Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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Model T maker takes risks

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To put it in stark terms: Ford is going to stop selling cars. It’s a shocking moment in American industrial history.

Ford announced last month that by 2020, it will discontinue conventional sedans — the C-Max, Fiesta, Focus, Fusion, and Taurus — for the American market. The company will shift production to sport utility vehicles, pickups, and commercial vehicles. The Mustang sports car will remain, as will a compact Focus called Active with the look of a crossover SUV.

The company that invented mass production and developed the Model T is abandoning the heart of its legacy. In doing so, Ford may set itself up for decline.

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Anyone with even a casual interest in the American-car industry has observed the rise of the SUV and trucklike vehicles, and the decline of the modest passenger car and station wagon.

Ford borrowed to get through the crisis of the last decade. Now, Ford’s debt position has limited its options. It looks to top-selling, high-profit vehicles — big and thirsty SUVs such as the Expedition and hulking pickups outfitted with every creature comfort — to carry the day.

According to legend, Henry Ford offered the Model T in any color the customer wanted, as long as it was black. He valued simplicity and efficiency, and the shift to a smaller lineup may be a business decision in his tradition. But it’s more likely that he’d be appalled. It seems dangerous for a carmaker to abandon an entire segment of a market. What happens when the fashion for rugged off-road rides fades and Americans realize they don’t need the hauling power of a semi-industrial truck? Winding down a production line is much easier than starting one up. Ford Europe still will make passenger cars, but the technology cannot be transferred at the flip of a switch.

The personal-transportation industry is going through seismic changes, but there is every reason to think that smaller, nimbler, and inexpensive vehicles are always going to have a place. Seeing a U.S. carmaker abandon the segment that made it mighty is more than poignant — it is is a warning sign.

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