(first posted 11/9/2016)
I dared to compare the 1976 Honda Accord with the 1976 Chevelle Malibu the other day, but folks just weren’t buying it. And the conversation morphed to the Civic, with numerous comments stating that these cars, Civic or Accord, in no way competed against the bigger Malibu. Well, yes they did. How else to explain how the Accord and Civic came to be best sellers, while the Malibu dwindled away? Honda sales rose at the expense of others. Almost every car and truck is ultimately competing against every other for the consumer’s money, and it’s been so for a very long time. And the winners have a few key ingredients to explain their success.
If folks bought cars strictly for their utility, we’d all be driving a modern day Model T (a 2016 version of the GM FWD A-Body?). The T was the perfect car to put America on wheels, but Alfred Sloan of GM soon realized that once car buyers had made that transition, a very large percentage wanted something more than pure utility. Style, image, comfort, distinction, exceptional performance in various ways, and other attributes that couldn’t be adequately be addressed by one single car.
There’s a common misconception that the VW, and other imports, experienced such explosive sales growth during the mid-late 50s because they were seen only as cheap, basic transportation; a modern-day Model T. Not so, except perhaps a minority. Yes, a 1955 VW sedan cost somewhat less ($1495) than a basic Chevy sedan ($1685), but the reality is that from the very get-go, VW and other import buyers had higher average income (and educational levels) than buyers of domestics. They could afford a more expensive car, but they wanted something different, whether it was higher perceived quality, unique/timeless style, sporty handling, greater economy, better resale value, or to just stand out from the crowd as well as to self-identify with the other growing legion of import/VW buyers.
The Volkswagen, along with other socio-economic changes, was a prime reason the Sloanian ladder imploded so rapidly starting almost exactly at this time. It was no mere coincidence.
And it wasn’t just singles or couples that bought VWs; many families did too. Stephanie’s family numbered six when their dad bought a VW. And he was far from the only one. I remember a number of my classmates at grade school having VWs. It may not have been the most logical choice in every case (it wasn’t in the case of Stephanie’s family), but that’s beside the point. College professors weren’t exactly forced to buy Saabs, Volvos and VWs because they couldn’t afford a nice American car.
So yes, the Volkswagen most definitely competed against the full-size Chevrolet as well as every other domestic, low-price and not-so low price. If imports hadn’t been available, or the specific unique qualities of the VW hadn’t existed, its buyers would have been buying…Chevrolets, or Ramblers, or…
If the VW example isn’t convincing enough, here’s example B: the 1965 Mustang. Contrary to popular belief/myth, the overwhelming majority of Mustangs weren’t bought because of their genuine performance or sportiness. It was all about image and perception, and the Mustang tapped into that like no car before, except of course the VW (and to a smaller extent, the Corvair Monza). Once again, there were plenty of kids who were forced to ride in its cramped rear seat because Mommy or Daddy just had to have one. Like the VW, it was a mammoth fad; its popularity completely out of proportion to its objective/utilitarian qualities, which were frankly pretty iffy. And it had little or no “direct competition” to speak of.
The difference with the Mustang compared to the VW and other imports is that now this critical split in the market was happening within the domestic industry. Mustangs were equally hot in Waterloo, Iowa as they were in Malibu, CA. Buying a Mustang in 1965 made as much sense as buying a double cab pickup does today to 90+% of their buyers. And they weren’t trading in sporty cars to buy them. People largely buy with their emotions, not their calculators (or slide rules, as the case may be).
There was a reason pony car sales went into such a swoon after a few years; no, it wasn’t the high insurance on the few hi-po versions. It was because Mommy and Daddy got sick of getting kicked in the lower back by their kids’ feet. Or something like that. So they moved on to the next hot fad, moderate-priced personal “luxury” coupes like the Monte Carlo, Cutlass Supreme, and their many imitators.
Or not. A lot of Honda Civic buyers in the early-mid 70s were trading in domestic cars of all stripes and sizes, including Mustangs and Chevelles, A certain segment of the market is always on the hunt for the next big (little) thing, due to some unique qualities inherent to it. They wanted something different, small, economical, well-built, sporty and with some flair and style to go with it. The experience of slipping into a Civic compared to a Malibu was day and night, yet where were the buyers coming from? Yes, some came from VWs, but the Civic (and the Accord) were hot fads all of their own, because they brought a whole new driving and ownership experience. And there’s no doubt if Honda had never existed, the domestics would have seen their sales drop just a wee bit less. or a whole lot less, after a few years. Just like would have been the case in the 50s and 60s without a VW.
When something really new and different comes along, it creates excitement among the early adopters. And when that is sustained due to objective qualities that do make the car stand out and economically viable, demand can grow dramatically and for quite some time.
Given the range of financing/lease options available today, a huge range of buying options is available to almost anyone except at the lowest end of the income scale. That means the bulk of the market is all competing for the bulk of the buyer. This was not once commonly the case, but it has certainly become so.
I could list other examples (Mazda Miata, for one), but one of the best in more recent years is the Toyota Prius. Again, its following started small, by the same kind of early adopters that embraced the VW and Hondas. Derided by many as just a greenwashing fad, its growth accelerated as gas prices once again rose in 2005 along with growing concern about greenhouse emissions. And again, Prius buyers had similar buyer profiles, and many/most could well have afforded something more expensive. And just like the VW and Honda, the Prius increasingly became mainstream and a top seller. And those sales came out of all sorts of cars’ hides. And just like the others, it arrived with a unique set of qualities that made it more attractive then the existing range of vehicle in the marketplace.
Prius enthusiasm has been flagging of late (along with gas prices), and Toyota made a colossal mistake of never coming up with the next step in its obvious evolution (a long-range EV).
Right now, midsize trucks are one of the hottest segments of the market, yet it languished just a few years back. My son and his GF just bought a Tacoma double cab, to replace their Subaru Impreza. And it sure wasn’t going to be one from GM! Midsize trucks aren’t competing against each other so much as all the other choices out there. And for the time being, they’re winning.
So what’s the next hot thing to steal market share from all the other cars? Did you have to ask? Well, we’ll see if Elon Musk can fully fulfill his ever more expansive vision, the latest one being to produce over 500k Teslas per year by 2018. And a million per year a few years later. But one thing is for certain: the close to 400k prospective Tesla Model 3 buyers who put down a $1000 deposit are in essence already not buying other cars. And exactly what car does the Tesla compete against? Since there’s no direct competition, your guess is as good as mine. But it’s coming out of the market, no matter how you look at it. And undoubtedly, those 400k Model 3 buyers-to-be own a wide variety of cars currently, which will not see repeat buyers.
Update /8/2022: Tesla has of course fulfilled its ambitions so far, and the Model Y has become one of the top selling cars globally.
It’s just like it was with VW in 1955, Honda Civic in 1975, and the Prius in 2005. And quite a few others in between. None of these cars had any “direct competition” in terms of specific metrics of size, weight, power or such; every other car in the market was potentially ripe for the taking. As it always has been. “Direct competition” is actually overrated and a bit of an oxymoron. People mostly already know what they want, and if they like certain brands, good look showing them something else. Unless of course it’s the next hot new thing.
There appears to be something attached to the opening URL that causes it to not lead back to said article.
Awesome article Paul and good point. One point to exapnd on and one to add: it’s interesting to think about a time when credit was not easily available. At that time, if one had saved $1,000 or $2,000, their choices were limited to the cars in that price range, making all cars in that price range direct competition.
Also, in the seventies, both sets of my grandparents bought an extra car for better gas mileage (1974 Audi Fox to go with a 1972 Lincoln Continental, and a 1979 Honda Accord to go with a 1975 Buick Riviera). I know some portion of Prius buyers were similar. I wonder what percentage of Civic sales, and VW sales may have been for companion cars.
Back in the 50s and 60s it would be interesting to see how many of those purchases of foreign cars were part of the “Dad’s Car” & “Mom’s Car” phenomenon.
Mom needs the grocery getter/kid hauler Dad needs something for his commute. As long as Dad doesn’t need to impress clients, his options are pretty wide open within his budget. Why not take a chance on that little VW?
Dad bought a new ’66 Beetle and soon after a new ’67 Continental. He kept the Lincoln for less than 2 years. The Beetle was our only car for the four of us when we moved from Portland to SoCal in late ’67. Soon after the move he bought a ’62 Monterey for Mom in ’68, and drove the VW until ’72 when he sold it to me as a first car.
Then he bought Mom a new ’72 Pinto,traded in the ’62 pristine S-55 Monterey and bought himself a puke green ’67 Monterey 4 door that ran like crap and spent lots of time in the shop.
Paul, as I shall readily confess I’m no expert on the US car buying public’s habits; certainly we never had anything like the Japanese phenomenon happen here in Europe (although the Koreans are making inroads). In Israel, where I grew up, the market was very different in that the Japanese (and later the Koreans) replaced apples with apples so to speak (4 door compact Europeans were replaced with similar cars from the far east). Having said the above, it seems to me your theory could be backed if you could make a direct connection between Civic and Chevelle sales patterns. Unless I have missed something, the real explosion in Japanese car sales in the US really came about in the late 80s when they all had more or less cars compatible with the big three’s offerings. But all through the 70s, the threat was not really felt, numbers wise. Again, to me Civics and a Malibus/Chevelles were bought by completely different customers; throw in the Chevette and I may become a believer:)
The anecdote about Stephanie’s family mirrors my own; my otherwise conservative parents (who had no use for hippies et al.) inexplicably got a Beetle ca. 1967 (taking delivery at the Port of Long Beach) despite “Remembering The War” & having 3 kids. To be sure, Dad still had his Country Squire.
Later the Bug suffered an electrical fire & its replacement was a used ’69 Satellite. Later, they panicked during the Oil Crisis & got not one, but two Japanese[!] Honda Civics.
“It was because Mommy and Daddy got sick of getting kicked in the lower back by their kids’ feet.”
I have to laugh at this comment. My wife’s parents bought a 1967 Mustang when they were childless and wanted something more exciting than their Falcon. The next year they (unexpectedly) had twins.
Being frugal Midwesterners, they wouldn’t think of trading in a perfectly good car just because it was a little small. So the Mustang served as the family car for… 28 years.
Regarding the main question here, I think the Civic and Chevelle competed in a more abstract sense. Few buyers probably cross-shopped each car in 1975, but Civic buyers gradually began changing the market as Civic-like ideas infiltrated upwards through the marketplace. Just a few years later, Hondas and mid-size Chevys were in fact direct competitors, but that wouldn’t have been possible without the innovations of these early Civics.
28 years! Now that’s something. By ’95, that ’67 was already a classic.
Well sure all vehicles compete with each other to some degree. I’ve replaced a Civic with a Grand Caravan and a Probe with an Explorer. Needs and wants change. That is not in question.
The problem I have is when you label a great selling and decent car a deadly sin. The Malibu was not the sin. The Vega/Monza and X-Bodies were the sins when it comes to Civic/Accord comparisons. GM did not ignore that market as you imply and entered it pretty aggressively. Poorly, as it turns out, but still aggressively and with huge investments that should have been sufficient to produce viable competitors. That failure has nothing to do with the profitable Colonnades.
There are plenty of thesis poorly supported in DS series, and Colonnades Malibu is one of them. However, no matter how out of touch the thesis is, there is always a way to draw the correlation between. C4 Corvette is another overreach.
That pic of the interior of the Civic made me think back. I had a 77 Civic that someone swapped a Nardi wheel into, and with a big fabric fold back sunroof, it was a true joy, even on gloomy days in traffic. A real contrast to the late 70’s-early ’80’s used car landscape, where if you wanted a “import”, there was only the most spartan choices, mostly used VW’s (had a ’67 bug), occasional Toyotas and Datsuns (had a 70 510) and the most bizarre collections of British trash (Austins mostly, some MGB’s) and French concoctions that would be at once compelling and repulsive. (yep, I had a Renault 5 too). But along came the Civic, and yes, they rusted to the devil, and head gaskets popped. But that feel, that lightness and tactile groove that they had, was something special. It had the power to put a smile on your face, even just popping round the block. Later the same feeling came with the Miata I had, but at the time, in Peak Malaise, it was a treat! Then again, maybe it was the Nardi wheel and the sunroof…
I think part of the argument (which you handled quite nicely, by the way) is that we often confuse “cross shopped” with “competed”. The former is a short term action, when you’re figuring out the possible choices for the car that you want. The latter is completely long term, and takes into account product choice expanding to fit changing styles, desires, and even long term intent.
I agree with your premise. My own mother is an example. She had been a mid-size GM girl for years. When this stupid teenager wrecked the 74 Luxury LeMans, we got a 77 Civic wagon as a rental. She had fun driving it and could see where younger buyers would like it. It was not, however, “plush” enough for her middle-aged tastes.
By 1980 when gas prices rose, she was ready for a small car, so long as it was not a cardboard and plastic penalty box. Looking back, I am not sure why we never checked out an Accord sedan, because Honda was beginning to aim right at people like her. She bought a Horizon sedan instead, and was generally happy with it.
Of course, her next car went the other direction – a Crown Victoria. I think it’s all about what a person is looking for in life.
“I think it’s all about what a person is looking for in life.” Precisely.
There was a time when what you drove really was an indicator of what your values, demographic, politics and lifestyle leaned toward. Yes, all cars were competition for the buyer’s dollar, but those dollars were still going to be spent where that buyer felt comfortable.
My father, for example was staunchly against buying a “foreign” car. It didn’t sit well with his image of himself as a conservative, community minded person, and it didn’t fit with his desire to appeal to his client base, which was made up of folks best described this same way. My family owned several Chrysler branded Mitsubishi products during the 80’s, but they were just domestic enough by virtue of their nameplates and the dealership they were purchased from that they were “acceptable” to him. Later he purchased a string of Jaguars, but they were driven by my mother. He continued to drive Chrysler New Yorkers, as they were viewed as benignly common domestic cars that wouldn’t offend anyone or make him look like he was putting on airs. We had Horizons, Omnis and Colts, all of which might have been cross shopped by many against Civics or Corollas, but in our house Hondas and Toyotas were not on the radar as viable options.
My Grandfather, a WWII vet and an accountant owned 2 early 70’s Toyotas, as he cared more about value and less about the impression they might have made. Of course they were second cars, sharing the driveway with full size Chryslers, but their value and efficiency trumped his Mopar loyalty.
Every car has an image, be it frugal, sporty, conservative or flashy. It’s going to ultimately be sold only to the buyer who is comfortable projecting that image.
I’ll agree that vehicles compete with each other at the idea level. When seeking a vehicle, people assess their need / desire for passenger space, power, towing, status, comfort, image, prestige, and maybe just the desire for something different than the last vehicle.
This is exactly what your son just did. Assessing what he now wanted, he desired a mid-size truck, and picked from mid-size trucks – not from sub-compacts or luxury SUVs. The Taco competes with the Colorado, and to a lesser degree with full-size trucks.
These kinds of decisions are income and life cycle driven.
The early VW represented something different in an America dominated by the “standard” cars, and sold to many types of people (as do all vehicles), but the dominant buyer was likely somebody with enough education and income to buy a second car – a pretty big deal for many families before about 1970. On my street, the three (of 10 homes!) that had VWs paired with them with a Pontiac Bonneville, Buick LeSabre, Buick Skylark, Chevrolet Impala, Chrysler New Yorker Brougham and a Galaxie. My folks considered one as a companion to their Impala. These cars were appreciated for errands, kids cars, and their small size that was easy to store on a street dominated by one car garage homes. New Bugs may have been counter culture vehicles to professors, and decrepit used Bugs became counter culture vehicles to college age kids taking a, um, sabbatical. But, to our neighbor, it was a way to leave the New Yorker in the garage for his wife, his company Galaxie took him to work, and is daughter eventually drove the Bug, before trading it for a ’79……..Malibu!
The Accord became a big selling compact, but morphed and really found its popularity as a mid-size, with some dimensions not that far away from – that pesky ’76 Malibu.
The ’76 Malibu didn’t dwindle away. It rather immediately became the ’77 Chevrolet Impala and Caprice – and that car dwindled away due to a deliberate decision by GM to neglect it until it would no longer sell. This was not a Deadly Sin by GM, but entirely driven by CAFE regulations – it was a legal dead end to maintain high production volume of these cars.
The ’76 Malibu never dwindled, but what it represented became an immensely popular full-size car, immensely popular mini-vans, immensely popular SUVs, and now immensely popular trucks. Agreed that there are fads in cars, frequently pushed by external forces such as regulations.
I think your son just bought a ’76 Malibu
I totally agree with this. The fact is cars are rarely bought for purposes favoring practicality, they aren’t transit busses or construction equipment. I know through my inquisitive and car centric upbringing the entire chain of cars my parents and even grandparents went through, and while these specific models weren’t all in there, the segments they boomed in most certainly were, from German 60s imports(beetle and Kadette), to ponycars (firebird) to PLCs(Cutlasses and Matador coupe), to German then Japanese sedans(Jettas and Maxima), to minivans(Villager/Quest and Sienna) and hybrids (Prius C). Much of these were owned when my parents were kids or when I was a kid, and every single car worked just fine for the task, and while one can assume how miserable a 60s Mustang must be for all involved, mom AND dad or vice versa probably weren’t occupying the front seats with child(s) kicking the seat backs that often, if ever. There weren’t any laws or societal pressures barring a child from riding shotgun, that’s a purely post-airbag development, and that’s where a kid or elder sibling was riding most of the time back then. A family with only one or two kids can easily handle something as cramped as a Ponycar, or a beetle, or whatever. On the same coin we certainly didn’t need a minivan, I was an only child, and not part of any teams, we used them at best at 20% it’s people mover/utility potential, but they were quite in fads at the time, so we had em.
I think what skews our perspective looking back on the wide variety of fads is what we’re accustomed to today, segmenting is much more rigidly attached to lifestyle now thanks to stringent child seat and placement regulations alone. Now it’s “family cars” and “niche cars”, and from that perspective it assumes a midsize Malibu is family, and the subcompact Civic is niche, and now a days it certainly would be, but then it really was a choice in statement, fashion, and ease of parking.
Where I grew up in the New York City commuter belt the “station car” was very much a thing and Beetles, or other small imports frequently filled that role as a supplement to the larger and more upscale sedan or station wagon that was the primary car. Of course a lot of station cars were also beaters relegated to second line duty after buying a nicer car.
Oddly our extended family and friends had very few VWs in the early 70s. I can only recall the neighbors across the street who had a Squareback as their primary car and a family friend on Long Island who had a Beetle with Automatic Stick shift as the commuter car. On the other hand my father had a BMW 2000 as a second car and we knew people who got tho the station a Corvair Monza convertible and a Datsun 2000 roadster.
I have seen numerous cars come in and out of fashion in specific areas, I remember the wave of XJ Cherokees displacing Buick and Volvo station wagons and the simultaneous influx of the Prius and WRX at work back in 2001-2004 and the subsequent appearance of Nissan Leafs and Teslas.
When the VW Beetle debuted in NZ it cost exactly the same as a six cylinder Vauxhall Velox which was a car that sold in huge numbers old street scene photos of the era are littered with E Veloxes and Hillmans the Vw didnt sell well at all it was priced out of its competition bracket, The Honda Civic was assembled and sold here by the same people selling BMC Minis 1300s etc those buyers were the first customers and it wasnt radically different to what most of them were already driving, small FWD sedans it did however run better use less fuel and require less regular maintenance that those BMC/Leyland cars it was a moderate success in this market untill rust put most of them off the road.
Dad bought a brand new orange CVCC (no I in the badging yet) in ’75. My brother and I were getting too big to fit in the back seats of the Porsche 356 so it was sold. Talk about a cheap tin can penalty box. Ours rusted to bits from the inside out and it never saw snow living its whole life in southern CA. It was also clearly a RHD car modified to LHD for the US market. The throttle linkage ran across behind the dash where the front seat passenger could reach his toes up and “assist” the driver with their acceleration. Great fuel mileage and reliable for about 8 years, then all bets were off. I have fond memories of the 356, the CVCC, well not so much.
I think this article should be mandatory reading for car (and motorcycle) salesmen. Back in the early ’80’s I was shopping for a new bike; at the time I had a 6 year old CB400F Honda. I couldn’t decide between replacing the 400 with a bigger sporty bike, or get a dual-sport (though we called them dual-purpose bikes in those days). I explained my dilemma to a Suzuki salesman and was told “those are two completely different things, come back when you’ve made up your mind”. Went to the Honda shop, and was offered test rides on a CB750, CB900 (street bikes) and an XL500 (big bore dual sport). I ended up buying the CB900 and coming back to the same dealer a year later and buying an XL600. By the way, in California I knew lots of people that went from mid-size domestics to smaller Japanese cars, and the Civic’s (and later Accord’s) refinement was a big part of that, compared to say Datsun 210’s or Corollas. And this was when both Honda’s were only 3-door hatchbacks.
Funny, you exactly pegged two large slices of my automotive lifetime with one article. I was one of those kids forced to ride in the back seat of a ’66 Mustang, when I was growing to almost six feet tall! They did buy it because we all thought it was cool, they traded our ’61 Ford Galaxie Sunliner convertible. It was eventually replaced by a ’68 Ford XL fastback with a 428 and all the goodies.
As for the iconic VW, 1st-gen Honda Civic, Mazda Miata and Toyota Prius, I’ve owned them all! A sweet ’63 Bug with a sunroof was my first car. In ’77 all my friends were getting Civic CVCC 5-speeds, and I adored mine. I was the Prius early adopter in August 2000, eventually three family members and a number of friends joined in too. I finally joined the Miata faithful with the ’93 I added to the garage a few years ago.
What’s next? Maybe that long-range Toyota EV, which they’re finally planning to build.
Some excellent points here, Paul, which back up the comment I left on another thread about Cadillac’s declining market share not necessarily being a bad thing.
Colleague of mine wasn’t exceptionally happy with the new Colorado his company bought for the business. But now he loves it. Travels hundreds of miles per trip for work and he says it’s great, the V6 knocks back high-20s on the highway. Plus it’s comfortable.
+1 Mike PDX! I drove but didn’t own those two back then and the difference was stunning, the Honda being just the car for people who wanted something different but still good. Mind you my rental Malibu had been used by some lowlifes to haul salmon, and Budget couldn’t quite get the smell out. Regardless, a friend’s Civic was such fun yet thoughtfully designed – cue the revolution.
I bought a Scirocco because I had enough money and the car was sportier. You know the rest: It was a hoot but the build quality was worse than GM’s, which is saying a lot. A few years later a Mk II Supra came into my life – loved it for ages.
My wife traded her indestructible Tercel (think Civic reliability but curling rock performance) for a gen-two Prius which we’ve had for 12 years of serene and trouble-free motoring. We’d be enthusiastic about a Toyota EV, but until then might have to test the VW E-mobile. We’re also delighted with our escapade car, a last-gen BMW Z4. Bought it used, a depreciation special thanks to the auto press who can’t get their tongues out of Porsche’s engine bay.
GM is doing good work after its near-death experience, so the old Malibu with its porch-like bumpers and wheezy V8 is just an anecdote. A dark red Cadillac CT6 at the curb caused a head-snap his week (oops, no picture). A genuine “fine automobile” that stands out from the 5 Series crowd.
I missed this article the first time around, and it’s a very good explanation for the types of vehicles that go on to be known as iconic ‘game-changers’ in the auto industry, and the reason for it. In fact, the only one missing from the list is the 1984 Chrysler T-115 minivan. That one is something more akin to the Model T since the others have a quirky, dare-to-be-different emotional appeal.
The Model T and Chrysler minivan were much more in the mode of ultimate personal transportation appliances, and this is borne out in their status as collectables. There are plenty of Model T clubs (probably due to the fact that there were ‘sporty’ versions). But for minivans? Not so much.
The article did say that there are “other examples.” In addition to the Chrysler minivans, I would add the 1984 Jeep Cherokee and 1991 Ford Explorer.
I don’t think the continued collectible status of the Model T has anything to do with its perceived sportiness so much as the fact that it’s so obviously an antique, which makes it quaint and entertaining as a novelty, but at the same time, it’s fairly rugged, easy to fix, and was so common for so long that there’s not the same impulse to keep it hermetically sealed like a museum piece.
The T-115 minivans are old, but they’re not antiques, and they’re vehicles with which a lot of Gen X and Gen Y people are familiar. So, they’re not novel, and while they’re becoming thin on the ground, they have remained a regular part of normal automotive background noise for a long time, which breeds disinterest if not contempt.
I actually don’t think it’s that improbable that there will eventually be collector interest in early minivans (just as there is in, say, the Corvair Greenbrier or early Ford Econoline), but it won’t happen until they’ve faded from general memory enough for people to say, “Hey, what’s that weird old van?” when they see one go by.
The other day, I made a comment about a ’68 Sedan de Ville at $5800 vs the same year M-B 220 at $6k. Vastly different cars, but both competing for the same well-off buyer.
When your car rusted out within 36 months, due to Midwestern road salts and chemical exposure, you don’t connect to your ride as strongly as you would if it had a ten year shelf life. Buying into a car fad is easier if you believe you’d only have that new pony car a few years. It is easier to buy a Acid Green Maverick. Today, we see buyers spread car payments over five years or more, select an exterior color about as exciting as milk, and expect to perhaps see their rides hold their values during their ownership.
On the other hand, there are many logical reasons for car purchases that override emotions. My family’s cars weren’t exciting, because buying a car was considered a monumental financial decision. Not that my father never experienced emotional auto purchases – that 1959 Buick that took all his income just to be repossessed, taught him a hard lesson at the age of 24 that he never forgot. Riding an auto fad is not for many. My German mother and her family never cracked a smile in any auto showroom, and had a lot more fun at wakes and funerals than at a dealership. I recall an aunt and uncle who traded in their Chevy Bel Air for a Camaro and were practically excommunicated. “They expect your cousins to fit in that rear seat?”, I can still vividly recall my mother’s condemnation.
Beetles were standard Dad rides in my neighborhood. There wasn’t anyone with a college degree within a quarter-mile square in my neighborhood after the teachers left for the day. Beetles were factory rides. I bet there were two thousand blue collar parents within that quarter-mile too. Volvos, DAFs, Opels, Renaults, and even a Wartburg could be found in the factory parking lots nearby. Fashion had little to do with it. Dads drove them, often to remind them of their homeland before WWII.
Bottom line – while I suppose a Chevelle and a Civic could be considered as market competition, my traditional education in business marketing, and life experience, suggests otherwise.
I actually don’t think the Mustang was all that faddish. The original was obviously a mass market hit, in part because it hit a particular sweet spot of being just sporty enough without seeming too aggressive. It wasn’t the most practical car in the world, but for many people, it wasn’t any worse a daily commuter than a comparably powered Falcon. The later generations got bigger and more aggressive-looking, so it took a while to get back to something like the original formula, by which time it was no longer quite as novel. Still, the Fox and SN95 Mustang hit a similar mixture of buyers and sold pretty well. (Fox body production averaged 173K a year throughout its run, which wasn’t at all bad for a sporty car in a more crowded segment.)
I agree that almost all types of vehicles compete against each other for their buyer’s attention. For example I bought a new long bed single cab, F150 to replace my old Ford F250. I had bought that as a kind of lark, though I used it for some property work that I was doing. I bought the new truck because I was starting an automotive business where I went to many swap meets in So Cal, so I needed a reliable long range truck. I used it for commuting and my Wife and I took many vacation trips in it, some were several thousand miles. We also had a minivan and a Cadillac Seville and later a new Mustang which we pressed into family service when our daughter went with us. I drove minivans for almost twenty years as well as a collection of vintage hobby cars. In fact during my kids childhoods I had ridden motorcycles to work and on the weekends. I usually choose a car that has at least four passenger capability because it allows for more flexible use, though I had a 300ZX for a time. I generally drive whatever I like, though when I buy a newer vehicle it has to fit my family needs.