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How to Survive Lean Times: Business Lessons from the Delage Motorcar

No matter what the economy, the highest quality still brings the highest prices, just like the deluxe Delage auto in the 1930s. "One gives only a Delage to one's favorite mistress."

The deluxe Delage

I am not a car person. In fact, at this very moment, I don't own a car (I share). But the moment I saw a photo of the glorious 1930s Delage Cabriolet, I fell in love. The design was so exquisite, I had to know more, so I began to research. What I found led me to conclude the sparkling history of the Delage offers lessons on how a business can survive rough economic times - be it the 1930s Depression or the Deep Recession of today. This Factoid may be of interest to business owners or those planning to start a business. 1. The highest quality brings the highest prices even in lean times. Members of Royalty and the wealthiest industrialists purchased the French-made Delage, during the Depression, in the late 1920s and 1930s. The Delage had won its reputation earlier as one of the most successful racing cars in Europe, but later expanded into offering luxury and sports models. The brand, designed by Louise Delage,with custom coachwork by DeVillars, became synonymous with "sophistication and refinement." Reportedly, the Royal House of Monaco owned 6 of these cars during the 1930s. One reason the car continued to sell during the Depression (offered in New York City in 1931 for an astounding $8,000), was the fact that quality was "never compromised." The components of the Delage included only the finest hardwoods, the best sheet steel, and repeated road testing to eliminate all noise and vibration. It is said that in 1938, the showing of the Delage at the Paris salon "created frantic acclaim", just as it had earlier in 1929. Here's my conclusion: Those wishing to start a business or find a way to stay in business should follow the Delage business model, by offering the highest-quality merchandise and services to bring in customers for whom money is not an obstacle.  In everything you create, in every service you offer, follow the Delage model. Offer the very best you can afford to design or resell. Market your product/services in terms of superb quality and your exemplary personal service. Those who have money to spend demand value for their expenditures, and deserve to receive it. This is a Now niche for designers and those in the creative and/or service industries. 2. Eliminate excess personnel and services. Contract-out, where you can. During the Depression, the coachworks company that made the Delage (DeVillars) worked with only a small staff: one sales manager, a draftsman, four sheet metal workers, two saddlers and  two painters. Cabinetry was contracted-out. Production was 25 models per year. Demand greatly exceeded supply. It pains me to suggest cutting staff and eliminating services during this tough time. My next conclusion:  Create a bare-to-the bones business model that can survive the economic crisis, and even prosper. If a small business can weather the story, success will lead to hiring. Contracting-out will provide work for those who have created their own businesses from home. Hire high-quality personnel or demand the highest quality from your current staff - and even yourself. Accept nothing less than the finest in terms of workmanship. As you make money, you can increase your staff or offer more contracts. The idea is to go slow but steady until the economy improves. And then, keep going slow and steady. 3. Search new markets and create product and services tailored to the emerging markets. DeVillars created and sold different models of the award-winning Delage. Closed bodies were designed for older clientel. These models were conservative in design. Bolder, streamlined models were produced for the younger client. One reviewer put it this way "the designs are flamboyant yet elegant and restrained, never excessive." The standards and demand for perfection were so high, DeVillars demanded and earned high prices. Demand greatly exceeded supply. In the early 1940s, one lovely Delage was often seen and photographed with a famed fashion designer/film star. It is not known whether she bought the car of whether it was given  as a gift. Peter Ustinov reportedly  said, " One drives, of course, an Alfa Romeo; one is driven in a Rolls-Royce, but one gives only a Delage to one's favorite mistress". Another conclusion: If you have the flexibility to re-direct your product or services to a younger, passionate market, there is no better time than now, especially as you also work to retain your older, loyal clients. Change is so rampant and rapid in 2009, flexibility must be a key ingredient in any business success. Throw out the old rules book and pay attention to what's selling, and where. There is more than bad news in business today. There are buyers searching for value and willing to pay for it - in specialty boutiques and on the internet, which has a global reach. Not all business is frozen. As a business owner, you can do your own market research; find out what's hot, and what's about to be hot. You don't need to pay for this research. You can do it yourself through observation and research. (Intuition is also a great aid, here). 4. Create a product that will last and even grow in value. The Delage was always expensive. In Paris, durng the Depression, one model was offered for more than 100,000 francs.  It was purchased in 1934 by one of Europe's wealthiest indviduals. Although the companies that both designed and fabricated (coachworks) the Delage went out of business, (reportedly in 1945) various models have been displayed, over the years, at classic car shows. In 2007, a Delage coupe roadster by deVillars, was auctioned for $3.7 mlllion.This is a figure that will make most of us stand up and take notice. My final conclusion:  Ultimate Success is defined by lasting quality (be it one year or 70 years). Follow the standards set by DeVillars. Paying attention to every detail, demanding perfection of yourself and others in your business or service, making the hard choices regarding the size of your company, knowing your market -- all of these components go into building a business that not only can withstand the leanest of economic times, but can grow in reputation and value. Often, my intuitive insights are triggered by a chance meeting, a song lyric or even a photo - as in the above instance of Delage, whose story I have briefly summarized.  If you are in business, now is a good time to study the history of successul companies that weathered and even perospered during economic downturns - like the  lovely Delage. Sometimes, I have found, the future is in the past.

Photo, Petersen Automotive Museum

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Comments (1)

Wonderful notion, but the problem is what killed the finer automobiles, including Delage, Duesenberg and Auburn was the structure of manufacturing sales, the taxes that had to be paid by small production run manufacturers, and the same growth of an item that was actually developed by the high-end manufacturers, which was "marketing." I think you made some excellent points and agree with you that if you are willing to produce something, take pride in it and build it the best, and smartest, way possible, but right now, it is the same thing that is killing off good comapanies like Saab, Aston Martin, etc., and that is you cannot make money building art, you have to create production that pays the bills and the taxes, and that means compromising quality to gain profitability, because it is investment that drives production. Take the Example of Carrol Shelby, who developed the Mustang, he created and still makes the Shelby Cobra, but it is because he wants to produce it and has discovered the point where his fame and determination to produce what he wants to produce is selling, but how long did it take for him to be accepted? Delage was kept alive, not by rich buyers, but by racing and the selling of a car that won races, Road racing was popular and sporty, then..... when racing changed, new makers and new products took over, and the "thrill" of owning a "marque" of automobile died. There is no simple death knell for the expensive old cars, some died with the deaths of the builders, some died with the depression, some died when racing moved from daredevil extravaganza to modern suspensions and automotive engineering. It's great and valuable to look at the great old cars and ask "Why don't they build them like this, anymore?" but then, you have to realize, this is the automotive industry, right now, you can buy nearly all the parts to assemble a "new" Model A Ford and put it together for about $10,000, if more parts were produced, and more people wanted to build their own cars, that price could drop to $5,000, but it would be a car that does not meet modern EPA standards, has no seat belts, and just like the Delage, is a deathtrap if you decide to drive it and treat it like it is a modern auto with all the safety and equipment we now require. I used to deliver fully restored antique cars, and the most scared I have ever been was when I delivered a stunning 1932 Stutz DV32 Close-Coupled Sedan to the 78 year-old owner who removed the governors from the carburetors and took me a drive at 95MPH in a $250,000 car,..... I am not sure what scared me more, the fact the owner could barely walk, or the fact his license had been revoked due to his inability to pass the vision test. What separates a historic artifact from a work of art? In order to answer that, you can define it by the artist, or the age, bury a watch in the desert 5,000 years, and it becomes an artifact that is valuable in that it represents the age, but if that watch was built by a maker that was seen as a watchmaker to the finest people of the time, then it also becomes valuable as representing that age, and that level of luxury,... same as the Delage, What creates a million dollar artifact is the age, the quality, and the mystique of the era, few cars represent that time and that level of luxury as the Delage,. and now you see my point, what has made the Delage valuable today is the "marketing" of the time and the opulence of the manufacturer as a successful representative of the period,... Delage is accepted as a "classic" marque, because it displays the finest of the age to those who understand the time period, reconstruction of the car, and appreciation of the artifact as "art," I can name companies that share the same devotion to craftsmanship, design and technology who were NOT chosen by those "in the know" and these cars fell by the wayside, not due to inferiority, but because there was not that "spark" of recognition to the age, a car with a similar custom coachwork and era styling is not as highly respected. I enjoyed your point of view, and your appreciation of this one car,.... agree with your definitely well-put opinions of quality and production,...but I think you needed to explain something that is lost in the reading, and that is the fact that we create the demand for quality in what we choose to buy, and when we allow value to be dictated by price, then it's going to be a hard thing to find quality when 500 companies can produce it cheaper. You can determine to make quality, and do so, and you can set your goal at the best methods available, but realize that, in the long run, your product may very well become respected, definitive, and the best, but until a market that accepts your standards as the one they want to purchase because of your standards, you may become a footnote in history if you cannot change the public to accept your view. I think the problem is in demand, and not in ability to produce. Change the public to see your values and methods warrant the cost, and you will find a market, I think that is the point you forgot to mention, and it is the point of marketability which has been lost in a "disposable" society, that value is a result of quality standards by the public and the manufacturer.

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