As I write this, Ford is dealing with a very serious problem: the number of people trying to put deposits down on a 2021 Bronco has actually crashed their website. That’s right: in the middle of a global pandemic and some of the worst (albeit likely temporary) economic news since the Carter era, there are thousands upon thousands of people trying to give Ford money for a vehicle they won’t be able to drive until the middle of 2021, at least. Many of them didn’t even bother to take a run at the configurator before putting a deposit down. They saw the vehicle, they saw some basic information about the powertrain and options, and they took out their credit cards. Take that, Tesla!
Unsurprisingly, the Experts Of The Automotive Internet have some Very Strongly Held Opinions about how All The Automakers Should Be Able To Do This, Or Something Like It, Instead Of Making Cars No One Wants. They’re not entirely wrong, of course. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that so-called niche vehicles can generate fantastic volume and profitability; if you’d rather not dwell on the Plymouth PT Cruiser, which for several years was the best-selling unibody Chrysler vehicle despite having been initially designed and marketed as a left-field wagon for Baby Boomers, then you might want to consider the story of the 1965 Ford Mustang, which moved north of two million units in the first five model years.
The problem is that for every PT Cruiser or Mustang there is also an FJ Cruiser, which had two kinda-sorta-decent sales years before becoming showroom poison, or final-generation Ford Thunderbird, which couldn’t even justify the modest expenses involved with making what was essentially a Lincoln LS coupe. Worse yet, it’s impossible to know ahead of time whether you’ve built a PT or an FJ. It can hinge on seemingly random events, like Jeremy Clarkson comparing the silhouette of the otherwise delightful Chrysler Crossfire to a defecating dog. The dealers can sabotage you with naked greed, as was the case with the 5.7-liter Australian-built Pontiac GTO. Or you can just build a hell of a car at a very fair price and have the market not become in any way interested until the car in question has been out of production for 15 years—step up to the podium, Porsche 964 RS America! There’s just no way to really know.
That’s why passion-project cars like the Bronco are so relatively rare nowadays. The return on investment is completely unknown. Imagine, for a moment, that the Bronco hadn’t gotten the front-end detailing just right, or that the product-planning team hadn’t been able to get approval for the costs involved with making the two-door version. Ford’s website might be very lonely as I write this, rather than lying down for the count under the Tyson-like blows of a frenzied buyer base. Here’s another alternative reality for you: What if the V-8-powered Jeep Wrangler shown off as a party-spoiling concept on Monday wasn’t just a concept, but an actual production vehicle that had been available at a fair price for, say, the past 12 months? How much traction would a Bronco with inline-four and V-6 engines get then, if you could sashay over to the Jeep dealer and buy a HEMI Wrangler for $34,995 instead of waiting a year for a removable-door Ford?
The men and women who earn a living doing product planning for the major automakers have to consider all of those scenarios, and more. They also have to make a decision on risk, which is where the notion of the Chevy Blazer comes in. In the weeks to come, you’re going to hear a lot of Luke 13:28 (weeping and gnashing of teeth, of course) regarding the fact that the Bronco is an utterly thrilling Wrangler-killer with desirability dripping from every seam of the body while the Blazer, its historical arch-enemy, is … a five-seat take on the Chevy Traverse, with all the excitement of a Tuesday afternoon birthday party at Applebee’s. This feels like rank stupidity on General Motors’ part, particularly so given the fact that the Blazer is struggling to move 6000 units a month with genuinely titanic incentives while Ford’s primary issue with the Bronco will be running enough shifts to satisfy demand.
Ah, but it’s not that simple. The business case for the Blazer was straightforward: GM identified a space in a known market and was able to fill that gap without too much hassle. A product planner with a room-temperature IQ could make the business case for a crossover between the Equinox and the Traverse, and a Vice President with less intelligence than that could approve it, and everyone could sleep soundly at night knowing that:
- The buyers in the market aren’t very picky, unlike the buyers for an FJ Cruiser or an RS America
- There was plenty of “air” in the segment for the new product to breathe
- And if it didn’t make the expected sales numbers, they could always apply some incentives to make it obviously cheaper than the competition
This, folks, is what you call an airtight business case. The same lack of mojo that makes the Blazer such a meh-mobile also ensures that it won’t turn off RAV4 “intenders” who have some negative equity in their current vehicle and need to keep the lease payment low. Some major percentage of America’s new-car buyers would be perfectly content if you swapped out their current crossover for a new Blazer, whether the current crossover in question is a Nissan Murano or a Porsche Macan. There just isn’t that much difference in the products. People really don’t care. Remember the last time you bought a dishwasher? That’s the level of excitement the typical Blazer buyer brings to the experience.
Buyers like that will take what’s on a dealer lot, no questions asked: by contrast, God help the Bronco-busters at the Ford shop who get in an allocation of four-door hardtops when the local fanatics want two-door stick-shifts, or vice versa. The same goes for color, trim … heck, I bet you some new-Bronco buyers will be those super-particular jerks who insist that the vehicle be delivered to them with the shrink-wrap intact so they can do their own initial detail without a brush. Those people suck. I know, because I’ve sold to those people—and I’ve been that person myself multiple times, most recently with my wife’s 30th Anniversary Miata. The Blazer customers will never make a request like that. They’ll ask if it comes with a full tank of gas, and if the answer is “yes,” then, my car-selling friend, that’s what we call a 100-point delivery.
You get the idea. As a product, as a concept, as a plan, the Blazer is fail-safe guaranteed mediocrity. The Bronco is a big risk that can make careers or break them without much warning beforehand. Sitting here, in the safety of our home offices, it seems easy to say that we would all chose the equivalent of a “Bronco” in our daily lives and personal careers, but is that really the case? Think about the last five decisions you made at work. How many of them were Broncos, and how many were Blazers?
In the months to come, you’re going to be seeing us taking some bigger risks here at Hagerty. We are going to stray outside the so-called comfort zone. (And I know that the phrase “stray outside the comfort zone,” like the infamous “think outside the box,” is about as conventional as it gets. I just don’t know another way to say it.) Full-length features that are difficult and expensive to pull off. Strongly-expressed opinions backed up as well as we know how. A few cars might get crashed. A few races might be won in spectacular fashion, or you might get to see video of an EMS crew pulling my limp and broken body out of my new Radical sports racer. We’re going to give a voice to some fairly controversial people and see what happens.
When you read this stuff, some of it will really resonate and some of it will bore you and some of it might make you really mad. I want to hear your opinions no matter what they are. Just know this, as you open up our website and start reading on this or any other day: I’m trying to build some Broncos here. We’ve had a lot of success with Blazers over the years. Some of you really like the Blazers. We’re going to keep building them. But there will also be some Broncos. They might not work out. What’s that saying? “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Put another way, it’s time to pull the doors off this thing and head down the trail. See you on the road.