By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The hand-wringing has been dialed-up to “11” around here this week. First we have the controversy of Sergio The Great declaring in Paris that the new Jeep Wrangler would transition to unibody construction (from body-on-frame) and most likely be constructed of aluminum, with smaller, turbocharged engines being part of the equation as well. A lighter and more efficient Jeep Wrangler is an obvious development, no surprises there, and given the direction of the global auto industry and the fact that the Wrangler will be sold in more and more places around the world, it all makes perfect sense.
And then Marchionne proceeded to say that if the solution is aluminum – the decision has already been made according to insiders - then the Toledo assembly facility, which is the spiritual home of Jeep, would lose out to existing unibody-focused plants in other locations because the transition to aluminum construction would be cost prohibitive in Toledo.
Needless to say, this sent shock waves through the Toledo plant and the entire city, first and foremost because the plant and the city are inseparable, and secondly because the idea of the iconic Wrangler being built anywhere else was tantamount to sacrilege, at the very least.
And a lot of the shock and outrage emanated from the fact that Marchionne emphatically stated last January at the Detroit Auto Show as reported by Automotive News that FCA was “never to produce a Wrangler outside of Toledo. So whatever Wranglers are going to be made are going to be made there as long as I’m the CEO. They’ll not be built anywhere else.”
Me? I’m even shocked that anyone would be shocked by any of this. As I’ve said from the beginning, Marchionne is a carpetbagging mercenary masquerading as industry savior. Always has been and always will be, in fact. This is just Sergio being Sergio, so there should be no surprise here.
He adjusts the parameters of the discussion to suit his needs. He rails against perceived slights and injustices meted out to his vested interests at the drop of the hat, but if he needs to change those discussion parameters in midstream to suit his needs of the moment, then so be it. And those who would question his motives are deemed to be inconsequential and irrelevant, or worse.
Marchionne, an honored alumnus of Unctuous Prick University, has no time for the working minions who would deign to get in his way. Toledo city leaders and Jeep plant workers pissed-off? Too bad. Jeep plant UAW representatives have their shorts in a bunch? They’re simply out of step with The Great Sergio’s Plan, even though that Plan may change with the prevailing profit winds.
Does the new Wrangler need to be transitioned to unibody construction and aluminum for its survival and growth in the future? Absolutely. Are the costs prohibitive in the historic Jeep plant in Toledo? More than likely. Does The Great Sergio give a shit about what anyone else thinks? No, of course not.
It’s just another day in paradise for Marchionne and his espresso-swilling minions. And the key concept to remember in all of this? One that certain card-carrying members of the Bootlicking Apologists Society in the automotive media – oh, you know who you are, the ones who regularly regurgitate Sergio’s witticisms and wrap them all up in a bow as if they were morsels for The Rest of Us (aka “the unfortunates”) to enjoy – fail to understand or conveniently forget, depending on the day? Marchionne and his posse are here for them. This was never about doing the right thing for the people of Chrysler, or any of that unmitigated bullshit about rescuing an American icon that Marchionne spewed when he had his hand out to take Chrysler off of the Obama administration’s hands. This was about sinking his claws into the assets of Chrysler, because his miserable excuse for a car company – aka Fiat – was going to hell in a handbasket and there was no way out.
So my advice to anyone who is having a fit about the idea of the Wrangler being built in assembly facilities in Sterling Heights, Michigan, or Belvidere, Illinois? Just take a deep breath and come to the crystal clear realization that this is the guy you regularly deify and this just in: he is not your savior. And if you fit into his plan you will survive and if not, well, you were warned. This is who Marchionne really is, and this is Standard Operating Procedure in his world. And if you haven’t gotten used to it by now, well, you’re bound to live in a world of disappointment from here on out, because this is how it’s going to be.
And finally, since the Cadillac hand-wringing is in high dudgeon and not going away anytime soon, and the tough and feisty Johan de Nysschen has let it be known exactly what he thinks of his critics in a blistering Facebook post (“Don’t mess with me”), I have to say that the whole thing about Cadillac moving its top-level operations to New York is, at the end of the day, a non-issue.
Is it so much window dressing? Yes. It is. If you want to get away from the sheer drudgery of the RenCen, there are plenty of nice places to go around here that have nothing to do with that enduring monolithic monument to mediocrity. And you would still be more immediately connected to Engineering, Product Development and Design too.
But New York it is.
Are there advantages to being in Gotham? To a degree, yes. I’ve always advocated that the collective Detroit automotive mindset could stand to spend lengthy periods of time in locales that don’t revolve around this business as writ large here. As company towns go, this is something else entirely, a warped dimension that needs to be experienced to be understood. L.A. with Hollywood and Silicon Valley with its idyllic Tech World have nothing on Detroit and the Motor City. The car biz here is so pervasive and so interwoven in the cultural fabric of the region that they are indistinguishable from each other. So getting out of here for a little perspective is always a good thing in my book.
But I will reiterate that it is so much window dressing. Being immersed in a luxury environment is a noble idea, sort of, but the reality of it is something else altogether. De Nysschen and his Cadillac operatives will spend at least one week a month here. Let me emphasize the at least part. Because any Cadillac success will revolve around the product, and where do those products get designed, engineered and built?
But I get de Nysschen’s quest, I really do. Have things worked out all that well for Cadillac up until this point? No, not really. Don’t get me wrong, because Cadillac has brought some truly outstanding products to market, and they’ve had some intermittent successes along the way with the whole “reimagined” Cadillac thing and the Art & Science adventure, with some breathtaking concepts thrown in for good measure.
But that’s not nearly enough and de Nysschen knows it, especially with Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and a rejuvenated Lexus flexing their muscles while pummeling Cadillac on a daily basis.
Everything that Cadillac has done up until this point has only allowed it to be in the discussion. It’s an American legacy luxury brand with global ambitions, but it’s not even at the head table of today’s mainstream luxury arena. Instead, it’s sitting over at the kids’ table desperate for attention.
And that is simply not a sustainable business plan.
So de Nysschen has everyone’s attention, from CEO Mary Barra on down, and that’s not only good, it’s essential. Moves will be made and some of those will not be popular, but in the end, it’s all good (well, not all of it is good - the new naming regimen is ill advised, colorless, unimaginative and stupid, as I said last week.)
Cadillac has reached a point in its existence where business as usual simply doesn’t apply.
And as we like to say around here, it’s a giant “We’ll see” that will need at least five years to play itself out.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.