What Makes People Buy That Car?

Published May 2, 2019 in Warp & Woof

What Makes People Buy That Car?

Marketing Trends in the Auto Industry, a Photo Essay

William Sundwick
They were called “horseless carriages” for a reason. The earliest automobiles had open bodies fashioned from wood, sometimes with a folding top, like popular carriage designs of the time.
Soon, however, there emerged more luxurious closed bodies, often only the passenger cabin, with the driver still exposed to the elements. But these “cabs” were generally considered to occupy only the top end of the market, or livery vehicles.
The Model T Ford then created a “mass market” for automobiles in the United States. But roughly by the end of the First World War, closed bodies became more commonplace – even for the Model T. Ford had competitors by this time, many makes were marketed to less than upper-class buyers. And, as the maturing auto industry moved through the 1920s, there seemed to be a stock selection of body styles. There were coupes (with or without jump seats in the rear), sedans (two or four doors, but with full back seat), town cars and limousines for the chauffeur-driven elite (passenger

compartments separated from driver by full glass partition), and roadsters (no back seat, except possible “rumble seat”) or phaetons for the “open air” crowd (old style “touring” bodies with four doors and spacious rear seat).

These different body types appealed to folks now driving longer distances, often between cities. Both comfort and reliability became the most common marketing pitches for all auto-makers. In the U.S., General Motors, Chrysler Corporation, Nash, Hudson,

Studebaker and Packard all laid claim to significant portions of the market in the ‘20s and ‘30s. (Ford, the originator of the market, was overtaken in market share by both GM and Chrysler by the time World War II began).

Closed bodies (coupes and sedans) dominated the market from the onset of the Great Depression in 1930. Comfort and quiet, along with new features like radios, heaters, and window cranks made the passenger cabin a much more parlor-like experience, even in the popular-price segment where Chevrolet and Plymouth became the new market leaders.
Styling of auto bodies underwent some drastic changes in the 1930s. It was not just the enclosed quiet of the cabin that characterized cars of that decade, but major marketing initiatives around

“streamlining” and appearance of speed (if not reality) pitched by all manufacturers as a desirable look of the future. As always, the future was more appealing to younger buyers. And, younger buyers were coming in greater numbers as we approached entry into World War II. The most extreme futuristic streamlining, like Chrysler’s “Airflow” design of 1934, seemed avant-garde by the standards of the time.

Through the decade, running boards gradually disappeared from all cars, pontoon fenders with fared-in headlights became the norm, smooth curves replaced boxy shapes in all body styles. Horsepower ratings also began to be advertised during the 1930s and became a major marketing strategy after the war.
Tasteful, curvy streamlining and pontoon fenders began to fade post-war, as a brash new generation of designers took over in Detroit. GM’s Harley Earl (the dean of that earlier generation of stylists) retired, and people like

Raymond Loewy (Studebaker fame) took his place.

While a spacious, comfortable cabins continued to be important to the post-war auto buyer, new demands from the growing popularity of family vacations by car took on more importance. Trunks had to accommodate ever more luggage – not to mention golf clubs! This, in turn, caused another aesthetic shift in the appearance of auto bodies. Long hoods (to accommodate powerful V8 engines) were supplemented by long trunks. Cars got very large. The cabin area, now diminished as a percentage of the overall length, was made to seem bigger by much more glass. Wrap-around windshields and rear windows. The literal disappearance of side window frames (when

lowered) made the “hardtop” body style (two or four door) the most popular configuration in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a reaction to the apparent excess of the huge cars, powerful engines, and lots of chrome. Beginning even before the war, a niche market for imported small cars (usually from Britain, like Austin, Morris, MG) started to develop, especially in coastal cities. By the early ‘50s, this market had grown enough that many British automakers were equipping their export

vehicles with left-hand drive, aimed specifically at the U.S. and Canadian markets.

While the price of gasoline was never a constraint in the U.S., as it was for the native designers in Europe (not to mention their narrower urban streetscapes), the general cultural reaction against bigness and flashiness grew to such an extent that Detroit had to respond. But, since product development cycles in the auto industry are attenuated over several years, the new Detroit “compacts” didn’t arrive until 1960. By that time, Volkswagen Beetles had become a common sight in most of America. Rambler led the way somewhat earlier and could show a growing market share in the mid-to-late ‘50s as proof.
Keeping up with changing tastes of a young, more suburban, market in the fifties and sixties led to some important trends. Two body types that grew into an impressive social mainstay were convertibles and station wagons. Both body styles imbued a certain social status to their owners – convertibles implied youth, daring,

and enough affluence to have one car (of two) dedicated more to fun than practicality. Wagons frequently had three rows of seating,
for growing numbers of kids, not necessarily your own, but the neighbors’! For a while, it was thought that kids enjoyed facing the rear window in that third-row seat, although some safety concerns were later raised about that configuration. Even without the third row, wagons were great cargo carriers — virtual car-truck hybrids! They were great for suburban shopping and family vacations, able to accommodate long things, like surfboards or plywood paneling for the basement.

Automobile marketing became more mysterious, at least in the eyes of this observer, in the 1970s.  Convertibles began to disappear – supposedly killed off by the insurance industry. And, while big cars with big engines continued to dominate Detroit, small imports retained a large following. What is strange, both for the domestic bodies and imported offerings, is the popularity of two-door models. For some reason, and I’ve been unable to find a psychological study explaining it, two-door bodies

across all segments of the market, outsold four-door bodies. Why? What possible advantage would buyers of that era see in having only two doors? Ingress and egress to the rear seat was harder. But even large cars with much rear seat leg and hip room, seemed to have popular two-door variants. Many of the two-door cars had tiny rear quarter windows, giving rear seat passengers privacy, perhaps, but decreasing visibility for driver. It seemed a perverse design trend, and it continued into the 1980s.

The coming of the BMW (and others, both foreign and domestic) four-door sport sedans in the ‘90s effectively killed that mystery market for two-door cars. There was no longer any connection

between “sportiness” and having only two doors.

Of course, throughout the history of the automobile, there have been many smaller niche markets: electric cars in the teens, sports cars from the 1920s on, drag racing wannabes in the muscle car era of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and early 4x4s (Jeeps and pickups). Trucks moved from a rural niche market for private transportation into the mainstream with the coming of the smaller Japanese pickups in the 1980s.

The original Jeep was the first SUV. But Toyota, Nissan, then GM, Ford, and Chrysler all discovered

these truck-based wagons. The Chevy Suburban had been around since before the war but was relegated to one of those niche markets until suddenly, in the mid-70s, competition blossomed. Jeep Cherokees, Chevy Blazers, Ford Broncos, Toyota 4-Runners and Nissan Pathfinders all roared into the 1980s as the new best sellers.

 They were, indeed, trucks. They were all built on a pickup frame, with a body (two-door at first, later expanded to four doors) that
included a bouncy, but roomy, rear seat.

As trucks developed their own market segment, complete with luxo-cruisers, monster off-road vehicles, and compacts for urban living, it occurred to the intrepid auto designers that a true car-truck hybrid might fuse the enthusiasm of the SUV buyer with the family buyer who had previously settled for a matronly minivan. The “crossover” was thus born.

2018 Buick Enclave
2018 Honda CR-V

Crossovers emerged in a variety of form factors, from large three-row quasi-minivans (Buick Enclave, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot), to compact two-row versions (Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester), to sub-compact little cars (Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Ford EcoSport). Compact crossovers are now the hottest selling market segment of all, with larger and smaller versions close

2019 Ford EcoSport

It seems that a combination of a “high ride” (you look down on traffic) and the practicality of a large open cargo area (accommodates bulky items) are the main selling points. The main distinction between a crossover and an SUV is that the crossover always has a unitized body-frame, like other car bodies, but unlike the separate platform frame of truck-based SUVs. Hence, the ride is more car-like.

This is where we have come after more than 100 years of automotive market segmentation and design whims. Practicality combined with comfort and freedom have always ruled the marketplace. Of course, my unsupported impressions are subject to dispute. I’ve always been partial to the Harley Earl period at General Motors, myself!

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