P. H. Cordner

Brotherly Love: Herbert Powell and the 1991 Powell Homer

In Motoring on November 5, 2009 at 02:56

With apologies to Ate Up With Motor

Powell Motors was once Detroit’s darling, the upstart with the perfect Alger-ian story: From a cast-off orphan to auto tycoon. The whole narrative, however, reached a nadir in 1991 with the unveiling of the Homer, the car built and designed from star-crossed destiny. This week, the story of Herbert Powell and his eponymous car company, Powell Motors.

Bastard in a Basket

Adopted in 1948 from the Shelbyville Orphanage, Herbert Powell exemplified the classic rags-to-riches story. Orphaned at an early age by his biological parents, Abe Simpson and a comely carnival worker, Herb was adopted by the Powells of Shelbyville, who, after repeated attempts, couldn’t concieve a male child. Herb excelled at school, with an aggressive attitude, he secured admission to Harvard. His parents, however, weren’t equipped to pay for it, and he mustered up the considerable tuition fee working odd jobs around the campus.

After Harvard, he got together with some enterprising and well-heeled classmates and founded Powell Motors in Detroit, MI. The boardroom took a very cerebral approach to auto making, and utilizing keen marketing research, fashioned a lineup of cars to compete with the Big 3.

Cheap and Cheerful

Compete they did. In the malaise days of the early eighties, the Powell model lineup sold very well. The compact Cheetah, thanks to its frugality, sold over 100,000 units from 1980-1985. Although front-wheel drive and unibody, the Cheetah was not very modern. To inflate profit margins, the unit body used a very small amount of steel (“about 40 bucks worth,” Powell himself is alleged to have said). It used a rear live axle with leaf springs and a trailing arm up front. Not yet mature enough to develop their own engines, Powell used the ancient Chevrolet 153 engine, under license from GM, (for a cursory amount of $15.00) a 4-cylinder version of Chevrolet’s third generation inline 6 from 1962, itself an update of an engine dating back to 1927. The engine, displacing 2.5L, was detuned to meet emissions standards, producing all of 65 SAE hp, keeping any promise of “sporting” off of the sales brochure. Gas mileage, however, was a perfectly acceptable 28 combined EPA MPG, thanks to the light weight of the paper-thin body.

Despite a generic, boxy appearance and some strange color options, the Cheetah turned Powell Motors into an overnight success. Leveraging this success, Powell took on some serious loans, and developed station wagon, hatchback, sedan, even SUV versions of the Cheetah platform. Herbert Powell was considerably enriched thanks to his generous stock options.

However, the late 1980s saw considerable erosion of Powell’s business model. The Cheetah platform was getting long in the tooth in the marketplace (if it wasn’t already when it debuted), and Powell’s working class sensibilities clashed with the calculating, effete boardroom in the development of the Cheetah’s successor, the Persephone (“People don’t want cars named after hungry old Greek broads!”) . With no new cars coming down the pike, frustration in the boardroom, and mounting debt, Powell Motors was a car company looking for direction. Where they found that direction almost certainly precipitated their fall.

Homer Simpson, Automotive Designer

After an argument with a movie theater manager, Powell’s biological father Abe Simpson suffered a heart attack. Reminded of his mortality, Abe told his son Homer about his long-lost half brother. Filled with a sense of filial duty, Homer tracked down and met Herb. Herb took Homer into his lavish estate, and became quite close with the Simpson family, realizing that though he was quite monetarily enriched, he lacked the satisfaction of family life.

Powell wanted to repay Homer for this gift of family, and led him into the lavish Powell atrium and offered him a free Powell model of his choice. When Simpson asked for “a big car… with lots of ‘pep,’” the Powell Motors lineup offered none of these things. Herb Powell had an epiphany. While the Cheetah-based models performed well in the malaise of the early eighties, American tastes had shifted. (One could make the argument that Simpson’s never moved from the concept cars of the 1950s.) Thanks to Homer’s insight, Herb Powell put Simpson in charge of the development of the new Powell Motors auto platform, now called the “Homer.”

Simpson, totally clueless in automotive design, was relegated to being a gopher on his first day in the design studio. He watched as the “eggheads” cooked up a large, powerful car with items he understood little about, like an on-board computer and rack and pinion steering. When he returned to the Powell estate, Herb saw his despondent state, and, when he realized Homer was being pushed around by the engineers, motivated him to confidently order everything he wanted on this car.

Simpson’s ideas were off the wall, to say the least. The first item on the agenda was a very large beverage holder, large enough to accommodate “those super-slurpers at the Kwik-E-Mart.” He also directed the styling, bringing back the “snazz” that had been missing from automotive design for 20 years, such as tailfins, bubble domes, and shag carpeting. With family road trips in mind, he decreed a separate, soundproof bubble dome for the back seat, with optional muzzles and restraints. The engineers, clearly frightened that they would have to build a car bespoke to such silly whims, called Powell directly and appealed to reason. Powell would have none of it, he was convinced that Homer’s “Average Schlub” approach would be the saving grace of the company.

Features such as three different horns, all playing “La Cucaracha,” and a loud exhaust, were combined, ever so reluctantly by the project engineers, into a design sketch, which was outre, to say the least, but also reaching a kind of modern harmony with the odd styling cues, much like J Mays would do with the Beetle and the Thunderbird a decade later. Simpson was totally displeased with this sketch, ripped it up, and scrawled a design of his own, hardly distinguishable from a child’s drawing of a “cool car,” complete with an almost spherical front dome, and tailfins the size of which would make even Harley Earl’s 1959 Cadillacs blush. Chrome was everywhere, the bumpers, the ersatz Rolls-Royce grill topped by a hood ornament of a bowling man, and the step ladder for the driver and passenger. Behind the 2 foot tailfins, bridged by an aerodynamic wing, was an odd bustleback with a spare tire mounted on it. The whole design was kept under wraps from Powell until the gala unveiling, in the fall of 1990.

Unpleasant Surprises

The Homer was an unquantifiable flop. The total hodge-podge design and the stratospheric $82,000 sticker price shocked the stockholders. They sold off Powell Motors stock in droves. Forced into receivership, Powell took a low-ball offer from the Komatsu Motor Corporation, which took over the factories and offices immediately, where they manufactured Powell cars for the next model year as Komatsus, then retooled the factory for domestic production of their own platforms.

Family Ties

Herbert Powell was completely bankrupted by his faith in his long-lost half-brother. He declared to Homer that he “had no brother,” and went off aboard a bus. A year later, however, he reconciled with him after Homer lent him $2,000 for his next start-up, manufacturing a device used to translate baby sounds into speech, which became quite a lucrative invention.

The Powell story illustrates that in fact, designing cars is something left to the professionals. We don’t doubt that a car we design would become a similar marketplace flop. (Although our bespoke car would probably be a lot like the body of a Lancia Fulvia coupe with the drivetrain of a 1980s Honda CRX, designed with an eye towards weight saving) Powell Motors was headed for bankruptcy before Homer Simpson appeared, with the mounting debt and eroding market, but his design certainly hastened their demise. Herbert Powell, too, met a decidedly un-Alger-ian ending, for a time. As Lisa Simpson said: “His life was an unbridled success, until he found out that he was a Simpson.”

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