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.
"We don't try to push the public," says Ford's Mr. Walker wisely, "we try to lead them."
Ideally, an auto company likes to have about 36 months in which to give birth to a new automobile, from drawing board conception to production line. But the average period of gestation usually is a little more than two years. The industry, slowly but certainly, is heading for a two-year, rather than the usual three-year, model change-over, and the intervening facelifts—unless the law of supply and demand is repealed—will tend to become major ones, not mere lipstick jobs. Because the nation's shortage of tool-and die-making facilities forces years-ahead planning for these changes, the current crop of dream cars reveals many features already undergoing tooling for actual production.
Exner says public reaction to most dream cars comes too late to alter "areas of major tooling already under way when the idea-car is shown." But response to comfort features, gimmicks and interior design definitely comes in time for immediate application to an upcoming production model, he says.
The Chrysler stylist, a former Studebaker man, says his company has a different idea-car approach. "Every car we've built has been runnable and produceable, with one exception," he says. "We don't believe in the Buck Rogerish, splash type dream car. Our way of doing it has limited us in some ways, but we think it's more practical even though our models cost more than the mock-up, pure show car."
Chrysler, until recent years the most conservative car builder in the industry, may well be credited with the inadvertent creation of the first real modern-age dream car—the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow. The Airflow popped out, in depression 1934, on an unsuspecting public accustomed to shoe-box verve in its new car looks. The Airflow, sadly, was a commercial flop, far too radical for a country which likes careful evolution, not revolution, in its new automobiles. But it did some important pioneering. The engine was moved forward, with the fenders, hood and radiator grille becoming nearly a single component. The trouble with the Airflow was that it was a production car too soon. It should have been a dream car first.
With a few notable exceptions (Studebaker and Kaiser are prime examples) the early postwar period was a time of major engineering rather than major styling advances. Automatic transmissions, high compression V-8 engines, power brakes and power steering were the talked-about features. But Cadillac's then-controversial tail fins were making automotive news, and in 1951 GM's LeSabre became one of the most influential experimental vehicles, heralding the panoramic windshield three years before it became a reality on 1954 GM production cars. The svelte LeSabre also had pronounced tail fins well before most of the industry started selling upswept rear ends.
Chevrolet's Corvette was first shown as a dream car in 1953 and response was so favorable it was rushed into production. Ford's Thunderbird never really was a dream car in the Corvette sense, but Ford did show it to the public six months before actual output. The purpose was not to sample public reaction, of course, but to steal sales from the Corvette. Cadillac is returning the favor by displaying its snazzy Brougham months before production so that would-be Continental buyers will have something to ponder. Chrysler still declines to enter this type of big league ploy contest, preferring to offer souped-up versions of its standard cars, like the Chrysler 300-B, to the high-performance fans.
Although styling has been the big noise in the array of experimental show cars, engineering has not been ignored, particularly in GM's two Firebirds powered by gas turbine engines, which represent the next really major mechanical advance in automobiles. If metallurgical problems can be licked (the big headache: not enough heat-resistant metals for volume output), Detroit will be ready to produce gas turbines for cars in five years. One way or another, you should be able to buy one in 10 years.
It is common knowledge that the 1957 models, due next fall, will mean another far-sweeping switch in motor car design. A careful study of the 1956 dream cars reveals many clues about what Detroit has in store for the motorist. Among other features: a general lowering of cars, with eventual roof cutouts for easy access, and some startling rear-end treatments, including rear fenders that flare outward at a sharp angle.
"These so-called dream cars," says George Walker, "aren't as futuristic as they look. Stick around for a year or two and we'll prove it."