Doane Yawger: Downsizing a killer in our industry

12/31/2010 10:50 PM

01/18/2012 5:38 AM

Nothing is so constant as change, the saying goes, and that certainly applies to the automotive industry.

As one year ends and a new one begins, thinking about the future is a popular exercise. Speculation is just that, but it's fun nevertheless.

The auto industry has been mired in this recession, and views are mixed on how well Detroit has weathered the economic pressures. The jury's still out, so to speak, about what's on the horizon for the automakers.

Downsizing seems to be one of the latest ways the manufacturers are reinventing themselves and positioning their brands to appeal to a fickle and changing consumer base.

One of the latest casualties of these troubling times is the upcoming demise of the Mercury brand, a longtime staple of Ford Motor Co. Both Mercury and Pontiac are due to disappear at the end of the year.

A few years ago, I perused a new model issue of one of the car magazines and it seemed as if American consumers had something like 200 choices of vehicle to buy.

The options are dizzying, and in some cases there are overlaps and duplications. All three of the big American automakers have condensed their product line and it's conceivable more of this will take place.

There will be no more Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury cars. That makes some loyalists sad, but I think it's inevitable; it's like pruning some limbs to make sure the tree stays healthy.

In some cases, car companies have become wiser and more frugal. Many of the mechanical pieces are shared among different car makes.

In other words, cars have become somewhat generic. The same engine and other vital mechanical pieces are shared among different nameplates.

It makes sense from a financial standpoint but blurs the distinction between Chevrolet and Pontiac and, frankly, makes things boring to the automotive devotee.

Certain car makes disappeared in years past for a variety of reasons. DeSoto, Edsel, Hudson, Studebaker and American Motors all have become orphans. There were hundreds of car companies in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them unable to weather the Great Depression.

One has to realize how important marketing is in what is available on the dealership showroom floor.

Cars are positioned in varying price and option packages so consumers can find something they like and can afford. Marketing determines how many two-door hardtops, four-door sedans and convertibles are offered.

Sometimes the market shifts by the time a certain automobile is introduced. The Edsel is a classic case of this phenomenon.

There was nothing wrong with that car except for some bizarre styling elements. It was just overpriced and competed with other brands offered by the same factory. So it didn't last too long and was a big money-loser for its time.

I can't get too sad about the loss of Plymouth, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and now Mercury offerings. Just because there won't be any new models doesn't mean an auto enthusiast can't continue to revere some of the older models. Sometime I hope to recount some of the more memorable cars from these now-defunct product lines.

Predicting the future is an inexact science. but it's possible the retrenching of model lines will make those still out there more valuable over time. I can't think of a "new" Pontiac or Mercury that should be purchased and put away because of its potential historical value, but that has happened in the past.

Let's face it: Many of the current car offerings are forgettable and not that exciting. Below the surface they are pretty much alike. I wouldn't be too surprised to see even more makes and models vanish in the years to come.

The automakers and dealerships will continue to stock replacement parts for Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Mercurys for many years, so people who own these vehicles should be able to keep them running indefinitely.

It's in our interest to make sure that the automakers are positioned to survive through 2011 and beyond. I sure hope General Motors' painful "gnaw-off-its-arm" mentality pays dividends. Both Ford and GM seem stronger and more viable now than they were a couple of years ago, and that's good for the country as a whole.

Change is hard. It's troubling. In the auto industry, change usually is gradual and evolutionary, but sometimes the bumps in the road are more pronounced than one would expect.

Goodbye Mercury, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Plymouth. It's been nice knowing you.

Doane Yawger is a retired Sun-Star reporter and editor. He can be reached at dsyawger@sbcglobal.net.

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