Avoidable Contact #74: The leatherette singularity doesn’t just apply to leatherette

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T.S. Eliot once wrote that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Steve Jobs stole that quote, ascribing it to Pablo Picasso. Perhaps he hadn’t read Catch-22, which reminds us that T.S. Eliot was not only creative but well-compensated to boot. T.S. Eliot also opened up “The Waste Land” with a dedication to Ezra Pound as “il miglior fabbro,” or “the better craftsman,” but he stole that from Dante, who used the phrase with reference to Arnaut Daniel. Now here’s the kicker; Pound was reportedly a fan of Daniel and therefore would have been both pleased by the allusion and troubled by the suggestion that Eliot’s fame would eventually eclipse his, as Dante’s eclipsed Daniel’s. “If you see dear Mrs. Equitone / Tell her I bring the horoscope myself: / One must be so careful these days.”

Alright, now that we’ve scared all the recent college graduates off by mentioning not one, but four dead poets in a row, we grown folks should be free to discuss leatherette without any fear of interruption. Hagerty contributor Joe Ligo sent me an email yesterday containing the phrase “leatherette singularity,” so I’m stealing that phrase and using it here. Hope he doesn’t mind. Mature poets steal.

What is the “leatherette singularity”? Why, it’s the inevitable moment in the future when all new cars have leatherette interiors, of course! Why is this moment inevitable? Because virtually all of today’s automakers selling vehicles in North America can be defined by the “Three C’s.” Some of my more broadly-educated readers will remember Houston-area rapper “Willie D” and his coining of the phrase “Three P’s,” but Hagerty is a family publication and we shan’t even mention that further other than to reassure the reader that the “Three C’s” refer solely to the following characteristics:

* Automakers are Cautious; they’d rather copy the competition than challenge it.
* Automakers are Cowardly; they have an almost debilitating inability to withstand public criticism.
* Automaters are Cheap; they will never use a five-cent part where a three-cent part will do.

These “Three C’s” will eventually lead us to the Leatherette Singularity, which I am capitalizing from now on to seem like more of a thought leader. Come to my TED Talk and I’ll tell you about how leatherette applies to paradigm shifts of the year 2070, but here’s the short version. Start with this: Why do we have so few choices nowadays for automotive interiors? This wasn’t always the case. In 1976, commonly believed (by me, and only me) to be the height of automotive fashion, Cadillac offered sixty-two different possible interiors on the C-body de Ville and Fleetwood. Morgan Plaid Fabric. Sierra Grain Vinyl. Merlin Plaid Fabric. Manhattan Crushed Velour. Magnan Ribbed Knit. Sierra Grain Leather. Minoa Ribbed Velour (With Leather Bolsters). Mansion Knit. TWO KINDS OF MEDICI CRUSHED VELOUR. These different materials were supplied in all the colors of the rainbow. Today’s Cadillac CT6 offers seven options, which isn’t much, but it’s better than the Lexus ES350, which offers four options, or the Honda Accord, which offers either one or three depending on whether or not you insist on a clutch pedal.

The conventional wisdom tells us that the domestics killed all the interior options so they could compete more effectively with Honda and Toyota, which offered very few choices. This may well be, but it ignores the fact that Honda and Toyota produced some genuinely astounding interiors for their home markets. The conservative approach of their American offerings was a product of the very long supply chains involved and the reluctance of their dealers to get stuck with a difficult color combination. So if that is all the domestics learned from Honda and Toyota, that would be like me reading a biography of Mike Tyson to help my weekend boxing and coming away from said perusal with nothing but the determination to get a face tattoo.

Regardless, once General Motors started cutting the available interiors in their cars, the rest of the Big Three followed suit in hasty fashion. As late as 1995 you could get a green velour interior in a Ford Taurus, and in 1998 you could get a sort of pink rose cloth, but by 2002 it was down to Medium Parchment and Medium Graphite. Note Ford’s reassuring use of the word “Medium” here. Wouldn’t want to get buffaloed into a Rabid Parchment or Deep Graphite cockpit. What would the neighbors say.

Of course, almost everyone makes their cars in the United States now, with the exception of the Big Three who make them in Mexico, Canada, and China. So there’s no real reason to offer such a limited selection of interiors now, but the automakers are cautious. Mercedes-Benz is an admirable exception to this. They make some stunning “designo” interiors. Lincoln also makes a few gorgeous Black Label combinations. But you won’t find this stuff at the dealers, because the dealers are even more cautious than the manufacturers. Every S-Class at the dealer is black or silver with a neutral interior color, and every Lincoln Black Label has the black-and-tan interior.

Caution has drastically reduced the number of choices we have for color, texture, and pattern. There are all sorts of wonderful cloth, velour, and other woven fabrics out there, but the automakers have all managed to agree on three options: Woven plastic fabric for really cheap cars, leatherette vinyl for mid-price stuff, and leather as the upsell. Every once in a while, as with my wife’s Miata or the track-focused Lamborghinis, an artificial suede will make the list, but in general there are only three interior materials available. The crummy woven plastic fabric is going away because cheap cars are going away. Leather is going to go away because of that second “C”—Cowardly. Leather comes from animals. You wouldn’t know it to sit in ninety-five percent of the “leather interior” cars out there, because the leather is low-grade reject stuff heavily treated with a witches’ brew of chemicals to survive winters in Alaska and summers in Death Valley, but it really does come from an animal.

(An aside: The Connolly Autolux leather in my 1986 Jaguar Vanden Plas was real leather, like what you’d find in a proper set of British shoes, but it faded when exposed to a flashlight and it required the sort of care that would have deterred the folks who cared for Henry VIII’s saddles.)

The social-justice activists of this country are presently occupied elsewhere but at some point they will immanentize the eschaton or whatever and they will have nothing to do, at which point one of them will notice that their parents’ S-Class has an interior made from dead animals. At that point you will have a full-tilt-boogie campaign against leather in cars. Note that there are already several markets where leather is considered to be a little unpleasant, which is why you can find so many nice grey-market Toyota Century sedans with a cloth interior. The automakers could abandon leather in a heartbeat, because they’ve already abandoned it elsewhere.

Alternately, they could fight back. They could say something like, “Hey, leather is a very good surface for seats. Very few animals are killed to make leather seats—it’s largely a byproduct of food consumption, in much the same way that Jack Baruth has no trouble getting horsehide shoes and belts made due to the Spanish habit of eating horses as food and sending the “shell,” or hindquarters, to the Horween tannery in Chicago, whence all good belts spring, even the ones that are finished in the United Kingdom.” But they won’t, because automakers are Cowardly. The last person in the business to have any spine with regards to social pressure was probably whoever ordered the tails on Ralph Nader fifty years ago. Since then there’s been no social fad too ridiculous to receive immediate and fawning support from the automakers. Tesla is ahead of the curve here; its Models 3 and Y are completely “vegan” according to company press releases. Eventually there will be a vegan S-Class. Count on it.

I wouldn’t mourn the passing of leather in automobiles for five minutes if we got a good selection of cloths and velours to replace it. (The passing of leather, specifically shell cordovan, in apparel is a different matter. You’ll have to pry my horsehide shoes from my dead feet.) Imagine being able to order my Genesis G90 with a combination of woven cloth and deep velour, in a deep emerald or cobalt shade! That would just be the proverbial bee’s knees. It ain’t gonna happen, because automakers are Cheap. They’ll replace leather the same way that Tesla replaced leather—with grained vinyl seats. This increase in leatherette production will no doubt make it possible to produce the material at an even lower cost, at which point leatherette will replace whatever woven plastic interiors still exist in Chevy Sparks and whatnot.

And there you have it: the Leatherette Singularity. Brought to you by the “Three C’s.” This will be good news for Mercedes-Benz, which has a leatherette so good that it makes a nice wallet. Everyone else will have to suffer, and that includes the owners. Try to get seats with holes punched in them. That makes a difference. Expect ventilated seats to join power windows and Bluetooth as Universal Standard Equipment. Some of these materials wear like butter, so you can also expect to see even more exposed foam in the used cars of the future.

This would be kind of funny if it only applied to seating, but the Leatherette Singularity is more than a narrowing of materials for chairs. It’s a whole mindset and you can see it everywhere you look. The ubiquitous 1998cc four-cylinder turbo engine, which swept through the business eating the competition the way zebra mussels infested the Great Lakes? Caution, cowardice, and cheapness. (A moment of silent respect for Toyota, which will still sell you a V-6 in a Camry no matter what the buzzkills want.) Crossovers replacing station wagons in the market? 22-inch wheels on pickup trucks? Automatic transmissions in sports cars? Climate-control buttons? Console shifters? They’re all just manifestations of the Leatherette Singularity(tm). (I’m going to trademark it.)

The Leatherette Singularity (copyright 2020, Jack Baruth, used with permission) can’t be defeated by anguished auto-journalism. There’s only one way to fight it, and that’s with your wallet. I’m trying my best, having bought a variety of truly wacky vehicles over the past decade, but I can’t do it alone. The next time you’re in the market for a new car, consider placing a custom order to get the color and options you truly want, rather than taking delivery from dealer stock. If enough of us do that, the product planners will notice. We could get back to sixty-two interior options in no time. And that would be a true triumph of aesthetics over business. Who cares about making money. It takes brains not to make money. Any fool can make money these days and most of them do. But what about people with talent and brains? Name, for example, one poet who makes money.

(“T. S. Eliot,” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen said in his mail-sorting cubicle at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters, and slammed down the telephone without identifying himself.)

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