Forecasting Global Economic Strategy, Understanding Urban Planning and the 1977 Mini Clubman Estate

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

While I’ve been avoiding the temptation, the removal of General Motors from the Dow Jones Index may provide a good reason to describe my own car, to draw parallels to the direction of this economy, and to the future of urban planning, of all things.

Both General Motors and Citi Group were recently removed from the Dow Jones Index, and replaced with Travellers Insurance and Cisco Systems.  One could argue that the financial conditions of both GM and Citi had made them dead weight, they were not reflective of the US economy.  It was curious that General Motors was not being replaced by another car company.  Could it be that the automobile industry is not being seen as the driver (pardon the pun) of the overall economy that it once was?

1977 Mini Clubman Estate
1977 Mini Clubman Estate

Now, I drive a 1977 Mini Clubman Estate complete with right hand drive and British plates.

People stop me on the street and ask what it is ( “a car” ).

Some ask what kind of mileage it gets ( ” about forty in town” ).

Others ask if it’s legal to drive something with the steering wheel on the wrong side ( “of course it is, I’m driving on the right side” ).

Still others: how fast can it go? ( “I’ve had it opened up at 65” )

And still others wonder if it’s safe on the same road as giant SUV’s.  Why one feels a need to drive a mammoth SUV in the middle of a large city and try to park it somewhere is beyond me.  My Mini Clubman Estate belongs in a big city.  That said, we don’t live in a big city, nor do we make a living by hauling things.  The Mini wouldn’t be at all appropriate there, or in places where snowdrifts are bigger than it is.

In 1959, Minis were produced by the British Motor Corporation, sometimes known as Austin – Morris.  It was designed by a team led by Sir Alec Issigonis during a one week design charette and was a revolution automotive concept – the absolute minimum car possible to transport four people.  In 1969, a jazzed up version, the Clubman, was introduced.  It had a flattened front to appear more modernand several trim upgrades.  Like the regular Mini, the Clubman also came in a “wagon” version, the “Estate”. A Mini Clubman Estate Estate is what I drive.

If it didn’t make so much sense, it would be fun.  Maybe it’s so fun because it pushes one’s bounds of tolerance so much.

In fact, my Mini makes perfect sense as something to be driven in the city.  Asides from great mileage, it takes up less space and can manoeuvre around some of the tightest places.  From an urban planning standpoint, our cities have been designed and redesigned around transportation.  In recent memory, cities have come to be designed around cars.

Combining examples from previous posts and from my “Secret Streets of Chicago’s Loop” presentation, one can point at the original layout of the Chicago Loop.  It was designed around slower modes of transportation supporting a smaller population. It was eventually necessary to accommodate faster and heavier modes of transportation, the Great Fire providing a clean palate for redesign.  The solution was to widen every second street with the other streets left as original.

One of Chicago's Original Streets
Arcade Place at LaSalle Street, Chicago

Street upgrades have continued to accommodate faster modes of transportation, and to accommodate more traffic generated by a larger population base. The avenues that became primary streets of Chicago’s Loop are big and wide, able to accommodate the largest of vehicle.  Out in the suburbs, where traffic travels even faster, streets are much wider and consume far more land while oddly supporting a sparser density.  Back in Chicago, the remaining narrower streets – several of which still contain storefronts – make my Mini feel right at home. It’s a great example of designing streets around and the scale of our cities around the transportation we use.  Going further, several sections of Chicago’s “L” use little more than a back alley’s right of way, while a subway can snake its way around, virtually unknown.

But I digress – enough about urban planning and back to my Mini and its irony concerning our economic direction…

By the time my Mini was built in 1977, the British Leyland Corporation was making itself more apparent.  A variety of British marques were having difficult economic times, so the British Government and other parties stepped in, consolidated models, cut costs and proceeded on.  While the Countryman version of a Mini came with real wood trim, the Clubman Estate came with a “swoosh” of fake wood trim along each side.  Most Mini Clubman Estates came off the assembly line painted a “Harvest Gold” beige kind of colour with dark brown velour upholstery – the sort of fabric of jammies sold at Woolco that wound up under the Christmas tree. One would gather that producing many cars in one colour would reduce costs.  As the model progressed on in years, many components came to be made from cheaper and cheaper materials.  The marque’s image took a hit.

It took a solid change of course to right the Mini’s image – drop the Clubman, improve quality, and to build on the ‘fun’ aspect by producing special “themed” models.

If one were to change a couple names, this story may seem much like a drama being played out in Detroit as of this writing.  Emotional connection to automobiles aside, indicators may be saying that the automobile industry isn’t going to play the major part in a manufacturing economy that it once did. Perhaps our cities have reached a point where traditional transportation systems are maxed out, and we need to return to mass transit to make our cities liveable.

Will the automobile ever regain its influence on the economy?  Perhaps not. Getting around and moving about will continue to be a driver of the economy.  The mode of transportation will simply have changed.

This begs the question: if Cisco replaced General Motors, are Wall Street’s forecasters envisioning that electronic communications will replace physically moving people from one place to another and that social skill known in Chicago as “schmoozing” ? I hope not.