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Fashion Police: What Were They Thinking When They Penned These Designs?




Steve Jobs is legendary for making Apple the corporate giant it is today, but the real credit should go to former General Motors president and CEO Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Way back in the early 1940s, Sloan angled to boost slowing sales by instigating annual model-year design changes to GM’s cars. It was a stroke of marketing brilliance — after all, no one wants to be the lout stuck with last year’s model, especially when the neighbor’s brand-new Chevy Stylemaster is right there in the next driveway, lording over yours with its totally updated radiator grille. Thus was born “planned obsolescence,” and we’ve been obsessively trading in perfectly good cars and trucks for the latest and greatest stuff ever since. That “game-changing” iPhone 8 you’re lusting after is on its way soon, thanks to Sloan.

There’s an obvious upside for those of us in the auto-journalism biz, of course: We always have new cars to write about. Yet there’s an equally obvious downside for the companies unveiling those new models: Like making a Hollywood movie, designing an automobile is something of a crapshoot, involving a lot of hands, countless critical details, clashing executives, and sometimes a CEO who flat out loses his or her mind. When it doesn’t work, you get “Battlefield Earth.” Or, as I’ll revisit here from the past three decades of reviewing cars, wheeled atrocities that make John Travolta in dreadlocks look good. Google them at your peril.

It was sometime in 1986, I believe, and I was in Europe attending the launch of the ballyhooed Chrysler TC by Maserati. Things were not going well. The rear window on one of the test cars, while its soft top was being lowered, suddenly blew out in an explosion of ill-fitted glass. Searching fruitlessly for something — anything — “Maserati” about this thinly reskinned LeBaron, I’d made the mistake of asking the Italian company’s then-boss, Alejandro de Tomaso, to comment. Instead of turning toward the TC, he picked up a vinyl-covered owner’s manual off a nearby table. “This,” he announced with aristocratic disdain, “is Chrysler.” He then reached for a handsome, leather-bound portfolio and handed it to me with a flourish. “This,” he said, “is Maserati.” He looked at me, smiling, proud. “Well,” I thought to myself, “at least TC owners will have a nice book to consult when they try to figure out how to get the top down.”

Chrysler TC by Maserati

Chrysler TC by Maserati

It got worse. The TC was such a silly, dowdy, lousy-driving automobile, even Chrysler execs knew they had a bomb on their hands. They ended up locking me and a colleague in a Monaco hotel room, debriefing us on what needed fixing, what could be improved, how this opera-windowed Hindenburg could possibly be saved. We were in there, I’m pretty sure, for a few hours.

In the end, in part based on that disastrous debut, Chrysler delayed the car for two years. But it finally released it, and the end result was … pretty much the same. Chrysler hoped to sell 10,000 TCs a year. In three years, it sold 7,300. The TC got axed, put out of our misery. I hear rumors of a warehouse somewhere full of leather owner’s manuals.

I knew I wasn’t being paid enough when, around 1995, I had to review a Suzuki X-90. A purple one. I had to drive it around Los Angeles for an entire week. (Believe me, it’s hard to wear a David Hasselhoff mask for that long.) I even took it to pick up a then-girlfriend for a date. She climbed in, said, “It’s over,” and climbed out. I never heard from her again.

The goal of every automotive designer is to create something that evokes “Wows!” The Suzuki X-90 induced “Whys?” Really, what was it? A tubby, two-door, two-seat, tallish SUV with a rear wing and a wheelbase 3 inches shorter than a contemporary Miata’s? Yeah, the marketplace is just clamoring for one of those. Oh, and look: It’s got removable T-tops, so the rocks little kids are hurling at you can actually knock you out. All told, I think Suzuki sold about, oh, four X-90s during the vehicle’s three-year lifespan. The rest were fixed when a brilliant visionary came along and decided to dress up their rear decks with giant cans of Red Bull. You know your car is heinous when someone bolts on a garish fake cylinder of energy drink and makes it look better.

2001 Pontiac Aztek front three quarter

2001 Pontiac Aztek front three quarter

I committed a mortal sin in early 2001. I’m not sure what I did exactly; I just know it was around that time I was severely punished with my first test drive in a Pontiac Aztek. Ugly? This bizarre SUV-wagon mutant was so grotesque, just seeing it caused passersby to go “Ouch!” Looking at it for too long caused more eye damage than staring at the sun. A neighbor’s dog, who peed on everything, refused to soil the Aztek. He threw up on it instead. A vehicle this un-pulchritudinous begs the question: What the hell? What auto executive contemplated the prototype of this plastic pile, grinned, and pronounced, “I think we’re done here!” Did GM eventually get wise to his blindness? I know of only one buyer in the entire universe who seemed genuinely happy with his Aztek: Walter White on “Breaking Bad.” And he cooked meth.

Thus was born “planned obsolescence,” and we’ve been obsessively trading in perfectly good cars and trucks for the latest and greatest stuff ever since.

Then there’s Lamborghini. You’d think the automaker behind such stunners as the Miura, the Countach, and the Aventador could do no wrong, right? Well, have you seen the Lamborghini Veneno? The thing has so many grilles, ducts, intakes, and slots, I don’t know whether you’re supposed to drive it or drop your mail into it. Our man Cumberford apparently feels about the same regarding the new Centenario.

veneno roadster front three quarters

veneno roadster front three quarters

Unveiled in 2013 to celebrate Lamborghini’s 50th anniversary, the Veneno was then the most expensive production car in the world ($4.5 million). The company sold just three of the five produced. Lamborghini kept one for its museum (displayed under a plaque that reads, “Sorry, We Drank Too Much Lambrusco”). The fifth car I believe was destroyed during the making of “Transformers: Revenge of the Hallucinogens.”

Who needs a car that can go 220 mph and grate Parmesan cheese more efficiently than a Ninja kitchen attachment? Frankly, if I owned a Veneno, I’d be afraid of bumping into it and losing a limb. Really, this time Lamborghini stylists simply got out of hand. The Veneno is the only production car ever made that comes with its own sharpener.

In the end, I really feel for the men and women who design our cars. Lion tamers face fewer risks. And when things go bad, they can go really, really Aztek bad. Here’s then to the cars that serve as the backbone of our annual Design of the Year issue — hard-won successes that prove “planned obsolescence” is just a technical term for “you know you really want it.”

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November 28, 2016