The other morning, my sleepy perusal over coffee of the New York Times tablet edition was rudely interrupted by my discovery of an auto story by James B. Stewart, Pulitzer Prize winner and Times columnist. Although I don’t normally consider myself a Times competitor, particularly of its deeply reported trend stories, I worried that Stewart, one of journalism’s giants, had uncovered something car-wise that I had either ignored or overlooked.
But after I looked more deeply into Stewart’s story, my anxiety subsided. True, Stewart had developed a new wrinkle in the GM recall story. But much of his account had the familiar ring of a journalistic evergreen, along the lines of “Tensions roil the Middle East” or “City residents seek to beat summer’s heat.” Its headline was “Buick Sheds Its Old Fogy Image and Lifts G.M.”
Sound familiar? Not being a regular on the auto beat, there was no reason for Stewart to know, but endless stories have been written about Buick looking for younger buyers. The brand’s demographic skew had been recognized as long as three decades ago. According to the automotive historians at Hemmings Motor News. “In the early 1980s, Buick faced an image problem. Long seen as a brand for grandparents more concerned with a cushy ride than with performance or handling, Buick’s demographic was aging, and new (younger) buyers simply weren’t visiting Buick showrooms.” Despite GM’s best efforts, the age of a typical Buick owner remained stuck at 72.
While most auto sales stories die a natural death after a few months, the Buick-for-old-folks narrative had legs, even inspiring a handful of jokes about acuity-challenged drivers like this one:
An elderly man was driving his Buick down the freeway when his cell phone rang. Answering, he heard his wife’s voice urgently warning him, “Herman, I just heard on the news that there’s a car going the wrong way on 280. Please be careful!”
“It’s not just one car,” said Herman. “It’s hundreds of them!”
The durability of the Buick narrative made sense. It was easy to understand and could serve as the framework for almost any Buick story. It has had an exceptionally long run as a journalistic crutch:
- Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2001, “Buick hopes for rendezvous with younger buyers.”
- Cargurus.com., August 10, 2009, “Will young people ever buy a Buick?”
- Leftlane News, April 12, 2010, “Buick’s average age drops from 72 to 65.”
- Automobilemag.com, April 13, 2010. “Buick owners trending younger
- Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2010, “Buick sales surge as its buyers get younger.”
- New York Times, January 6, 2011, “Buick seeks younger buyer.”
- Michigan Live, September 4, 2011, “Buick isn’t just for geezers anymore.”
At various times, new models like the Rendezvous, Enclave, Regal, LaCrosse, and Verano have all been seen as keys to solving the demographic dilemma. The fact that none succeeded served as a convenient metaphor for GM’s failures as it slid into bankruptcy.
Stewart was on firmer ground in identifying the Encore as the Buick that might finally break the mold. For one thing, it is so small that it nearly qualifies as a subcompact, making it unappealing to the elderly. For another, it is a crossover SUV, and thus less likely to lure a sedan lover out of a Park Avenue or LeSabre.
Stewart also smartly credits Buick with stemming a widespread defection of potential buyers due to the ongoing recall of GM vehicles for ignition switch and other issues. Buick has enjoyed the largest percentage increase in sales of any GM brand (Chevrolet and Cadillac have lost ground in rising market), and Encore, as Buick’s freshest model, is responsible for most of the improvement.
There is an interesting irony here. With baby boomers moving into their retirement years, perhaps Buick is leaving its natural market behind and trending younger at precisely the wrong time.
Stewart could also have given a shout-out to GMC, Buick’s dealership stablemate. While its sales are up only 5% this year vs. Buick’s 13%, it sells twice as many vehicles as Buick and, as the truck brand, makes a much larger contribution to GM’s bottom line. Like Buick, GMC was threatened with extinction during the auto bailout. But it doesn’t have any convenient story lines attached to it.
Nor do some non-GM brands enjoying breakout years, in particular two of Fiat Chrysler’s, the other recipient of a government bailout in 2009. Its Ram brand, which is roughly the same size as GMC but is mostly devoted to pickups, has seen its sales jump an impressive 22% this year. And the venerable Jeep brand is enjoying the best results in its 64-year history, with a remarkable sales bulge of 45%. That is a story that remains untold.
None of this is enough to classify Stewart’s Buick story in the same category as such spurious Times trend articles as the notorious “monocle as fashion accessory.” As a snapshot of industry sales on July 1, 2014, it is accurate. But in reviving an overused story line, it fails to look more deeply into Buick’s years as the preferred brand of the AARP – and how durable its latest renaissance will turn out to be.