February 29, 2012
Green Magic Carpet rides, etc.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 2/28, 11:00 p.m.) Detroit. Now that we can move on from the annual Hollywood self-congratulatory fest called the Oscars, where egomaniacal behavior is not only expected, it’s celebrated and worn as a badge of honor, it got me thinking about the other contender for 'most egomaniacal business on the planet' – other than the advertising biz, of course – and that is none other than the automobile business.
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 as complicated as it is, the complexity itself doesn’t actually define this business. No, it’s the rampant egos involved that really make it hum. After all, would the movie business be anything special without the egos and the back stories? 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 decidedly boring, uneventful and forgettable.
Trace back to the very beginnings of this business and its history is chock-full of unrepentant egomaniacs and wild-eyed dreamers who went for it, with only a very few of them actually succeeding. The rest? They fill the history books with their stories of fleeting elation and ultimate woe. You only have to look as far as the story of one William Crapo “Billy” Durant to get a good idea of what a human skyrocket looked like in this business.
But the funny thing about the history of the auto business is that no one really pays any attention to it, until they’re forced to. That’s the only explanation one can come up with when considering stories like those of John Z. DeLorean, the gifted, visionary engineer who threw it all away when his unrepentant ego completely clouded his ability to discern right from wrong. DeLorean so lost his way that he attempted to broker a cocaine deal to keep his vanity project – the decidedly underwhelming DeLorean DMC-12 sports car – afloat. We know how that turned out. DeLorean faded away in disgrace and Northern Ireland was left holding the bag for a car factory that was dead on arrival.
Again, like Billy Durant, it’s the meteoric rise followed by the inevitable fizzling out.
You would think that since the parameters for designing, engineering, building and marketing are so clearly defined in the contemporary automobile business that anything like the stories of Billy Durant and “John Z.” would be nonexistent. And you would be wrong.
Today, egomaniacal behavior is alive and well in the auto biz. As a matter of fact it’s enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
Nowhere is that more evident than with Henrik Fisker and his Fisker Automotive. Known as a gifted designer with many design “hits” on his resume, Fisker, like the storied egomaniacs from the auto industry’s past, decided that the world needed to be fluent with his vision and that if we could just see what he sees and understand the power of his brilliance, we’d all be better off.
What has Fisker come up with?
Well, to start with the Fisker is a voluptuous body wrapped-around a 5,200 lb.+ leviathan of a car that essentially mirrors the technology offered in the Chevrolet Volt. The difference? For one the Volt is a better car by every practical, functioning measure and it’s more than $50,000 cheaper to boot. So right off the bat Fisker is operating at a slight disadvantage.
That is unless you’re one of the Shiny Happy People out there in search of the Next Big Thing in green transportation and want to pretend that you’re driving something other than a coal-powered car so that you can impress all of your friends in Brentwood. To this handful of over-served people the Fisker might indeed make perfect sense. At least for a nanosecond at any rate.
Once that passed, however, maybe they could pry their “green” heads out of their asses long enough to come to understand that the joke is on them. That the Fisker is a mirage that makes zero sense whatsoever: As a car, as a technological statement, or even as an alleged automotive breakthrough.
Remarkably enough that’s the upside of the whole Fisker adventure. The down side of things is that the U.S. government (aka We the Taxpayers) gave this guy $529 million in a DOE Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan to make a $100,000+ vanity car for the very few who will even bother to look at it.
And as ridiculous as that might sound and is, things are getting worse rather than better. Today, in the latest episode of “How The Mighty Have Fallen” Fisker announced that Tom LaSorda, the ex-CEO of Chrysler, is now going to take over day-to-day operational duties from Henrik Fisker, becoming the CEO of Fisker Automotive. Fisker will move up and out of the way to become "Executive Chairman." (Memo to LaSorda: What the hell are you thinking?)
I presume this move was made because the realities are 1. Fisker may be a switched-on designer but he knows exactly jack-shit about how to run a car company. And it shows. After all, it’s hard being a visionary when you actually have to make things that work with a passing resemblance of an ROI. And 2. If Fisker Automotive doesn't show some financial and operational stability soon it will cease to exist altogether. Which would be a wonderful thing indeed, come to think of it.
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… something about fools and their money.
To the rest of us in this industry who know better the “Fisker Follies” desperately need to be brought to a close.
Not to discourage the dreamers and blue-sky thinkers who are waiting to burst on the scene at any moment now, because heaven knows this business will always have a desperate need for that kind of unbridled thinking, but because in the end the Fisker ultimately comes down to being one overly indulged designer’s pipedream of a fantasy car with no “there” there.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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