What would happen if an automaker read the comments of Jalopnik and gave you exactly what you wanted? Potentially a costly disaster, a lesson we should have learned from a 23-year-old episode of "The Simpsons."
"The Simpsons," as you know, have been running nonstop on FXX and as the resident Detroit guy, I feel the need to revisit the second-season episode where Homer discovers he's got a long-lost brother, Herbert, in the Motor City — this, after Grampa reveals the family secret after a heart attack.
"Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" first aired February 21, 1991. Early '90s Detroit was, depending on your viewpoint, the worst place in the world or the best. We were at the height of the Bad Boys era when the Detroit Pistons won back-to-back championships. But the lines drawn by white flight had become thick, Devils' Night — the practice of burning abandoned homes around Halloween — was a sad tradition, "Murder Capital" wasn't an uncommon term, and we were at the tail end of Coleman Young's iron-fist rule over the city.
"The Simpsons" view of Detroit leaves out all this, but it does pull back the curtain on the industry that drives its residents. It leaves out some of the devastating effects that the auto industry has had over the region; Chrysler's plans to leave inner-city Highland Park for a new facility half-an-hour away in Auburn Hills in 1992, for example. But the jingoistic tone of the episode, that the American auto industry is king, is spot on.
We first see Herbert Powell (H. Powell as Homer thumbs through the phone book, which has an Indian chief on it for some reason; Detroit always had Yellow Pages) in a large mansion that, according to DVD commentary from producer Al Jean, animators made to look like architect Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Illinois. (It's always perplexed me where in Detroit this home was supposed to be. Wright only designed three homes in the area, none of which resemble Herb's home nor owned by an auto exec.)
Most auto executives by the 1990s were living in the 'burbs. If one were to hazard a guess — the Simpsons family is also seen on Herb's yacht, indicating Herb must live near a pretty big lake — perhaps the Powell estate was meant to be in the Grosse Pointes. (Henry Ford, who had a preference for suburban life, and several other Fords lived there for a time.)
Nowhere in the episode did it mention Detroit's problems and I don't think we should have expected animators to drill down and specify where in the region Powell lived. Yeah, "The Simpsons" would knock on Detroit a few times in the future. But contrast the animated 1991 presentation with what was really going on around that time. Kinda interesting what we saw as a fictionalized "Detroit" back then, right?
(There's one thing that's undeniably Detroit about this episode, and that's when Homer hits a massive pothole on the way to visit Herb. Nailed it.)
Herb is then battling with who we assume to be his board of directors about a new compact car, the "Persephone." It's here we get our first inklings of what it's really like to run an American car company.
"Every day we're losing ground to the Japanese," Herb says, standing in front of a line graph trending downward. Again, consider what was going on in 1991: Toyota had just introduced its third-generation Camry in the States, and it would outsell the Ford Taurus by 1996. GM had downsized its models to copycat midsizes. AMC was still a company when "The Simpsons" was a "Tracey Ullman Show" guest spot; it had disappeared by the time this episode aired.
When the execs — and there's a woman there! — suggest a new compact model named "Persephone" because the Greek goddess was abducted by Hades after stealing pomegranates, Herb angrily retorts that "people don't want cars named after hungry old Greek broads" and instead want names like "Mustang and Cheetah — vicious animals." Let's look at a handful of model names introduced around the early 1990s: Oldsmobile Silhouette, Mitsubishi Diamante, Ford Explorer, Hyundai Scoupe, Toyota Previa. Not a vicious animal in the bunch.
The vicious animals that remained? Well, by 1991, the Mercury Cougar had turned into this. That says it all, doesn't it?
Homer and Herb finally meet for the first time and his family enjoys the spoils of Herb's wealth (including a trip to what I assume is the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak). But when Herb offers Homer a car, baby brother can't find anything he likes. Homer wants a big car with pep, but the executives say they don't have anything big (again, go back to the platform downsizing of the 1980s) and that "Americans want good mileage, not pep."
No argument there; thanks to CAFE standards enacted in the 1970s, mileage ratings had raised from an average of 18 in 1978 to 26.5 in 1989, and up again to 27.5 in 1990. You saw automakers heavily touting mileage ratings in advertising over the years, but you saw the slow death of big V8s (Homer would ask for something like this in the Homer car, which we'll get to soon) and big, heavy frames (Herb remarks here that there's only "40 bucks of steel" in the cars he's making now).
Herb says he'll pay Homer $200,000 a year to come up with a new car, which was fairly conservative. Adjusted for 2013, that's about $337,000 a year; Reid Bigland, who runs Alfa Romeo now, clocks in at $1.5 million. At least Powell Motors was trying to be fiscally responsible? But they likely would have fewer execs to pay if they survived into the carpocalypse and into 2013.
Finally Homer designs the Homer car and asks for a bunch of amenities. (Wired has an excellent breakdown of this; no surprise that Homer was spot on with things we'd actually have in cars later.) The "Homer" is "powerful like a gorilla, yet soft and wielding like a Nerf ball." Stockholders and press (and the Pope!) are invited to the reveal at Powell Motors headquarters, rather than saving the "Homer" for the North American International Auto Show.
It's here that the animators are obviously straying from reality; even in 1991, it would have taken at least a year of R&D to conceptualize this car from start to finish, you'd have to build an all new platform, re-tool at least one factory, contact a bunch of suppliers to get on board, make sure that the dealer council is OK with a new model, and ready a proper auto-show debut. But we've got a long-lost sibling plot to wrap up in a few minutes, so who cares about all that? You know what happens here: The curtain is pulled back, and the audience is shocked. And Herb has no idea that the sticker price of the "Homer" is $82,000.
Eighty-two grand in 1991 is $138,186 in today's money. Back then, it would have outpriced Cadillac's entire lineup (the most expensive model at the time being the Allante convertible at around $55,000) and put it in the same territory as the Mercedes 500SL ($89,500), BMW 750IL ($74,000) and the Porsche 911 ($95,000). It's proof that getting exactly what you want is going to cost you, so when we get something that's close to what we want — hello, Toyobaru twins — there have to be sacrifices made elsewhere in the final build.
If Herb had simply introduced the Homer as a concept car without an intent to build, this catastrophe could have been avoided. Except in "The Simpsons" world, Herb goes bankrupt and Powell Motors is taken over by Kumatsu Motors (a company which would surface in a later episode as the manufacturer of Homer's Mr. Plow truck). The Japanese won.
In real life, the Japanese didn't win — sorta. Toyota is still eating everyone's lunch, making exactly the kind of cars that the "Harvard deadheads" working at Powell Motors said Americans wanted: Bland with good mileage. But while the animators of "The Simpsons" did foresee a bankrupt American automaker, they probably couldn't have predicted that a company like Powell Motors would be absorbed by an Italian company rather than a Japanese one. Or that Korean automakers would be the real threat, or that American companies would aggressively court Asian countries (and partner with their companies on some products) rather than sticking to the home turf.
"The Simpsons" would revisit automotive territory again and again and get it right sometimes, but nothing taught us more about the biz — and even a little bit about its surroundings — than when we first met Herbert Powell. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" is overlooked in the early "Simpsons" seasons (because all the episodes were so great), but if you had to pick one episode that still holds up over time, here it is.