Route 66 Chronicles: Marketing to the Inner Child

Buick Cielo concept, 1999

Buick Cielo concept, 1999

From its inception, the American people more often than not have chosen practicality and value for the dollar, reluctantly, over flash when purchasing an automobile. A Corvette may look sharp on the highway, but legalities prevent driving it faster than a mini van, and it is not conducive to quality time with the family having the kids strapped to the luggage rack.

Manufacturers will often use gadgets to allow the consumer to deceive himself or herself into believing the econo-box is a luxury or sports car. Still, power windows, surround sound and navigational systems may make that KIA feel luxurious, but at its heart, it is merely a practical mode of transport.

Tapping in to the inner child has long been an integral component in automobile marketing. The hope is that these low production specialty vehicles will result in sales of more practical vehicles and ensure the company name is well recognized as well as provide a goal for the aspiring consumer. Modern examples would be the Dodge Viper and Chevrolet Corvette.

The most successful endeavors have always been those vehicles that massaged the consumer's ego with show and left the door open for the addition of "go" components. An example of this would be the first generation Mustang that in reality was little more than a sporty Falcon.

With well-conceived promotion, the consumer sold themselves on the sporty merits of the vehicle even if there was but a lowly six-cylinder engine under the hood. Another important aspect in the promotion and sale of this type of vehicle is rivalry; convincing the buyer that a Mustang is better than a Camaro.

Then there are those sporty automobiles that have flash and go as well as a lofty price tag that places them squarely in the realm of mere dreams for the average person. These are the vehicles marketed toward the adult willing to unleash the inner-child. These ideas are not new as they date to the infancy of the automobile. In fact, rivalry plus style plus go in the teens equaled one of the greatest corporate feuds in American automotive history.

The first Mercer, the Model 30-C speedster, made its debut in 1910 and immediately caught the attention of every man in a mid-life crisis with money and every car-crazed youth. Low slung and fast with styling that presented an illusion of speed - even when parked - put the Mercer in a league of its own, but only for a short time.

It was a year later that the Stutz first appeared on the world stage. Harry Stutz of Indianapolis had been involved with a number of automotive-related endeavors, but the dream had been to build a car of his own design. With the announcement a 500-mile race would be the highlight of a celebration of the paving of the Indianapolis Speedway with bricks, Stutz decided this was the moment he had been waiting for.

In just five weeks, his car was complete and ready to roll. As there was no time for extensive testing, he simply chose to take the car directly to the track where his friend, Gil Anderson, drove it to an 11th-place finish without mechanical failure. Stutz promoted his new vehicle as "The Car That Made Good in a Day." But there was more to that now legendary race than the proving of Harry Stutz's abilities to design and build a durable automobile; tenth place was claimed by a Mercer, and a rivalry that would last for almost a decade, was launched.

By early spring of 1912, Harry's Ideal Motor Car Company (this would merge with his auto parts business in 1913 to form Stutz Motor Car Company) was producing two series of vehicles. Both were durable and even stylish, but the stripped-to-the-bare-bones Bearcat sport model was the one that was a promotional coup for the company.

At the same time, just as Mercer's star was rising, tragedy struck the company. Washington A. Roebling II, the dynamo behind most every aspect of the company, was returning from England on another marvel of the age, the H.M.S. Titanic, when it struck an iceberg and sank beneath the icy waters of the north Atlantic. Roebling was just one of many celebrity casualties.

Among the many contributions he had made to the company was the assistance in design and the introduction of the Model 35 Mercer Raceabout. As with the Bearcat, these cars were Spartan, with styling that exuded speed, and as with the primary competitor, the Raceabout represented innovative technologies in handling and as well as performance.

In 1911, a Raceabout, entered in six of the most prestigious races, walked away with five first-place finishes. Moreover, in Columbus, Ohio, Spencer Wishart drove one from the dealer's showroom floor to the track for a 200-mile race in which he shattered almost all dirt-track records.

The Mercer would be refined and improved in the years that followed. Oddly enough, the Bearcat would receive but superficial changes and mechanical innovations added to old ideas.

In 1918, the Bearcat still featured right-hand drive and exterior-mounted shift. The 1917 model featured a windshield and 16-valve four-cylinder engine that with the exception of valve configuration was the same engine as in the 1912 models.

The rivalry between the two companies would continue until 1918 when both companies were under new management who brought a new vision and direction. The legacy of this fierce competition lingers today, but sadly, the cars themselves as well the story behind the names have largely been lost to the mists of time.

The American auto industry may have fallen from dominance, but its myriad of contributions is manifest in numerous facets. Among these are the marketing of vehicles to the inner-child in all of us.

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Jim Hinckley is an associate editor with Cars & Parts magazine. In addition, he is the author of five books and more than 1,000 feature articles for periodicals including Route 66, Classic Auto Restorer, American Road, Hemmings Classic Car, Special Interest Autos, Old Cars Weekly, and True West. He also maintains a daily blog, Route 66 Chronicles - www.route66chronicles.blogspot.com

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Recommended reading on similar topics

"American Automobile Advertising, 1930-1980: An Illustrated History" by Heon Stevenson; 294 pages; 282 photos; 978-0-7864-3685-9; McFarland Publishing; www.mcfarlandpub.com; 800-253-2187

"Dodge Challenger/Plymouth Barracuda: Chrysler's Potent Pony Cars" by Peter Grist; 196 pages; 375 photos; 978-1-845841-05-8; Veloce Publishing; www.veloce.co.uk

"The Big Book of Car Culture" by Jon Robinson & Jim Hinckley; 315 pages; more than 700 illustrations and photos; 978-0-7603-1965-9; Motorbookswww.motorbooks.com; 800-826-6600