By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. As I sat down at my computer to get started on this week’s issue, I have to admit that when I typed “AE849” at the top of the work document, I paused for a moment and took a deep breath. Or maybe it was a long sigh, I’m not really sure. Because I was reminded that seventeen years ago to the day – June 1, 1999 – I began my very first column (the infamously entitled “White Boy Culture” – WG) with the following paragraph:
You've come here for a reason. You're either curious, bored, or in some internet-fueled haze that's taken over your body and turned you into a quivering jellyfish that has lost all concept of time and space. Well, for whatever the reason, welcome. I'm not going to sit here and make promises about what Autoextremist.com will or won't do for you. I will say, however, that you will not read anything like it when it comes to the weird world of automobiles, because the people here are the most committed automotive enthusiasts in the world. So much so, that we operate in a dimension that other so-called "car people" find bewildering and even frightening. The Truth will do that to people. Especially in Detroit, which is one of the strangest places on earth...
I came out with guns blazing, of course. Was there really any other way? Thus began the editorial adventure of Autoextremist.com, and the automotive journalistic landscape would never be the same.
Yes, things were very different back then as I’ve reminded our readers over the years, because covering the auto industry in 1999 was, for the most part, a go-along-to-get-along exercise in blissful compliance. For instance, if a member of the press pleased the auto company PR overlords by basically writing spoon-fed stories that mirrored the company line, he or she was rewarded with much-coveted access to executives and an occasional “exclusive.” Conversely, if a member of the auto press didn’t play nice, or dared to deviate from the accepted path by writing “tough” pieces, they were rebuked harshly, and their editors would be made aware by those same auto company PR overlords that so and so had become a “problem.” (In case you’re wondering, yes, this still goes on today, but since the Internet turned over the rock on the anthill, it’s much harder to play the game.)
Autoextremist.com was different from the get-go. I didn’t care about gaining access because I had the auto executive mindset down cold. I also had an uncanny knack for knowing what these executives were thinking before it even occurred to them so I skipped right past the bullshit and wrote about the issues, the personalities and the controversies that before AE’s arrival on the scene were only discussed in “deep background” or in gossipy, booze-fueled, “off-the-record” bar conversations.
I penetrated the heretofore impenetrable fog of war laid down by the old-school PR practitioners and lit up the Internet with pointed insights and devastating columns that exposed the scam artists and poseurs masquerading as big-time auto executives, especially when it came to the stumblebums in marketing and advertising, who were rampant. And because of that, I’m happy to say that Autoextremist.com did more to change that go-along-to-get-along dance than any other single auto publication.
Needless to say, it didn’t go over well in some quarters. I was labeled a pariah, a malcontent and much worse. I was The Guy Who Needs To Go Away Before We All Lose Our Minds. But for others, I was The Guy Who Says The Stuff That We’d All Like To Say, and I became the unofficial conscience of the biz as practiced here in the Motor City. For the record, I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve run into senior auto executives who basically say in so many words (or emails): “I don’t like what you write, because it’s so damn accurate that it hurts. But I find myself agreeing with you more often than not, which pisses me off even more.” In this business, that’s high praise.
At any rate, I’m not going to document all that has changed since we started AE (that's our original masthead at the top of this column, by the way), because this business has been transformed over the last almost two decades in a litany of ways and here are a few...
The global nature of the business has changed just about everything that defines the car business. The industry is designing, engineering and building vehicles with one eye on the biggest market – China – while keeping its other eye on what’s happening in regional markets. And auto industry executives are finding out the hard way that sometimes the China-focused strategy works very well, and other times not so much, which can be a headache. And governments and regional economies can be trusted and counted on, until they can’t, which is even more of a headache.
Add the ever-creeping environmental and safety regulations into the mix and you have not only added complexity and cost, but there’s the gut-wrenching realization that these regulations have little in common with customer needs, wants or desires right now. And as more and more hybrid electrics and full electrics are added to the fleet, the lingering question remains: Uh, where are the buyers?
It’s like everyone – our esteemed (cough, hack) government lawmakers in Washington and Northern California in particular – is waiting for someone to flip the Giant Consumer Taste Shifting Switch so that people will all of a sudden swarm showrooms in droves, clamoring for vehicles that operate on whimsy and a smile. Except that it doesn’t work that way and it has never worked that way in this business, and it’s not the first time that the political denizens of Washington and Northern California were unfamiliar with the pulse of the rest of the country and it certainly won’t be the last.
And now we have the New Mobility Frontier, with car companies around the world in a frantic rush to be part of the car sharing and autonomous car movement. They’re making deals with Silicon Valley types left and right, throwing down massive sums of cash while betting on the come that it’s going to be huge. Are they absolutely sure as to what will be huge, exactly? Oh hell no, but they’ll be damned if whatever it is passes them by. They’re going to lawyer-up, technology-up, off-shore-up and jargon-up, and if there’s money to be made in mobility, damnit, then they’re going to be there, and don’t you forget it. They’re going to be mobility companies, yeah, that’s the ticket, or, wait for it, no, they’re going to be technology companies. Yes, that sounds bigger! As long as it ends in a “Y” it’s all good, right?
But enough of that, now I’m going to tell you what hasn’t changed in the business because seventeen years later, the “battle” still rages on. And in case you’ve forgotten after reading this publication for almost two decades, it’s the battle between the True Believers and the pitchfork-wielding spineless weasels, recalcitrant twerps and human bureaucratic chicanes that exist in these car companies.
I hate to break it to some of the touchy-feely visionaries ensconced at these car companies, but for all of the progress and talk of enlightenment allegedly going on I’m sorry to have to report that the silos are more entrenched than ever, and for every person on point and fully engaged in this business there are legions of silo trolls camped under the bridge just waiting to be naysayers, obstacles or worse. There are even rogue fiefdoms within the bureaucracies that add an extra dimension of mayhem, just to keep things interesting.
It would be easy to argue that what is going on in the auto companies mirrors the general malaise and decadence that has a stranglehold on too much of corporate America, and you would be right. (And, of course, at this juncture, the denizens of Silicon Valley will rise up and insist that their workplaces are a series of Bright Shining Moments punctuated by Personal Well Being and Enrichment Breakthroughs and Free Food. Yes, of course they would, because everything out there is Uhh-mazing, but that’s a column for another day.)
Wait, you might ask, what about the genial, collaborative, responsible, compassionate work environment espoused by Mary Barra at the “new” GM, for instance? Well, it might be all bunny rabbits and rainbows in GM’s executive suite, but as you have probably guessed by now, that has little to do with the action in the real-world trenches. Ask a roomful of GM True Believers right now, today, if they’ve had obstacles to getting things done thrown in their path or impediments to doing the Right Thing placed before them in the last week and every single one of them would raise their hand. And yes, seventeen years later, that battle rages on, but it's still about the product in this business and it will always be about the product, and my money is on the True Believers winning out.
I haven’t even mentioned the swirling maelstrom of shit that defines automotive marketing and advertising these days, or the sorry state of the ad agencies that have to carry the water for these car companies, but that’s an ongoing train wreck, and since I have recently talked about it in terms of Cadillac (“Smoke, Mirrors… And Coffee”), I will save more of that for future columns.
And so here we are. Seventeen years of the High-Octane Truth? You’re kidding, right? I would like to say that it has all flown by in a blur, but that wouldn’t be accurate in the least, because WordGirl and I have lived every second of this publication, from the fleeting moments of elation to the excruciating doldrums, it all really happened and it’s all part of what has become, for us, The Autoextremist Experience.
It has been a long road, but I am deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished.
How much longer will we continue? Well, we’ll see, I do happen to like round numbers, however.
Thank you to all of you out there for reading along.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth at the beginning of our eighteenth year.
The Autoextremist, East Lansing, Michigan, March 1976. "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive..."