I'll be damned. Some of the things you find on Wikipedia (via Chris):
With the Triads weakened, the Walled City began to grow. Square buildings folded up into one another as thousands of modifications were made, virtually none by architects or engineers, until the entire City became monolithic. Labyrinthine corridors ran through the City, some former streets (at the ground level, and often clogged up with refuse), and some running through upper floors, through and between buildings. The streets were illuminated by fluorescent lights, as sunlight rarely reached the lower levels. There were only two rules for construction: electricity had to be provided to avoid fire, and the buildings could be no more than fourteen stories high, because of the nearby airport. Eight municipal pipes provided water to the entire structure (although more could have come from wells). By the early 1980s, Kowloon Walled City had an estimated population of 35,000. The City was notorious for its excess of brothels, casinos, opium dens, cocaine parlours, food courts serving dog meat, and secret factories. The Kowloon Walled City was also infamous for its high number of unsanitary dentist clinics, since unlicensed dentists could operate there without prosecution.
Man, I guess. Damn. This is what it looked for all the world that the future would look like, for a while.
Steven Den Beste wrote many years ago about the network effect and how it applies to operating systems, particularly Apple. Even though history has shown his predictions to be... well, pretty funny in retrospect, I don't bring the piece up here to laugh at it, but to note that the fundamental points in it are sound in general. When you have a few players creating products that form an infrastructure that everybody uses, it's in everyone's interest—the producers as well as the consumers—if that infrastructure standardizes on a well-understood platform so everyone can build on it equally without being hamstrung by the need to maintain their own workalike copy of what everyone else takes for granted.
What made me think of it this time was something that occurred to me on the drive in this morning: the auto industry is prone to the kind of failure we're seeing now in part because of the long-term trends brought about by this same network effect. Far from competing on differentiation, car companies have spent their bottom dollar becoming as indistinguishable as possible, filling in every possible market hole no matter what it means to the brand image, to the point where Cadillac and Mercedes make near-budget entry-level cars, Jeep makes a cushy econobox, and Porsche makes SUVs and sedans. More specifically, I (and others) have lamented about how the carmakers have spent the past twenty years—and quite a lot longer, really—badge-engineering their way to obsolescence. We at the consumer level can snark about the idiocy and futility of the three-card-monty game you're shown every time you walk into a Ford/Lincoln/Mercury dealer or (until a few years ago) a Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth dealer. Yet we play the game anyway, because what choice is there?
But the reality is that everybody does it, to one degree or another—whether it's the baldfaced, pomaded, plaid-suited variety espoused by Aries/Reliants and Fusions/Milans/MKZs (or the equally transparent cross-branding stunts like the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute and Chevy marketing a Daewoo as the Aveo), or more subtle and sophisticated charades like you get when VW Golfs and Ford Fusions and Corvettes get reclothed in whole new bodies and emerge as Audi A3s, Mazda6s, and Cadillac XLRs. When it's done properly, it's good old platform engineering, something that's been widely accepted as a positive advancement in cars since half a century ago. When it's not, the companies that engage in it become the butts of jokes, but... it's hard to argue with Toyota's success in creating Lexuses out of its downmarket inventory, or Nissan's with Infinitis.
The unpleasant truth is that when these companies badge-engineer, seemingly laying themselves bare to the kind of collapse-due-to-customer-indifference that we're witnessing this year, they're doing it because it's the only thing that makes economic sense. When VW rebadges a Dodge Caravan as the Routan, it's not because they've been seized by a spasm of criminal uncreativeness and decided to commit corporate suicide; it's because it's a hell of a lot cheaper (=potentially lucrative) for them to try it—even if it fails—than to build a new minivan of their own.
This is not a new thought, I know. None of this comes as a surprise to anyone. The people running these companies aren't idiots, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. They're running the numbers daily, making tough decisions about what programs to fund and which ones to cut, and how to make the least bad choice out of a bevy of really ugly ones. Far more often than not, the right answer is to badge-engineer, and everybody knows it, right down to the consumers; they'll nod sagely and make an informed consumer decision about whether they prefer the Ford Fusion or the Mercury Milan, in full understanding of the inherent absurdity of the question.
Where the problem becomes interesting, though, is in wondering why we're stopping there. If badge-engineering is the economic right answer, can't we make the system even more efficient by taking the concept further?
When Cerberus took over Chrysler a few years ago, and made overtures at GM by buying into GMAC, there was a lot of talk about how that company was bent on reorganizing the entire auto industry based on a new economic model: it was stupid and wasteful for different companies to exist in parallel on the horizontal level, all solving the same problems, all serving the same customers, all subject to the same government regulations and market forces that insisted they all conform to the same conceptual model of what a "car" was. Why should Chrysler and GM and Ford (and Nissan and Honda and VW, for that matter) all bother developing their own parallel lines of engines, all working essentially the same way, and then doggedly build their own parallel lines of cars around those engines—when the economics of the situation seemed to dictate that the cars built around those engines were all more or less interchangeable? If these companies can all borrow each other's chassis and body shells and just toss in their own engines of the month, then why not upend and pivot the whole industrial model—and turn what had been a horizontal into a vertical? Why not have one company (or a few competitive companies) make engines and only engines, and supply those engines to another company (or a few competitive companies) who make chassis and bodies? Wouldn't those companies be able to be a lot more lean and mean if all they were focusing on was a single stage in the process of bringing a car to market, not all of them at once? If a Nissan and a Renault only differ by the badge to begin with, why bother with the redundant marketing budgets and dealership networks? Why bother having whole divisions devoted just to making engines, and others devoted to exterior design, chassis, interiors, and so on? Let the network effect of parts availability and mechanical expertise work for you rather than against you. Just outsource your engine development to an engine-only manufacturer—like the motorcycle industry does with companies like Rotax, or the general aviation industry does with Lycoming and Continental—and focus on making awesome cars that you can put together from drawing to tooling in months. The way the boutique guys do it, the ones who buy a crate motor from a catalog and press together a world-beating sports car out of plastic.
At least, that's what I thought the idea was. And surely it's not new either; what makes this all such a depressing thought, ultimately, is that this is the same idea that the masterminds behind British Leyland had, isn't it? Sharing of components would lead to efficiency; efficiency would lead to lower prices; lower prices would lead to increased demand, and prosperity. But it's just as easy for it to lead to suffering after all: anonymity, banality, a culture of frugality leading to awful build and interior quality. Fiats in a zillion European boutique rebodies. K-cars.
If that's where network effect leads us—the players in the industry falling into line with where the economics say the numbers are most sensible—then it's depressing to say the least. But surely there's an upside to it too; if the economic conditions were to favor an upsurge in investment at just the right time, and a new car economy were to emerge based around a hundred boutique carmakers—Lotuses making family sedans and SUVs and minivans—then we might never have to worry about the car industry getting into this kind of trouble again, where if one company goes down it's a signal that they're all going down, because they're all succumbing to the same end-to-end forces and yet duplicating each other's effort. It's pretty academic whether Ford can build a better V8 than Chrysler can; they all know how. (Which is why I've always found the pissing-Calvin brand wars pretty funny; it's like fighting over the inherent qualities of red versus green.) So who's trying to prove what to whom by keeping all the technology in-house, pretending they're independent, and yet reaching out beyond the borders to pull in new disguised brands and nameplates as though nobody will notice?
I'd love to believe competing manufacturers of highly complex, vertical products can coexist in a free market. But maybe, like so many things, that's one of those phenomena that only works when there's so much wealth to spread around that just about any system will work, no matter how wasteful. I mean, hell, even North Korea was an economic powerhouse for a few decades there. But it's when the chips are down that we see who's got the right business model, and the right angle on the economic factors in play, to keep the engines humming.
I've been trying to think of the best tasteless, flip quip with which to dispose of the Air Force One caper in NYC yesterday.
The best I can do would probably go along the lines of:
If, as the first new President elected since 9/11, you're trying to draw attention away from the unfortunate similarity of your name to Osama... it probably doesn't help your case if you send jetliners to buzz New York skyscrapers.
(I know, don't worry, I wasn't going to quit my day job anyway.)
Pontiac, HUMMER, Saab, and Saturn are gone. Well, "to be phased out" and due for "resolution" within a year or two.
Far more qualified people than me are writing their obituaries, but for my part I just want to say that GM should never have taken over Saab. The mistakes of the other branding-stunt marques are too obvious to list, but for some reason Saab is the closest one to my heart, and the one getting shortest shrift in all the widespread word-bandying of late.
My college friend Allison had a Saab 9-5 after her Accord bit the dust, and she adored it through several years in the Boston snows. Hatchbacks on sedans? Center-console keys? heated seats in a time when electric windows were still pretty nifty? Kooky, but functional—and often born of cold-climate engineering. Saabs always looked like what you'd get if you called a Martian on the phone and had him build you a car based on your verbal description (to paraphrase a quip I heard once), but they were always oddly cool. To say nothing of stylish; the 9-3 convertible in As Good as It gets was just one of many notable movie appearances, and one where it looked unaccountably enviable at a time when I was aspiring to a Jetta because I'd recently ridden in a Golf Cabrio and loved the severe yet fun aesthetic that it seemed to share with that 9-3. Saab was one of a kind: doing its own thing, making mistakes here and there, but overall bulldozing through to pigheaded excellence, everyone else be damned.
And then GM took over, inexplicably, and set about destroying everything that made it unique. Gone were the hatchbacks. Gone were the weird rear-window angles. About the only thing they didn't get rid of were the center-console keys, but only because that was one of the few cheap ways they could badge-engineer yet another semi-portable model from another marque into a lineup that didn't want or need it, which they did on two occasions, with the 9-2x (Subaru WRX) and 9-7x (Chevy Trailblazer). In the end Saab was little more than Saturn became: a hodgepodge of preexisting cars from other brands, mashed together like hipsters in an episode of The Real World where they all have to learn to live together despite the one's muddy cowboy boots and the other's gothy poetry, because dammit, they all have that funky Swedish grille design now, so play that wistful credits music already.
Time to call it done. Hell, it was time years ago. Now all we have left are the bitter memories of the anonymous latter years, instead of the quirky fun of the 70s and 80s. It could have been Audi, reinventing itself according to ancient tradition, and emerging as a world leader showing everyone else the way ahead. But instead, it became a portfolio and a set of line-items on an ever-shrinking balance sheet—anything but a car.
It deserved better. Let's hope it can be sold off like Jaguar and Aston Martin, and ends up in the hands of someone who can resurrect it—rather than facing extinction, like Oldsmobile and now Pontiac.