December 19, 2012
Enjoy our year-end issue, and we'll see you back here
on January 9, 2013!
Missives from Wossamotta U? No, but we have PR Wranglers from Unctuous Prick University, Captain Queeg and his dancing Merry Minions, Sergio the Magnificent, and they shoot CMO's, don't they? You guessed it (and your mileage may vary) - it's time for the Autoextremist Year in Review!
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. That the car business is one of the most difficult endeavors on earth is no real secret. Fraught with peril at every step of the way and relentlessly complicated, this intensely competitive business offers a perennial primer on tailoring a dense concoction of complexity made up of design, engineering and advanced technology and making it into a conveyance that is not only functionally palatable to consumers but desirable as well.
But forget all of that blah-blah-blah. This business is about egos. Giant, unfettered, runaway egos.
After all, where else can you experience Captain Queeg and his Merry Minions as they wrestle GM over its own financial cliff to irrelevance? What would life be like without The Great Sergio and his Espresso-Fueled Acolytes pretending Fiat is a viable enterprise while propping up the company with Old School Chrysler profits? Or where would we be without Ford continuing to hammer away at MyFord Touch against all odds, or logic? How would we survive without having a laugh as Uncle Dieter Zetsche pretends that Daimler's got a handle on Smart? Or shaking our heads as the Honda brain trust only intermittently looks like they know what they're doing? Or watching as BMW and Mercedes-Benz knock each other senseless in the U.S. market for bragging rights back home? Or staring in amazement as Mazda contemplates going upmarket? Or watching Nissan's continuing adventure with the Leaf? Or seeing Akio Toyoda try to turn Toyota from a purveyor of blandtastic conveyances to a maker of high-desirability machines?
What would we do indeed. After all, would the movie business be anything special without the egos and the backstories? Of course not. The same can be said about the business of making cars. If it weren’t for the crazy egos at work in this business it would be a giant bowl of boredom without all of that Sturm und Drang. This just in: We need the egos in the biz, because without all of that outsized, self-inflated, self-aggrandizing egomaniacal behavior what would we be left with? An SAE convention. Or worse.
So without further ado then, let's get on with it. This is the Autoextremist Year in Review in all of its sweater wearin', chain smokin', espresso swillin' glory.
Editor’s Note: This column was never meant to be read in one sitting. Take a break. Get a life. And then report back to us in the New Year. Or not. And by the way, don’t miss our year-end “On The Table” column too. It doesn’t suck. - WG
Wait a minute? Where were we again? Where was the snow? The mind-numbing cold? Or the particularly delicious eyeball-rattling salt storms? And WTF? Sunny skies? This was the 2012 Detroit Auto Show in the heart of the gutty, gritty Motor City? In January? Really? It felt more like the Palm Beach International Auto Show. And while most of the country was enjoying The Winter That Hadn’t Started Yet, Cobo Hall rocked with enough of everything to please everyone in attendance from notable brilliance to yes, that old standby, relentless tedium. After all this is the Auto Biz, where egos and blind avarice collide on a regular basis, and this was Auto Show Week in the Motor City, where the home runs can be truly grand, and the mistakes can be, er, uh, truly horrendous. ("Scintillating debuts, excruciating moments, media homers and an eYawnster thrown in for good measure. The Autoextremist take on the 2012 Detroit Auto Show." - January 11, 2012)
Funny, but their “Fog of War” smells a lot like grilled Italian sausage with peppers and onions. The week started off on a discordant note when the Detroit Free Press deigned to weigh-in with something they called the Automotive Leadership Awards on Sunday, which proceeded to canonize The Great Sergio all the way to full sainthood in the “executive leadership” category. Far beyond a classic puff piece from some bygone era, this was blatant ass kissing at its finest, a relentlessly tedious paean so embarrassing in its scope that it left outsiders far enough away from Sergio’s aura – those still lucid enough to decipher the linguini from the stromboli, and the smoke and mirrors from the unmitigated bullshit – mumbling incoherently. Really? Couldn’t the media homers in this town stop their synchronized boot-licking long enough so we could get to the 2012 Detroit Auto Show without slipping and sliding on their collective drool? Apparently not. ("Scintillating debuts, excruciating moments, media homers and an eYawnster thrown in for good measure. The Autoextremist take on the 2012 Detroit Auto Show." - January 11, 2012)
And I want a car that looks like a Ferrari 458 Italia, goes 0 to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, gets 50 mpg in the city, emits nothing but a whiff of espresso and folds up in my briefcase when I have to park. GM took great pains to demonstrate to everybody that they were truly in touch with their inner youth and were hell-bent on being a socially submerged, switched on company that creates cars out of clouds that appeal to the thought balloons of the youth of today. You know, the ones who couldn’t care less about driver’s licenses and who find the idea of actually owning a car analogous to some sort of act of heresy to the Social Networking Nation. And while desperately trying to get in touch with the over-sharing youth of today, GM opened their show with a excruciatingly tedious video montage of a cross section of people saying “I Want.” As in, “I want a car that does everything for me so I can do something else.” Or, “I Want a car that drives itself.” “I want a car that is good for me. And the planet.” It went on for far too long. So long in fact that with the constant harangue of “I want, I want, I want” resonating through the loud speakers I thought, “I want to scream.” ("Scintillating debuts, excruciating moments, media homers and an eYawnster thrown in for good measure. The Autoextremist take on the 2012 Detroit Auto Show." - January 11, 2012)
Excuse me, Mr. Zetsche, would you come with us please? Described as “a pickup for the 21st century,” the Smart For-Us was the most embarrassing thing at the Detroit show. This rolling monument to tedium didn’t signal the revival of Smart - rather, it signaled the end of common sense at Daimler. The For-Us simply exists in a dimension of stupidity I’m not familiar with. It not only makes me wonder about the future of Daimler, it makes me start to question Deiter Zetsche’s sanity. ("Scintillating debuts, excruciating moments, media homers and an eYawnster thrown in for good measure. The Autoextremist take on the 2012 Detroit Auto Show." - 1/11/2012)
Nope, nothing funny about it, actually. But how about this? You guys well and truly suck. Now that’s funny. VW’s press conference was so bad it was actually painful. Opening with a decidedly ridiculous video for its new Jetta Hybrid involving a guy rescuing another guy at the side of the road, followed by many blissful driving scenes that were, how shall I say, uh, relentlessly lame. I mean, as in really. Then the event went downhill from there when the OGCCESR (Obligatory German Car Company Executive Statistical Regurgitation) was followed by a group of acrobatic dancers that were there to introduce something called the eBugster. An alleged electrified Beetle convertible concept that basically telegraphed the look of the next generation Beetle cabriolet, the eBugster was an eYawnster in the first degree. And any focus on the concept was repeatedly interrupted by The Dancers That Just Would Not Go Away. Leaping, sliding, break-dancing, and generally annoying the assembled multitudes to their last nerve, it was an exercise in futility the likes of which I hadn’t seen since, well, since the Mercedes-Smart fiasco an hour before. And then chief designer Walter da Silva came out and immediately put an explanation point on the proceedings by calling the car “funny.” Huh? ("Scintillating debuts, excruciating moments, media homers and an eYawnster thrown in for good measure. The Autoextremist take on the 2012 Detroit Auto Show." - 1/11 2012)
It may be a soulless enterprise but it's our soulless enterprise, dammit. As for Mercedes-Benz? It continued to flounder because this company doesn’t appear to understand who they are and what they stand for anymore. Are they the maker of great cars and the AMG high-performance machines that honor the legacy of the marque? If so, they should focus on that and keep their mouths shut. (The new SL was decidedly average, and thus a disappointment.) Or are they the Tone Deaf Meisters and marketing stumble-bums who continue to embarrass themselves at every turn with their dismal Smart car misadventure and their relentlessly tedious and humiliating media events? Mercedes touts its sales success in this market but it has transformed itself into a soulless enterprise with questionable marketing instincts and piss-poor leadership. The brand deserves better. ("Detroit Auto Show Aftermath: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Inconsequential Tail Chasing." - 1/18/12)
One "honk" if you're happy. Two "honks" if you're sad. And three "honks" if you're aching to have your big fat nose punched. I get the fact that the millennials (aka the Nanosecond Attention Span Generation) couldn’t care less about their driver’s licenses or any vestige of the high-performance era, that their communication devices are their lives and that over-sharing defines their very existence, but that doesn’t mean these manufacturers should turn the asylum over to the inmates and allow this generation to start dictating how they design their cars. I get what allegedly makes the millenials tick – such as it is – but at the end of the day this business will not be defined by them. Why? Because there is no amount of experiential social media marketing forays or collective group hugs that will sell a vehicle that is flat-out unpleasant to look at or poorly executed. In other words, manufacturers can reach out to the millenials at every opportunity in the various social media platforms that exist and put all of the connectivity they can muster into their vehicles to entice them, but this generation will not be interrupted from their over-sharing by a clown car, even if it plugs into their lifestyles absolutely perfectly. ("Detroit Auto Show Aftermath: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Inconsequential Tail Chasing." - 1/18/12)
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. He doesn't have a frickin' clue. Alas, here we are, with the so-called “Washington Auto Show” making the news this week. To the real people who really want to see the show and check the pulse of the auto industry at this point in time, enjoy it and have fun, because there are a lot of really great things to see and you deserve to have a real live auto show just like the rest of us. To the rest of you out there who just can’t pry your eyes and ears away from a given news day part, set your bullshit detectors to the “11” (for unmitigated) setting and understand that 98 percent of the rhetoric emanating from the Washington Auto Show this week is nothing more than serial pontificating at its sublimely ridiculous. And remember one more thing while you’re at it: It’s not about you, or what you need, or what’s rational for your current financial situation in terms of acquiring transportation that works for you. No, it’s about them. It’s about maliciously entrenched political agendas and it’s about what these political operatives deem to be acceptable and “right” for the rest of us – in their twisted, self-important minds anyway – when it comes to solving this nation’s transportation puzzle. ("In The Land of Self-Important Pontification, a perfect place for an auto show." - 1/25/12)
For the most part auto companies have no business being on the Super Bowl. There, I said it, but it’s true. What seems like a target-rich environment for most auto companies instead can become a minefield fraught with peril. And why is that, exactly? It’s for the same reasons that some (not all) auto executives can become derailed and lost in their own delusional thinking, which means that they repeatedly make the fundamental mistake of believing that what matters to them and what they obsess about and revolve their worlds around on a day-to-day basis matters to the outside world, when it clearly doesn’t. Not in the least, in fact. ("Auto companies and the Super Bowl? It’s a dance that’s fraught with peril." - 2/1/12)
Get off my frickin' lawn, twerps! People need to take a deep breath, take a step back from the gooey schmaltz as propagated by Messrs Francois and Marchionne in their cynically calculated “It's Halftime in America” lecture-masquerading-as-a Super Bowl-commercial and understand what we’re really talking about here. And that is that in its simplest state this is an Italian-owned car company blatantly trying to guilt America into buying more of its cars and trucks, and willing to do it by using any means necessary. Even if they have to drag Clint Eastwood into the mix in order to pull it off. A sad commentary unto itself, but the bare-knuckled reality nonetheless. ("It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. And there was a football game goin’ on somewhere in there too." - 2/8/12)
Predictably tedious, completely irrelevant. That the UAW's Bob King has become a painful anachronism and a pathetic figure resolutely living in the past is no secret to anyone who toils in and around this business. King conjures up old times for his dilapidated union and its minions, and rails against “the man” with hoary notions of moral indignation and perceived inequities that are so archaic in the globally chaotic business world that the U.S. exists in today that he has become a recurring embarrassment guaranteed to peg the “wince” meter every time he opens his mouth. ("Demagogues, vapor trails and brand auras." - 2/15/12)
In other words it's a giant bowl of Not Good. To paraphrase a great Beatles song, “It’s a real Nowhere Brand, sitting in its Nowhere Land, making all its nowhere plans for nobody.” Acura is stuck in a Dead Brand Zone of its own making. It is supposed to represent the ultimate in Honda thinking and expertise; instead it comes across as a non-essential combatant. What is Acura’s reason for being? Exactly. Brand Perception? It barely even registers. Even with the much-touted NSX three years away. ("Brand Perception: Who's hot and who's not." - 2/22/12)
And then there's the Trifecta of Not Good. Lexus is the lap of numbingly tedious luxury or The Pursuit of Blandtastic Perfection, take your pick. Brand Perception? For people who hate cars and who find German luxury-performance machines to be too intimidating. And who also find the act of driving to be a chore. ("Brand Perception: Who's hot and who's not." - 2/22/12)
And it’s still the rolling definition of “f--- you money” until further notice. The Roller still rules. No, they’re not for everyone, thank goodness, but they still represent an unyielding commitment to relentless luxury like no other car in the world. Brand Perception? Rolls-Royce is still every bit Rolls-Royce, and the auto world is better off for it. ("Brand Perception: Who's hot and who's not." - 2/22/12)
Yeah, something about fools and their money. To those precious few out there who have bought into the Fisker mystique as being some sort of Green Magic Carpet ride masquerading as a functioning automobile, one that will not only solve all of their problems with one well-timed neighborhood drive-by but will improve their rolling green quotient exponentially, well, there’s something to be said for you… ("Green Magic Carpet RIdes, etc." - 2/29/12)
Almost makes one long for those halcyon days of José Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua. Almost. I will give you a glimpse of the “Fiat Way” as it's currently being practiced out in Auburn Hills (and thank you to you moles out there annoyed by it enough to point it out in detail). Take the ingredients made up of obfuscation, stonewalling, pompousness and belligerence, then add in the strongest dose of “Not Invented Here” (aka our “way” is better, so don’t even think of telling us about what everyone else has been doing successfully for years) and unbridled arrogance imaginable, and you end up with a lethal cocktail of intransigence with a triple shot of “if you don’t like it we’ll find someone who will, and for half the price while we’re at it.” ("Left unchecked, the 'Fiat Way' will ultimately lead to Fiat-Chrysler’s undoing." - 3/21/12)
We're talkin' about the card-carrying members of the three steps forward, five back brigade. But then again just having a couple of magical ingredients doesn’t guarantee success in this business, either. Because a random set of ingredients is just that, a mélange of good stuff that looks great on paper but doesn’t necessarily hang together as a unified whole. The car companies who separate themselves from the pack are the ones that are gifted at tuning their particular set of magical ingredients to flourish together to the point that greatness follows. The rest? They may score a few notable wins and superlatives here and there, but they never seem to get it together enough to achieve the top plateau. ("The magical automotive ingredients." - 3/28/12)
"New York... just like I pictured it... skyscrapers and everything..." - Stevie Wonder. What's refreshing about New York is that when you see these automotive visions rolling by you realize that despite the seemingly overwhelming challenges facing these enthusiasts - the traffic, the tolls, the taxes, the mean streets, the unruly and irreverent drivers - they're still willing to drive and ride and even flaunt their enjoyment for all to see. And that may be confounding to the virulent anti-car people who are raising their pitchforks higher by the day, but it perfectly encapsulates why the love affair with the automobile and freedom of mobility isn't going anywhere anytime soon in this country. Every time I come to New York I have to take my hat off to the enthusiasts of every stripe who revel in enjoying their chosen machines here. From where I sit these are the most committed motoring enthusiasts in the world. ("A New York state of mind." - 4/4/12)
The magnificent '59 Corvette Stingray. Still remarkable to this day.
It’s about creating that fundamental desire, in case y'all forgot. The sameness in design that has crept over the automobile business of late must be eradicated. At the very least it leads to a lack of enthusiasm in consumers’ minds, which is a giant bowl of Not Good unto itself, because if consumers are too bored or unmotivated to spend money, then guess what? They won’t. And this business will suffer greatly because of it. Just how important is great design? It is and will continue to be the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator in this business for the foreseeable future. Remember that the automobile business is as much a fashion business as the fashion industry. And I think that some of the young designers – and the people they work for – need to be reminded of that. Design reach and design risk have to make a comeback in this business and soon, because “me-too-ism” in automotive design doesn’t signal competitiveness; it just signals a level of blandtastic mediocrity, with everyone aiming for the middle. ("Design 'me-too-ism' runs rampant as sameness creeps over the automotive landscape." - 4/11/12)
The 1963 Buick Riviera.
The dramatic Cadillac CTS Coupe upholds the glorious tradition of GM "Styling" in its heyday, because it has a distinct point of view while flaunting its concept car look. The CTS Coupe is one of the design statements in the market today. - PMD
The Ford Evos concept is said to influence the look of the next Mustang.
The 1963 Corvette Stingray.
And their guts. So in this era of design sameness and “expectedness” some of the most talented designers in the world have been working on re-imagining America’s two greatest automotive icons, the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Mustang. The task is invigorating, frightening and enormously crucial, and the impact of their final takes on what’s “next” for these cars will impact the futures of these two car companies for years to come. It will be the ultimate test of design predictability vs. design reach. And I can’t help but think that it’s the ultimate test of these two companies in other areas as well. Their talent, their vision, their fundamental desire to succeed. ("The endless conundrum in the automotive design business: Design Predictability vs. Design Reach." - 4/18/12)
The Cadillac Ciel concept.
More than ever, in fact. When the denizens of the “thumb” generation finally emerge from their gaming lairs and take in the novel notion of sunlight and a warm summer breeze, their eyes will be drawn to provocative shapes and compelling visual stimulation of all kinds, including and perhaps especially the automobile. Yes, even in this era of the entitled and self-absorbed, design still matters. ("In this era of the entitled and self-absorbed, does design still matter?" - 4/25/12)
Well, maybe every other day. Confounding critics (including myself) Porsche has managed to stay true to its brand ideal despite aggressive forays into segments that at first glance seemed completely wrong for them. And perhaps some of those segments are still wrong for Porsche, but they have an uncanny knack for making it all work. Somehow, some way Porsche managers not only know how to make their products true to the essence of Porsche the brand, they’re able to retain the integrity of the brand’s image throughout. Is it seamless and foolproof? Absolutely not. Right now Porsche’s current ad campaign revolves around the idea that you can use a Porsche every day, that they don’t have to be coddled or kept as garage queens. The thought behind that campaign idea is well taken. You can use and enjoy Porsches every day. But Porsche marketing execs are walking a very fine line here. Porsches are impeccably rendered in every respect, there’s no doubt whatsoever about that. The delusion part comes in when those same execs think they can project this “every day” Porsche campaign theme indefinitely, that they will never reach a point when touting the “daily driver” aspect of Porsche also manages to degrade the specialness of Porsche at the same time. And they would be wrong. I would re-think this campaign immediately, because Porsche is in imminent danger of diluting its brand with this campaign’s train of thought. ("How brand delusion can lead to brand dilution." - 5/2/12)
Oh Really? And our AE Quote of the Year goes to none other than GM CEO Dan Akerson, who, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Alan Murray, responded to a question about how he had promoted Mary Barra, when the following exchange took place:
MR. MURRAY: You got some criticism for that appointment.
MR. AKERSON: Yeah. I was surprised, quite frankly. I mean, because I wasn't a car guy. But I almost think that being a car guy right now isn't the best thing, because the car guys drove it over the edge.
I don’t have to interpret what Akerson was saying for you, do I? No, of course not. After all, this car guys vs. bean counters thing has been going on since the dawn of the automobile industry. The recent Bob Lutz book was just the latest installment of this age-old discussion, until Dan Akerson decided to weigh-in, of course. And the discussion will continue long after Messrs. Lutz & Akerson trot off this mortal coil, you can count on that. What does it all mean, exactly? Not much. Akerson was responding to a question and talked too much, as is his wont, but there was no revelation in that statement coming from him. Why? Because he was being reflective of the current leadership at GM and its board. ("Here we go again." - 5/9/12)
And thank goodness for that. The financial types may think they are the center of the universe, especially in the current environment at GM, but make no mistake: it’s the True Believers who have the fate of the company in their hands. They’re the ones who keep long nights refining a new design to be just so. They’re the ones who spend an extra three weeks to get that last bit of steering feel perfectly dialed in. And they’re the ones who make damn sure that GM stays in the game. ("Here we go again." - 5/9/12)
(Photo courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Carroll Shelby at Le Mans in 1965.
(Dave Friedman, courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Venice, California, 1963. Carroll Shelby with the three Shelby American Cobra team cars that would win the 1963 USRRC Manufacturer's Championship, before they were shipped to Sebring.
It’s the Carroll Shelby Legacy that I prefer to remember the most, and the one that will endure the longest. What Shelby and his team were able to accomplish began with the fundamental and indelible concepts of creativity, ingenuity, dedication and perseverance. There were no shortcuts involved. Rather, it was a relentless desire to push the envelope as far as it would go and then go even further than that. And never, ever quit. As I pointed out last week, success in this business will continue to be defined by the True Believers, those talented men and women in product development, engineering and design who actually are involved with making automobiles as great as they possibly can be on a day-in, day-out basis. (The financial types can’t do it - in fact, they were never meant to do it. It’s just that too many in this business have lost sight of that fact or don’t want to ascribe to the reality of that statement. But it’s a High-Octane Truth that will remain self-evident in this business indefinitely.) As for those True Believers in this business actually charged with the responsibility of making great cars, they need to only look as far as the original True Believers – the quintessential “maverick” Carroll Shelby and his heroic collection of hot-rodder geniuses – for inspiration. They did it their way. And they did it with a passion and dedication that I believe will resonate in this business for many years to come. ("The essence of the Shelby Legacy will resonate in this business for years to come." - 5/16/12)
(Dave Friedman, courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Carroll Shelby at the wheel of a brand-new Cobra production car in Venice, California, 1963.
And without credible and desirable products to begin with, these car companies are dead in the water no matter how buzzworthy they are. So where does that leave this discussion? The auto companies that have willed themselves to believe in the effectiveness of the social media space will insist that it’s damn near the only game in town. That to not be there is to fail to leverage the vast collection of eyeballs consuming content at a dizzying rate, which is akin to committing marketing suicide. To them it’s about crafting image at every turn and influencing the buzz-worthiness of their products by association, even if traditional measures of ROI aren’t being answered. And that’s all well and good, because for them not being where the perceived action is almost far too painful to contemplate. But there will also be companies that march to a different drummer, ones that ask the hard questions as to the effectiveness of whatever the social media flavor of the moment is. These companies are likely to zig while the others are zagging in their quest to find the right balance between buzz-worthiness and actual real live ad effectiveness. ("Chasing moving targets." - 5/23/12)
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week, 4,745 days and 649 issues later. When I'm finished with an Autoextremist issue I have maybe a day before I start thinking of the next one (and this is all while I'm conducting my other business life as well). But then again, who am I kidding? I never stop thinking about it. That's just the way it is. And exactly the way it should be. As I said, creating Autoextremist is a relentless and at times frightfully all-consuming pursuit. It has long since blurred the lines between who I am and what I do, and frankly, at this point I wouldn't have it any other way. And as much as I would like to sit back and call it good going into our fourteenth year of AE, well, it's never good enough. That's just the way it is and the way it absolutely must continue to be. ("The High-Octane Truth, thirteen years on." - 5/30/12)
Alfa's AE Brand Image Meter ranking? Pathetic. Alfa Romeo is the brand that for the most part exists as a figment of Sergio Marchionne’s considerable imagination. Historically? A smokin’ hot brand image with a large measure of overt sexuality thrown in for good measure. Today? A once-great marque reduced to a sentence of underpinning Sergio’s incomprehensibly aggressive plan to dominate the automotive world. Somewhere in there the inherent goodness and likability of the Alfa Romeo brand lives. But the reality of today’s AE Brand Image Meter suggests that Alfa is the automotive equivalent of a shackled mushroom, kept in the dark and fed just enough to play a largely supportive, badge-engineering role in Sergio’s Empire. ("The Autoextremist Brand Image Meter." - 6/6/12)
Mmm, that's tasty. Toyota once was a Juggernaut, then it forgot about what it did best while trying to be something else. How did that work out? But make no mistake, there are legions of Toyota buyers out there who relish the opportunity to own a blandtastic appliance that blends into the woodwork, no matter how much Akio Toyoda tries to juice things up. The AE Brand Image Meter? For Toyota brand loyalists the brand is a white-hot bowl of oatmeal. For everyone else it’s what they used to drive before they drifted off to Nissan, Kia or Hyundai. ("The Autoextremist Brand Image Meter." - 6/6/12)
Henrik's Spruce Goose. Fisker is a boy’s automotive wet dream brought to life courtesy of Other People’s Money coupled with a wing and a prayer. There’s absolutely no reason in the world for this vehicle to exist other than to assuage Henrik Fisker’s considerable ego. ("The Autoextremist Brand Image Meter." - 6/6/12)
Texting Don Quixote. One thing about this crazy auto business is that it’s never easy. Ever. It’s an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege (to borrow a brilliant line from Cameron Crowe’s “Jerry McGuire”) and it’s not for the faint of heart. GM is on a precipice right now, and perhaps the shareholders don’t even realize it. (The Board of Directors certainly doesn’t, by all accounts.) On the one side is great product, delivered with financial efficiencies and real eye-opening profits, ultimately resulting in freedom from the most negative moniker ever bestowed on a car company: “Government Motors.” On the other side is The Darkness, fueled by that vast gray GM middle management quagmire and marked by a debilitating two steps forward, five steps back dance that has all of the mind-numbing cadence of chasing windmills. ("Questions that should have been asked at GM’s shareholder meeting, and the back stories that go with them." - 6/13/12)
Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer share a celebratory moment together after winning the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in their No. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro.
The winning No. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro. Porsche once ran a famous ad with a picture of a 911 that said, "It's everything we know so far." A brutal, purposeful, yet ghostly beautiful racing machine, the Audi R18 e-tron quattro represents everything Audi knows about the car building art at this very moment in time.
The best and then some. Audi is now the forward thinking brand firmly ensconced at the head table of the luxury-performance segment. Boasting technically advanced and beautifully purposeful machines inside and out, Audi production cars bristle with brilliant, innovative ideas and are executed with a relentless precision. And they are beautiful to look at as well. Oh, and that relentless desire part? Well, as I've often said, you can't put a number on a car's soul, that sometimes a machine can transcend the sum total of its parts to become something great, or even legendary. Audi management seems never content to rest on the brand's laurels, and their relentless desire to be the best looks to be well and truly engaged and focused for the future. And that's a very good thing. The hardest part for Audi execs from here on out? Keeping Audi on an upward trajectory without allowing complacency to creep in, on the track, or in their production vehicles. ("Excellence delivered." - 6/20/12)
Or should we say, death march. It will take a decade of the kind of focused consistency as practiced by BMW in order for Cadillac to make even the slightest dent in the aura built up around the 3 Series. Can it be done? No automaker is infallible, so Cadillac’s chance with the ATS is as good as any. But one thing that's in short supply down at the RenCen these days is patience. And I just have to wonder if there’s enough of it to go around to see this quest through to fruition. We shall see, but in the meantime let the chase begin. ("The chase begins." 7/4/12)
A warehouse in Sterling Heights just doesn't cut it. So the reality for Akerson and his troops is that they’re operating in a 24/7, all-hands-on-deck frenzy, developing competitive products, putting out fires, trying to move the sales needle, cutting costs, trying to maintain momentum in China, trying to grow business in new markets, etc., all the while waiting impatiently to get out from under the tainted moniker that no one wants to hear about anymore down at the RenCen. But, and this is a very big “but,” despite this swirling maelstrom of problems, issues, dire warnings and challenges, the fact that GM doesn’t have a proper museum is bordering on the criminal. ("The last thing on GM’s 'to do' list could be the most important symbol of its long-term survival." - 7/18/12)
In other words, the difference between Shit... and Shinola. Running a car company is one of the most difficult tasks in all of business. Running a car company successfully is even harder. The list of issues getting in the way between a car company being merely average and one that regularly strives to achieve greatness is painfully long. Things like economic distress, boneheaded product decisions, intransigent middle management layers (and the entrenched bureaucratic silos that go with them), and tragically unfocused or completely off-target marketing and advertising initiatives are the most prominent obstacles between a car company just going through the motions and one firing on all cylinders. ("The Five Essentials to automotive greatness." - 7/25/12)
And it’s really too bad, because the True Believers at GM deserve so much better. Today, on a gloomy summer day in the Motor City, it’s clear to me that GM has arrived at a crossroads in its history yet again. Even though the U.S. Government will divest itself of its GM stock holdings not long after the election – no matter which party wins – GM is in a burgeoning crisis of leadership and of purpose. And the most depressing thing about it is that the company’s options are few. The Board of Directors is a recurring joke and remains the chief culprit. After all, these are the same people who believed that Akerson was the right guy for the job in the first place, and the company perennially suffers from its collectively stilted idea of guidance and its “go-along-to-get-along” mentality. Where is the outrage? Why can’t at least one board member muster the cojones to get up and question the road the company is taking, when it’s clearly going down the path to nowhere good? I will close with this: Dan Akerson may be highly thought of in his inner circle of cronies at The Carlyle Group and with the rubber-stamping minions on GM’s Board, but there’s no question in my mind that his fifteen minutes are up. He's had plenty of time to demonstrate – and convincingly so, I might add – that he’s the wrong CEO, at the wrong time, at the wrong car company. ("Mr. Akerson, your fifteen minutes are up." - 8/15/12)
The Full Akerson? Indeed. There it is, folks, that’s “The Full Akerson” for all to see (which is bound to replace the expression “The Full Cleveland” at any moment). Why do I hear the voice of John McEnroe ringing in my ears all of a sudden, as in, “Are you serious?” I don’t think the men and women of GM get up and go to work each and every morning thinking about Teddy Roosevelt’s ritual lambasting of critics. In fact, judging by the myriad reports that bubbled up from my moles within GM after my column of last week, they’re driving to work wondering how much longer they have to put up with this blockhead running the place. ("Tick, tick, tick." - 8/22/12)
Tired, tired, sick and tired. As for the “… and we’re hungry to win” epithet at the end, really? On the one hand, yes, the people at GM are hungry to win, but not for Dan Akerson or his PR Meister. Or because of them, either. Neither one of them is capable of inspiring leadership or understanding what it actually means to lead people. (I keep hearing from Navy men with some familiarity with the auto business who wince every time they’re reminded that Akerson is one of them.) The people of GM are hungry to win because they’re tired of being thrown under the bus by their own alleged leader in public and private. They’re tired of their CEO telling them that they’re not good enough, or smart enough, or focused enough to compete, but that if they just assimilate some of his gifted brilliance their lives will be irrevocably changed for the better. ("Tick, tick, tick." - 8/22/12)
Akerson and Bingol have already lost The Game, they just don’t realize it. Damn me if you will, boys, but be forewarned that the whole “critics be damned” shtick doesn’t really work when they’re coming out of the woodwork in droves. This is just the beginning. You can expect that the critics’ drums pounding out a cadence questioning Akerson’s leadership will beat louder by the day. But it’s not only the critics who are beginning to openly talk about the fact that The Emperor Has No Clothes that should have Messrs. Akerson and Bingol worried. No, it’s the men and women of GM who are fed up with the tone-deaf circus that seems to accompany Akerson wherever he goes that should be the most worrisome aspect. That sound you hear? It’s the tick, tick, tick of the clock in the middle of the night that’s magnified in the deafening silence, the one signifying that time is running out on the grand experiment to have this “accidental tourist” helming one of the world’s largest industrial concerns. ("Tick, tick, tick." - 8/22/12)
We don't need no stinkin' clinics. I’m a firm believer in auto companies doing their jobs, and that means they have to be way out front of the consumer in developing a look, a feel, a texture, a tone and a driving experience that the consumer hasn’t even imagined yet. In other words that means these car companies have to lead with a purpose and a conviction that helps forge a brand image that’s not only desirable, but will become burnished in consumers’ minds for years to come. That’s the magic part of this business that’s still valid and it rarely emerges from a clinic, no matter how earnest or well intended. ("Three thoughts." - 8/29/12)
In other words, Toyota runs deep. And why is that exactly? This just in: Consumers like Toyota. Consumers are comfortable with the idea of the brand and its promise. They believe in Toyota and understand what to expect from it. And they have a deep vault of accumulated positive experiences to consider, whether it is from their own ownership experience or from experiences related by friends, colleagues or family members. ("Toyota runs deep." - 9/5/12)
ACCIDENTAL TOURIST. A highly derogatory term finding wide use in the business right now. It is used to describe executives devoid of the qualifications necessary to properly perform the duties assigned to them. Although this term can be used to describe executives at all levels, it's most effective when describing CEOs who are maliciously out of their element. ("The Autoextremist Guide to the Latest Auto Industry Terms." - 9/12/12)
AKERSONNED. A term originated in the hostile confines of GM's headquarters, it is used to describe an executive who falls out of favor with a CEO for egregious misdeeds, both real and imagined, and who then is summarily jettisoned from the company. "He was exactly what they needed but his free-wheeling deal-making clashed with the ingrained culture of plodding ineptitude, so he was Akersonned from the company." Most effective when used by the media in covering GM. ("The Autoextremist Guide to the Latest Auto Industry Terms." - 9/12/12)
BAROLO'D. Derisive term used by auto company PR operatives to describe the altered state of mind some media types adopt on extended press junkets, where the booze and wine flow freely and the propensity for said journalists to lose all track of space, time, reality - and objectivity - is high. As in, “He's a no-talent pain in the frickin' ass but once we get him all Barolo'd up it won't matter, our Belchfire 8 will be the greatest thing since automotive sliced bread in no time." ("The Autoextremist Guide to the Latest Auto Industry Terms." - 9/12/12)
BURNED TO A CRISPIN. A term named for the ad agency in Colorado of the same name that specializes in creating tedious campaigns that are usually too hip and precious for their own good, it usually refers to 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 with that latest terminally hip ad campaign.” ("The Autoextremist Guide to the Latest Auto Industry Terms." - 9/12/12)
DEUTSCH-BAG. Named after the perpetually self-aggrandizing advertising maven (although he seems to spend most of his time pontificating on NBC's Today Show these days), the term refers to a person involved in the ad biz - usually on the creative side - who takes himself far too seriously for his own good. ("The Autoextremist Guide to the Latest Auto Industry Terms." - 9/12/12)
FAUX-BRANO. Designer term given to the faux wood applique used throughout the industry to convey richness in interiors. Sample usage: "We'll throw so much Faux-Brano in this thing it will look like a Roller." ("The Autoextremist Guide to the Latest Auto Industry Terms." - 9/12/12)
FORGET IT JAKE, IT'S CHINATOWN. From the Robert Towne script from the classic 1974 film starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Roman Polanski. A term used to describe a situation that's so beyond hope that the only thing left to do is to just walk away. ("The Autoextremist Guide to the Latest Auto Industry Terms." - 9/12/12)
SERGIO'D. Term used to describe certain members of the media who are so blinded by Sergio Marchionne's calculated brilliance that they couldn't write an objective story about him if their lives depended on it, as in, "She used to be worth a shit but ever since she got Sergio'd she's barely able to construct a decent sentence." ("The Autoextremist Guide to the Latest Auto Industry Terms." - 9/12/12)
It’s all over but the hand-wringing for Fisker and his wonder toy. Will the Shiny Happy People out there in search of the Next Big Thing in green transportation be disappointed when Fisker Automotive falls by the wayside? Maybe for a minute or two. But then they’ll move on to the next “next” in green transportation and won’t even remember Fisker existed. To the rest of us in this industry who know better the “Fisker Follies” desperately need to be brought to a close, because the only thing clear about Fisker is that it is an automotive mirage that makes zero sense whatsoever: As a car, as a technological statement or even as an alleged automotive breakthrough. It’s overweight, overwrought and the fact that even one red cent of taxpayer money ended up underwriting Fisker’s Rolling Note to Self defies comprehension. ("The Fisker Follies, redux." - 9/26/12)
Follow the Pathetic Brick Road. Whether GM ultimately makes it or not is yet to be determined. They are so deeply talented in the car-making disciplines of design, engineering and product development that if the company’s future solely rested on the abilities of the True Believers, GM would be just fine. But unfortunately there’s a festering layer of incompetence and paranoia that begins with a grossly incompetent and ineffective Board of Directors, one that is being led down the primrose path by an Accidental Tourist of a CEO who has no business running a car company. Not even a little bit. And as long as Akerson, GM’s Board, and those Twin Pillars of Malicious Intransigence within GM – the Legal and Financial staffs – are allowed to run rampant and unfettered, GM, despite its undeniable global reach, could be headed down a path to second-tier status, if not ultimate destruction. ("Debatable issues." - 10/3/12)
Now that would be debatable. Sergio Marchionne sees the future of his company as revolving around the success or failure of Chrysler. He really doesn’t have a choice now, does he? But Marchionne’s continued insistence that Alfa Romeo will be a successful global brand – going from zero to 75,000 cars a year in this market alone by 2014-2015 – leaves a gaping hole in his credibility and may in fact be his Waterloo, no matter how good the new products looked in Las Vegas. I’m sure Marchionne is a student of Italian history, and he’s well aware of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great Italian general and politician who was referred to as the “Hero of Two Worlds.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if Sergio, given his massive ego, allows himself to dream of that kind of stature as being his final legacy when he decides to wander off and do something else. ("Debatable issues." - 10/3/12)
I've seen this movie before. It doesn't end well. This is the full Dan Akerson, the self-appointed “smartest guy in the room” reiterating again for all who care to watch and listen that everything that has happened in this business before he arrived was inconsequential and irrelevant. And every person of note who toiled before him in this swirling automotive maelstrom was an underperformer who didn’t know what they were talking about and who did a piss-poor job on top of it. For a Navy man, Akerson’s calculated disdain of history is frightening and an embarrassment. But for a guy with his hands on the tiller of General Motors, it’s a train wreck of unimaginable proportion just waiting to happen. (For the record the last person espousing this kind of logic was none other than John Smale, the P&G prophet who damn near ran the company right into the ground under the guise that savvy brand management could even sell inferior products, otherwise known as GM’s “You can sell shit as Shinola!” Reign of Terror.) How else can you possibly interpret Akerson’s latest move? And how else can this be anything but a heaping, steaming bowl of Not Good for the future of General Motors? ("GM goes long, to where is anyone’s guess." - 10/10/12)
Think again. Believe it or not, some of those people assigned to Cadillac have zero interest in seeing you succeed, Mr. Ferguson. As a matter of fact they will go out of their way to make sure you don’t, when given the opportunity. Why? Because they like things the way they are and they don’t like change, Akerson or no, and they will hold to their beliefs and make things miserable for you. Look at what happened to former GM CMO Joel Ewanick. (The difference being, of course, that Joel was actually qualified for the position, as opposed to being “gifted” the position by one of your boss’s dictates.) Ewanick tried to yank GM marketing out of the 20th century before the 21st century was a quarter of the way over, and the old guard didn’t like it one bit. So they went out of their way to make his life miserable along the way and eventually succeeded in having him jettisoned. Don’t think that will happen to you, especially after Akerson has anointed you? ("Memo to Mr. Ferguson: Watch your back." - 10/17/12)
Better yet, listen, period. I know since you’re the global head of Cadillac I’m sure you have some painfully naïve notion that the U.S. market doesn’t really matter, that Captain Queeg’s* marching orders are for you to conquer China and drive profitability for the Cadillac brand that way. Like buttah, right? Well, guess what? If Cadillac doesn’t get feistier and more competitive in this market you may not have to worry about how it does in China or anywhere else for that matter. Unless and until Cadillac becomes a legitimate, top-of-mind contender with Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz – instead of America’s version of a luxury car – you’re not going anywhere. Listen to everybody associated with Cadillac – most important the True Believers in Design and Engineering – because this just in: they know what Cadillac is and understand its true, untapped potential. ("Memo to Mr. Ferguson: Watch your back." - 10/17/12)
*I stopped using “Lt. Dan” long ago when referring to GM’s Dan Akerson because it was an insult to one of the screen’s most endearing characters played by Gary Sinise in Forest Gump. Seeing as Akerson believes he is running a tight ship – while running GM right into the ground – I am debuting the new moniker for him with this column. Don’t know who Captain Queeg is? Look up The Caine Mutiny. Or watch this.
It means letting people’s imaginations and emotional connections run wild with anticipation. Let this be a forewarning to the enthusiasts over in Dearborn who are feverishly at work on the next-generation Mustang. Pay attention to how Chevrolet is setting the table for the new Corvette and use it as a road map on how not to do it. Remember that creating excitement does not mean controlling every last shred of information. ("Mind Manipulation: Nothing will be the same." - 10/24/12)
When it comes to good PR you either have it, need it, want it or wish you had it. That Marchionne's persona of invincibility and aura of greatness are all calculated is beyond most people, especially a shocking number in the media, but I digress. It is what it is, and his personal PR bag man, Gualberto Ranieri, operates in a kind of netherworld where his only job is to prevent discouraging words from ever crossing Sergio’s bow, which in this town is a cakewalk, what with the slobbering media hanging on Sergio’s every word and all. (In Italy it’s a completely different story, as Sergio has worn out his welcome and the agitation directed toward him is ramping up by the day.) You would think that Ranieri would be, for all intents and purposes, Marchionne’s personal valet, someone seen and never heard, and that’s sort of how it works. (Except for this week when Ranieri had to correct the bumbling Romney campaign for a blatant falsehood about Jeeps being built in China. Will they eventually build Jeeps in China? Of course they will. Just not soon enough to be part of the discussion in this lame-ass Presidential campaign.) But then again Ranieri is a graduate of the renowned Unctuous Prick University of PR (Bingol graduated summa cum laude from there as well), and he wears his boss’s condescending attitude and extravagantly overwrought hubris like a Day-Glo pocket square, with the only thing missing from his suit being the battle ribbons awarded to him by Sergio for his years of faithful and meritorious service. ("Revenge of the Telecomies and the Motor City’s PR nightmares du jour." - 10/31/12)
That’s where the true artistry in this business comes to the fore. Just being able to develop the proper “feel” in an automobile or truck is a black art unto itself, because the computers can only do so much. Talk to the True Believers in this business and they will tell you that the human element in designing, engineering and developing cars cannot be underestimated. Note the return of clay modeling in the design business, at least in limited situations. Top designers still like to run their hands over a shape and get a “feel” for the integrity of the design. And many of them still like to hand wash their cars for the same reason, it’s a way to experience a shape that cannot be accomplished on a computer screen. ("Even in this age of parity, the battle between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' continues." - 11/14/12)
That is if the brand has one, something that’s still painfully questionable for some. Yes, you can be frighteningly predictive in the computer design world, but when it comes to setting a tone and tempo for a new machine – and establishing that elusive “feel” that you experience behind the wheel – there’s still no practical substitute for a development engineer getting behind the wheel and tweaking, adjusting and cajoling just the right driving character, one that’s consistent with the fundamental engineering philosophy for the brand. ("Even in this age of parity, the battle between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' continues." - 11/14/12)
You first have to have the product and that will never, ever, change. Then you have to have the kind of brand image that is crystal clear to consumers, one unwavering in its execution and consistency. And if it’s dead-on - as Audi’s marriage of product and brand image is – then you’re able to create the fundamental desire for your product that will have people paying real money to acquire it. It’s a classic industry formula – Product Desirability = Profitability – but one that Audi and the VW Group have spit-shined to perfection. ("The VW Group masters a classic formula: Product Desirability = Profitability." - 11/28/12)
The Whole Nine Yards. But in the end it all comes down to projecting the Lincoln Motor Company’s brand image in a positive and engaging way (Watch the Lincoln Brand Video "THE LINCOLN MOTOR COMPANY: TIME FOR MAGIC" here.) Can Lincoln’s image wranglers breakthrough and create an aura for the rejuvenated brand that will lead to consideration? And will that consideration lead to real, sustained momentum in the market? Because that’s what this messaging – the social media, the print ads, the PR manipulations, the television commercials, etc., etc. – is all about. The net-net of all of this image wrangling has to be that it must create buzz about Lincoln and resonate with younger buyers enough so that it will entice them to at least have a look. And then Lincoln’s dealership experience must live up to its elevated expectations, as promised, or the whole thing will come to a screeching halt. ("Lincoln’s billion-dollar question." - 12/5/12)
I said they were going to erect a statue to “The Great Sergio” in Auburn Hills, but I never envisioned this. Yeah, I’ve been criticized by the peanut gallery for my relentless criticism of Sergio Marchionne, the Opportunist of the Century and our resident all-knowing and all-seeing leader of the espresso-fueled minions out in Auburn Hills. Too bad is my answer. I have special prosciutto-encrusted night-vision goggles that allow me to see through the Fog of War (otherwise known as the festering bullshit generated by Sergio’s PR machine) that wafts over the landscape out in Auburn Hills like signal smoke from the Vatican, and I will never hesitate to call him or his minions out for their egregious bullshit. Talk to the True Believers out there and the picture Sergio wants you to believe is radically different from the reality. They work for their own professional pride and their belief in doing a job well, not for Sergio, in case anyone is thinking otherwise. Getting back to the statue thing, last week the Chrysler Group LLC Board of Directors approved the establishment of a charitable foundation in recognition of the leadership and outstanding dedication of Sergio Marchionne.
“Sergio is an exceptional leader with the unique ability to inspire his people and lead change. Creating this foundation is a fitting tribute to all that has been accomplished at Chrysler,” said Ronald L. Thompson, Lead Director of Chrysler Group LLC Board of Directors. “This foundation will ensure that the values and impact of his leadership will be felt by many others, while the structure ensures that funding for the foundation reflects Chrysler Group’s future success.”
Um, sure, why not? If you buy into all of the other manufactured and carefully orchestrated gravitas surrounding Marchionne, a charitable foundation named after him makes all the sense in the world. Who knew there was a Board of Directors out in the business world who could instantly sink to the level of GM’s board in one fell swoop? But there you go. I guess if you’re a rubber-stamp board why not glorify your meal ticket, right? It all makes perfect sense. ("From the 'Sometimes You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up' File." - 12/12/12)
And if Sergio and his minions projecting jaw-dropping hubris across the landscape isn’t enough, there’s always Captain Queeg. Referring back to the title of this column, thank goodness for GM CEO Dan “Captain Queeg” Akerson because every time this guy opens his mouth it’s like a cornucopia of blather, a testament to misguided thinking searching for a clue. And he’s arrogant about it to boot, suggesting that everything and everyone that has come before him in this business is a complete joke, and his brilliance will lead us all to the Promised Land. Just a scintillating combination, no? This week, Captain Queeg weighs-in on all sorts of salient topics in an interview conducted by Automotive News, and it reveals much about the man. When asked in the interview why he chose Bob Ferguson – the company’s lobbyist and a resolute non-automotive guy – to run Cadillac globally, this was his answer:
“Bob Ferguson was the president of a large, complex information technology company called Pacific Telesis. He's had profit-and-loss responsibility and not just top line responsibility. As we see this organization evolve, we will have people with global responsibilities for certain functions that have profit and loss from top to bottom. Bob has been in the industry, can articulate a strategy and be a good leader and has the bandwidth of having lived overseas and understands cultural differences and can look through that prism.”
In other words, Bob doesn’t have a frickin’ clue as to what he’s doing or what to do with Cadillac, does he, Dan? I mean, really. In fact, there are any number of people from within and outside the company qualified to do that job, but if Captain Queeg deems Bob Ferguson is the man, then it should all workout just dandy, right?
Let us review: “Bob Ferguson was the president of a large, complex information technology company…” No question that qualifies him to project the image of one of the world’s aspiring luxury automotive brands across the globe. In fact, I couldn’t envision a more logical scenario than to hand your chief lobbyist the keys to one of the most crucial pieces of business that GM has on the table.
The title of this column is ringing in my ears again and this is yet another piece of evidence about where Dan Akerson is coming from. Once again he has reduced GM to a punchline and his seething dislike for anything to do with the auto industry before he graced us all with his presence just oozes out of him. Revenge of the Telecomies indeed. ("From the 'Sometimes You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up' File." - 12/12/12)
What happened to building good quality cars that are interesting and fun to drive? Why isn’t that enough? Why can’t Mazda fulfill that mission and be content in doing so? Mazda going upmarket is a colossal mistake. The company doesn’t have the real money to develop the products to do it, first of all, and they certainly don’t have a grasp of the marketing money necessary to get a foothold in the segment on top of that. And lastly, they don’t have the time. It would take a good ten to fifteen years for Mazda to even register on the upscale market radar screen, Skyactiv or no. Ten to fifteen years. Got that, Yamanouchi? What, are you channeling that unicorn lair in North Korea or something? You think you can actually do it better or different than the players who are cutting each other’s throats in the upscale segment on a daily basis? No, you can’t. Moving Mazda upmarket is a flat-out fool’s errand of egregious proportion. ("From the 'Sometimes You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up' File." - 12/12/12)
But it’s still pretty damn entertaining from where I sit nonetheless. This business is such a target-rich environment of hucksters, accidental tourists, clueless practitioners, misguided bozos and relentless disappointments that the fountain of news continues to flow unabated. And if it weren’t for the True Believers it would really get depressing. ("From the 'Sometimes You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up' File." - 12/12/12)
Ah, and there you have it, folks. The entire year went by in a blur, right? Not really. It was, at times, a swirling maelstrom of day-in, day-out tedium, with a relentless cacophony made up of the noise generated by the car companies and the media hordes who are forced to generate content 24/7 providing the soundtrack.
But fortunately there's another soundtrack that is far more engaging and important around these parts.
Anyone who has grown up in this town and been part of this business has enjoyed a spectacular soundtrack accompanying day-to-day life around here. How could you not when Motown was percolating its rhythms throughout the 60s? And local radio riveted avid listeners with playlists that rocked the town from sunup to sundown and long into the night? And the fact that this area has been home to rock acts from Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder to the White Stripes and countless others didn’t exactly hurt, either, right?
Yes, as much as we live and breathe horsepower and chrome around here, music has been and still is the soundtrack of the business, perfectly encapsulating what it means to live and work here while toiling away in “the biz.” So to close out the year I thought we’d reprise my column from August 8th ("The soundtrack of the Motor City."), get in the car and put the radio on (at 5:00 a.m.), and listen to some musical stylings, while pairing them up with what’s happening in the business right now. There is no specific format, just a blend of multiple decade's worth of tunes that waft in the air…
I feel it’s a must to start with Lee Dorsey’s “Working in a Coal Mine.” Nothing conveys the daunting 24/7 slog facing the denizens of this business like Dorsey’s classic tune.
“Five o’clock in the mornin’
I’m up before the sun’
When my work day is over
I’m too tired for havin’ fun…”
I’ve heard this from the “outside” a lot: “You guys get to fool around with cars and horsepower for a living, how hard can it be?” Or something to that effect. When it is put like that I would agree, how hard could it be? But in reality we’re talking hard. A relentlessly mind-numbing pursuit that never ends. In the super-hot and competitive global arena that this business has become, you’re not even as good as your last accomplishment; it’s what you bring to the table right this minute that matters. No, there’s no rest for the weary here. If you sign up for this deal, you better be ready to bring it – even in your sleep.
Let’s take a swing by Dearborn, where the Ford folk crank it out all the time, led by The Man, Alan Mulally, the guy who transformed the company and set the standard for executive leadership in this business for decades to come. I can hear the chords from The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” drifting out of the Glass House (Ford’s World Headquarters) as Alan surveys GM off to the east, and Chrysler to the northeast up in Auburn Hills.
Maybe we should do a drive-by of Solidarity House, where we’ll find Bob “I still matter!” King probably slumped over in his chair lamenting the fact that no import auto manufacturing facility is going to hand over the keys to the UAW anytime soon. What’s that? Yes, if I’m not mistaken I can hear Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” hanging over King & Co. like a bad dream.
From there we wend our way over by the gleaming “Silver Silos” - aka the RenCen – hard by the Detroit River, where Dan Akerson has his hand on the tiller for GM, and just in case you’re wonderin’, he’s not going to let go anytime soon. After all, when you’re dealing with a perpetual loop of unfinished business, the job is never done, right? As we ease past the south entrance, I’m pretty sure I can hear Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” coming over the loud speakers in the lobby…
“Well I won't back down, no I won't back down
You could stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down…”
That’s Akerson in a nutshell and he won’t let you forget it. And he’ll be oh so quick to remind you if you do. As for the recent departures of key executives, including CMO Joel Ewanick, Akerson probably reminds his troops that “we’re moving on without him” followed by a quick snippet of Gotye’s “Somebody that I used to know” (featuring Kimbra)…
“You can get addicted to a certain kinda sadness
Like resignation to the end, always the end
So when we found that we could not make sense
Well you said that we would still be friends
But I'll admit that I was glad that it was over…”
We have about a 28-minute drive out to Auburn Hills from the RenCen, where today we can hear everything from Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” to Usher’s “Scream” and Flo Rida’s “Whistle” and anything and everything in-between, including Maroon 5’s “Payphone,” which was uncannily appropriate, especially given the news back in August that Spyker was suing GM for basically ruining Saab’s corporate life…
“You turned your back on tomorrow
Cause you forgot yesterday
I gave you my love to borrow
But you just gave it away
You can't expect me to be fine
I don't expect you to care
I know I've said it before
But all of our bridges burned down…”
Ah well, all is fair in love and war when multi-billions are at stake, right? Continuing on, we next have David Guetta (featuring Sia) doing “Titanium”…
“You shout it out, but I can't hear a word you say
I'm talking loud not saying much
I'm criticized but all your bullets ricochet
You shoot me down, but I get up…”
Wait just a minute, could it be that we’re channeling Dan Akerson’s iPod again somehow? Could be.
As we approach the exit off of I-75 to get to Fiat-Chrysler’s soon-to-be World Headquarters (as soon as Fiat is reduced to an afterthought), the SiriusXM seems to go nuts. First with “Lose Yourself” by the indefatigable Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, Detroit’s Poet Prophet, who delivers the perfect personal anthem for Sergio “The Great” Marchionne…
“His soul's escaping, through this hole that is gaping
This world is mine for the taking, make me king
As we move toward a new world order, a normal life is boring
But superstardom's close to post mortem
It only grows harder, only grows hotter
He blows it's all over, these hoes is all on him
Coast to coast shows, he's known as the Globetrotter lonely roads...”
As we approach the entry gate we can hear strains of “Piove” from the Italian artist and sometimes rapper Lorenzo Jovanotti, who came to be known in the U.S. from his appearance on one of the soundtrack compilations of “The Sopranos.”
But rather than drive in we just drive on, because when all is said and done Sergio only listens to the dulcet tones of his own voice. After all there isn’t a music track grand enough for his ambitions or encompassing enough for his massive ego. (I could suggest “King of Nothing” by Seals & Croft here, but why bother?)
So that’s a brief listen to the soundtrack of the Motor City, the constant thrum and buzz and rhythm that moves with us as we churn our way through the 24/7 thrash that defines this crazy business as we know it.
Oh, I almost forgot, there’s one tune that’s always a channel change away around these parts. “Papa Hobo” by Paul Simon. And even though he may never understand how his words captured the experience and essence of living around here, we do...
“It's carbon and monoxide
The ol' Detroit perfume
It hangs on the highways in the mornin'
And it lays you down by noon...
Detroit, Detroit got a hell of a hockey team
Got a left-handed way
Of makin' a man sign up on that automotive dream...”
Wordgirl, Dr. Bud and I want to thank our readers and colleagues for coming along for the ride of another year of the High-Octane Truth. And I'd like to thank my Autoline After Hours co-host John McElroy and his talented team for all of the fun we had in the past year as well.
And for those of you neck deep in this business we hope you have a somewhat restful time away, or at least a few fleeting moments when you aren't totally consumed about what happened, what's happening now, or what's going to happen in January.
But then again who am I kidding? That's just the nature of the biz.
There's always tomorrow, except tomorrow's already here.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for the year 2012.