Ford says it'll build ten variants of its C-platform by 2012. Sounds like a story we've heard before. Let's look at how Ford's platform-sharing compares to a few K-car variants that saved Chrysler's bacon back in the 1980s.
Straight from Wikipedia, here's a synopsis on what the "K-car" was:
Following the 1973 Oil Crisis, compounded by the 1979 Energy Crisis, American consumers began to buy fuel-efficient, low-cost automobiles built in Japan. With the market for large V-8 engined automobiles declining, US domestic auto manufacturers found themselves trying to develop compact vehicles that could compete with the Japanese imports of Toyota, Honda and Nissan in price and finish. Chrysler Corporation's answer to the import pressure was the K platform, which featured an economical 4-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, and utilized many modern weight-reducing measures such as replacing metal styling parts with plastic interior and exterior components.
Basically, Chrysler ended up building over a dozen cars (plus another dozen badge prostituting models) off of this modular and flexible platform. It coined a code to describe all of them — EEK, or Every Extended K. Although the cars were initially very profitable, and Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca credited them with allowing the company to pay off its bankruptcy loans early it wasn't all rose petals and tulips. There were some pitfalls.
Now that Ford's looking to use its new global C platform to build ten vehicles, it's a good time to remind FoMoCo of some of the triumphs as well as tribulations of the all-cars-are-belong-to-one-platform strategy. So with news from Ford today of their reentrance into the minivan segment with a Ford Focus-based C platform people mover — let's look back by way of a former Ford employee — Lee Iacocca.
Dodge Aries/Plymouth Reliant/Chrysler Le Baron vs. Ford Focus
These were the workhorses of the K-car lineup, the volume sellers, the standard bearers. For Lee Iacocca's Chrysler, the original Ks were the no-frills models that sold big and consequently saved the company. For consumers suffering one economic shock after another, they provided reliable, affordable transportation. Sure, they were as spartan as a Romanian hay cart, but under the hood, they were more persistent than the Vietcong. Contrast the Ks with Ford's global Focus, which isn't the econobox it once was, and it may not even turn out to be the biggest seller among Ford's new C-platform variants. But these days the world is a much more complicated place. Ford's got the Fiesta to plumb the depths of the value market. The Focus absolutely must take VW, Toyota and Honda by the lapels and throw them down, one by one, if it wants a piece of their action.
Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager vs. Ford C-Max
The minivan that literally gave birth to all other minivans, as Michael C. Hall emotes in a recent Chrysler commercial. No, these original K-vans didn't literally gestate other vehicles; engineers never did get the K-uterus figured out. Still, these vans they did provide the DNA strands from which all other minivans were figuratively cloned. Ford's C-Max was actually the first European vehicle to ride on the company's C1 platform, which evolved into the current global C-segment platform. With the US getting a version of Europe's MK2 C-Max, Ford will be returning to a genre it abandoned back in 2007 with the demise of the Freestar (Windstar? Aerostar?) But not really, as the C-Max is a compact (like the Mazda 5) powered by a 1.6-liter EcoBoost. It's a field on which the competition for the hearts and minds of young families (i.e., target buyers) is less heated. With enough muscle, Ford could own it, even define it. Not quite to the impact Iacocca once had, but there are worse things than owning a niche, especially if that niche expands.
Dodge Daytona/Chrysler Laser vs. Ford Focus ST
Perhaps no K-car variant masked its upbringing better than Chrysler's Mustang/Camaro competitors. Technically, Chrysler called these cars' chassis G-platform, but no amount of letter-swapping could hide that front-drive comportment. Still, Dodge got lots of mileage out of the Daytona model, which reached its performance apex in 1992 with the Daytona IROC R/T, whose Turbo III version of Chrysler's been-there-done-that DOHC 2.2-liter had direct ignition and a cylinder head designed by Lotus. The IROC Daytona produced 224 horsepower — a high number for the time, and was reportedly the result of Bob Lutz not wanting to be shut down by his old boys at Ford. Compare the top Daytona of the early '90s to the 247-hp Focus ST, which will sport Ford's 2.0-liter turbocharged EcoBoost engine when it arrives here next year. The sub-$30,000 ST will cost far less in adjusted sticker price than that IROC Daytona, considering the Daytona would have been around $40 grand in 2010 bucks. We'll take the ST, but it's the RS we're waiting for (Ford hasn't released official word on a next-gen model). Ford needs to do the right thing here and build a true top-of-mast performance car, if only to hang on to those true enthusiasts who will defend the company against forum trolls. You know who you are.
What Ford can learn from Lee Iacocca: Next time let Iacocca build the minivan instead of letting him take that particular risky concept elsewhere. In other words, keep showing product leadership. Don't cower behind focus-group data.
Too bad Ford's unloaded Aston Martin and Jaguar, but through their lingering associations maybe the company could do a better job than Chrysler did at deriving upmarket models with a little help from their friends.
There's nothing that needs to be said about this K-car variant that hasn't been said before; ill-considered, underpowered, under-luxurious and undersold. There's no analog in Ford's C-platform stable, though imagine a Focus convertible breathed on by Jaguar, and you get the point.
Chrysler's Lamborghini years weren't exactly the most fruitful, as collaborations go. Sure, there was the often-mentioned V10 teamwork to outfit the Viper, but there was an orphaned K-platform car in there too. It was a Daytona powered by the V8 from a Lamborghini Jalpa, dubbed "Decepzione." The possibilities of a Daytona sporting four, twin-barrel 42mm Weber downdraft carbs was too good to be true.