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Darwin, Transplant Automakers, And The Invisible Hand of the 1978 Cutlass

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Darwin, Transplant Automakers, And The Invisible Hand of the 1978 Cutlass

By Jack Baruth on July 27, 2010

It’s called “convergent evolution”, and it refers to cases in which two unrelated, or distantly related, animals evolve to similar shapes or capabilities due to the pressures of their environment. Examples can be found here, with the most interesting one being the “pronghorn antelope”. It really isn’t an antelope, you see. It turns out that when there is pressure in an environment, animals will eventually all adapt to their optimum form for that environment.

While there are many unforgiving environments around the world, from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle, few are as murderous as the American automobile market. It turns out that the aforementioned “optimum form” appeared some time ago, and everyone else has been evolving that way ever since..Don’t worry. You may not believe in evolution, let alone the Mitsubishi Evolution, but I will serve as your John Scopes in this auto-Darwinian voyage.

When General Motors “downsized” their A-body family sedans in 1978, they were really just returning them to the size of the original Chevy II from the Sixties. The 1978 Cutlass, Century, Malibu, and Grand Prix rode on a 108-inch wheelbase, stretched the tape to between 192 and 200 inches in length depending on body style, and weighed about 3300 pounds. Power came from a 3.8-liter V-6 in most cases.

These A- bodies became the most popular vehicles of their era, often combining for a million sales annually. From 1978 to 1980, the Cutlass was the best-selling car in the United States, clocking over 500,000 units a year. As a child, I rode in dozens of these A-body sedans, wagons, and coupes, including my father’s ‘81 Century Custom wagon. They were, truly, right-sized for American families. Mom and Dad were comfy up front, with an optional munchkin sitting between them, and the rear seat held three kids easily.

The Accord of the same era was far smaller than these “gas-guzzling, oversized” GM midsizers, with a 93-inch wheelbase and a weight in the 2400-pound range. The ‘77 Accord could hide behind a modern Civic with room to spare, and it was pure magic to drive. I was lucky enough to get behind the wheel of a few first-gen Accords before the Japanese Metal Termites killed them all in the Midwest, and I was enchanted. My car-loving friends used to talk about how great it would be when everybody gave up the fat domestic cars to drive these wonderful Accords and Mazda 626es.

Eventually the Accord, and then the Camry, wrested the title of “best-selling” car away from the fat domestic cars… which weren’t so fat any more. Of the FWD American cars sold during the Nineties, only the Chrysler LH-platform entries were 200 inches long. More interestingly, each generation of Accord and Camry seemed to get a little bigger. As they grew, so did their sales. It would appear that Americans weren’t really that interested in buying “small Japanese cars” regardless of their merits.

Which is how we come to the mid-size sales chart for the first half of 2010 and the leader of that chart, the 2010 Toyota Camry. Compared to the 1978 Cutlass sedan, the Camry is slightly shorter but exceeds the Cutlass in all other dimensions, including weight. It is available with a 3.5L V6, although the four-cylinder model represents the bulk of Camry sales.

The 2010 Accord is non-trivially larger than the Camry, although it’s lighter. The Altima and Mazda6 are within a few inches in every dimension, the Altima being smaller and the Mazda being close to the Accord. These are no longer “small cars” in any sense of the term, unless your sense of the term dates from 1958.

They are also all built in the United States, while many of the “domestic” entries are built in Canada or Mexico. A slightly inattentive alien, observing from a spaceship at an angle which prevented him from seeing badges on cars, might conclude that the current Accord and Camry “descended from” the Cutlass and Ford Fairmont, and that the 1977 Accord was an evolutionary dead end. To him, a car like the Ford Fusion, originating from Mexico and smaller in virtually every dimension, would be an impostor, a false branch on the tree.

Speaking for a moment in somewhat controversial terms, I do not think the Camcords of today represent “Intelligent Design”. Nobody at Honda or Toyota set out to replicate the 1978 Cutlass in order to capture its title as the best-selling car in America. Rather, it was the “blind watchmaker” of consumer demand and changes in response to that demand. A 1977 Accord is too small for a two-child family unless that family is prepared to make some serious sacrifices of room and utility. The “compact” template laid down by GM in the Sixties and perfected in 1978 is the right one. And if the modern cars don’t have the rear-wheel-drive and live axles of the 1978 Cutlass… remember convergent evolution is about form, not underlying “biology”.

Once you swallow this rather silly, but compelling idea about convergent evolution, it’s easy to see it everywhere in the market. The full-sized trucks sold by GM and Toyota resemble each other more than they resemble their Seventies ancestors. The New Beetle, New MINI, and New Fiat 500 are more like each other than they are like any of the original variants. Each market segment determines what it wants, and then the manufacturers are forced to adapt or die.

The new Explorer is a perfect example of this. Slowly but surely, we are moving back to the family-wagon template laid down by the B-bodies and A-bodies in the late Seventies. Each new “SUV” or “crossover” comes closer to traditional wagon packaging. The Highlander, Pilot, Explorer, and Endeavor all have “ancestors” that are body-on-frame SUVs, but they are migrating back to becoming simple mid-sized wagons with third-row seating.

If there is any complaint to be made about the process, it’s simply that evolution is an imperfect copier. In many ways, the 1978 Cutlass Supreme is still superior to the modern Camcord. It’s easier to fix, it’s more spacious inside, and it possesses cleaner, more tasteful styling than any modern mid-sized car. If you can snag a drive in a solid example of any GM A-body, it’s worth doing. Not only will you learn a bit about this country’s automotive past, you’ll obtain a rare glimpse into its likely future.



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