By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. You have to love the car business. Well, let me rephrase that. Some of us immersed in this seething cauldron of runaway egos, shortsightedness, intermittent brilliance and, remarkably enough and against all odds, indomitable spirit, love this business. (Then again, when it comes right down to it, it depends on the day.)
We love it for the unbridled creativity demonstrated by its True Believers, who keep stepping up to the plate and swinging for the fences. We love it for the relentless 24/7 churn – and burnout - that entails (even though everyone complains about it, they wouldn’t have it any other way). We love it for the brief shining moments when an exceptional design or product advancement emerges to remind us all of what turned us on about the business in the first place, even though those moments are fleeting, at best.
But, truth be told, we love to loathe it too. It can’t be helped.
We despise the carpetbagging mercenaries who seem to rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune moments to wreak havoc on this business. Oh, you know who I’m referring to, that “Murderer’s Row” of malicious connivers: Cerberus led by “Minimum Bob” Nardelli, “Captain Queeg” Akerson and Sergio the “G.O.A.T.” just to name a few.
We cringe at the legions of spineless weasels that populate almost every corner of this business, the go-along-to-get-along hordes and dutiful, sniveling minions who project a positive demeanor but who wallow in serial, abject mediocrity at every turn. That part of the business is depressing and tedious, there’s no doubt.
But yet, we press on.
With that, I will drop the “we” and get into what I want to talk about this week, which is three things in this business that are overhyped, overblown and overrated. Things that need to be singled out, dissected… and hammered.
The relentless auto company fascination with “Monterey Car Week.” If you need an excellent indication that luxury automakers and their marketing troops are completely out of ideas when it comes to marketing their wares, you only have to look as far as the week of over-the-top events on the Monterey Peninsula beginning right now.
The relentless, ever-present din that hangs in the air out there is defined by the drunken spending among the luxury automakers, and un-remarkably enough the way they go about it has the stench of sameness attached to it that, in the end, makes it indistinguishable from one brand to another.
It’s the same luxury accoutrements, the same rote regurgitation of “luxury” words and phrases that are mumbled in an interchangeable soundtrack from brand to brand, and the same platitudes and cloying familiarity that blend together in a dismal cadence of vacuousness that goes by like a blur of marketing cotton candy, a fleeting sugar rush of pseudo substance followed by the inevitable crash of emptiness.
Yet automakers drop, collectively, at least a hundred million dollars out in Monterey every year like clockwork. Why? Because, as I said a couple of week’s ago in my column “Where’s the Excitement?” the lingering question hanging over the marketing troops isn’t “Maybe we ought to reevaluate this whole thing” but, “What happens if we’re not there?” Which isn’t exactly an answer that makes a lick of sense, now does it?
The calculated feeding frenzy manufactured by the auto auction houses has decimated the fundamental enthusiasm that used to define car enthusiasts of all stripes. There, I said it. The whole auto auction game has graduated from being merely tedious to a threat to car enthusiasm itself. Speaking of something not making a lick of sense, the fevered business surrounding auto auctions has come to define the car “hobby” for a lot of people, which is a very bad thing. Why? It’s not about the cars anymore, or the fleeting moments in time that defined what those machines represented, or the memories they created for the enthusiasts who drove them. No, it’s about flat-out greed, pure and simple.
Whether it’s resurrected cars over-restored to perfection or “survivor” cars brokered “as is” it’s really all the same. It’s a circus of artificial enthusiasm marked by overheated auction hucksters in cahoots with the blatant sycophants at the TV networks who all do their very best to add to the faux cacophony, which is only punctuated by the projected “record” dollar figures seemingly for every car. (The usurious buyers’ and sellers’ premiums are barely mentioned.)
Car auctions have destroyed the last vestige of rational thought that was once associated with being a car enthusiast. In fact, rational thinking when it comes to the car enthusiast experience was steadily reduced to collateral damage years and years ago by the “greed merchants” at the auction houses. And it really stinks.
And last but not least, there’s our very own “Dream Cruise” the annual car happening on the third weekend in August that went from being a spontaneous celebration of the automobile to an event wearing a leaded cloak of marketing sameness as orchestrated by the manufacturers and suppliers. Yeah, it’s really too bad, but the High-Octane Truth about the Dream Cruise is that it simply doesn’t ring true anymore, as unpopular as that notion might be with some around here. The spontaneity that once bubbled up organically in the early years has been replaced by manufacturer displays, manufacturer “drive-bys” (the novelty of 50 cars of the same make driving up and down Woodward Avenue was never, ever, cool - trust me), and a rigid sameness that is as predictable as the local media coverage of the event, which is nothing but a regurgitation of the last decade’s worth of stories.
The lone exception? Last year, during the Dream Cruise, Dodge hosted a very un-orchestrated, 1/8th-mile drag racing event at the now-defunct Pontiac Silverdome called “Roadkill Nights.” Not surprisingly, it was a huge hit. But alas, when it comes to car company marketers knowing what to do with a hit, true to form Dodge is moving the event to a new location this year and making it bigger and more polished, which means that the organic nature of the event has already been sanitized and pasteurized down to yet another Dream Cruise marketing commodity.
It’s shocking to me that the local media still speaks in reverential tones about the Dream Cruise. Then again, when the local media collectively defines the term journalistic “homers” it should be no surprise at all.
The Dream Cruise has been overhyped, overblown and overrated for years, just like Monterey Car Week. And car enthusiasm is in a dismal state as well, having taken a huge hit thanks to the malicious hucksterism as practiced by the auction houses.
And none of this is likely to change anytime soon, either.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.