Affordable halo cars: make it beautiful, make it right
A halo car is one that will revive a brand. It gives new direction, and while it may not be the car that was sold to the consumer, it’s the reason he/she came into the dealership. It goes with the idea that while you may not be able to afford an Audi R8, it may remind you that an A4 is in your price range. Bob Lutz calls it “shock therapy” for an automotive brand.
In times of slower auto sales, a budget-minded halo car is a great thing to have. Companies want a car that’s cool enough to be a poster is on a kid’s wall and affordable enough to be in dad and mom’s driveway. Great examples are cars such as Honda’s S2000 or the reborn Fiat 500.
So as times begin to get tough, the consumer may be on the fortunate end of seeing a few budget-minded halo cars rushed into production. Yes, the car companies are cash strapped, but there are a few good auto executives out there who know that to sell a car it must be distinctive. In hopes of a few good surprises this auto show season, let’s take a look at two affordable halo cars that did work and two that didn’t work.
- Nissan 350Z
Nissan was in a bad pace at the turn of the century. The company was selling products that were mainly designed in the 80s. A financial shot in the arm from Renault was not the full remedy for the public to want a Nissan for more than just being a cheap and easy car to own.
The 350Z resembled the original Z cars in that it had a long nose and a sloping back. It wasn’t as much retro as it was in the spirit of the original. The car not only resonated with middle aged-people whose first sports car was a Z, but also new people looking for fun.
What the public saw was affordable, fast and fun. What they didn’t see was a whole host of shared SUV structural and technology bits that made the car heavier and larger than necessary, but a whole lot cheaper (and easier) to build. With this secret well hidden, the 350Z went on to be the symbol for the new Nissan and blaze the company back into robust sales. The 350Z carried this burden alone all the way until this year when the GT-R was able to take some of the halo weight.
- Volkswagen New Beetle
Financial trouble isn’t the only reason for a halo car; it also can help a personality crisis. Volkswagen was healthy in mid-90s, but it was losing its personality. The company that was once known for bringing the public Herbie, was now providing square appliances.
I’m not usually a fan of a pure retro car, but this is the exception. The original Beetle had so many feelings tied to it between the counter-culture hippies and the kids who grew up watching the Herbie movies, that it had too much personality to ignored.
The production car did not make too much sense from a functional standpoint. Taking a car that was originally designed to be rear-engined and moving it to the front meant a large bubble design with a dash so big that it looked like it belonged in a minivan. The look was unmistakable Beetle, but under the skin it was all Golf/Jetta. New hippies and old hippies united to buy one of the few budget cars with personality.
Like a good halo car, the rest of the VW line followed suit. The once squarish Volkswagen immediately rounded the shapes for the next generation of cars. The personality was back.
- Studebaker Avanti
By 1962, Studebaker was getting stale. The once cash cow Lark was now being overtaken by the larger domestic brands beginning to make smaller sedans. It needed something to get people back in the showrooms, and a sports car was the easiest way.
Everything seemed perfect - a new lightweight car with a distinctive shape. Studebaker even set a land speed record to promote it. The orders started pouring in. The only problem is that Studebaker didn’t know how to make them.
The company chose to make the bodies out of fiberglass, which was still a complicated and expensive process at the time. The Chevrolet Corvette had been the only other car to use the plastic body panels in production, and at this point Chevy had been doing it for less than a decade. Studebaker’s fiberglass bodies were not fitting correctly, and Studebaker did not have the cash to weather the storm of upset owners and canceled orders.
The car that was supposed to save Studebaker became the final nail in its coffin. The Avanti was dropped from Studebaker in 1963, and all car production ceased within four years.
- NSU Ro 80
I know I’ve visited the topic of the Ro 80 before, but it is one of the best lessons in the car industry: too much technology may be a bad thing. An advanced body, clutchless manual transmission and the first mass-produced rotary engine – a large feat for 1967.
I consider it one of the most beautiful sedans ever made, and it took the rest of the auto industry over two decades to catch up. But the underdeveloped engine became the Achilles’ heel. Warranty work and bad press from the Wankel engine failures would eventually kill the company. Audi took over NSU within two years after the Ro 80’s introduction, and the brand’s name would not make it beyond the 70s.
The one common thread in all of these vehicles is that the car company was bold enough to recognize the potential of a unique car. The problem is without a proper execution a savior can turn into a killer. So while car companies are hopefully preparing to bring people back with affordable halo cars, also hopefully they will take at least one lesson from history. Beautiful designs will bring in the customers, but proven technology will keep them loyal.