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The role of car journalists in the demise of Ford manufacturing

Did they do their job?

by Julian Edgar

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A version of this story first appeared on the ABC website The Drum.

I wonder about the role that car journalists should play, especially in helping set directions that car manufacturers choose to take.

Of course, the success or failure of a particular car model will be based on its sales, not what all (or any) journalists think and write of it. But there is a more subtle point here. 

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Think of the role of journalists and the demise of the Australian Ford FG Falcon. 

(For those not following, the car has sold so poorly in Australia that Ford has decided to cease manufacturing any cars here.)

No-one can know the following but I wonder… 

If, when the FG Falcon had been released, there had been widespread media analysis that the FG was the wrong car for the times and would not sell well, would Ford have made changes to the car more rapidly? Would they had seen their miscalculation and shuffled resources so they could be better spent on what would actually cause the car to sell?

I say that because I have seen how car companies pore over media reports to assess how the car is being accepted. If Ford believed the FG to be a great car, as apparently they did, then those beliefs would have been confirmed by the prevailing media messages. 

On the other hand, in the past there have been cars that were released to universal poor media reports, and in those cases manufacturers have tended to react very quickly by making changes to address these concerns.

In addition, if the media coverage had been universally condemning, the Australian Government would have been more alert to the fact that they were putting money - lots of money - into a process that was unlikely to succeed. Political pressure would have grown far earlier that Ford should be investing money in changes and developments that would be much more likely to succeed in the Australian marketplace (so not, for example, spending our money on putting the turbo engine into the Territory). 

There would have been a broader societal - political and economic - focus on the product line decision-making occurring at Ford.  

I think in that situation, Ford would have moved swiftly in making changes.

To put this another way, I think the uncritical acceptance by the motoring media of the FG Falcon played a part in the demise of Ford manufacturing in Australia. 

So why did no-one in the Australian motoring media say that the FG Falcon was a stupid move for Ford to take? Why did they all say it was a wonderful advance?

I think that there are three main reasons.

The first is that the journalists made their assessments in far too small a frame of reference. They made comparisons of the car to (a) the previous model, and (b) the traditional opposition car, the Holden Commodore. 

Let’s take each at a time.

Making a comparison to the previous model worked when in fact many people were staying within the Falcon family, upgrading their car as the next model came out. The buyer who had always owned Falcons was excited and interested if the steering was assessed as being better than the previous model, or the handling or the interior gadgets were better than the previous model. 

But of course, no-one else cared less about that – their frame of reference wasn’t the previous model.

The same applied to the comparison with the Commodore. If people were choosing only between those two cars, knowing which was better made sense. But if people were looking at neither the Falcon nor the Commodore, again it was an irrelevant comparison.

In this case, where the Falcon and Commodore had dropped in sales to a staggering degree over ten years, the comparisons that journalists should have been making was to cars that were growing in popularity. What, actually, did the Falcon offer a buyer compared with a Mazda 3?

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The second major reason that the media acclaim of the FG was so misplaced was that journalists were responding to the car, not to what the car had to achieve for Ford. There is no dilemma here: it’s quite possible to say that the FG Falcon was a good car in X, Y and Z characteristics – but these were not the characteristics that the public was looking for, so the car’s direction was misplaced. 

There are easy media avenues to achieve this – a straight up and down road test of the car on its merits, and an opinion piece that used the expertise and understanding of the motoring journalist to suggest that the Falcon was going to sell badly.

So why didn’t journalists take that approach? Here it’s hard not to be cynical. They wanted to retain easy access to Ford press cars, to Ford PR – to the gravy train. Their editors told them that they could write no such thing because the publication would lose advertising dollars. They were so close to Ford that they didn’t want to offend their mates who work in the company. You pick.

The third reason for the lack of critical analysis is that journalists didn’t think on a broad, societal level. By the time the Falcon was released, Falcon sales had been on a strong downward trend for years. 

Why was this occurring? There are many reasons. 

At the time, the Toyota Prius had been released for nearly a decade – a car that changed the direction of virtually every car manufacturer in the world, so having a lasting and ongoing impact on people’s psyche regarding car efficiency and engineering direction. (A decade ago who would have believed that Toyota hybrids would be now so widespread in Australian taxi fleets?) 

Long distance travel within Australia, once the province of the car, was (and is) almost universally done via cheap air flights. People have greater wealth and recreation time, so they want their cars to perform multiple purposes on different days – carrying five people one day, but the next day lugging home goods from the hardware store. There has been a change in what is regarded as being acceptable driving behaviour on roads – driving fast has become socially disparaged. 

Within this societal context, the FG Falcon with its lack of seating flexibility, poor fuel economy, long distance ability and emphasis on performance and handling was out of step with the times. But these thoughts would occur only if you looked at what the times actually were. No journalist did. 

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But isn’t this just a rehashing of history? No – because it could happen all over again. 

Holden has just released the VF Commodore. And it looks just the same mistake in direction that Ford made with the FG. Commodore sales are plummeting. The fall in sales parallels Ford Falcon’s plunge – it is just yet to go as low. 

It is bleeding obvious that doing another Commodore that is like the previous model - but just a bit better - will not cut it.

Will motoring journalists call the VF Commodore for what it is? A likely good car in isolation, but a car that will also continue Commodore’s downwards trend to oblivion…

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