About a year ago, when the Ford-Firestone nastiness was heating up, I suggested at an editors' meeting that Ford might do well to ditch the name Explorer for the new vehicle that was due in January 2001.
My colleagues smiled, but they said nothing. I know what they were thinking: 'Ho, hum. Teahen doesn't like sport-utilities. This is just another potshot at them.'
They were right. I don't like SUVs. But I think a very good case can be made for renaming the Ford vehicle.
I guess St. Matthew had it right: A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country (or newsroom).
It's easy to understand why Ford would want to retain the Explorer name. It's the third best-selling vehicle in the United States. It outsells every car nameplate and trails only the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado pickups. Ford has spent tens of millions promoting the Explorer during the last decade.
But there are compelling reasons for dumping it. The Explorer is snakebit by the Firestone tire mess, and the situation may get worse as government safety investigations continue. Sales are down 16.8 percent this year despite the fact that the '02 Explorer, now on sale, is new.
Sure, Explorer sales set a record in June, but it cost Ford Motor Co. more than $40 million in extra incentives. How long can Ford keep that up?
It has happened before
Ford wouldn't be the first to fold a nameplate in the face of unrelenting criticism. And it wouldn't be the first time Ford has done so.
In the mid-1960s, Ralph Nader trashed the Chevy Corvair as Unsafe at Any Speed. Would-be buyers agreed, and General Motors scuttled the cute little rear-engined subcompact in 1968.
The Ford Pinto was doing well until the rear-mounted gasoline tank developed an alarming tendency to burst into flames in a collision. Farewell, Pinto; welcome, Escort.
Few makes have suffered as much as Audi from adverse publicity. In the spring of 1986, some owners charged that their Audi 5000-S sedans literally ran away from them, sometimes with disastrous results.
Eventually, Audi was vindicated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled that driver error caused the unintended acceleration - the drivers stepped on the gasoline pedal instead of the brake pedal.
Vindicated, yes. But Audi sales dived from a record 74,061 in 1985 to a meager 12,283 in 1991. Sales rebounded to a peak of 80,372 last year, but you'll note that there is no longer a 5000-S sedan in the Audi lineup.
In the late 1980s, the Bronco and Bronco II anchored Ford's efforts in a small but growing sport-utility market. The Bronco II was plagued by recalls and other problems. There was no Bronco III. The 1991 model was new, and it had a new name: Explorer.
A name change doesn't guarantee instant success. Ask the rulers of Nissan Motor Co., the Japanese giant.
In 1982, Nissan decreed that henceforth its cars would carry the Nissan badge in the United States. Gee, they were doing mighty well as Datsun. Why change? Corporate identity, or some other such lofty explanation.
The Nissan name is well recognized today, but the switch was not easy. It was sort of like saying that Chevrolets will be known as Generals to tie them more closely to General Motors.
A name can be reborn
Sometimes an honored name can be resurrected for another go at stardom.
Roadmaster was the top series in the Buick line in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. It was dropped in 1959, then revived in 1990. The new Roadmaster enjoyed moderate success (32,000 to 45,000 sales annually) for four years. Then sales tailed off rapidly, and the Roadmaster went back into mothballs after the 1997 model year.
But back to the Explorer. I think the name should be changed. Explorer conjures up many unsalable images.
Suggestions? A new tag would have to continue the 'Ex' theme, as in Expedition, Excursion, Excape (well, almost). How about Exclamation, Exceeder, Excellant, Exemplar? Specialists in naming products would love to give Ford a hand.
But Ford seems committed to live or die with the Explorer label. Washington safety probers and wary (maybe scared) buyers will determine whether that is a gutsy marketing decision or a stubborn, bullheaded position.
You can send e-mail to John K. Teahen at [email protected]