In Death, Immortality

Eleven thousand, two hundred and thirty nine.  In the grand scheme of things, it is a small number.  Hell, in the small scheme of things, it is still a small number.  Eleven thousand two hundred and thirty nine.  For a major manufacturer, that number is a pittance, a drop in the bucket.  How small of a drop?  The June 2012 year to date sales number for the Toyota Camry, which is the number one selling car in the US, was 213,903 vehicles.  That is nineteen times more than the vehicle sales I’m referencing with 11,239.  Those Camry sales cover six months.  The eleven thousand two hundred and thirty nine was over six years.  You must be thinking I’m hinting at a low production pasta rocket, or the Pontiac Aztek.  But I’m not.  I’m talking about one of the most desired and sought after import performance cars on the market.  A car that today, fourteen years after North American sales were ceased, still commands almost 50% of its original MSRP without accounting for inflation.  Readers, I’m talking about a car that changed the aftermarket performance game and the idea of what we who cannot afford a Veyron consider fast.  I’m talking about the Toyota Supra.

Every one you kill is one we aren’t getting back

The Toyota Supra was considered by most a sales failure.  It wasn’t the rarity that kept numbers low.  Toyota is not in the low volume halo car game (unless we walk over to the Lexus dealership and are charging half a mill).  They don’t bring a mass produced model to market only to let it stagnate on dealer lots and collect dust.  How much dust?  So much that at the end of the Supra’s US sales life, Toyota was offering up to $10,000 on the hood just to get the metal off the lot.  For those who are counting, that means that you could theoretically pick up a Turbo Supra new for about $30-$35k.  Those Supras you see going for $35-$40k?  You could be possibly paying more for that car than the first owner did.  The Supra today is known for being a monster on the highway, the drag strip, and even some are laying down faster than respectable times on road courses.  In stock form it get’s mileage about the same as most of today’s modern performance cars (and was being sold at a time where a $1.50 was considered expensive for a gallon of the good stuff).  Modified, six hundred horsepower is considered the price of entry, and even very fast sport bikes need to be cautious around a 2JZ with a big single.  So why wasn’t it a sales leader?  How come in 1998 Toyota only moved 278 six speed turbos when they were laying down ten grand to get cars off the lot?  There are plenty of reasons we could examine.  Maybe it was the fact that Toyota is naturally slow to make changes to their model lineup and even the Japanese model, sold until 2002, remained unchanged since 1993.  Or maybe it was because the Supra, as indicated by its very title, was a symbol of not only performance, but luxury and the late nineties saw the move towards higher end SUVs as a symbol of wealth.  Maybe because in 1998 when the Supra finally died, a same year Corvette which got better mileage and wasn’t saddled with residual killing discounts (hah) could be picked up for about five grand less.  Oh, and for those about to argue the Corvette wasn’t a sales leader either, it moved 22,724 units in 1998.  Near as makes no difference twice the overall US sales of the Supra.  Eleven thousand two hundred and thirty nine combined Turbo and Non Turbo, Targa and Non Targa, DIY Cog Swapper and Autotragic.  Yet today, the inline six, twin turbo Beast of the Boulevard Supra is considered a living legend of which has few equals that can be had for under a hundred thousand new.  It commands a high price considering the newest one you can buy is fourteen years old, and when adjusted for inflation, most are selling at a nonexistent discount from when new.  These are cars that have over 100k on the clock as well.  Four digit horsepower has its price.

Some times they build one that will just never get old…

It is funny how after death certain things achieve a strange sort of immortality.  As Steve pointed out last week, I refuse to accept that any off the showroom floor vehicle is as capable as the Land Rover Defender when it comes to the point where the road ends.  To paraphrase someone whose opinions on vehicles I highly respect, the Jeep Wrangler is built for lands where the best road you get is a rough trail, the Defender is built for lands where there is no word for road.  It is not a powerful vehicle by any means, the best model having a lazy 3.9L 182 horsepower V8.  It isn’t very fast either, taking about seven weeks to get to 60.  Compared to the rest of the Land Rover line up, it isn’t even very nice inside.  The Defender wasn’t meant for that.  It was meant for going into the dirt, punching the planet in the face, and then driving nearly straight up a vertical cliff with nothing more than a driver with large metallic reproductive organs and a stiff upper lip.  It was a work vehicle, and an off road vehicle.  It was also sales suicide.  In its six year run in the US market, the Defender sold an estimated 6,965 units.  Christ on a cracker, that makes the Supra numbers look downright high volume.  In comparison, Jeep sold 122,000 Wranglers LAST YEAR.  Please, pardon my French: fuck.  In February of 2011, Jeep sold more Wranglers than Land Rover sold Defenders in the entire run.  Yet today, a clean example of a Defender in the US with under a hundred thousand miles will easily fetch $50,000.  This one is a bit easier to explain than the Supra.  Simply put, the Defender, despite being the last of the real Land Rovers, wasn’t a Land Rover in the eyes of a modern LR buyer. Defenders were adventure trucks.  They were designed with two simple purposes: work trucks and imposing the Queen’s rule on uppity former colonies.  They languished on dealer lots because no one wanted to pay for a boxy, ugly, utilitarian Land Rover when they could get a boxy, ugly, utilitarian Jeep for a considerable discount.  Combined with a reliability record tarnished by the Range Rover and Discovery, sales fell off, and soon the US model Defender was no more.

Yeah…I’d pay Land Rover money for that

It really is a short list of vehicles that have suffered the same fate.  Normally, when a model is killed due to horrible sales and an angry dealer base it suffers the same fate in the aftermarket, being regulated to sales at buy here pay here lots and the few people that thought the Pontiac Aztek was a good idea.  However, there are some like the Supra and the Defender that live a strangely distinguished life after death.  They obtain a strange immortality; they find a cult following that is most rabidly defended.  We can point to any number of reasons.  Much like the Corvette I compared it to the Supra has a consistently fresh buyers base.  Clean specimens are being put up for sale by owners who are ready to move on to the next big thing, while new buyers who have wanted a Supra for as long as they can remember are moving into a position to buy.  We can also attribute a certain movie regarding the escapades of rapidly moving, angry individuals and an eye searingly orange hero car to the return of the Supra to popularity.  The ability to make almost endless amounts of power doesn’t hurt, either.

The Defender is much the same.  Off road geeks are flocking to the few remaining examples of undestroyed Defenders in the US.  A very, very low supply with demand to have a unique, tough, and unstoppable vehicle has created a market where lowly, utilitarian work trucks are listed alongside classic Lamborghinis and Ferraris in the duPont Registry.  A true honor for a four wheel drive truck built in a shed.

Built for one thing and one thing alone…

We can’t, however, really blame Toyota or Land Rover for the failure of these vehicles in the American market place.  The Supra wasn’t that much more expensive than a comparable Corvette when you accounted for dealer mark up, and the Defender was simply sold in the wrong dealership.  The parent companies looked at what sold in the US, and made a comparable vehicle.  The only crime they could be accused of committing would be not understanding why certain vehicles sold so well in the US market.  So it confuses me when I think that a US based manufacturer could mess up so badly that not only do they kill off a specific model, but an entire brand.  Or three.

Once acquired by GM, Pontiac was meant to be the sporty counterpart to Chevrolet’s every man line up.  Despite a few badge engineered missteps (the G3 and G6 come to mind, as well as the Sunfire) most of what was put out by the Indian Head Brand was focused on performance.  The most recent examples of the GTO were great cars even if they were just rebranded and body kitted Holdens.  The LS1 Goat was even faster than an STI around the Top Gear Test Track.  Despite polarizing looks, the Solstice was a far better car than any Miata I have driven.  I have had the chance to drive a Pontiac G8, G8 GT, and G8 GXP back to back with a Charger, Charger R/T, and Charger SRT-8 and there is no question in my mind than the Aussie sedan was a completely superior vehicle in all respects.  I have never really had any lust for a Camaro of any year, but there is a spot for a few different Trans Ams on my dream car list.  I’m even a firm believer that if given the Turbo Ecotec and a chance to be worked over by the GXP boffins, the unfortunately named Vibe would have been a contender against the WRX and Speed3.  Even the Grand Prixs and Grand Ams weren’t horrible cars.  Yet sales faltered with Pontiac.  Much like Oldsmobile (remember them?), the management of Pontiac by GM bordered on criminal.  They were often last in line for product updates, and marketing seemed to hire monkeys to fling poo at possible ideas.  Instead of telling us that the G8 was better than a 550i, how about we realize that people don’t buy 5ers because they want a sports car but because it says BMW on the body, and start attacking Charger sales in both the real and fleet markets?  I personally know plenty of dealers that felt betrayed by GM the day they pulled the Pontiac franchise and left the Bandit out to rot.

This car was a great car, but thanks to GM, you will probably never know why.

Then there was the idealist city in the Sky (pun intended) with Saturn.  The joint deal between Toyota and GM was meant to be a new way to build and sell cars.  There was no haggling at the dealers, just one open price.  Cars were built with legendary Toyota reliability and famed GM cheapness to fix.  It was known that many Saturn dealerships would let their customers change their own oil and do small repairs at the dealership.  They created Saturn clubs, even going as far as to have huge owner’s meets at the NUMMI plant.  Remember folks, these weren’t super cars or sports car or collector’s vehicles.  These were just every day drivers, but the owners loved them and they sold high volume based on nothing more than customer loyalty to the brand.  Then GM started down the same path of destroying a good thing.  Instead of building cheap but solid coupes and sedans, GM started using Saturn as a way to import Opels.  Dealership mindset changed, and they went back to the same mentality at the Chevy stores.  The product started to suck.  Customers were treated as annoying things to deal with every few months.  When the time came to sell off bad debt, Saturn was canned (despite Roger Penske having cash in hand to buy, but that is another story).  Toyota begged and pleaded and ended up paying Tesla to buy the NUMMI plant.  Saturn lives on today in a brand focused on cheap, reliable, fun cars that embrace the end user – you just have to go to a Scion dealership.  That’s why I don’t blame Toyota for the downfall of Saturn.  They understood what the brand was supposed to be, and knew how to market it.

Not fast. Not fancy. Just a damned good car.

And yet, much like our Supra and Defender, Saturn and Pontiac still live on as legendary brands.  Despite faltering sales and a product offering that was stagnant and horribly marketed, Saturns are still desirable choices as a first car for teenagers or a solid, dependable daily driver.  I know plenty of people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Chevy but still want a Pontiac (not empirical evidence, I know).  So there is still something there, an immortality, a desire in a new found  revitalized customer base for good cars that you can’t buy new.

I look at the activity on forums dedicated to these now defunct models, and others.  Cars like the RX-7, the 3000GT, the also unfortunately named Ford Probe, the Bronco, a smattering of Pontiacs and Saturns.  And amidst many others, the Defender and the Supra.  Like great musicians and artists, vehicles never really understood or respected until after their death.

In death, enthusiasts have given these cars new chances.  Eleven thousand, two hundred and thirty nine chances.

7 Responses to In Death, Immortality

  1. I never realized the Supra was THAT low in production numbers over here. I wonder how many are left. I’m sure there’s many that resemble the first picture or worse. I still want one though. Always have, always will.

  2. The issue we run into is that the numbers I was able to find don’t include sales in Hawaii or sales of Supras sold as a new car post 1998. I found a few anecdotal pieces of 1998 models still be sold as new as late as 2001. Production on the Supra wasn’t low for Halo car purposes. It was low because it just didn’t sell well. You brought up the NSX the other night, but the thing about the NSX is that it was controlled production, with more than half of world wide volume being US sales. Toyota built about 40k Supras because the demand just wasn’t there.

    I feel that the reason why Toyota has been slow to build another Supra is for that very reason. Just look at the VW R32. The enthusiast market demanded AWD, strong motor, great handling, and usability. VW delivered all that with the R32, and it sat on lots collecting dust and dealers couldn’t pay people to buy one.

  3. I’m going to go out on a limb here, with no proof to back me up (gasp)….but I’m thinking that the Supra probably didn’t sell well in Hawaii either.

    I agree that the NSX was in a totally different segment than the Supra. One thing I think that’s kinda cool is that the NSX sold better (although still pitifully) in the USA vs the rest of the world. I’m sure that has to do with distribution of wealth but that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that here in The United States of America Land we like BIG engines and BIG power. The NSX used a small V6 engine that (even in the NSX-R) never had more than 290hp.

    So other than the fact that more people in the USA had the MONEY to buy one vs other countries I can’t for the life of me figure out that uneven distribution of sales. I might look into it for fun.

    • I would love to take a (paid) sabatical from work, build up a decent team of pollsters, and start up an auto polling industry that answers some legit questions. My first one would be: did you buy the Camry because you test drove and researched a bunch of other cars and that was the one that won out, or was it because you didn’t really know there were other cars out there that were in the same segment.

  4. **Also, it was a well known fact that the NSX-R actually had more than 290hp in real life. But if you’re stupid enough to believe everything you read (as most consumers do) then you’d have thought it only had 290hp.**

  5. Rob Hopkins says:

    So how many Supras are alive after the making of the movie The Fast and the Furious?

  6. *pours out some of his drink for thy fallen brethren*

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