December 17, 2008
The 2008 Autoextremist Year in Review: “The End of the World As We Know It” Edition.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. In a tumultuous year that saw upheaval in our financial institutions, turmoil on Wall Street, the decimation of the housing market, $5.00 per gallon gasoline and the worst economy in seven decades, the U.S. automobile industry - reeling from one national crisis after another and burning through cash at an unprecedented rate - was finally pushed to the brink.
Paralyzed by the credit crisis – or lack of it – until they ran out of options, the Detroit 3 CEOs were forced to go to Washington, D.C., hat-in-hand, seeking a bridge loan to keep them going, whereupon they walked into a shit storm of epic proportions and took body blow after body blow from members of Congress hell-bent on blaming the domestic automobile industry for all of America’s current ills, real or imagined.
And it was an unmitigated disaster.
Eighteen months ago, the words “bankruptcy” and the domestic automobile industry were used in the same sentence by members of the media as a speculative lightning rod to generate controversy and comment. Now, with General Motors and Chrysler just days away from ceasing operations, left by the side of the road by a cabal of southern Senators who placed their own states’ financial interests and the interests of their corporate benefactors - Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and VW – ahead of the interests of this nation, the unfathomable has happened, and the domestic automobile industry finds itself perched on the edge of oblivion.
To say this has been The Year from Hell is an understatement, but nevertheless, I’m going to retrace our steps, revisiting the highlights – and lowlights – as they unfolded. So without further ado, here we go with the year in quotes - and it all started at Cobo Hall (aka “The Dungeon”) - where we found ourselves back at another North American International Auto Show...(See more highlights from 2008 in “On The Table” – WG)
“BMW unveiled yet another niche vehicle, the X6, which is one of the leading contenders for our 2008 AE Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking Award. A 5-series with a bit more ground clearance and enough headroom for your traveling troupe of Shitzu circus-dog performers, the X6 "crossover" is a dismal conflagration of design ego and runaway BMW arrogance built with the sole purpose in mind of relieving blindly loyal Bimmerphiles of their wallets. We're still wondering when - and if - BMW will ever get over their sick compulsion to have one of their products in every driveway in America. They're officially beyond tedious - and so is the X6.” (“Rumors of Our Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated. We Actually Did Get Out of Cobo Hall Alive!” 1/13/08)
“Yes, the Hyundai Genesis has potential, but our hype meter is going off because it ain't no BMW or Cadillac CTS, no matter how you slice it.” (1/13/08)
“But at the other end of the spectrum lies our No. 2 candidate for the 2008 AE Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking Award - none other than the Honda Pilot concept. A thinly-disguised production model, the new Pilot is a mediocre mishmash of every chunky crossover/SUV design cue of the last five years thrown together and topped off by a cheese-grater grille that looks like it was designed by one of their Asimo robots. There is not one thing that suggests this new Pilot came from Honda except for the “H” on the aforementioned joke of a grille. This one pegged the AE wince meter, folks.” (1/13/08)
“Scoring a rare clean sweep of our least desirable manufacturer awards - and with more creases in its bodywork than the table cloths at a dry cleaning convention - the Mercedes-Benz GLK crossover is a disaster of epic proportions and winner of the 2008 Autoextremist Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking Award (but Best Imitation of a Subaru Masquerading as a Mercedes). We gotta better idea, turn this thing into a boat anchor and drop it in the Detroit River.” (1/13/08)
“Jason Vines' last big promotional brainstorm as Chrysler's PR Chief (he joined Compuware in the same capacity) involved rounding up 120 head of cattle and staging a cattle "drive" right in front of Cobo Hall, complete with cowboys. It was a brilliant stroke that got tremendous media coverage - complete with humping steers - and it was quite the buzz. But was it just another case of the hype outdoing the reality? Pretty much.” (1/13/08)
“GM's reveal of its new Saab 9-4X and Hummer HX concepts began with a tremendously talented juggler who did his thing to a Beatles song. Repeat those words and then imagine how tedious this really was. Now, I have nothing against jugglers per se and I've always loved the Beatles, but together? Yikes. This one went right into the ‘Just Shoot Me’ File. Fortunately, the concepts were great looking, or it would have been a real dud.” (1/13/08)
“For a company that was left like a steaming hulk by the side of the road not that long ago, the transformation of GM has simply been incredible. It's one thing for a company to do cool concepts and a few hot production vehicles to signal that they're back and that they get it, but since Bob Lutz grabbed this organization by the lapels and willed it to greatness, GM is now operating at a level product-wise that is surpassing even its own Glory Days, back when it dominated the auto industry. The magnificent Corvette ZR1 you know about, but what it represents is still mind-boggling. A limited-production supercar that goes 0-60mph in the mid-3-sec. range, tops 200 mph yet is tractable in everyday driving and even delivers outstanding fuel economy on the highway for the performance envelope it operates in is beyond remarkable. And all for around $100,000? I'd say that qualifies as amazing. If this truly is the end of the Big Horsepower era, then this car represents a milestone in American automotive history.” (1/13/08)
“At the 2008 North American International Auto Show, GM Design once again put on a show that overshadowed its competitors. But not only is GM winning the design concept competitions, it's bringing more design-leading production cars to market at this point in time than any other manufacturer, too, with cars like the Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Malibu, Corvette ZR1, Saturn Aura, etc. Back in the glory days of GM Design ("Styling" way back then), the company did the same thing. While it was showing concepts that blew everybody else away, the real secret of GM's dominance back in its heyday was that Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell had an uncanny knack for translating what was going on in the halls at the GM Tech Center into production realities for the masses that were like concept cars for the street. And now GM Design chief Ed Welburn has managed to capture that same spirit by leading his troops to do great work for the auto shows while making sure that the stuff that gets to the street doesn't get watered-down in the process. Bob Lutz deserves much of the credit for the rebirth of GM Design, too, because from the moment he set foot in GM he made it his crusade to give the car business back to the creative leaders of this industry - the designers. And he succeeded.” (1/13/08)
“Speaking of arrogant Germans in the car business (btw, is there a more accurate and time-honored descriptor than that? Uh, no - ed.), you gotta hand it to BMW. I swear these guys don't understand the word "restraint" in the English language. These guys are inventing niches within niches, and in their obsessive quest to become all things to all people, I believe they get lost in their own talking-to-themselves brilliance to the point that they can't even see the Black Forest for the trees. Add to that their annoyingly unhealthy habit of believing half the shit that Chief Designer Chris Bangle shoves their way, which just compounds matters, and you have a recipe for a truly ugly little bundt cake. Once again, some of my esteemed colleagues (cough, hack) in the media just couldn't wait to gush over Bangle's latest atrocity, the BMW X6, but believe me, it will not "redefine the category" or "set the standard for crossovers for years to come" or any other such nonsense. On the contrary, as a matter of fact. The X6 is nothing more than a German-accented Pontiac Aztek, a vehicle for Bangle's self- aggrandizement, a rolling monument to one man's mediocrity and an unmitigated P.O.S. that is "beyond category" tedious. Trust me on this one, the only inspiration other designers will take away from the X6 is the inspiration to turn their heads in horror and then walk - make that run - away. If it weren't for the perfect albeit overpriced 1 series, I'd be worried that BMW has finally gone off the deep end.” (“Auto Show Aftermath.” 1/20/08)
“As for Chrysler, what's left to be said? This is a car company in such disarray and one that's so lacking in focus that their public pronouncements have no credibility whatsoever anymore. It was a brilliant strategic move to part ways with their PR Chief Jason Vines, wasn't it? Not. Their current Kremlin-esque communications plan of "Let's only tell people what we want them to know because they're too stupid to figure out the rest of the story by themselves" is beautiful in its ineffectual simplicity. And when a company with a design "legacy" of Chrysler (a rapidly fading one, I might add) shows up at Cobo Hall with three concepts - two of which wouldn't have gotten past the first cut in a design bakeoff at the College for Creative Studies - there's no amount of spin that can mask the utter futility of what's going on over there. Going forward, I suggest you all keep reminding yourselves when reading anything about Chrysler (gushing Challenger puff piece or no) that the only formula you need to remember is this one: Bob Nardelli Arrogance + Jim Press Smugness + Cerberus Cluelessness = Not Good. Let's hope that Carlos Ghosn makes the Chryslerbus boys an offer that they can't refuse, because watching this train wreck unfurl in slow motion is excruciating.” (1/20/08)
“One good outcome of the Detroit show is that a brace of reporters got an in-your-face dose of Toyota arrogance in all of its unbridled glory. No longer given a free pass by the media, the cracks in Toyota's usual manufactured sheen were evident for all to see. All of a sudden, Toyota has a real dogfight on its hands and on every front too - technology, efficiency, alternative propulsion systems, quality and market credibility - and they're finally being exposed for what they have been all along: a merely mortal mercenary car company that is as prone to missteps and blatant gaffes as anybody else.” (1/20/08)
“My final word on the Detroit show concerns the popular notion in the media that a dichotomy exists between "green" and high-performance. And that the two are mutually exclusive. I disagree. A manufacturer that expects to compete at the highest levels in this business in the future will have to compete on three distinct playing fields at the same time: full Green technology vehicles, cars and trucks that balance real-world performance capability with efficiency and desirability, and vehicles that combine both green and high-performance technologies at the same time. A manufacturer on the global stage cannot afford to leave any of these bases uncovered, because if they do they will suffer the consequences and be in danger of giving away that part of the market to a competitor.” (1/20/08)
“‘It’s what you build when you’ve spent your whole life building sports cars.’ Oh, really? Yes, I would imagine if you’re a company with the legacy of building the 356 and 911 sports cars, and the 904, 906, 908, 910, 917, et al racing cars – machines known for their lightweight, purposeful and functionally elegant designs – you could become disillusioned and go off half-cocked and conceive a bloated, blunderbuss of a 5500-lb.+ SUV, couldn’t you? Not.” (“Marketing Fraud on a Grand Scale, Brought to You by Porsche.” 1/27/08)
“As we’ve seen of late, GM can do excellent work when it puts its mind to it. But unless and until GM controls its ingrained impulse to bury the market in triplicate and quadruplicate models just to appease its dealers or justify its obsolete divisional “ladder” then it will continue to take three steps forward and five back in its pursuit of profitability in the U.S. market.” (“Ford’s Edgy Success Exposes GM’s Perennial Achilles Heel.” 2/6/08)
“Needless to say, Cerberus couldn’t have picked a more inopportune time to decide to get in the car business. Even though their track record bristles with a monstrously successful batting average in past forays into ventures great and small, nothing, and I mean nothing prepared them for the auto business – especially this most particularly chaotic time in automotive history. And whatever made Chrysler attractive to Cerberus in the first place has long since been forgotten in the litany of troubles piling up, and the dire structural and financial maneuverings deemed necessary to keep the whole enterprise afloat.” (“Dodge Challenger or no, time is running out for the ‘new’ Chrysler.” 2/13/08)
“And to those others who suggest something to the effect that ‘Detroit should just go Green and things will be all better overnight,’ I would say that you’re in need of a serious reality check as to how much of an investment in time and money is actually involved to deliver these future technologies to the American consumer public on a massive scale, no matter what the Henrik Fiskers of the world say. (“With friends like these...” 2/20/08)
“I’ve often been taken to task by Porsche loyalists for having the temerity to criticize Wendelin Wiedeking for green-lighting the Cayenne SUV, seeing as in their minds the vehicle has ensured the company’s profitability and independence for years to come and allowed them to build really cool cars like the 911 GT3 RS. And I’ve responded in kind with this: Promoting short-term profitability ahead of decades of accrued brand equity is a fool’s errand, one that will ultimately prove to have disastrous consequences. Sell enough Cayenne SUVs and the upcoming Panamera four-door sedans to people whose interest in the vehicles only goes as far as wanting a Porsche emblem – an emblem that’s being slapped on a wider array of vehicles totally disconnected from the brand’s raison d’etre – while being clueless as to why they’re buying it in the first place - and eventually they’ll displace the hard-core True Believers who bought into Porsche’s original brand essence in the first place. And then what?” (“Porsche gobbles up VW. Next up? Brand chaos.” 3/5/08)
“As I’ve said before, we should never forget the essence of the machine, and what makes it a living, breathing mechanical conduit of our hopes and dreams. Harley Earl understood it implicitly. Bill Mitchell revered and nurtured it. And now GM’s Ed Welburn is the latest proponent of its power. And automotive designers around the globe understand its power, too, which is why great design has reemerged in this business as the ultimate Initial Product Differentiator.” (“Great Design: The Ultimate I.P.D.” 4/2/08)
“With industry sales estimates regularly dipping below 15 million units for the 2008 model year and the nation’s economy rapidly going into the tank, it doesn’t take much to see that the very existence of the U.S. auto industry is being threatened. Not since the earliest beginnings of the industry, when countless cottage auto manufacturers either went bust, were bought out or merged into other companies has the upheaval to this nation’s auto industry been so pronounced, or dramatic.” (“A ‘What if?’ scenario for GM.” 4/9/08)
“The bottom line in this deal is that Cerberus - for all of its savvy and gold-plated reputation – has run up against an industry it was ill-equipped to tackle in the first place at the exact worse moment in history to attempt to do so. Even with a strong U.S. auto industry firing on all cylinders – a scenario that hasn’t been seen since the heyday of the SUV frenzy – Cerberus would have been hard pressed to rejuvenate Chrysler.” (“Carlos dreams big as the Chrysler-Nissan deal moves toward its inevitable conclusion.” 4/16/08)
“Look beyond the quirkiness of the advertising, and you’ll find it is business as usual for VW when it comes to marketing here in the U.S. It has basically become a formulaic exercise now for VW marketers, and it goes something like this: Hire ultra-hip ad agency of the moment, let them create their “magic,” unleash their esoteric and calculatingly ultra-cool advertising on the unsuspecting American car-buying consumer public, revel as the ad critics wax-on eloquently about how brilliant the advertising is, watch the sales needle move not one iota, then start the process all over again eighteen months later.” (“Same as it ever was for VW.” 4/23/08)
“It was nice to have the opportunity to drive the Pontiac G8, but it was sad, too, because despite the exclamation point-drenched car magazine covers of-the-moment touting how great the G8 is - and it is a damn good car, by the way - it won’t be enough to save Pontiac from its inevitable demise. GM’s ongoing circus juggling act - which revolves around propping up its divisional marketing and product aspirations on an as-needed basis - is finally unraveling in the worst automobile market the U.S. auto industry has seen in decades. GM is finding out the hard way that no matter how many excellent new products they’re able to bring to market, unless they can back those products with enough marketing and advertising horsepower it ultimately doesn’t matter. What good is a reinvigorated product offensive when the market is crumbling and you have too many divisional mouths to feed - and that’s before you even begin to address the competitive environment? Not much.” (“It’s all over but the hand-wringing for Pontiac.” 5/7/08)
“Once in a while, we feel it’s our duty to interpret the latest industry slang roiling around the corridors of the Detroit automakers for our readers, if only to help those who aren’t immersed in this stuff on a day-to-day basis to gain a little bit of understanding as to what this business is all about at this very moment in time. Some of the terms are totally nonsensical without the follow-up explanation, and some of them are self explanatory. Suffice to say, this business has developed its own quirky shorthand phrases to help describe the relentless 24/7 slog that defines this industry, and every now and then we find it amusing to do an update in the interest of expanding our readers’ knowledge base. So, read on (below)...
AFTERLUTZ- The state of shock destined to loom over GM after Bob Lutz hangs up his spurs, as in, "This company is suffering from a low-grade paralysis.This afterlutz fog is killing us."
BOBBED – Term restricted for use by minions in GM PR whenever Bob Lutz goes off on one of his tangents, as in, “I had the thing just about wrapped-up when that question came up about global warming, and in a nanosecond it was too late. I got bobbed.”
BONE MONKEYS - Anonymous trolls existing in all car companies who are impediments to progress, who revel in mediocrity, and who derail programs through their incompetence, laziness and "not invented here" attitude, as in, "That program would have put this company back in the game, but once the bone monkeys got a hold of it, we were dead in the water."
BURNED TO A CRISPIN - A relentlessly square auto company advertising manager who is suffering a near total meltdown due to the exhaustion brought on from trying to be hip, as in, “She was fine until she got her ass burned to a crispin on that latest trying-too-hard-to-be-hip ad campaign.”
CAYENNED-UP – When a car company loses its focus and goes off on product tangents and investigates segments that it has no business playing in, as in, “We had it all together until our marketing brain trust got all cayenned-up, and the next thing we knew we were working on a cubist minivan made out of recycled bamboo.”
CHARIOTS OF THE TODDS - A reference to the cars in the company parking lot driven by the IT minions.
GEEZEL - A term from the retail side of the business referring to a $1,000.00, or "grand," as in, "She was pissed-off that she had to come up with a geezel to pay for the mileage overage on her lease."
GHOSNER – Term given to an underling who crosses paths with Carlos Ghson at the wrong time on the wrong day, as in, “He had a pretty bright future until that last meeting, now he’s a ghosner.”
HUMMERED - The state of eating or drinking to excess (usually applying to members of the media on auto press junkets), as in, “She was supposed to be here forthe 7:30 media breakfast, but she got so hummered last night I doubt if she’ll make it.”
JIMBOTRON - Coined after Jim Press revealed his impressive ability for selective recall and counter-spin concerning his former life at Toyota, and what he actually did/didn't do - or say - while he was there, as in, "It looked like Mike was going to get his ass handed to him this morning, but then he fired up the jimbotron and by the time he was through everyone had forgotten what the question was to begin with."
JUNKETUTE – The altered state brought on by being on an extended press junket when the propensity to lose alltrack of space, time, reality and objectivity is a very real danger, as in, “I turned into a junketute about the time I was half-finished typing my story - from my hotel room overlooking the Amalfi coast - and half-way througha $300.00 bottle of Barolo.”
KLINKIAN NIGHTMARE – A term used in reference to Ferdinand Piech, aka “Col. Klink.” The Man Who Wouldn’t Leave the VW Group and the guy who has his tentacles in absolutely everything in the company with no rhyme or reason - and usually to its detriment too - as in, “The next-gen Golf was on pace to be something really special until it turned into a klinkian nightmare.”
LENS-LICKER - A highly unflattering reference to an auto exec who just can't seem to get enough of being quoted on TV, or being the center of attention for the media, as in, "He once actually knew what he was talking about, now he's just a lens-licker looking for his next media fix."
MAVERICKED- A person with real potential who gets cast aside for not going along to get along - as in, “He opened his mouth one too many times so he got mavericked to the Denver zone.”
McBENZ - A variety of symptoms suffered by a person - usually a “Ned” (see below) - exposed to a dramatic decrease in status in the workplace, as in, “Ever since ‘ol Ned’s boss got transferred to Korea, he’s got the McBenz real bad, I’d say.”
NASHVILLED – Specific term given to the former Southern California employees of Nissan who were forced to move to Nashville - or else leave the company - as in, “He got Nashvilled, but then his wife threatened to leave him and take the kids with her, so he’s back in L.A. looking for a job.”
NARDELLIED – A company that has its momentum destroyed when ownership brings in an executive from the outside to run the show who then proves to be completely out of his or her league - with disastrous results - as in, “We were doing really well and things were starting to look up and then bang,we got nardellied into Chapter 11.”
NASCARRED – Term given to describe a marketing honcho who commits obscene amounts of the company’s money to a NASCAR program - just in time to see NASCAR plateau and start its inevitable downward spiral - as in, “He was fine until he got nascarred by his own stupidity, now he’s wrangling the media fleet for the northeast region.”
NUMBLER - A fawning, mind-numbing bumbler of a mid-level exec whose time is totally consumed by sucking up to his boss and justifying his existence, as in, “That numbler even agreed with him before he finished his sentence.” (Also known as a “Ned,” as in “Ned the Numbler.”)
OAR-LESS - Derived from the joke about having only one oar in the water, this term refers to someone who is simply overmatched from the moment he or she turns off the alarm, as in, "We needed him to be on for that meeting, but what were we thinking? He was oar-less in that fight from the get-go."
OVERKIRKED - A term used to describe the unwelcome overtures made to a non-receptive automaker by Kirk Kerkorian which is then purposely communicated – or leaked - to the media by Jerry York in casual conversation, as in, “I overkirked York saying that he and Kerkorian are already looking at their watches over this Ford play.”
PONTIHACKED - When a car company squanders its legacy and loses its way, only to realize (too late) that their mojo is irretrievable, as in, "That used to be one of the great car companies until they pontihacked it to death with their own serial incompetence."
RONNIED– Term used when a product program is blown-up from a misguided missile launched by a non-car guy who maliciously imposes his or her will on the job at hand with terribly destructive results, as in, “That program was really on its way until it got ronnied by that idiot, now it’s all screwed up and in danger of getting cancelled.”
SHANGHILED – When an exec gets sent to China on assignment with promises that it will do wonders for his or her career, only to find out that it’s a one-way ticket to irrelevant oblivion, as in, “Poor Joe got shanghiled to China and now he’s toast.”
SLIMECOAT - A particularly virulent strain of the traditional account-type, or "suit." Can be male or female, and they share an uncanny ability to do or say anything, at any time, in any situation and they absolutely cannot be trusted under any circumstances, as in, "Those slimecoats came out of the woodwork with their long knives drawn and killed the program before it even got off the ground."
SMOKEY-TIME - This refers to the classic "smoke and mirrors" presentations that go on every day in this town and in businesses across the country for that matter, as in, "We were nowhere in that meeting until Harry went all smokey-time on them, and then we walked out with the order. Unbelievable."
WENDELSPIN – Term given to describe any time Porsche’s CEO, Wendelin Wiedeking, speaks to the media, which usually means he covers two subjects.1. How wonderful he is and 2. How profitable Porsche is, which elicits a predictable response from members of the press, as in, “I was going to go to the Porsche press conference, but I think I’ve had enough wendelspin for one lifetime.”
YORKED– Kirk Kerkorian’s notion of “helping” an automaker to new heights of profitability as channeled through Jerry York's brain, as in, “I see Ford got yorked by Kerkorian’s latest unwelcomed attack.” (“The Autoextremist Guide to the latest auto industry terms.” 5/14/08)
“With that in mind then, take your average American motorist (who has the unfortunate attention span of a ten-year-old behind the wheel of a car to begin with), and then put him or her on a brand-spanking-new “cute” Vespa (or any other scooterlicious transport of the moment) and unleash them on the general populace. The words Not Good don’t even begin to describe the peril involved in the reality of that concept. Not to mention little things like the horrible, crumbling roads which can send you flying in a nanosecond, or the distracted drivers on their cell phones in very large vehicles that don’t see you while you’re pretending you’re basking in life’s wondrous glow along the Cote d’Azur. (And guess what, folks - when you’re on a scooter, even a Honda Fit qualifies as a “very large” vehicle.) (“‘Scooterlicious?’ Not so much.” 5/21/08)
“When I became tired of what the ad biz had become nine years ago, and tired of the sycophants, the ass kissers, the weasels and the other two-bit players who had turned what was once a pretty interesting profession into a vapid wasteland, I knew I had to do something different. I also had grown tired of seeing the auto business – as practiced here in Detroit - sink further into the Abyss of risk-avoidance-driven mediocrity, and watching legions of so-called "executives" make horrendous, piss-poor decisions day after day on behalf of their respective auto companies. As I watched the carnage unfold around me, I knew that something had to be said by someone who had first hand knowledge of what was going on - someone who was in the trenches and on the front lines of the ongoing battle - and that someone turned out to be me. And Autoextremist.com became my forum to say it.” (“Write Hard, Die Free: The Autoextremist Manifesto, Nine Years On.” 5/28/08)
“What does it mean? It means that right now, the Detroit car business model that has been in place for the last 35 years has been blown to smithereens. Everything that passed for standard operating procedure before is simply no longer applicable. The spike in gasoline has the American car-buying consumer public scared straight. And this isn’t just a brief little flirtation with global reality this time, because even the most obtuse Americans seem to get it now.” (“GM’s 20 percent solution.” 6/4/08)
“Let's be clear here, the absolute last thing Chrysler management needs right now is some touchy-feely management program on ‘leadership.’ You do that when you're fat, happy and looking at six straight quarters of profitability and increased market share. That doesn't apply in this case, not even close, as a matter of fact. When you're literally on the ropes and gasping for breath, like Chrysler is, there isn't a management training program on the face of the earth that will do you a lick of good. That's something that the GE-addled brains at Cerberus just can't fathom, apparently.
Let me put it another way. This is not the time to consider "What Would Jack Do?" Jack doesn't havethe first clue about the car business, and he wouldn't even know where to begin.
Memo to "Minimum Bob" and Cerberus: You need product. And you need customers. And then, repeat after me: The Rest of it Doesn't Matter.” (“What would Jack do? Don’t ask.” 6/11/08)
“It’s about the Green thing. We get it, and every citizen of this country gets it now. Green responsibility will be part of American life going forward. But please, please dispense with the bullshit that attaining some sort of environmental happy place is just a presidential term away. The most capable technical minds in the world are working overtime on the transportation systems of the future – meaning what we’ll be driving five, ten and 20 years from now - and yes, a lot of them are right here in the Motor City. You remember us, right? The place both you and your advisors have conveniently written off at least a hundred times in the last eighteen months, except for our votes, of course. After all, you may be vacuous, transparent, hopelessly naïve and incredibly unrealistic, but you’re not stupid.” (“Politicians? We don’t need no stinkin’ politicans.” 6/18/2008)
“This country is brimming with the talent, vision and resources necessary to accelerate battery development, explore alternative propulsion, or whatever the technical need is that’s on the table for our future transportation needs. But the fact of the matter is that as a nation we have never made the commitment necessary to address our energy issues, or marshaled the resources necessary to even make a dent in the problems we’re now facing. Our leaders in Washington have shirked their responsibility and squandered every opportunity to set long-range goals and create a sense of urgency with the American people when it comes to our energy future, and now we’re paying the price for it. Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain both insist that they know what’s best for us going forward when it comes to energy security, but I’m not convinced of that. They talk around the issue, throw out knee-jerk platitudes and generally sink into campaign rhetoric at the drop of a hat. And none of that is doing this country one damn bit of good at this point.” (“Obama and McCain must step-up to history.” 6/25/08)
“It really is up to us as a nation at this juncture, isn’t it? But it’s going to require the kinds of words, concepts and, most important, the actions that have been anathema around here for quite some time. Words like sacrifice, discipline, focus and commitment. Concepts like believing in - and caring for - each other, while having our leaders put this country’s long-term interests in front of self-interests and special interests.
And actions like mustering this nation’s brilliant technical resources and mind power, and unifying it with our manufacturing expertise to forge a new urgency of purpose, with an unwavering focus on getting this country back in shape and on its game.
I, for one, strongly believe that it’s not too late for this country to get on track and start functioning as a unified nation once again. And faced with the most daunting set of circumstances in 70 years - a crumbling housing industry, an automobile industry in grave crisis and a global reality that threatens to tear this nation asunder - I really don’t think we have much of a choice.
We didn’t get this far as a nation by letting things be dictated to us. At key moments in our history we have always risen to the occasion, responding to dire threats and looming crises with a sense of unity and an overriding purpose that has transcended and overcome all challenges. And we are now at one of those key moments again.
On the eve of our nation’s birthday, we’re once again being reminded of the price of our independence.
Let’s hope we’re all ready to do our part.“ (“The Price of Independence.” 7/2/08)
“So what’s next for this once-proud company? At this critical juncture in GM’s history it will need lots of things to go its way if it is to survive as an independent entity. That includes its new product offensive, which can’t miss in any segment. When you’re fat and happy and on a roll, you can afford a product stumble once in a while, but when you’re in GM’s situation, a product misstep could be the difference between survival and bankruptcy. I see absolutely no margin for error here.” (“GM’s defining moment.” 7/9/08)
“The same questions dominated Detroit marketers’ discussions in meeting after meeting: How do we convince them that we’re worth a look if they won’t even give us a glance to begin with? How can we possibly fortify our brand identity when we’re not even on these consumers’ radar screens? How do we close that perception gap when these people are clinging to bad memories of a decade (or more) ago? How can we get through to those who won’t give us the time of a day that we’re not the same car company that we once were?” (“For Detroit, perception is the new reality.” 7/16/08)
“Now that the story is starting to get out about Ford’s dramatic future product plans due to be announced tomorrow, I can safely say that Ford, under the leadership of CEO Alan Mulally, will be the best-positioned American automaker for this still-new century. That’s a strong statement, but an accurate one. No automobile manufacturer has undergone a more fundamental internal transformation than Ford. And by fundamental I mean everything, beginning with a philosophical shift in the way the company approaches this business led by Mulally, whose laser-like focus has altered the company to such an extent that it’s barely recognizable in less than two years.” (“Ford’s radical transformation signals a dramatic shift for the company – and the American automobile industry.” 7/23/08)
“That Friedman, the High Priest of the ‘finger snap’ environmentalists - those who specialize in disseminating blue sky misinformation while rarely letting the facts, or reality, get in the way of their knee-jerk pronouncements - would readily endorse seeing 1 in 10 jobs (the ones currently either directly or indirectly linked to the domestic automobile industry) in this country get wiped off the map, as long as it fulfilled their vision and jibed with their sensibilities as to what an idyllic Green America should look like - should be no surprise either, as it’s clear that he and his minions would be happy to see all of us in the “flyover” states be unemployed, and see this nation’s transportation fleet reconfigured into some sort of warped 21st century Rickshaw Nation - as long as we were all breathing in clean and unfettered air.” (“To the chagrin of the doomsayers, the automobile – and the freedom it represents – is still alive and well.” 7/30/08)
“I’ve said it before in The United States of Toyota and repeatedly in this column, and I don’t mind saying it again today: We, as a country, cannot exist as Starbucks Nation alone. We cannot come to the table in this new global economy only as a nation of slothful consumers, a people who have completely lost the ability to create or manufacture things – and even worse, the will to muster the energy to care - because once we lose that, then the day we lose touch with the basic fabric of our nation won’t be far behind. And make no mistake about it, once that happens, other nations will be glad to start dictating our quality of life to us in no uncertain terms. Sound appealing? I didn’t think so.” (“Crunch time for Detroit - and the nation.” 8/6/2008)
“At this juncture Detroit has only one move left, and that is to get through to the American consumer by building outstanding products that have no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” attached to them. Machines that not only stand out, but stand above the rest. Anything less than that kind of superlative execution and effort will hasten the demise of these companies altogether, or at least marginalize them into becoming regional players in their home country.” (“Detroit has lost the “image” war, and now it’s time to move on.” 9/3/08)
“Life happens. Fast. And most of us understand that there are consequences for our actions and that bad things can happen sometimes. But we’re willing to gamble it all and go out of our houses each and every day because going through the motions - or living with the “fear” that something bad might happen to us if we actually live our lives - is a risk we’re willing to take.
We don’t live in the country that you want to see happen, Sepkowitz, thank goodness. And we don’t ever want to, either.
You see, personal freedom isn’t an option here. It may be in other places around the world but not here. And we like it that way, amazingly enough.
So I suggest you sit down, take a deep breath, and go back to whatever it is that you do, because we have places to go and people to see, and you’re slowing us down.” (“Memo to Mr. Sepkowitz.” 9/10/08)
“But at the end of the day there’s another, more ominous reality hanging over GM and the euphoric potential of the Volt. And that is that after a century of dominance and a storied existence as one of America’s corporate icons, “GMnext” isn’t about the next 100 years at all. Rather, “GMnext” is about whether or not GM can survive its precarious financial standing – the one that is haunting every move the company makes – long enough to see the Volt come to fruition in the first place. Such is life in the Motor City these days.” (“’GMnext’ -and an ominous note of reality.” 9/17/08)
“And just how much worse can it get?
Not much, because Detroit’s giant bowl of Not Good is already filled to the brim.
With the domestic automakers planning on launching a brace of pivotal new vehicles for the 2010 model year, there is at least a shred of hope that two of the automakers can survive. New products, new technologies and compelling new fuel-efficient vehicles are on the way. But talking about all the great stuff coming in 2010 and surviving until then are two entirely different things.
Unless and until cooler heads prevail in Washington - which apparently is asking a lot - and the political grandstanding can be set aside for a day, then Detroit simply doesn’t have until 2010.
If people can’t get loans to buy cars or trucks, then it’s Game Over for Detroit.” (“A Doomsday scenario unfolds for Detroit.” 10/1/08)
“Apart from the fact that I find the Ferrari California supremely disappointing from a design perspective, what the car represents is even worse, because to me it signals an ominous directional shift for a company that once prided itself on selling “one less car than our customers demand.” With the California, Ferrari’s iron-clad grip on its soul has started to slip. It may be imperceptible at this point, but the fact remains that they made the conscious decision to build a lesser Ferrari – and make no mistake that’s exactly what the new California is – and it will prove to be a defining moment in Ferrari history.” (“Ferrari loses its grip on its soul.” 10/8/08)
“If we want to shore-up this nation and we want to get this country back on track, then we're going to not only have to make some difficult sacrifices, we're going to have start playing tough in this new global marketplace. And that means that the gloves will have to come off in Washington. This country needs to start thinking in terms of "America, Inc." and that means first and foremost rebuilding our manufacturing base and supporting our American companies - no matter what sector they're competing in - because to not do so in this global economy borders on the criminal. The reality about all of this is that countries from all over the globe love to do business here and they love to do so for a reason. And that reason is because we don't ask them to sacrifice much to come over and set-up shop here. As a matter of fact, we make it real easy for them. Twenty-five years of tax break incentives? Sure, why the hell not! Free land? Come on down!
The bottom line is that this type of total economic acquiescence on the part of our government - at the national and local level - will have to change, and dramatically so too. (“After the smoke clears, it's time for America, Inc.” October 29, 2008)
“Let me get back to the issues facing the domestic automobile industry, one of the pillars of our manufacturing base in this country. The threat to the “Detroit 3” has far-reaching implications for all of us. One in 10 jobs is either directly or indirectly connected to the domestic automobile industry. Repeat that figure to yourself because it’s daunting. We’re not just talking about the threat to one of America’s core industries here, and it’s not just Michigan or the other scarred “flyover states” that will be devastated by this either, because there are automotive suppliers and dealerships big and small all across the country that would be immediately affected if Detroit is allowed to go bankrupt. And for a nation teetering on a deep recession, I don’t need to tell you that a bankrupt Detroit could send this nation over the edge – and right off a cliff.” (“Dear President-Elect Obama.” 11/5/08)
“Anyone who thinks this country will not be thrown into a full-blown depression if the domestic automobile industry is allowed to fail is simply kidding themselves. We are facing a perfect storm of events that could spell disaster if we as a nation don’t act and act fast. And it would take years for this country to recover too.
As I’ve said repeatedly the time for all of the idyllic, “let the free market run its course” hand-wringing is over. It’s far too late for that. This country’s leadership needs to get these loans to GM and the rest of the domestic automobile industry in the next 60 days, or life as we’ve come to know it in this country – and I mean every part of this country – not just here in the Motor City, will be severely and unequivocally altered.
That tick, tick, tick you hear?
It's the time running out on the future of America.” (“Tick, tick, tick...” 11/12/08)
“At any rate, the message in that hearing room was clear: Detroit put itself in the shape it finds itself in by building bad, low-tech cars that nobody wants. That they were regurgitating the now-obligatory woeful misperception of Detroit that has spread across the country - a Detroit that hasn’t existed for the better part of a decade, by the way - was obvious. The fact that these Senators weren’t aware of the kind of ultra-competitive products that these companies have out now was predictable. And the fact that they weren’t aware of the kind of leading edge technological development that Detroit is actively engaged in was predictable too.
Being clueless in Washington isn’t all that uncommon, unfortunately, but when misconceptions, half-truths and flat-out lies get hoisted up the flagpole as Fact, then it’s no wonder that the leaders of these Detroit car companies were on the defensive and unable to score points with the judges.” (“New Detroit vs. Old Detroit in Washington.” 11/19/08)
“Detroit may be Washington’s whipping boy du jour, and our esteemed representatives may want to continue on with their witch hunt – what’s next, will they demand that the Detroit CEOs bring their college transcripts with them next time? – but they won’t be fooling anyone.
It’s not about what’s good for the rest of the country in Washington. It’s not about nurturing the American fabric, or protecting the foundation of our manufacturing base, or taking care of a productive national industry that creates real American jobs, or keeping the nation as a vital player in the global economy.
No, not even close, as a matter of fact.
In Washington it’s about whoever is greasing the skids or blowing in a Senator’s or congress person’s ear just right. And the Motor City finds itself on the outside looking in.
Detroit might as well start writing its own obituary right now, because even if some sort of financial bridge loan package is grudgingly bequeathed, the strings and built-in entanglements are likely to choke the life out of the U.S. auto industry once and for all.” (“Washington to Detroit: Drop Dead.” 11/26/08)
“Washington will be forced to listen this week by the sheer momentum that comes from ordinary citizens speaking up all across America. People who understand what these American automobile companies mean to their local communities and to their livelihoods. Ordinary people with extraordinary understanding that this whole issue concerning Detroit’s future isn’t a Republican thing, or a Democratic thing, but an American thing.” (“America speaks, and Washington is forced to listen.” 12/3/08)
“The anti-car, anti-Detroit cabal alive in Washington and in certain corners of the media has seized the opportunity to bury Detroit and the domestic automobile industry once and for all, and in so doing have set into motion the final erosion of the American industrial fabric, sending a message to the world that this nation has not only lost its will to fight and is incapable of protecting one of its essential industries, it has willingly set a course for long-term weakness and vulnerability.
Mr. President, countless American families are calling on you to keep this essential American industry going. We hope you see it to do the right thing.” (“It’s up to you Mr. President.” 12/12/08)
And so here we are. GM and Chrysler are hanging by threads, waiting for President Bush to get them enough money to survive until the administration of President-Elect Obama takes over. But when that power shift occurs, the entire process begins again as the new administration lines up to deliver their admonishments, lectures and “vision” for the U.S. auto industry’s future. And that means more pounds of flesh, more political grandstanding and more conditions for GM – and more trips to Washington – well into the spring.
But while we wait, the impending implosion of GMAC – the other disaster that people are forgetting about – if left unchecked could take half of GM’s dealers down (or more) over the next two months. Yes, GM has too many dealers, too many divisions and too many models, but losing half their dealers overnight would be absolutely disastrous to the families and to towns all across America that depend on those dealers for so much.
GM has now taken the unprecedented step of shutting down half of its manufacturing operations to preserve what little cash it has left, the situation is that dire. And even that may not be enough.
And Ford? America’s original car company - now under the capable tutelage of Alan Mulally - has more than a shot at not only surviving, but thriving. They have the cash reserves, and they have scintillating new products coming. If things continue to spiral downward for GM (Chrysler will be sold or “parted out” in the next few months), Ford could very well be the last American car company standing at the end of 2009.
The bigger picture here is that the clock is ticking loudly for Detroit and the nation’s economy. The economic news is grim and gets worse by the day. I wrote several years ago that the U.S. auto industry was “the canary in the coal mine” for the rest of America, that the pressure closing in on Detroit, the State of Michigan and the entire region brought on by a boiling global economy was a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the nation. Add in the financial system bailout, the housing crisis and the lack of credit, and you have a swirling maelstrom of negativity that threatens to swallow this entire country whole.
I never imagined in my wildest dreams when I started this website that one of America’s corporate icons – General Motors – would be on the verge of collapse just short of ten years later. And like most everyone else I’m sure, I never imagined that this country’s economic situation would get to be so precarious, but it is, and we’ll all have to pull together to deal with it.
In my column on the Wednesday after the election – which was an open letter to President-elect Obama – I covered a lot of ground. But I closed with what I thought this country needed right now, and I think it bears repeating:
“Instead we want rolled-up sleeves, clear thinking and a clean sheet of paper. We want the Best and the Brightest that this country can muster, and we want those individuals to attack our problems with a zeal that we haven’t seen in Washington in at least 40 years.
We need action, Mr. Obama, because for too long we’ve seen inaction, excuses, and a general shirking of responsibility and accountability at every turn in Washington.
But most of all, sir, we need hope.
Hope that our representatives will have the strength, the courage and the vision to step up and deliver the kind of leadership that this nation so desperately needs.
Hope that our nation is not on the precipice of a cataclysmic decline but instead is on the verge of a great new era of innovation, creativity and global leadership.”
And at this point in time, hope is about all we have around here. Whole parts of the country have turned their backs on Detroit and wish nothing but ill will on an industry that has been part of this country’s industrial fabric for 100 years. An industry that has powered this nation forward, forged its middle class, helped win world wars and has been an inexorable part of towns – big and small – all across America.
That this industry – and the people who are part of it – have become expendable is difficult to understand and even harder to take, but we will move on as we always do, and hope for a better day.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you back here – hopefully with better news – on Wednesday, January 7th. (We will be updating “On The Table” with news as it develops over the break.)
Peace to you and yours.