My hobby is building small airplanes and one of my favorites is a Davis DA-2A, winner of the Outstanding New Design contest in 1966, the same year my Oldsmobile (and my current Thunderbird convertible) was built. That little Davis can teach us a lot about cars.
I didn’t build my DA-2A, but I am rebuilding it right now and know it intimately. My Davis is an all-aluminum two-seater with an 85-horsepower engine. The engine was built in 1946, the plane in 1982, and the whole thing cost under $4,000 at the time, though today I have more than that invested in the instrument panel alone. The plane weighs 625 lbs. empty, 1125 lbs. loaded, has a top speed of 140 miles per hour and can travel about 600 miles on its 24-gallon fuel tank.
Why can’t I buy a car like that?
Imagine if we took the basic design parameters of my DA-2A and applied them to a modern automobile. The new design would have to carry two people and luggage, have an empty weight of no more than 625 lbs. and use an 85-horsepower engine. With a loaded weight of 1125 lbs., the car would have a power-to-weight ratio comparable to a Chevy Corvette and be just as quick — probably even faster than the airplane’s 140 mph. Driven only 20 percent over posted speed limits as God intended, the car would easily get 50+ miles per gallon.
Who wouldn’t want to buy one?
Sounds promising…and different then the Detroit approach.
Here’s the kicker:
Bicycles are different. Bicycle buyers, whether they are conscious of their behavior or not, try to pay the MOST per pound rather than the least. A lighter bike is always a better bike and a more expensive bike. Cheap bikes from Wal-Mart tend to cost about $2 per pound, nice bikes from a bike shop cost about $20 per pound, and top-of-the-line racing bikes cost about $200 per pound which, interestingly, is about the same per-pound cost as a top-of-the-line Ferrari or Aston-Martin.
So the trick to turning around the U.S. auto industry is to make car buyers adopt the values of bicycle buyers, which implies the willingness to pay $20 per pound of final product. The way to achieve that goal is by building cars that are both affordable at $20 per pound and EXCITING TO DRIVE.
Under this formula, the car version of my DA-2A would cost $12,500, making it broadly affordable. Yet with 6061 aluminum alloy selling in volume for around $1.60 per pound, there ought to be plenty of profit in there for the companies.
Detroit doesn’t understand that.
No free-ish bailout of the Detroit 3 will makes the executives smarter and make them designand produce better cars.
They need chapter 11 and a heavy hand.