Product, we are told, is king. The world will beat a path to your door, rather than to the doors of lesser mousetrap makers. Bob Lutz, who was the guiding light during the glory days of the pre-Daimler Chrysler Corporation, is known to believe this sort of thing, and his arrival at General Motors has been greeted with Second Coming-level enthusiasm.

It may even be so. There are few things that General Motors needs right now so much as a line of cars that people will line up to buy without bothering to ask how much the rebates are. For years, GM has been falling back on highly-dubious principles of brand management, figuring that all they had to do was target the advertising correctly, and the targets would duly flock to the dealerships. It didn't take long for the rest of the world to figure out that this strategy was seriously flocked up; by now, even your Aunt Hazel and Uncle Elmer know that underneath it all, a Chevy is a Pontiac is a Buick and used to be an Oldsmobile. Cadillac, once the Standard of the World, has dwindled into a few trim bits here and there.

Bob Lutz, say the pundits, will fix all this; under Lutz, the General will presumably build cars that will not only scare Ford and whoever owns Chrysler this week, but cars that will put the fear of God, or at least of Bob, into the hearts of Toyota and Honda and Volkswagen. It's a tall order, and I'm talking Shaq-style height here, but if anyone can do it, surely Bob Lutz can.

That little word "if" looms awfully large, though. History is full of examples of superior products that died a horrible death in the marketplace. (Two words: "Sony Betamax".) The best-laid plans often are royally screwed along the way. I offer as example the small Texas-based television manufacturer, Curtis Mathes, named for founder George Curtis Mathes, which in the late Seventies had a regional reputation that could fairly be described as colossal; their audacious slogan was "The most expensive television in America, and darn well worth it." Included in that lofty price tag was a prodigious warranty: one year labor, ten years on parts. I bought one of their 19-inch sets in 1981 for a stiff $500. Twenty years later, it has never needed a repair.

The merits of the product, however, couldn't save Curtis Mathes. The rest of the American TV makers moved as far away from Dallas and the rest of the country as possible. Some were swallowed up by international conglomerates; some exist today only as brand names. Curtis Mathes filed for bankruptcy. The company, under new ownership, tried to regroup in the middle 90s under the name "UniView" with a WebTV-like box before WebTV, even but nothing came of it. UniView still exists, still working on set-top technology and other neat stuff, but what brings in the money these days is, of all things, television sets imported from the Pacific Rim and sold at Kmart stores under the Curtis Mathes brand. Obviously the "most expensive" tag won't play in the land of the BlueLight Special.

So I wish Bob Lutz well as he starts whipping General Motors into shape, but I worry that the things he can't control (a soft economy, weird governmental notions, sudden enlightenment at Ford) will wind up overwhelming the things he can. Come to think of it, that sounds like my life.

The Vent

18 August 2001

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 Copyright © 2001 by Charles G. Hill