It Drives Me Crazy When Sales And Marketing People Call Cars 'Units'

Photo: Ford
Photo: Ford

Car companies and industry analysts often refer to cars as “units” when discussing things like monthly sales, assembly plant capacities and dealer inventories. It is the most boring, emotionless term ever used to describe automobiles, and I can’t stand it.

During a recent presentation for a new vehicle launch, a brand manager stepped up to the podium and started spouting out sales figures: “This month, we’ve sold 30,000 units, which means we’re on track to sell over 300,000 units by the end of the year.” Everyone else clapped, but I just felt odd. What were we talking about, here? Dishwashers or automobiles?

To be sure, I totally get that “units” is a business term, and maybe I’m just being overly sensitive, here. But how hard would it be to just say “30,000 Ford Mustangs” (for example) or “30,000 sports coupes”? To me, calling something as soulful and culturally important as an automobile a “unit” just seems out of touch. Plus, it makes the company look like a bunch of bean counters.

Photo: benoded/Ebay
Photo: benoded/Ebay

If you’re selling washers, driers, refrigerators or toasters, then sure, go right ahead. Those are just detached, purely-functional machines with no real depth. But you see that Austin Healey Sprite in the picture above? Calling that a “unit” is like calling a puppy a “unit”—it’s just wrong on so many levels.

Maybe my obsession with cars is getting the best of me, here, but I just can’t get on board with calling the greatest machines on earth merely “units.” It degrades cars’ importance, and puts them in the same category as appliances. And that’s just not OK.

Sr. Tech Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from engineers—email me. Cars: Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94), Chrysler Voyager Diesel ('94)

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Arguments about the language we use to describe particular elements of Western physical culture, are really arguments about the symbolic and ritualistic significance of those items.

Cars have a very large and historically interesting place in contemporary Western culture, so it’s inevitable that disagreements will crop up about the appropriate use of language, as signifiers for their symbolic and ritualistic importance in the average American’s psyche.

While it’s true that the automobile’s primary function is simple transportation, if that were their only function, then there would be no Bentleys or Alfa Romeos.

What then, is the appropriate appellation for an automobile?

Obviously, that depends on the context of the discussion. It is totally appropriate to use the term ‘unit’ when we are discussing the business of production and sales, because that is the aspect of any saleable item, which is of the most pertinence to those doing the production and sales. Unit cost and other derivative functions depend upon this perspective.

On the other hand, for those who fetishize the symbol of The Car, for whatever reason, such descriptions are entirely inadequate to signify the importance of their car to them, personally. These discussions are laden with emotional content, and other subtle qualities, completely divorced from the primary function of the automobile as a machine of personal transport.

It is this dichotomy that leads to the disagreement.