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Automobility: The Secrets of Their Success

From the July/August 2008 Issue

The most popular cars of all time share more than the road.

What’s the best-selling car of all time? I took an informal poll recently and made it a point to ask some people who are real car buffs. I got some interesting answers. One person said 1957 Chevy. Two people guessed Ford Mustang. Another thought it was Volkswagen’s beloved and iconic Beetle. Still another guessed the best seller was the Model T Ford. Someone came up with yet another Ford product, the once ubiquitous Taurus. Two people guessed the best seller had to be the Toyota Camry, because, as one of them said, “You see’em all over the place.”

Well, the answer is none of the above.

The closest guessers came up with the Beetle and the Model T. Both of these cars rank among the highest in sales. But no, the best-selling car of all time is the Toyota Corolla. That’s right, the nondescript compact Corolla, a sort of automotive wallflower introduced in 1968, has notched over 32 million sales around the world. And the figure keeps climbing.

The second-best seller is not a car at all. It’s the Ford F series pickup truck, which has been around in various iterations since 1948. The F series has sold somewhere close to the Corolla figure (some estimates actually put it higher). But F series figures should probably be “asterisked” because the trucks range from the normal F-150 pickup to several larger heavy-duty models that some would say are different vehicles entirely. It is significant that these trucks have achieved a worldwide sales ranking while selling almost exclusively in the U.S. market. Americans love their pickups. And Ford’s “classic” pickup, the F-150, continues to be the best-selling vehicle in the United States year after year.

The third-best seller is a Volkswagen, but not the Beetle. It’s the Golf (sold originally in the United States as the Rabbit). Since its introduction in 1974 this versatile hatchback successor to the fabled Beetle has racked up more than 25 million in sales.

Perennial sales performers combine affordability, dependability, and quality with a special something that catches and keeps the broad mass of car buyers.

In fourth place is the Beetle itself, with about 22 million total sales. Fifth place goes to the Ford Escort, built from 1968 to 2003, with more than 20 million sales. But the case can be made that the Escort has been several cars over the generations, sold under the same badge. And the immensely popular Honda Civic, the Corolla’s main rival, is now nearing 18 million and certain to surpass the Escort. Introduced in 1972, it has already outdistanced one of the hardiest performers in automotive history, the Model T Ford; 16.5 million of the beloved “Tin Lizzies” were sold between 1908 and 1927.

What is the secret of these cars? What made and still makes some of them such perennial sales performers? None can be called “the best car in the world,” but all have proven themselves the best cars in the market. They combine affordability, dependability, and dollar-for-dollar quality with a special something—call it aura, call it mystique, call it simply value—that catches and keeps the broad mass of car buyers.

Before we examine the keys to Corolla’s success, we must take a look at the two most exceptional of these all-time sales leaders, the Model T Ford and the Volkswagen Beetle. Both became legends in their own time, and both combined all the best-selling “secrets” in single, recognizable models that endured, essentially unchanged in basic shape and engineering schematics, through all the years they were sold. The Model T coined the concept of a “people’s car” and the Beetle literally put a name to that concept while taking it to new heights in a much larger and more mature auto-buying market.

Much will be written and said about the Model T in this its 100th anniversary year, but historian Walter J. Boyne captured the essence of the “T” when he compared it to one of the greatest cars of all time, the mythic Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost of 1906 to 1926. Rolls-Royce, Boyne wrote, “sought to find the very best way to build the most durable and best-performing car for those who could afford it; [Henry] Ford sought to make a good automobile affordable to the greatest number of people.”

The Model T was simple, nimble, durable—made of the most advanced materials of its time, such as vanadium alloy steel. Like all cars of its day it required a lot of maintenance, but compared to more high-strung and expensive cars, it was forgiving of abuse and easily repairable.

The Model T was good. But of greater importance, it was “good enough.” Good enough to underprice and outshine hundreds of competitors in what was at first a sellers’ market. Good enough, despite its spare design, to attract a surprisingly discriminating public seized with a growing automotive hunger.

A huge and undeniable element of the T’s popularity was its affordability. As sales volume rose and production techniques were honed, the car’s price dropped, even as it was constantly improved (electric lights 1915, electric horn 1917, electric starter 1919, balloon tires 1925). When the Model T was introduced in 1908 the touring car cost $850. When production ended in June 1927, the touring car, modestly “streamlined” and with many mechanical improvements, cost $380. By the early 1920s half the cars in the world were Model Ts. It was the first car to achieve a million, then 5 million, 10 million, and 15 million in sales.

The doors fit so well and the passenger cabin was so tightly sealed that it was hard to close the door on a friend’s 1955 VW unless you cracked a window to relieve the air pressure.

As for the Volkswagen Beetle, born out of the design of Ferdinand Porsche and the  dreams of Adolf Hitler, few cars have had a rougher road to public acceptance. Talk about stigma! It was the German Führer who gave the car its name—Volks (people’s) Wagen (vehicle or car).

At the end of World War II, British occupation forces in Germany permitted production of the little car in its bomb-damaged factory in 1945 as part of an attempt to get Germans settled and back to work. They sent a VW back to England for evaluation. A royal commission headed by auto magnate Sir William Rootes studied the car and concluded that, although “the vehicle does meet the fundamental technical requirements of a motorcar,” it was in the end “quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer. It is too ugly and too noisy.”

The commission concluded that “to build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.” The British offered the factory, Beetle designs, and stamping machinery to Ford Motor Co. free of charge. Maybe they could make something of it. Henry Ford II, who had taken over as chairman from his father, asked his president, Ernest R. Breech, for an opinion. “Mr. Ford,” he said, “I don’t think what we are being offered here is worth a damn.”

So British occupation authorities shopped around for someone to run the VW plant. In Hamburg they found a young mechanical engineer named Heinz Nordhoff, who had run an Opel truck factory during the war but was now running a small auto repair shop.

Nordhoff jumped at the chance to head the VW factory although he despised the “repulsive Porsche invention” he was supposed to build. But as he studied the little car with an honest engineer’s eye, he grudgingly came to admit that it was “an extraordinarily amazing automobile with a special personality [and] unlimited possibilities.” Shortly after taking over in Wolfsburg, Nordhoff declared, “It is my life’s aim to make this plant into the greatest car factory in Europe.”

He knew that the Beetle was not a perfect car. It was a minimal car—a two-door with very little luggage space and a feeble air-cooled engine.

But Nordhoff and the men around him saw the opportunity for perfecting the imperfect, for creating a whole much greater than its parts. They built the little cars very meticulously. No random quality checks; every car was subjected to a 115-point inspection. The upholstery may have been Spartan but it fit perfectly and the seams were straight. The four coats of paint were carefully applied to achieve a glossy and durable finish. Little touches, like the minimal chrome trim or the fit of the door handles, were done with perfect alignment. Nothing rattled. The doors fit so well and the passenger cabin was so tightly sealed that I still remember how hard it was to close the door on my friend’s 1955 VW unless you cracked one of the windows to relieve the air pressure.

While the Model T and the VW Bug are the stuff of song and story, the car that has far outsold them gets virtually no respect.

When Beetles began to trickle into the United States and Great Britain in the early 1950s, brought home by servicemen returning from duty, they were looked on at best as odd souvenirs; at worst as “Hitler’s car.” But the appeal of the little “Bug” was infectious and the quality was abundantly apparent—in a car that by the late ’50s cost only $1500. In the auto world of that day, the VW was different. It was cute, rugged, and reliable. The little, short-stroke, relatively slow-revving four-cylinder engine permitted the car to cruise endlessly at 70 miles per hour or better and still get well over 30 miles to the gallon.

Its quirks became it. The odd sound of its horn and its engine became part of its charm.

Despite its famous and infuriating shortcomings—a notoriously pathetic heater, for one—the Bug stole the public’s heart. By 1954, Volkswagen was the fourth largest automaker in the world behind Detroit’s Big Three. By 1972, the Beetle had surpassed the Model T in sales. By the time it finally went out of production in 2003, it had sold 5 million more than the Model T. And like the Model T, it had become an icon of value and reliability. 

While the Model T and the VW Bug are the stuff of song and story, the car that has far outsold them gets virtually no respect. The Toyota Corolla has no mystique about it. Its aura is simply its value. You really have to stop and think about Corollas or you just don’t notice how many of them are around. This is the slightly rumpled white four-door on the street in Beirut or Mumbai or Montevideo. This is the car with the duct tape over the crack in the rear window that got someone through college or nursing school and several jobs.

Introduced in the United States in 1968, the Corolla was a homely little coupe or sedan; 60 horsepower, rear-wheel drive, stick shift. It was priced around $1,700 and it looked it. But it didn’t rattle. It had few exotic parts to break down. In fact, you could beat the hell out of it and it kept going.

As the car has evolved over the generations—mainly as a sedan but also through various coupe and station wagon iterations—it has kept its Toyota bloodlines and remained true to its rather conservative virtues. One review of the newest Corolla notes that while its kickier rivals the Honda Civic and Mazda 3 “are the running shoes of the compact class, think of the Corolla as a nice pair of brown wingtips.”

The Corolla is not everything to everybody, but it is a lot for most people. While the Model T and the VW can truly be thought of as “fabled” cars, the Corolla is a best seller for a simple, unglamorous but compelling reason. It has incorporated dollar-for-dollar quality into a car for that great mass of people who want a car and need a car, but don’t want to think (or worry) about it.

The price of the Corolla has grown considerably over the years and now ranges between $15,000 and $20,000. Some rivals, like the Hyundai Elantra, are much cheaper ($13,000 to $17,000). But Toyota knows Corolla can sell past its price. And besides, if cost alone were the decider, Crosleys and Yugos would be the world sales leaders.

The Corolla eloquently illustrates that best-selling cars are not cars for enthusiasts (although some enthusiast cars, like the Mazda Miata, sell well). Sometimes, as in the case of the VW Beetle, they may engender real affection. But generally their appeal is simply their utility. There are millions of people who love cars. There are many more millions who love what cars do. For these millions of people—whose pulse does not quicken at the sound of a husky exhaust note or the certain chamfer of a hood or fender—best sellers like the Corolla keep selling because they deliver dependable transportation at a fair price.

Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for THE AMERICAN. He last wrote for the magazine about a new generation of clean diesel cars.

Image by Owak/ Kulla/ Corbis.

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