and made it look like Godzilla picked it up and bent it right in the middle. The second one will look like he gave it a dose of atomic bad-breath and melted it around the edges. For the last one, we’ll just make it look like he stepped on its back-end and squished it a little…”
Unfortunately, this venture proved even Toyota was not infallible. After five years of lackluster sales, the company pulled the plug on WiLL in 2004, renaming all its Vista stores “Netz” and returning to a typical dealership format.
Perhaps if the Toyota executives had read the case study of the Sears Allstate they would have paused for a little more reflection…
Due to Nate’s very thorough article, I’m sure readers here know the history of the Allstate – badge-engineered from the Kaiser Corporation Henry J coupe (another nice post by Tom Klockau here).
Introduced in 1950, the Henry J was a pet project of industry titan Henry J. Kaiser to market a low-priced, small car. But to keep the price as low as possible (which was still high given Kaiser’s high production costs), the car lacked some very basic features – like a trunk lid, a glove box, a passenger’s side sun visor, etc. While attempts were made to add these features later, the public never warmed to the car and its production numbers decreased each year. In 1952, with a large backlog of 51 models, Kaiser was able to convince the executives at Sears Corp to market and sell slightly modified Henry J’s in their stores calling it the “Allstate”.
However, the public wasn’t quite ready to purchase a car (or at least this car) at a Dept store, and as with the similar venture 50 years later, it did not end with success – after two years of dismal sales, the plug was pulled in 1954.
It’s interesting today to see dealerships broaden into other retail areas, such as restaurants, other merchandise, etc., in an effort to generate more floor traffic. Maybe Kaiser and Toyota were just the victims of poor timing – perhaps we’ll see dealerships evolve into larger retail activities in the future (or evolve in the other direction with internet sales).
What do you think?