Avoidable Contact #101: Nobody likes enthusiasts


Last week, in the context of explaining my discount purchase of a brand-new, jewel-like 1140cc Honda motorcycle for a price below that of my last mountain bike, I noted that automakers should never build a vehicle for the enthusiasts. In retrospect, this statement seems both far too pessimistic and far too certain of itself. Some explanation is in order.

As a young Ford salesman serving a neighborhood housing professors and prostitutes in seemingly equal measure, I learned quickly why it’s generally a waste of time for automakers to target the enthusiast market. Real-world example coming up. Let’s say we have the following pair of cars on our lot: a 1995 Mustang GT five-liter in Rio Red with a stick shift, and a 1995 Explorer XLT 945A package in Medium Willow Green. It’s Tuesday afternoon, a punishment shift for car salesmen and one of those times when you can all but see the dust settling on the cars in the showroom. A lady comes in. Her neighbor has an Explorer and she likes it, so she’s decided to get one as well. “Oh gosh,” she says, “I wanted a red one, and all you have is green. Also, I wanted JBL sound.”

“The green is very popular,” I would reply. “Honestly, I’m surprised we still have it, given the way the Explorers have been selling. And the JBL system isn’t that much better. How about I give you $500 extra on your trade, that way you can have two kinds of green.” Sold! She has a 745 beacon score, so Ford Credit approves her automatically. Eighty minutes after she walked in, she has a new car and I’m one sale closer to meeting my quota, with a net out to me of about $375. As Daniel Day-Lewis says in There Will Be Blood … “That’s a deal. What’s next?”

What’s next is a young man coming off his shift at a local call center. Drives up in a quad-headlamp Cavalier sedan. He likes that Mustang GT. It’s the right color, and it’s a stick, which is good because he’d never take an automatic. But it isn’t quite the Mustang he wants, because he doesn’t want a GT. He wants the Mustang GTS, a one-year special with no spoiler, less equipment, and a lower price tag. Luckily, I know how to handle this, or at least I think I do. I can dig into our holdback and split the price difference between the cars. Give him the nicer GT for almost the same cost as the GTS. But it’s not price. He wants a GTS. Because the magazines told him it was “the driver’s choice.” Nothing else will do. So I call around. There’s one GTS in stock among the dealers with whom I trade. It’s yellow. He doesn’t want yellow. He wants Rio Red.

“Alright, not a problem. Let’s order the car for you. Get it just the way you want it. It will be here in five weeks. Maybe four. And since I’m not using an allocation slot for it, you can have it at invoice.” That’s when we find out that he has a 580 beacon score. My F&I loan guy and I spend five hours finding a bank willing to touch him with a 10-foot pole and a 12-point rate—but then the payment is too high due to all that interest. So he gets his father to co-sign, which takes three dealership visits, one of which is spent selling the Mustang to the dad as well, because the dad wanted him to get a truck, and he thought they’d talked about this, and doesn’t he want a truck? Finally, after perhaps 10 hours spent on the deal, we make the order. Because it’s a “mini-deal,” which is to say at invoice, I get a flat $50 for being an order-taker. Could have made more money flipping burgers.

Except that 50 bucks isn’t in my pocket yet. Three weeks later, after our order is in build status at the factory, the kid calls me, makes some inane small talk while I expectantly tap the business end of my father’s old 18K-plated Cross pen on the glass top of my desk, then haltingly tells me that he bought a blue automatic GT from another dealer because he got excited about having a Mustang and just couldn’t wait. Not all is lost. I have a thousand dollars of his money, required up front so we could place the order, and I can use it to discount the Mustang in next weekend’s newspaper ad for $16,995, under invoice and certain to pull a buyer.

Then the father shows up with a copy of the Ohio Revised Code in which it clearly states that we can’t take non-refundable deposits. So we give the dad the deposit money back. The car shows up three weeks later and sits on the showroom for five months because everybody who comes in to see it wants a yellow GTS, because yellow was the special color on the GTS and only an idiot would get the GTS in any color but the special one. Eventually we trade the Mustang to another dealer that really wants the F-350 4×4 build slot we’d just gotten an allocation for after six months of begging.

In the next morning’s team meeting, the sales manager, who is furious at losing the profitable F-350 slot but who also needed to get rid of the Mustang because it had too much floorplan interest on the books (more on this another time), will allow himself to publicly rage at me for 25 seconds while the rest of the sales staff looks at the ceiling of the old Burger King that serves as our used-car office. He chooses this precise length of time because last time he went for 30 seconds and I hit him in the mouth with a shrink-wrapped pack of 25 brochures for the 1995 Ford Aspire, so he’s identified 25 seconds as the maximum humiliation I’ll accept. Later on that day, when no one is watching, I will park a Medium Willow Green Explorer in such a fashion as to block in his convertible Mustang GT “demo” just before leaving for the day, and I will put the keys to the Explorer in the service writer’s kiosk, knowing it will take him half an hour to find them.

You get the idea. I’ve seen this same scenario play out everywhere from buy-here-pay-here lots to glossy Rolls-Royce authorized dealerships. What is the nature of the enthusiast? Why, that he is enthusiastic. This means that he is not willing to accept something that does not stir his enthusiasm. He’s not in the market for just any old Mustang. He is in the market for a very specific Mustang. Or Porsche, or Ferrari, or Corvette.

Did you know that Honda spent over a decade offering a deliberately limited selection of colors on stick-shift variants of its cars? The automotive press, most of whom have never been in a new-car dealership because they’re too poor to buy a new car and too lazy to ever try selling one, said it was because Honda was trying to simplify production, or because Honda hated enthusiasts, or something like that. Not true. It was done at the request of the dealers, via the dealer council, for the most obvious of reasons.

The buyer for an automatic Accord Sport might want green, but he’ll take another color if that’s what you have in stock. He just doesn’t care that much. The stick-shift Accord Sport buyer is a totally different creature. He will only take one color. So you offer the automatic car in nine colors, knowing it doesn’t really matter that much, and you offer the stick-shift car in three colors, because that gives you a one-in-three chance of actually getting this extremely picky person’s business.

The enthusiast might gripe about Honda offering just three colors, but if Honda offered nine colors he’d be mathematically certain to want a color that no local dealer has. And here’s the thing about enthusiasts; when they can’t have exactly what they want, they will often go hugely off-script and buy something totally random, at which point the manufacturer’s whole rationale for building something difficult and limited-volume evaporates. If I had a dollar for every customer I’d ever known who had an ultra-precise spec list for a particular car but who then wandered off and bought an F-150 on a whim instead, I wouldn’t need to write this column every week, because I would be on my 110-meter Feadship yacht, named No Better Than A Sea Student.

On a macro scale, I think this is the problem that has faced Toyota these past few years. They knew they had enthusiast customers, so they whipped up a pair of GT cars to serve their needs. Problem is, the small one’s a Subaru and the big one’s a BMW. This sort of badge engineering never hurts a non-enthusiast product—how many people bought the original Honda Passport, never expressing even a hint of curiosity about the fact that it precisely resembled an Isuzu Rodeo?—but it’s fatal to enthusiast cars.

Now, there was a time when Toyota sold two rip-snorting, homegrown enthusiast cars: the 2550-pound, 190-horse Celica GT-S and the almighty fourth-generation Supra. They were showroom poison, both of them, because the Celica was slower than a Mustang and the Supra was more expensive than a Corvette. The enthusiasts can be very picky. It’s safer to just add another SUV to your existing lineup and watch it print money.

There is a way to make a buck on the enthusiast, however. It’s simple. Just give them everything they could possibly want. All the engines, all the transmissions, all the colors, a million combinations. Serve them with a whole heart and accept all the consequences, from a factory that runs slow to a dealer floorplan that accumulates unsold inventory the way a three-master picks up barnacles. There’s only one vehicle in America using that model, and it’s the Dodge Challenger. I think there are more possible Challenger configurations than there are stars in the sky. If you told me I could only own five cars, and they would all be Challengers, I think I could come up with five genuinely different vehicles, all fit for a particular purpose.

Obviously, the Challenger is and has long been a complete success for Chrysler. So maybe my advice is wrong. It’s not building for the enthusiasts that causes you trouble; it’s building for the enthusiasts and doing a half-hearted job of it. That’s also true for dealers. If you’re going to sell Mustangs, make sure you have 50 of them in stock, not three. Don’t blame the product for low sales when you’re unwilling to support the product.

Ford’s recent decision to have standalone “Bronco stores” makes me hope that you’ll be able to go to one of these franchises and find all the good Broncos there. You know: the stick-shift short-wheelbase specials, the Bronco Sport Badlands editions with the cool wheels. Stores like that don’t just cater to enthusiasts; they make enthusiasts out of regular buyers. Is that good for business? After watching people pay well over 100 grand for Dodge Demons, which are uncomfortably close to $4999 Dodge Challenger V-6s from 13 years ago in almost every way, I’d say the answer is … a qualified yes!

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