The Random Griffith

Apple 2010 = Fiat 1983?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jackson Griffith on 11/03/2010

Fiat is back. According to various car porn mags and websites, along with product announcements from Chrysler, Fiat’s new American subsidiary, by the end of the year, the Fiat Nuevo Cinquecento, a sizzling microcar that’s been tearing up roads in Europe and elsewhere, will begin showing up in Chrysler showrooms.

Fiat has transformed itself in the past decade, although most American motorists who don’t travel abroad would be blissfully unaware of that metamorphosis. That’s because, in 1984, Fiat — or FIAT, as it was known back then, an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or Italian Automobile Factory, Turin — ignominiously staggered out of the American market, or got run out on a rail, the victim of cars that often looked great (like the beautiful Pininfarina-bodied 124 Sport Spider and Coupe) and were well designed, but spent way too much time with the mechanic and not enough time on the road, and whose bodies tended to rust over time. The FIAT acronym had gained an alternative translation that it couldn’t shake: “Fix It Again, Tony.”

Two years after getting the bum’s rush out of America, Fiat acquired Alfa Romeo (Alfa’s an acronym for Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or Lombard Automobile Manufacturing Public Company, for you geeks like me), and in less than a decade, Alfa exited the American market, its tail between its legs, for the same reason its parent company left: more reliable products from German and Japanese manufacturers made it impossible to sell Italian-made cars here. While smaller-volume luxury manufacturers like Ferrari and Maserati, both controlled by Fiat, stayed, along with Fiat-owned truckmaker Iveco, Alfa joined Fiat and its upmarket brand Lancia in the ranks of car marques you no longer could find in American showrooms, despite the support of a dedicated cadre of enthusiasts.

Why am I going on about Fiat? Because there’s another manufacturer doing business in America whose products are very well designed, but whose quality problems — and this is just my own anecdotal evidence, based on my ownership of one MacBook and two iPods — are about to eclipse its aesthetic superiorities, at least to me. Like Fiat, it’s headquartered in a town ending with the letter “o,” although Cupertino is a city in California, not Italy’s Piedmont (that said, a Piedmont district can be found not far from Cupertino, up the bay in Oakland, if you’re obsessed with those bong-roasting, chinbeard-fingering similarities).

Of course, I’m talking about Apple.

In discussing my recent troubles with another Mac owner, she voiced similar concerns. Her opinion on why Apple’s quality has gone south centered around its move away from manufacturing its products outside of America — specifically, a shift to China. I’ve only owned this Chinese-made MacBook and a couple of Chinese-made iPods, but I can say that, based on my experience with these particular products, I would have to concur. They’re shoddily made. The fit and finish are there, although the top of my MacBook flaked apart around the edges like a cheap plastic Japanese toy circa 1962, but the durability apparently isn’t. Two years from a computer I paid $1,500 or so at the end of 2007 is, from my point of view, a consumer ripoff of Brobdingnagian proportions.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Chinese manufacturing quality is coming up, but it may be a few years off before we see Chinese (and Indian, and Malaysian) carmakers competing effectively with their Asian, American and European counterparts. In the late 1950s, when my dad sold cars, we briefly owned a Toyopet Crown, the car Toyota made its debut in America with, and it was a junk knockoff of a British Hillman Minx, no stellar automobile itself. “Made in Japan” was code for cheap, shoddily made junk. By the 1970s, though, the Japanese had ironed out their quality problems (well, Toyota appears to be nostalgically channeling its Toyopet-era quality problems lately) and they began their long march toward displacing American and European carmakers with better-made goods. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have considered a Korean car, but today the Hyundai-Kia juggernaut probably offers the best car value on the market, and it’s building some exciting machines. Perhaps Chery or Geely (which just bought Swedish carmaker Volvo from Ford) will one day sell cars in America whose quality rivals or surpasses the Japanese, the Koreans and the resurgent Americans, but today? No. Not there yet.

Quality can go the other way, too. Most of the Volkswagen-marque products sold in America are manufactured in Mexico, and VW has a pretty awful reputation for quality cars, despite some beautiful designs. But Volkswagen A.G.’s upmarket subsidiaries Audi and Porsche (along with specialty makes Bentley and Lamborghini) are built in Europe, and they don’t have the tarnished quality reputation that North American Volkswagens do.

The point is that beautiful design and intuitive function can only get you so far. If the stuff you’re selling isn’t durable, if word starts getting around that your beautifully designed and ergonomically superior products don’t last all that long — even though you’re charging a premium price based on a halo effect bestowed by your cult following — then it’s only common sense that, over time, you’re going to see that halo effect diminish, and all those tumescent business-press stories about Apple being “the world’s most admired company” will be found filed under “what the hell were we thinking — or smoking?”

So, Mr. Steve Jobs, here’s your reading assignment: Fiat’s history in America. Because Apple’s headed there, and it’s taken Fiat over a quarter century to get back. —Jackson Griffith


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