The standard ‘Detroit’ story, as told by expats around the world
A little tale to amuse you on a Friday afternoon. Or a tale that gets your blood boiling and hits too close to home
I‘m from Detroit. If you want to meet a lot of Detroiters… move to Los Angeles (like I did in 1981).
If you do meet a Detroiter from my generation, we all tell the same long story, with a few minor variations I’m sure. Here it is, in condensed form:
The Detroit Story
The head of a car development team invites in the big boss of GM (or Ford or Chrysler, if you prefer). The boss is shown the work of the development team: a new model car.
“Wow,” the boss exclaims, “it’s amazing.”
And it is. It is altogether new. Attractive, desirable.
The boss walks around the car a few times, opens the door, sits inside a while, then gets out.
“You and your team are to be congratulated, what an amazing job. Do you have the production report on this?” the boss asks, and is handed the report.
“Oh, I see. Interesting,” the boss says as the head of development starts getting nervous. “Well, I think this can work,” says the boss, much to the relief of the head of development.
“First, though, I really think we shouldn’t put an 8 cylinder engine in this. The Feds are cracking down on fuel efficiency, and besides, this might hurt the averages for the entire line. Let’s put a 6 in this.”
The head of development nods, he knew an 8 cylinder engine was pushing it.
“Also, wow, there is a lot of leather inside. Let’s go with vinyl, consumers can’t tell the difference anyway. And all that wood, plastic is a lot lighter, that will help with the overall weight.”
The head of development doesn’t know what to say, but the boss isn’t done.
“I see it’s an aluminum body. That’s expensive. Better go with steel.”
Now the head of development sees an opening to argue back. “But that will add weight,” he says.
“Oh, you’re right. Smart guy. We better put a 4 cylinder engine in this for better gas mileage.”
“But we already have cars like this,” the head of development says.
“Good. Now we have next year’s model.”
The head of development can’t believe what just happened, though he shouldn’t have been surprised, it went like this last year. So he needs a smart retort to save the situation.
“But the shareholders are already mad at the company for not introducing any new products, nothing exciting,” the head of development says.
“Don’t worry about that, leave that to me. We’ll increase this year’s dividend. Maybe split the stock. That will keep the investors happy. Nothing like a few bucks in their pockets to keep them in line.”
“But what about the customers?” asks the defeated head of development.
“What? They love us. They will line up around the block to buy this next year. Our customers buy the brand, not the product. Worst case scenario, we do another commercial with some rock star. Make ’em think we’re cool,” the boss says and leaves the room.
If you have ever visited the Renaissance Center in Detroit there is an area where cars designed by the big three automakers are displayed – cars that were designed, but never built. The normal reaction from those who see the display is usually that if Detroit had actually built those cars they wouldn’t be the owner of a Toyota or Honda today.
When I tell that story to people I always get an interesting reaction. They listen intently then say that they know what I am really saying. I’m really telling the story of such-and-such company, “they are just like that,” they say.
I bet if I told you that story, which I just did, you might even think that it is really about a company you know well – maybe a newspaper you used to work for, maybe a big consumer electronics company that hasn’t put out anything interesting lately.
I’ll leave that up to you to interpret.