Monday, December 8, 2008

Smart, Open Your Mind, Forward Thinking, Passion

As I drove north on I-55, the sounds of George Thorogood's version of an old Chuck Berry tune played in the radio of my mind. Just one verse repeated over and over in my head: 'I met a German girl in England who was going to school in France. Said we danced the Mississippi at an Alpha Kappa dance. It wasn't me. No No No it wasn't me'. Enough of that, I fiddled with the car radio of the new car that I was driving. I had never turned on this radio before and wasn't quite sure how to work it. I picked up the local NPR station to hear talk of the financial woes of the Big Three car manufacturers. The green interstate sign that loomed overhead read 'Next Exit Nissan Dr'. Wow! What a combination of events I was experiencing. I thought of Thomas Friedman and concurred that the world is truly flat. My reality that day was that Jamie and I had just driven to Mississippi, near a Nissan factory, from our home in Memphis to purchase a German car with a Japanese engine that had been conceptualized in Switzerland and made in France. To add more globality, Thomas from the dealership where we had just bought the car took us to lunch for sushi at a Japanese restaurant. That is sort of what George Thorogood sang about but with cars instead of girls.

We had just bought, and I was driving, a Smart car. A 2009 Smart Fortwo Passion coupe, to be specific. Jamie ordered this car on the internet with a $99 deposit about 18 months earlier -- not a typical car purchase. This Smart was made to her specifications. Thomas at the Jackson, Mississippi Smart dealer called Jamie about a month ago to tell her it was on the way from Europe. Since Memphis does not have a dealership, we were assigned to the Jackson dealer.

Thinking about our new Smart car and the ills of the pantheon of American car makers, these ideas occur to me:

* Americans truly have a love affair with the automobile. People's reactions to this new Smart car and our own excitement with it makes this clear.
* The Big Three are begging for financial help from Washington. I guess that is because they are not selling enough cars. Yet we waited for this specific car, choosing not to purchase any other car, for 18 months.. While we were at the dealership in Jackson, people walked in to ask about the Smarts, only to be told all the cars on the lot were sold. I asked myself why I was not driving a new American car? I distinctly and viscerally remembered the last time I drove a new American car. It is when I rented a Pontiac last Spring. It was poorly designed, uncomfortable, and awkward, to put it as nicely as I can.
* Why did Jamie want this Smart car? It is whimsical, easy to park, 44 mpg, is just enough room and space, has good design, and is unique. And, it is just plain fun. When she ordered it, she had never even seen one in person. Yet, she picked out every detail to her liking from the website and bought it without a test drive or a kick of the tires. That is customer-focused.
* The Canton Mississippi Nissan Plant reminded me that the Big Three are not the only car companies manufacturing in the US. I assume that Americans work in that plant. I also suppose that if it came to it, that factory could be retooled for wartime use.
* The Smart brand tagline is 'open your mind'. It is displayed on their printed materials, strategically placed in large placards throughout the dealership, and on their promotional clothing. I read in the smart literature at the dealership that the arrow in the logo was for forward thinking. The model was called a Passion. To recap: 'smart' 'open your mind' 'forward thinking' 'passion'. I like all of that, a lot.
* Some say that the Smart car is not masculine enough for a man. While the new Smart is Jamie's car, let me tell you, it is not as emasculating as a mini-van. It might not be masculine but it sure draws the attention of women because it is cute, and radically different. It makes a statement on its own, bolstered by its brand monikers: smart, open your mind, forward thinking, passion.
* This Smart car is a conversation starter. Questions abound. The somewhat random facts below answer some of those questions. Everyone likes a story and this car has a story.
* The Smart project was originally started by Swatch. The Smart idea came from outside the auto industry from someone that knew nothing about the auto industry. Swatch understood that it was not enough to offer a watch that was mechanically functional. Function is a given, the base level of entry. It takes good design to set a product apart. Swatch had been successful with this concept in watches and wanted to give it a go with cars. Like a Swatch watch, the Smart is good looking, whimsical, and just plain fun. Like the Swatch it is daring and innovative.
* Swatch offered their idea to GM as a joint venture. GM turned it down. Swatch eventually collaborated with Daimler as the manufacturing partner. Daimler and Swatch have since divorced. I guess all is not storybook in Smartville. Daimler is now the sole owner.
* Although Daimler is a German company, The car is made just over the French border in Hambach, Lorraine, France. This area is traditionally industrial and has been depressed economically.
* It only takes about 4 hours to make a Smart car from start to finish in the factory in Hambach. Smarts can be manufactured in four hours because it just requires assembling component parts which enter the Hambach factory from smaller factories that are adjacent to the Smart factory. These supply factories are not owned by Daimler. Krupp and Siemens, among others operate these adjacent plants and supply the components for the Smart as they are needed. Collaboration and sharing of information between these suppliers and Smart is a requirement for success.
* Because the Smart cars are made to order, the actual Smart factory has no extra parts. Components are supplied just in time and in the order needed from the adjacent factories.
* The Smart has a 3 cylinder, 1 liter engine made by Mitsubishi that provides 70hp.
* If you tire of the color of your Smart, then you may change out the injection molded plastic panels that are made by Dynamit-Nobel using technology developed by General Electric.

For almost a week now, we have been fielding questions about the Smart from the smiling people whose paths cross ours. It is the car that makes them smile. Maybe people just like a good jolt of whimsy, especially in unexpected places. We already have a collection of stories. My son was pulled over by the bike-mounted police who questioned whether the Smart was even street legal. Jamie got a note on her windshield from a local reporter asking for an interview about the car. Like most of the folks that I see when in the Smart, I am all smiles and thumbs up about this car! I like the smiles this Smart puts on our faces as we roll around town. And, I like the smiles coming toward me from others. It is just plain fun!

Our Smart experiences over the last week, make me realize that many of the themes that Reverb helps address can exhibit themselves in the most unexpected places. It sometimes seems to be everywhere if one just pays attention. I work at being observant of things that are hiding in plain sight. To realize these themes in my everyday life is rewarding. It is exciting and encouraging to see Smart incorporate these themes with success. Remember: smart, open your mind, forward thinking, passion in all things!

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