To the accompaniment of grinding metal, Driven to Write takes a decidedly Eurocentric view of Ford’s recent retrenchment on domestic saloons.
Last week’s announcement by Ford to discontinue their entire US market saloon lineup, while a shock to some, was not without some fairly broad hints being laid. In movie parlance, we’ve been hearing the ominous cellos in the background for some time, because the US market mood music on sedans has long been of a less than upbeat tempo.
The American car market has been gravitating to high riding vehicles for decades, for reasons that are as manifold as they are nuanced. Of course it’s massively simplistic to suggest that it’s entirely rooted in a romance for the iconography of America’s pioneer past, but it isn’t the wildest of generalisations to argue that in the all-conquering US pickup truck, we see the latterday equivalent of the horse drawn wagon; in the giant luxury SUV, the Brougham coach.
But looking at it in cooler, less emotive tones, the vast distances and hugely variable (and frequently extreme) climatic conditions across the US continent lend themselves more to heavy-duty vehicles than sedans. Furthermore, a three volume saloon has become an impractical device for modern life, with its inflexible interior layout, fixed capacity boot and emphasis on a narrow purpose – one which has latterly become somewhat blurred in the light of manufacturers’ desire to alter perceptions.
The European perception of the non-luxury US sedan has tended to be something of a hairshirt. Certainly, the Hollywood template appeared to suggest that so-called blue collar saloons were the preserve of those who couldn’t afford anything more indulgent; a matter which could suggest the saloon enjoyed something of an image problem well before sales fell off a cliff. Hence more recent attempts to imbue these vehicles with a more athletic demeanour, severing long-held demarcations and in its own contrary manner, perhaps accelerating the sector’s decline.
Already, rivals, FCA have pledged to abandon sedans in the US, saying the returns no longer justified the investment, further illustrating that Ford’s decision was not taken in a vacuum. Certainly, with Jeep and Ram sales (and profitability) keeping the circling wolves from Sergio Marchionne’s door, we find ourselves in the extraordinary situation where some auto-analysts believe the Blue Oval would find themselves the weaker partner in any putative tie-up.
Ford’s dilemma is rooted in a recent history of well-intended decisions which backfired. Following Jac Nasser’s appointment as CEO in 1999, Dearborn embarked on a series of diversifications which not only proved to be ill-judged, but shifted focus from the core business. Additionally, it became embroiled in a bruising and reputationally damaging lawsuit with Firestone tyres. And while all US carmakers were caught out by the post-2001 downturn, Ford was perhaps more exposed than most.
By mid-decade, chickens were coming home in droves. Nasser had been ousted, and with Bill Ford and Sir Nick Scheele in the respective hot seats ‘The Way Forward’ was pieced together which would be taken up with gusto by incoming CEO, Alan Mullay. This would divest the business of the entire PAG group, joint ventures with the likes of Mazda, its Hertz rental business, the closure of innumerable car plants and the axing of unprofitable car lines.
It’s clear that Ford’s problems got the better of them by the mid-2000s and deep cuts needed to be made to stabilise the business. But not only does the sale of the PAG division appear ill-judged in light of the latterday success of JLR and Volvo, but the subsequent neglect of Lincoln is seeing the Blue Oval in frantic catch up mode as they struggle to plug a gaping hole at the upper reaches of their lineup.
In the immediate post-2008 crash environment, Alan Mulally was hailed as a visionary. He doesn’t look nearly as clever now. But it’s not as simple as that – it never quite is. The cash drain of PAG could well have sunk Ford entirely during the dark days following the post-2008 realignment. Furthermore, both JLR and Volvo have thrived under new management with a very different ethos, not to mention a far more nimble management style. It’s quite uncertain whether Ford was the ideal custodian.
As oil prices shot up earlier this decade and US customers bailed out of fuel guzzling SUVs, Ford (like everyone else) shifted emphasis to more compact offerings (many, repurposed European models), a strategy which paid dividends for a time. But with the subsequent collapse of oil prices, the market reverted to crossovers, SUVs and trucks, catching the Blue Oval on the hop once more. While GM and to an extent, Jeep / Ram had a stronger base in these sectors, Henry has been slower to capitalise.
The irony of course is that as Ford announce the end of their saloon lines – a statement so vague it could mean just about anything – they have restated their commitment to Lincoln, with plans afoot it seems to create a stand-alone RWD platform at long last, in addition to reinstating the Continental’s signature coach doors. A decision which can only have East Asian ambitions at its root.
How all this is likely to play out is really anyone’s guess. Currently there are significant numbers of Ford owners who do not wish to purchase (or lease) a crossover or similar vehicle and appear unlikely to find a quantum of solace within their friendly Ford dealer come trade-in time. What can the blue oval offer them? A raised up version of what they have been driving? Some form of saloon / crossover hybrid, a la AMC Eagle?
Successful car businesses make long-term plans, yet all are prey to events. Certainly under the current US administration, the proposed easing of CAFE fuel economy regulations will favour US carmakers, but as European and Asian carmakers shift decisively towards hybrids and EVs, are Ford and their compatriots likely to be caught with the wrong offerings when the next economic downturn swings round?
The salient question now occupying the minds of observers and analysts is whether Ford are making an astute move by abandoning mass market saloons or are simply making another one which merely appeared astute at the time. Nobody can be sure. The question is, can Ford?