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Market trends: Building the global automobile

One of the side effects of the oil crisis of the 1970s was to spur car companies into creating models that could be sold both in America and the rest of the world.

GM made the original front-wheel-drive Cavalier in Europe and America, while the 1980 Escort and Golf Mk1 were made slower and uglier than the European originals for the US.

That process is now regarded with horror by the companies concerned, but the imperatives that created the Cavalier have returned.

The US is once again concerned with fuel efficiency. GM has already decided that the Saturn brand in the USA will effectively rebadge Opel/Vauxhalls such as the Astra while Ford is urgently considering which models can be sent from Europe to the USA. It won’t be the new Mondeo, which is too close in size to existing US Fords, but it may make a start with the S-Max as a speciality vehicle.

GM and Ford also want to internationalize their US brands. GM wants to make Cadillac a global luxury brand. Unfortunately, Cadillacs are not seen as luxury cars outside the USA (or even many places within the USA). Ford is thinking of creating Mustang as an international brand. But what US manufacturers lack isn’t brands, it’s attractive products.

The problem with global cars is that either the car is not changed at all for opposite sides of the Atlantic, in which case one or other group of customers rebel, or different markets get so involved in the design that the economies evaporate.

So how do the Japanese manage it? There is a successful Accord in every continent, a trick that has mostly escaped Western volume car makers. They did it because the Japanese pioneered flexible manufacturing – Honda had an assembly line by the early 1990s that could handle different wheelbases of the same basic model. Also, the Japanese worked as truly global companies.

Now the task is to create internal alliances. GM product czar Bob Lutz talks about a “lego set” of parts – everyone dips in to the same parts bin and creates cars for their local conditions.

If the USA creates an Astra-sized car, it will use the same basic components as the Vauxhall Astra, as North America will have no authority to design anything but SUVs and pick-ups. It’s odd that Ford of Europe had more projects with other manufacturers (eg Ford Galaxy/VW Sharan, Ford Maverick/Nissan Terrano) than it had with its parent company. That is a luxury no-one can afford in future.

Market share of US car brands in the UK

Despite efforts at globalization, sales of the US Big Three have fallen in the UK since 2000. Partly, that is because Ford no longer imports models like the Cougar and Explorer and partly because Chrysler dropped the Neon.

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