To have a car company of your own is a powerful dream, one that was once shared by tens of thousands of adolescent boys. When I was in high school in car-crazy 1950s Los Angeles, many of us sketched imaginary cars with our own names on the badges. Half a dozen people from my school went on to become professional car designers, but only one ever saw a company make real vehicles carrying such a badge. It failed. The dream was not only for starry-eyed schoolboys. In my career as an independent automotive designer, I had multiple clients who wanted a car company to bear their name and whose financial means — usually from inheritance or earned outside the auto business — allowed them to make the attempt.
Starting a car company was easy a hundred years ago, so easy that literally thousands did it and hundreds succeeded…for a while, because failure was always even easier. Henry Ford was the great automotive success of the twentieth century, but today’s Ford Motor Company was his third try. His second failure, the Henry Ford Company, lives on as the Cadillac Motor Division of General Motors, but most car-company start-ups — even by men as competent as Louis Chevrolet, Henry Kaiser, and Powel Crosley — failed or ended in other hands.
Some companies begun after 1945 are still with us. Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche come to mind immediately, although those marques now belong to industry giants, not to the families of their experienced, hard-driving “car guy” founders. Honda is a postwar company, of course, the only Japanese start-up to remain independent. Daihatsu, Suzuki, and Subaru are involved with bigger companies and are no longer masters of their own destinies. Mazda, jettisoned by Ford, is struggling to remain independent and not fade from relevance like Hino, Isuzu, Prince, and other postwar Japanese brands. Dozens of British, French, German, and Italian cottage-industry operations arose — and disappeared — in the last sixty-five years, but only a handful, such as Lotus and McLaren, survive.
Starting from scratch today is a lot harder than it used to be. Complex government regulations, costly tests, and endless bureaucratic hoops to jump through are a roadblock for start-ups. An example: when my brother and I made a serious effort to create a fully certified, no-exemptions car in 1979, we were told to perform windshield-retention crash tests at three different temperatures, because regulators “knew” the only way to retain glass was inserting it in a rubber profile. That ours was inserted from behind into an opening smaller than the glass so it couldn’t possibly pop out in a frontal crash didn’t matter. Winning that point — and others — wasted plenty of time, energy, and money.
Even if I were thirty-three years younger, I wouldn’t be willing to try again right now. For one thing, times of economic depression eliminate businesses. No new car companies emerged between 1929 and 1936, and dozens of respected, established makes were lost. For another, all-but-insuperable political interference makes start-ups improbable — just think of the constraints on shutting down inefficient or surplus operations, like those threatening the continued existence of Peugeot-Citroen or GM’s Opel.
Happily, there will always be brave dreamers like Henrik Fisker and Elon Musk, men who perceive enormous potential in an industry-wide shift to electric propulsion and are ready to give it a go, ignoring overwhelmingly negative odds, even though it would probably be easier just to buy Ford or GM — especially if you could get a deal like Fiat got with Chrysler.
No more erasers
I dream of a world in which, Lake Wobegon-like, all the cars are good-looking and their performance is above average, so when I do a design critique, only praise for their shapes and admiration for the design teams and their all-knowing, all-accepting senior management is warranted.