Saturday, July 15, 2006

Motor City Slipped Away a Century Ago,
But Auto Design Gives Us a 2nd Chance

A century ago, Cleveland missed out on becoming the center of the auto industry, with bragging rights to the title of Motor City. Lacking the kind of forceful visionary figure that Detroit had in Henry Ford, the city was never able to build on the early success of the
Winton Motor Car Company, which sold the first American-made, gasoline-powered car. A lagging appetite for risk was the major factor. As this account in the excellent Encyclopedia of Cleveland History puts it: "Why did Cleveland, an early leader in the American automotive industry, lose out to Detroit? There is no single answer, but as historian John Rae has argued, the manufacturers and financiers of Detroit were more willing to take the risks involved in building the massive plants required to shift to assembly-line mass production than were comparable businessmen in any other manufacturing center of the nation."

All was not lost, of course. This region nevertheless became a key parts supplier to the automotive industry. But in the 21st century, supplying auto parts has become largely a commodity industry, as the Big Three (who are not so big anymore), under severe competitive pressure, have forced all their suppliers to shave costs to the bone. The future of this industry belongs to great automotive design, which increasingly will be the real competitive advantage for automakers, as GM's design director Ed Welburn
told Tavis Smiley on his PBS TV program the other night.

And what do you know--that just happens to be a significant strength of this region, thanks to the CIA. No, not that CIA. Business Week's website has some
nice coverage up on the Cleveland Institute of Art's annual spring show, held in May. It showcased the work of 50 industrial design majors, whose work concentrates heavily on automotive design, for which CIA has built quite a reputation. And this comes on the heels of major national attention for CIA as the school's legendary industrial design guru Victor Schreckengost's contributions are recognized, along with breakthrough industrial design work (including the spinning toothbrush) of his proteges, CIA graduates Spirk and Nottingham. Let's hope we keep building on that unique center of excellence.


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