By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. To say that this has been a long, strange trip doesn’t even begin to cover it. When we started Autoextremist.com on June 1, 1999, we were obviously living in a much different world. “Detroit” – at least what passed for the auto industry as practiced in the Motor City back then - was reeling, a stumbling, punch-drunk louse of an industry that was in the throes of a largely self-inflicted death spiral.
Too many years of abject mediocrity and relentless complacency had begun to take its toll, as savvy import competitors looted customers and gobbled up market share at a prodigious rate. Detroit auto executives whistled their collective “it won’t be long now!” mantra and prattled on about the good times being just around the corner, but the reality was that the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t a light at all. Instead it was a 200-mph bullet train aimed right at the heart of a moribund industry.
And we were there for all of it, documenting the mediocrity, the miscues, and the fabled - and dusty - Detroit mindset that was contributing to the Motor City’s malaise and eminent demise. Yes, there would be flashes of brilliance along the way provided by the dedicated and ever-present True Believers, who refused to give up despite daunting odds, but for the most part Detroit was on the ropes and it would get much worse before it would get better.
(Peter isn't going to go over all of it again in this column, but you’re welcome to go back and read two seminal columns: “The Autoextremist Manifesto, Refueled” and “The End of an Era. The Autoextremist: June 1, 1999 – April 1, 2015” to catch up on the journey that has come before. Both of these columns convey the very essence of what Autoextremist.com has been about since the beginning, with all of the ferocity and precision-guided perspectives that have defined us, present and accounted for. -WG.)
On a personal note, in order for me to at least make an attempt at conveying what doing this website has been like week after week, well, how should I begin? For someone who writes between 3,000 – 5,000 words per week, believe it or not I find it difficult to put the Autoextremist experience into words.
Suffice to say I can assure you that creating this weekly publication requires a level of commitment and a relentless dedication that few out there would understand. Though it has been tremendously gratifying to become one of the most influential voices in this business, or as someone put it, “The Conscience of the Motor City,” with that role comes an incredible pressure to deliver, week-in and week-out.
Not that I shirk from the expectations and high standards we have established, because in reality it’s just the opposite. In fact I thrive on those expectations and I love the fact that “phoning it in” is anathema to everything we’re about. Bringing the kind of incendiary commentary and perspectives that you can’t find anywhere else and on a consistent basis is a worthwhile pursuit and provides a level of satisfaction that almost makes it all worth it. With “almost” being the operative word.
Let me elaborate on that “almost” comment for a moment, because in case you’re wondering I’m never satisfied with any of it. It can always be better, and that kind of relentless dedication to what Autoextremist has become fuels my passion every single day. We set out to “influence the influencers” with this publication and that’s exactly what we did and what we continue to do to this day.
For top executives at the global automakers and suppliers, dealer group principals, Wall Street analysts and of course, the keyboard-conflicted hordes in the media in all of its forms, Autoextremist.com is one of the most closely watched “must reads” in this business. And it is exceptionally gratifying.
In the end, however, it’s never enough because, as I said, there’s always more to be had. And better. And edgier. So if you expect – or hope as the case may be - complacency to set in or for us to start going through the motions, you are setting yourself up for massive disappointment.
Beginning the seventeenth year of Autoextremist.com marks another notable milestone. Yes, much has changed in this industry, especially as practiced here in the Motor City. And much of it has changed for the better too. Sobering realities and near-death bankruptcies will go a long way in changing a moribund mindset. The products are incredibly good, not just here, but from around the world, and this business remains one of the most cutthroat, ultra-competitive industrial pursuits that people and companies can engage in.
But for all of that product goodness surfacing in this business today there is still glaring, abundant stupidity to behold, and I see it every day. The same product mistakes, the unbelievable, head-scratching marketing miscues, the mind-numbingly stupid advertising campaigns, the “we’ve always done it this way” and “not invented here” syndromes. It’s all there.
And trust me, these car companies are operating on such razor-thin margins that the difference between marked success and abject failure is frightfully small. And as sunny and optimistic as it may look like for a fleeting moment, the gathering storm clouds are always looming off in the distance.
On another note, I’ve been forever criticized for making my pointed commentaries too personal, that my writings go way over the top and that these executives not only deserve the benefit of the doubt but deserve a break. And that’s so much unmitigated bullshit too. And there are several practicing auto PR minions - you know who you are - who go out of their way to attempt to marginalize what we do here, or worse. I have a message for said minions that a wiser man once put so eloquently: Stop telling lies about me and I'll stop telling the truth about you.
When we started this website, the media coverage of this industry was a borderline joke. Executives got free passes and were not held accountable for their actions or their relentless stupidity, and the media tiptoed around them like they were deities that deserved to be handled gently and with a reverence that was flat-out undeserved.
I’m happy to say that Autoextremist.com changed all of that. Even though the established media outlets are loath to admit it, we not only changed the conversation, we changed the rules of the game. And I am very proud of that fact.
Make no mistake, Autoextremist is an authentic endeavor, a shining beacon of original thought in a world filled with scumbag ripoff artists and Internet trolls specializing in borrowed interest while calling it their own. And I’m very proud of that too.
Autoextremist.com has been my all-consuming passion now for sixteen years, and I wade into our seventeenth year fired up and ready for whatever is headed our way. And even though we’re much closer to the end of this adventure than to the beginning, I will continue to bring the High-Octane Truth to the savviest and most influential collection of readers in this business for the foreseeable future.
And now, a special thank-you must go out to WordGirl - my longtime editor and Autoextremist muse - because without her this publication would simply have never gotten off of the ground, let alone thrived all of these years. And thanks to Dr. Bud, whose appearances though woefully infrequent are worth every juicy word. And thank you to John Thawley, whose brilliant photographic work in our racing coverage is simply without peer.
And a thank-you must go out to all of the friends – and readers - we’ve met and come to know along the way who make up the colorful kaleidoscope of memories that have been part of the Autoextremist.com experience.
Thank you all for listening and reading.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth heading into our seventeenth year.
Editor's Note: When Peter said, "We’re much closer to the end of this adventure than to the beginning," I actually felt a pang of sadness. Sure, the past 16 years have been like living in Crazy Town (a special shout-out to Dr. Bud goes here!), with this immersion into the industry and its players more than slightly overwhelming and annoying at times, but these really have been the best of times. Working with the best people, meeting and getting to know some of the best people in and around the business, and just being a part of this thing called Autoextremist.com. At its core, it has always been about a passion for the automobile, pure and simple. And no way will that ever change. Now, on to the business at hand. By popular demand, we are leaving last week's column up for our anniversary issue. And by the way, I have it on good authority that the King is preparing to release a new set of edicts before too long. -WG
KING OF THE AUTOMOTIVE WORLD.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. No Sergio, this column isn’t about you, though knowing your sense of unbridled entitlement and delusion about your place in the automotive world, you would so desperately want it to be.
No, this column is about me, The Autoextremist, and what I’d do if I became King of the Automotive World. For some, this news would be akin to being told you were being reassigned to a yarn farm somewhere far away from the action, or worse. In fact, for quite a few of the go-along-to-get-along hordes that go through the motions in this business, this news would be an untenable, lethal cocktail of Sturm und Drang, with a chaser of world-ending, head-in-hands dismay, as in, “Oh no, Walter, I think we’re screwed.”
Oh well, boo-frickin’-hoo as we like to say around here, because no industry needs a dose of reality – brought with a reassuring whack of a 2x4 to the forehead, I might add – more than the auto industry, which is in the midst of its latest back-slappin’, the-good-times-are-never-gonna-end frenzy.
Well, guess what, the giddiness stops here.
My first day on the throne would be a busy one, because I would release a series of edicts (through my handpicked PR minions, no less) that would roil the industry for months on end. To wit:
The First Royal Edict. The Sergio Shit Show would be officially brought to an end and FCA would be broken up into the following pieces:
1. Jeep would be put up for bidding between GM and Ford. Make no mistake, it’s The Franchise and it will be worth $6 billion alone. So there’s that.
2. Dodge Ram Trucks would be put up for bid between Nissan and Toyota, because, well, Nissan would be better off buying ready-made pickups as they have demonstrated repeatedly and convincingly that they just don’t have the wherewithal to get it done. When it comes to pickups and Nissan, there’s just no “there” there, and it’s time to end the silly charade once and for all. It’s sad, but it’s the High-Octane Truth. Except that Toyota has so much cash sitting around that this bidding war would be over in about two minutes, and then Toyota would have an instant grand-slam home run truck brand to sell. Then they could finally get that eternal chip off their shoulder brought about by having to compete with Ford and Chevrolet all of these years. And even better, we could all finally be done hearing about it. A win-win for the whole damn industry, as far as your King is concerned.
3. Ralph Gilles and a hand-selected group of Chrysler’s hardest core True Believers would be given all of the tooling and resources to launch an independent high-performance car company so that they could build Hellcats, Vipers and hot rods to their heart’s content. And without the Italians taking credit for any of it, which would be a bonus unto itself.
4. As for the “F” in FCA, Fiat would be “consolidated” - more like imploded - and banished back to Europe. And Marchionne and his espresso-swilling posse would have to figure out how to market and sell his mediocre Fiat product lineup on its own merits, without siphoning the profits from Jeeps and pickup trucks to prop up what will soon be a failed enterprise. Which would be the same as it ever was, come to think of it. Good night. Good luck. And good riddance.
The Second Royal Edict. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are immediately prohibited from bringing in any more new models into the U.S. market. Instead, they will have to present their product plans to The King and I will rule as to their validity, worthiness, stupidity, etc. This means an immediate cessation to all crackpot niche automotive fantasies harbored by German car executives, the ones that go something like this: “A Porsche entry in the U.S. market to compete with the Buick Encore is exactly what we need!” Or, “A six-wheeled Mercedes-Benz crossover slotted above the Cadillac Escalade is just what the Doctor ordered!” As King, I will be fair, but this rampant product segment boneheadedness as practiced by the Germans will be brought to a merciful halt. You can all thank me later.
The Third Royal Edict. Any car company doing business here in the U.S. market that sells over 1,000,000 vehicles annually would be required to build an engine for the Indianapolis 500. “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and the single most important motor race in the world – and an American treasure - deserves to be treated as such, with multiple manufacturers squaring off against each other for supremacy at The Speedway. Short-hitters and “convenience marketers” will be given a pass, but only after they publicly admit that they don’t have the know-how or the cojones to compete. The only other grounds for a pass? See below.
The Fourth Royal Edict. Within four years of my ascension to the throne, one of America’s two major automobile manufacturers – or both - must design, engineer and build a machine to compete for the overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That means competing against the best currently in the game (Audi, Porsche, Toyota, et al) in the most famous and prestigious sports car endurance race in the world. It has been 49 years – count ‘em - since an American manufacturer won overall at Le Mans. And that’s a giant, steaming bowl of Not Good.
The Fifth Royal Edict. From this point forward any automotive marketer who unleashes two loser brand or product campaigns in a row will be forced to do Tier 2 advertising exclusively for the rest of that calendar year. Now, given that some major auto manufacturers are already doing Tier 2 advertising and calling it national advertising, those companies will be prohibited from asking their ad agencies to create a Super Bowl ad for two years, since they’re obviously incapable of discerning what constitutes good advertising in the first place.
The Sixth Royal Edict. Any marketer for a car company who starts acting like a “marketing genius” will be hauled before me and given fifteen minutes to explain why they shouldn’t be immediately banished to The Island of Wimps and Twerps, which is part of the Spineless Weasel archipelago, which is just south of the “Where the f--k am I?” province. There they will be forced to market shit as shinola to the locals by selling the Yellow Pages, until such time that I deem that they’ve been de-genius-fied. If that doesn’t work they will be immediately sent to Unctuous Prick University, where they will work toward getting a Digital Marketing Guru degree. Once that’s completed, they will be sent to Milan to help Sergio sell used Fiats and broke-ass Alfas out of an abandoned gas station.
The Seventh Royal Edict. I will give GM 120 days to hire a Chief Marketing Officer and if they don’t come up with someone acceptable, I will appoint one for them. A company that size without a CMO? It’s a complete travesty.
The Eighth Royal Edict. The 20 top executives from the two Detroit-based U.S. automakers will be required to go to a city somewhere in the U.S. - one that’s distinctly disconnected from anything having to do with the automobile - for two full weeks. There they will be required to visit their respective dealers during the day and at night they can commiserate about what it’s like being in an environment that doesn’t revolve around them, or the automobile, aka, the Real World.
The Ninth Royal Edict. From this day forward July 1st will become True Believers Day in the Kingdom. That day will be set aside to pay tribute to the men and women who not only care deeply about what they do in this business, but who have a passion for excellence that still burns bright despite the hordes of spineless weasels, recalcitrant twerps and lowly denizens of the Vast Gray Middle who deign to obfuscate, block, slow or impede progress and creativity at every turn. In addition a True Believer Hall of Fame will be created so that on July 1st the Kingdom can celebrate the myriad accomplishments of the Best and Brightest in this business since it began.
The Tenth Royal Edict. The first car company doing business in this kingdom that successfully keeps a lid on a new product launch before its unveiling, and then announces that orders can be taken on the spot for delivery in 60 days, will be immediately bestowed a $10 billion bonus. And, every other manufacturer doing business in the kingdom will be forced to contribute to that prize. But – and there’s always a “but” – that product must be desirable to me, which means that it must be beautiful to look at, fun to drive, and memorable in every way, because it always has been and always will be about The Product.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.