Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit

How The Kings Of Built-In Obsolescence Became Obsolete

December 2008

Henry Ford was a genius. He was also a curious mix of Capitalist, Socialist and Fascist all bundled into one but that is an essay I will save for another day. Of the over 100 fledgling auto makers who brainstormed the industrial revolution in the little brick shops of the warehouse district of Detroit at the turn of the century (the forerunner to the ‘garage’ wombs of the hi-tech revolution), Ford has survived as the author-apparent of the concept that provided the gasoline for capitalism itself as a viable concept: built in obsolescence. In short, the concept involves mating Darwinism with the primal need of virtually 89% of humans to feel a part of the herd, at any cost. But of course neither Ford nor any other industrial revolutionist ‘invented’ the concept. Like all great geniuses, he simply found a truism and co-opted it effectively. The concept of built-in obsolescence is mere Darwinism in its most simplistic form, with the twist of ‘Keep up with the Jones Family’ added as the critical kicker aspect. It is in a nutshell: Grow, change, conform, or die. And implementing this simple formula, Detroit changed the world.

There was a time when Detroit could wield this concept most effectively model year after model year. Slowly, over time, Detroit commandeered our need for identity and belonging and hope for a better tomorrow, swathed it in a unibody design, added more and more cylinders and gave the world an extension of our very selves on wheels. ‘We are what we drive’ carjacked a nation and we loved it. They sold it, we bought it. There was a time in our history when we had no idea of who we were beyond a gaggle of Bobbits. The Big Three took it upon themselves to tell us. They carved us into consumers of identity. They made our vehicles ourselves and ourselves our vehicles. Product as self. Sound familiar? And you think the concept of branding is new? Year after year, in all our need, we fell for the dangling carrots of options, up grades and thunderous horsepower. And an industry grew bulbous, lazy and dependent on a system that fed them well to the point of knowing nothing else. Nothing.

I grew up in the northern suburbs of Detroit, a location brought about by the ‘flight of the white’. I was one of the rare few children whose daddy did not work for one of the ‘Big Three’. While my professor father drove a string of used Volkswagons, culminating in the ultimate liberal vehicular statement of the early seventies, the VW van, all of my friends were ushered to school in the latest ‘company car’. Big, heavy, shiny sedans with shiny wheels and shiny grills and shiny burled wood dashboards. Chrome out-massed paint. They had trunks that could hold enough luggage to get a family of four coast to coast without ever having to wear the same travel outfit twice. Those who ‘belonged’ to one of the Big Three, for they surely sought to ‘own’ people back then, were members of an exclusive club, a world unto itself that literally ran the world. Or at least drove it.

Back then in Detroit, you either served the gods of combustion or you were destined to a life on the outside, picking from the meager used car lots filled with last years model. Poor, poor you. There are literally generations of families in whose blood runs the auto industry of Detroit. They know no other way of being, of thinking. Employees were treasured and it was understood that you hired in young and stayed for life. GM families did not mix with Ford Families. Heaven forbid you worked for Chrysler. From blue collar to white, from suppliers to the legions of after-market businesses that orbit the giant three, thousands directly and indirectly lived off their rotund presence like birds a top the hippopotamuses standing in the rivers flow. Company men to the core. Suppliers stuck to the breast of the Big Three.

And now the Big Three are at the breast of the big G looking for a bail out. How did we get here? What I see now is an industry that has built itself into obsolescence by practicing the concept of built-in obsolescence without ever looking back, or beyond themselves for that matter. What I see is an industry that simply CANNOT change its corporate culture from one of arrogantly defining the market and selling into it year after year after year… to one of serving the market. What I see is an industry that sold us the answers year after year without ever asking the questions. Detroit simply cannot stop thinking that they create the automobile market by telling us who we are and selling us that version of ourselves on wheels. The very idea of starting first by of looking around outside of yourself to see where you might be of service is innately and profoundly an extraterrestrial concept to Detroit. Yes, they profess to now be ‘”market-driven”. But know that you are hearing this from an industry that again, survives by telling you what you are rather than asking you what you need, what the planet needs. The idea of any inkling of congruence in such a message is naive.

The notion of letting the current environment within which consumers are to own and operate vehicles determine the form of said vehicle was never put into the DNA of the industry at it took its first baby steps back in the shops and warehouses speckled along the river in Detroit in 1900. And changing the DNA of an industry is proving to be impossible. After spending decades telling the world who we are again and again and again, model after seductive model, they have failed to grow the ability to listen, to observe and to change. They are the beast whose ears corporate evolution has deemed irrelevant and hence they cannot hear. They are the beast whose eyes corporate evolution has deemed irrelevant and hence they cannot see. The residual arrogance of this culture is the very rope they now fashion as necklaces.

Earlier this week I watched as the patsy CEOs, recruited from ‘outside’ the auto industry to man the bridges while these corporate ghost ships roll, pitch and yaw in their death throes lined up in front of Congress, receipts in hand, looking for a refund for all of their lobbying-dollars-of-denial.


We are foolish to think a Hippopotamus can morph itself into an Eagle. It is not going to happen. The change required to bring the corporate culture of the American auto industry into the here and now is monolithic. And it must happen at the very core of the industry. And it must be done at the hands of those who went to school on the industrial revolution in creating the hi-tech revolution. It must be done at the hands of those who have built an empire by successfully learning to start with nothing but an open mind, a sense of place and a sense of humility in a perilously fragile global environment. It must be done by those who can accurately read the world around them, see what needs to be done and do it. In order for American automobile companies to survive and prosper from here they must be stripped bare of their very DNA, and rebuilt from the oil stained concrete up.

©2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 Nancy Kotting.   All rights reserved, reproduction with permission only.


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