Even if you’re not car crazy like I am, you’re probably aware that there are certain marques, or brands, that epitomize the best and worst in automotive quality. Honda jumps from my mind as a paragon of automotive virtue, mainly because I’m on my second Civic and both have served me well. They’ve been reliable because they were well-manufactured and I’m a believer in preventive maintenance. I’ve rolled up nearly 160,000 miles on my 2003 Civic Hybrid and plan to keep it for at least another 90,000.
Then there are the Yugos and Trabants of the world.
(NOTE: I didn’t pick all my cars well. My personal badge of shame was a 1972 Dodge Charger, known as the “Charger POS model”. It was a used car when I bought it, so I can’t blame Chrysler entirely for its poor quality.)
In between the automotive highs and lows is a vast number of brands that have come and gone.
Obviously, the automobile companies that have survived — and will continue to — employ a wide range of quality tools and techniques. They also innovate.
Many automotive innovations are rather small in stature and don’t have a measurable effect on the quality of the overall product, but they meet a customer need. An excellent example of this is the cup holder.
I got along fine without one for years but my life would be incomplete without cup holders today.
Many other innovations in the automotive world — the assembly line, the electric starter (100 years old in 2012), independent suspension, air bags, the Toyota Production System, and the list goes on and on — enabled certain auto makers to stand out competitively and blazed a new path for everyone else to follow. These innovations had everything to do with improving quality.
Then there are those innovations that only “gearheads” can come up with. They have a need — to make cars go faster, to turn them into works of rolling art, or to simply experiment. They may or may not fit the textbook definition of “quality” but it’s fun to see what people come up with when their minds aren’t cluttered with ideas of what a car is “supposed to be”.
Every summer, there’s a Dream Cruise on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Woodward Avenue, one of the longest straightaways in urban America, is where car lovers once raced their personal vehicles for fun, bragging rights, and (sometimes) money. It was all about experimenting with your car, to see if you could coax a few more horsepower out of the engine or cheat the wind somehow.
Woodward Avenue is said to have provided the inspiration for the Pontiac GTO back in the day. Now, it’s mainly about showing off your vehicle in the hours-long parade once a year.
As you can see from the picture above, not every innovation is destined for greatness. (They probably said something like that about airbags.) Without the innovators, we’d have nothing.
So, are quality and innovation mutually exclusive? Tell me what you think.
- Stenquist, Paul, “On Woodward Dream Cruise, a Quest for the Wonderful and Wonderfully Odd”, NY Times online, August 22, 2011 - http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/on-woodward-dream-cruise-a-quest-for-the-wonderful-and-wonderfully-odd/
- “The 50 Worst Cars of All Time – 1985 Yugo GV”, TIME Special - http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1658545_1658533_1658529,00.html