The choice used to be that simple for those of us who came of age in the automobile saturated culture of post-war America – especially the full-bore 1950s, the decade of classic cars and classic rock (neither of which were deemed classic at the time). Ford and Chevrolet were the butter-and-bread choices of Americans 50+ years ago, before the car market got choked up with so many different brands and models – not to mention the infinite variants of those brands and models.
Ford and Chevy were the Big Two, and you could get either one with a radio and without (AM-only), two doors or four, V8 or six, stick shift or automatic and maybe whitewall tires, which were a big deal back then (blackwalls were boring). Same for Dodge and Plymouth, which were perennial also-rans, despite a few years of truly iconic cars (see http://tinyurl.com/moylm9v for my take on Chrysler Corporation’s The Forward Look). Regular folks could – and did – buy mostly Chevys or Fords, both of which “worked hard at winning the hearts of middle class America, including families and farmers,” says long-time marketer (and classic Ford aficionado) Ron Denny. “Both brands stood for family, dependability and value -- an honest day's wage for an honest day's work.”
Those on their way up bought Pontiacs, Buicks, Mercurys or DeSotos – even Chryslers, “but the ultimate statement of affluent arrival was a Cadillac,” notes Denny. “It was the Standard of the World.” With Cadillacs for the well-to-do, Fords and Chevrolets for the everyday folk and steppingstone brands positioned between them on the ladder of desire, it was clear that the auto manufacturers had the car buying hierarchy figured out (thank you Alfred P. Sloan).
“I can understand why a '55 pink and white Crown Vic would smite you,” Denny told me as we exchanged adolescent car experiences. “It was so cool and oozed the glitz and promise of the 1950's – and by the way, the darker pink was called Tropical Rose, the light pink, Coral Mist.”
Of course, we didn’t know Coral Mist from Lustful Pink at fourteen and fifteen. We just wanted to drive THAT CAR and plotted to make it happen (vs. just sitting in the thing and playing the radio).
Soon it became apparent that my friend’s older brother (in his mid ‘20s and still living with his parents) would take a nap some afternoons. But not before exhausting himself with operatic arias. He would wail along with the hi-fi (another object of our envy) while the two of us waited on the screened porch below his bedroom for the guy to sing himself to sleep. Ten minutes after “all quiet” we had filched the keys and opened the door to our dreams.
Not being complete and total dummies, we rolled the car back ‘til it stood in front of the house next door and cranked it up there (presumably out of earshot). However a problem soon surfaced that would cut our maiden voyage short: the Crown Vic had a stick shift, of which we knew the rudiments but lacked the practice. Lurching and cursing, we arrived at our destination in short order: back in front of my friend’s house, where we abandoned our quest, returned the car keys to their hiding place and retreated to the porch to discuss the errors of our way and invent excuses in case older brother had awakened and found us out (he hadn’t, and he didn’t).
Predictably, my first car was a seven-year-old ’55 Ford, a Country Squire station wagon that set me back $350. It had “wood” on the side and was an essential tool for a delivery job I’d taken while figuring out what to do between college and the Army. To this day I can’t see a ’55 and not think of the old Squire, not to mention summer days spent scheming to drive that tantalizing Crown Vic that lived down the street. And while I still prefer Fords from that era, the truth is that more Chevys were sold back then than Fords. Think of the ’55 Bel Air and the classic ‘57s, the first year of Chevy tail fins -- not to mention the Corvette, which prodded Ford to create the T-Bird. My friend Ron reminds me that the T-bird wasn't a true sports car like the Corvette but did usher in a new type of "personal car" that was more luxury than performance oriented. The ‘58 four-seat Thunderbird later begat cars like the Riviera, Mark III, Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, etc. I’ll cede Ron his point, but never again did the T-bird set hearts to racing like the two-seaters of ’55, ’56 and ‘57.
These days, the Ford-Chevy mind battle seems mostly limited to pickups (with a slight tip of the hat to Camaro vs. Mustang). My long-time mechanic is a Chevy man and wouldn’t dream of owning an F-O-R-D, which he says stands for Fix Or Repair Daily (vs. the similar treatment for Chevrolets: Cheap, Hardly Efficient, Virtually Runs On Luck Every Time). And, of course, there are Ford fans who’d sooner walk ten miles without shoes than hitch a ride in a Silverado after their 25-year-old F-150 gives up the ghost on some lonely road. Dodge Ram, interestingly enough, has worked itself in between the Ford-Chevy rivalry and is selling very well.
A new study by IHS Automotive, which provides information and sales forecasts to automotive industry clients, contains good news for both Ford and Chevy. With brands like Nissan, Toyota and Hyundai earning top 10 marks in this quarter’s IHS brand loyalty study – names that could neither have been imagined nor uttered by 1950s America, Chevrolet ranks #5 in brand loyalty (in part because of 2014 Impala sales and despite GM’s recent financial challenges and callbacks). Ford, however, sits atop the brand loyalty list with 64% of their sales to returning customers, based on a wide range of models like Mustang, Fusion, Escape and F-150, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. (car or truck) for the 32nd year.
And Then There's Ritz Crackers ...
Likewise, it’s hard to mimic automobile brands like Ford and Chevy, embedded as they are so deeply in American culture.
“George Lucas' classic film, ‘American Graffiti’, was the ultimate Ford vs. Chevy Americana movie,” recalls Denny. “It featured cars as memorable as the young actors who starred in the low-budget classic that started the nostalgia craze of the 1970's. The storyline revolved around Ron Howard's '58 Chevy Impala, the mystery blond in the white '56 Thunderbird, and the film's finale drag race between a canary yellow '32 Ford Deuce Coupe and a hot black '55 Chevy.”
So, the next time you fall into talk about whether Chevy is best or Ford is best, remember this: that whichever brand you believe holds the short stick, it remains virtually impossible to dislodge either one from the American heart – or, in fact, to separate these great-grandfatherly brands from the products they produce in the 21st century. Today’s Impala is just as much a Chevrolet as a '57 Bel Air coupe or '58 Nomad wagon was a Chevrolet. And today’s Taurus is just as much a Ford as a ’55 white-over-pink Crown Victoria was a Ford. And in a day when brands sometimes get stretched into meaninglessness, that’s one heck of an achievement.
TakeAway: Does your brand connect? Is it important to your customers? Does it add something to their lives or businesses? Can it become a Fortress Brand?
Content © by Brian E. Faulkner
Ron Denny is a financial marketing consultant who will as readily converse about classic Fords as successful bank marketing strategies. Contact him here: firstname.lastname@example.org
About Brian Faulkner:
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Brian also is a three-time Emmy award-winning Public Television writer and narrator of over 100 segments for UNC-TV’s popular “Our State” magazine series, on the air since 2003.