Babes in Toyland

847483668 Babes in ToylandThe Power Wheels Jeep Hurricane is the car the American market has been screaming for: a sleek, zero-emission, gas-free SUV. AND, with its Ultimate Terrain Traction system, the Hurricane can go places “no other battery powered ride-on can go.” Yes, it’s a toy: a Fisher-Price product for middle class parents with automotively aspirational children– and whose aren’t? But here’s the kicker: it’s based on a concept car unveiled at The North American International Auto Show back in 2005. 

The carbon fiber show car upon which the quarter-scale Hurricane was based featured two Hemis and a four-wheel steering system. The system was so flexible the Jeep could move sideways or spin in a circle, like, well, a Hurricane. While its twin V8 powerplants were never destined for an assembly line, the Hurricane offered other, more practical innovations. 

The Hurricane’s one-piece body was mounted to an aluminium spine; a brilliant piece of engineering promising light weight and strength. Its drive train and suspension were mounted right to the body, making assembly a breeze. The Hurricane was so simple and elegant that I felt sure a version would make it to the showroom. 

Fisher-Price understood the magnetism of the design and built their version. Jeep did not. In the ensuing years, Jeep built the Ten Worst nominees Commander and Patriot, and our first place “winner,” the Compass. As of October, Jeep dealers have 169-day supply of Commanders, the Patriot hangs about for 142 days, and the Compass can go 150 days without further production. For perspective, the less practical and more “fun” Jeep Wrangler has an almost ideal 62-day supply. 

What does the toy industry know that the car industry doesn’t? They know that children don’t calculate mpg or worry about global warming. Whether they’re pushing it around the floor, controlling it by radio or sitting and driving, they want a way cool car. Period. Sure “real” car buyers put away childish things, but do they WANT to?

The debate over whether or not Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli and Ford CEO Alan Mulally are “car guys” touched upon this issue. And then the media moved on to the business of saving the American car business– even as the toy industry continues to provide America’s pickiest consumers with exactly what they want (albeit and scarily enough built in China). And yet Detroit has had tremendous success with toy-like cars, from the Mustang to the P.T. Cruiser to the Chrysler 300. 

Unfortunately, even when the domestics get the gestalt, they get it wrong. One of the key factors driving the toy industry: instant gratification. When kids see an ad for the V_BOT Radio Control Transforming Vehicle, they want it NOW. No toy company could stay in business with a two-year lag between consumer awareness and products on the shelves.

Now consider the new Chevrolet Camaro and the recent Transformers motion picture. Chevy’s marketing department spent millions placing the new Camaro front and center, to win the hearts and minds of teenagers everywhere and, presumably, unleash pester power. The Camaro-based Bumble Bee went from full-scale prototype to movie car to a toy movie-goers could run out and buy in the space of months. 

Meanwhile, the “real” Camaro is nowhere to be seen. Any traffic generated by one of the biggest– and presumably most expensive– piece of automotive product placement in recent history will be dissipated by delay. Conclusion: even when carmakers appreciate a vehicle’s elemental not to say infantile appeal, they fail to cope with the limited shelf life of new hotness.

Call it the Hot Wheels paradigm. Since 1968, this toymaker has known that its clientele has a short attention span and an insatiable appetite for the thrill (and pride) of the new. That’s why they release an endless fleet of new designs as fast as they can, producing several takes on existing models. That’s why they’ve produced their own creations (The Splittin’ Image, Torero, Turbofire, and Twin Mill) and pimped existing models (Volkswagen Beach Bomb) right from the git-go.

Once upon a time, Detroit “got it.” Products were cosmetically refreshed every single year. These days, cars like Ford’s eminently customizable Crown Victoria and its platform siblings are left to wither on the vine– growing older and less desirable with each passing year. Caddy’s new CTS has the right idea, but the pace of progress remains piss poor.

This is not to say Chrysler, Ford and GM should spend all their time listening to adolescent boys. Again, kids don’t sweat gas prices or suffer carbon-based guilt. They’re attracted to extreme machines like Hummers and Vipers, and that kind of vehicle isn’t going to pull Motown out of the muck at the moment. But as my wife points out on a regular basis, most men are developmentally stuck around 12-years old. Why not go to the source? 

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