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GloboCars: THE NEXT CENTURY : Marketing : One Size Fits All? Modern Designers Keep Hoping : Some doubt it's possible to duplicate the Beetle's success in today's world, where consumers want high-tech and style.

March 01, 1994|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOLFSBURG, Germany — Henry Ford's 1946 visit to Volkswagen's main automobile plant has a special place in the story of Europe's biggest car maker.

As those here tell it, Ford came to Germany with the idea of buying the war-damaged concern and building it into a European springboard for his own company. The American entrepreneur was said to have been ready to repair the plant and eager to deal with the challenges of producing in a country whose economy had been virtually destroyed by World War II--until he saw the car.

The car, the only vehicle Volkswagen produced at the time, was a funny-looking bulbous thing with no grille, no gas gauge, no radio, little leg room, no heater worth the name and an engine sporting all of 25 horsepower. To cap off the absurdity, the engine was in the back, not the front.

Ford decided, so the story goes, that a company turning out that kind of car certainly had no future in the new markets that would grow in a Europe at peace. He promptly went home.

The funny little car, of course, was an early version of the famous Beetle--which in the decades that followed would become the biggest-selling automobile anywhere. On the strength of the Beetle, Volkswagen grew into a major industrial force. It is now Europe's largest and the world's fourth-largest car maker.

Nearly half a century after Henry Ford's visit to Wolfsburg, the Beetle is still being produced. Last year, 105,000 were turned out in Brazil and Mexico, bringing the total to 21.1 million.

If there was ever anything close to a global automobile--a simple, reliable, "people's car" as popular in the rich markets of the industrialized West as in the Third World--it was the Beetle. "One of the industry's few genuinely new creations that somehow seemed to touch everyone," stated Ernst Bauer, editor of Auto Club Europe's magazine, ACE Lenkrad.

Chicago Tribune auto writer Jim Mateja recently quipped that "nearly every man and woman on this planet older than 40 has a memorable tale to tell about the machine."

Today, auto designers and producers toy with the idea of doing the Beetle one better: designing a global car specifically to do what the Beetle did mainly by chance--offer basic transportation in a way that will sell well in emerging economies, yet still have enough appeal in the home market.

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Chrysler President Bob Lutz, for example, once remarked that the key to the potentially rich emerging markets in India, China and Latin America is a bare-bones people's car unlike anything currently produced in the United States. However, many Europeans--and even some at VW--frequently dismiss the idea of a global automobile as an American-inspired drawing-board concept that simply doesn't translate into reality.

"An idea hatched in a country that can't export its own cars," summed up one European auto executive who declined to be identified. This executive pointed to the success of the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Accord in Asian, European and U.S. markets and claimed they are as close as any producer will get to a global car.

But as political barriers have fallen in many regions and sweeping new trade pacts have been forged, talk of global marketing has gained credibility.

"In the last few years, borders have opened in Eastern Europe, in Mexico with NAFTA and in South Africa," said Ulrich Seiffert, Volkswagen's research-and-development chief and management board member. "There has been an easing in the handling of goods almost everywhere."

Seiffert believes that as trade and economic deterrents recede, it is more possible than ever to think in global terms. He noted that Volkswagen has already embarked on a streamlining exercise that over an eight- to 10-year period could reduce the number of so-called platforms (roughly 60% of a car's value, including frame, axles, brakes, wheels, seats, electrical system, dashboard configuration and steering wheel) from 13 to four.

"Based on this, we could develop a worldwide strategy," Seiffert said. "Our idea is to have basic minimum safety, environmental and technology standards for all markets and possibly offer a so-called rough road package for some regions."

But Seiffert rules out the idea of a single vehicle for all markets.

"That would give you too little flexibility, too little customer choice," he said.

Seiffert also disagrees with Lutz that bare-bones, low-tech transport is the recipe needed to capture the key growth markets of the coming decades, like China, India and Russia.

He recalled how, on his first trip to China in the early 1980s, he was interrupted at the very start of a speech he had wanted to devote to low-compression carburetor engines--a subject he believed especially appropriate because of the country's low-octane fuel.

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