The history of the American auto industry is a must-read for any entrepreneur thinking of building and/or selling motor vehicles in North America; or anywhere else in the world. It’s a really tough game. Things go wrong. Buyers’ whims change. Competition gets stronger. Money gets short. Banks and financiers get the jitters. Everyone wants payment.
So when John Perez, an experienced businessman, pops up and declares he is going to take on the American SUV market - with a Romanian-built 4WD wagon that doesn’t have an internationally-known reputation for quality and reliability - you have to ask one question. Can the guy read?
ARO began building basic, no-nonsense 4WD vehicles in 1957. They were used by the Romanian army, and over the last fifty years small numbers were exported to other countries. However, sales were slow and low. The ARO was no match for the 4WD products coming out of Japan in ever-increasing numbers. For while the early Japanese off-roaders were (mostly) copies of English and American layouts, they had two qualities that guaranteed positive word-of-mouth advertising and strong sales; they were well made and they were eerily reliable.
I was fortunate (or, unfortunate) to drive an ARO 4-door wagon about 25 years ago. Stepping from the Range Rover I had been driving, and getting behind the wheel of the ARO, was like going from a comfortable armchair to a park bench. My short drive didn’t change that impression. The ARO might be somebody’s ‘cup of tea’, but a 4WD vehicle that is required to perform more than the singular role of ‘farm implement’, needs to offer a thoughtful combination of off-road ability, on-road performance, comfort and reliability. I couldn’t decide whether the ARO had hit the target on any these criteria.
John Perez had tried to get the Romanian brand going in the USA years ago. Then, in 2003, he decided to take on the floundering Romanian operation, turn it around, and market the Land Rover look-a-like as the Cross Lander.
The no-frills 4-door was to be targeted at the 4WD ethusiast/hunter/outdoors market. With the spin that you couldn’t spoil it by taking it off-road, you could hose it out when you got home, and it was only going to cost 20 grand. You didn’t even have to worry about the airbags inflating if you accidentally drove into a rock – airbags wouldn’t be available till sometime in 2007.
Incredibly, the EPA approved the sale of Cross Landers without airbags being fitted – a decision it can make when the authority is convinced that the sale of the product would be in the consumers’ interest. However, the delay in getting the EPA approval, and production, financial and legal problems in Romania, appear to have spelt the end for the European vehicle.
The Cross Lander website now contains just one page: stating that all import plans have been suspended, legal action is being taken against the manufacturers, the name of the American company has been changed to Global Vehicles USA, and plans are underway to build a Cross Lander-type vehicle in North America. Other sites on the internet seem to indicate that the Romanian manufacturer/authorities are taking very serious legal action against John Perez.
Despite the fact that some 4WD vehicle enthusiasts claim there is a huge market for a basic, no-frills 4WD, it is doubtful if one exists outside of third-world countries. Even the highly-regarded Land Rover Defender struggles to capture a noticeable slice of today’s 4WD market. A fact not lost on Land Rover, who is rumored to have an all-new, high-tech replacement due for release within the next year.
In an automotive market as large as North America, a low-volume, low-price vehicle is going to find success very elusive. Cross Lander had (reportedly) signed up 100 dealers in the USA. Yet, the importers predicted initial annual sales of just 2500 vehicles. Two sales per month per dealer, of a budget-priced vehicle, is nowhere near enough to justify the advertising, staff training, stocking of spare parts, and the outlay for special tools.
As it stands, Nadia Comaneci is still the best thing ever to come out of Romania.
By Ray Barker
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