WANKERS, WEASELS, ZEALOTS, ZOMBIE CARS AND ENOUGH TWO-BIT HUSTLERS AND CONNIVING HUCKSTERS TO FILL FORD FIELD TO THE RAFTERS. ARE YOU READY FOR A LITTLE REGRETTABLE UNPLEASANTNESS? THEN YOU’RE READY FOR THE AUTOEXTREMIST YEAR IN REVIEW!
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. (12/13, 7:01 p.m.) As another tumultuous automotive year – is there any other kind? – careens to a close, I’m struck by the fact that optimism is still Job 1 for most in the industry. Even though industry execs admit that we have probably reached the peak, it’s as if the auto company honchos have become so addicted to maintaining the red-hot sales pace and the overall momentum that they’re conveniently ignoring the fact that the incentives being dumped into the deals have blown right past outright ridiculous levels to a new dimension of absurdity, rational thinking be damned and any reservations you may have can be checked at the door, please.
It’s great for consumers, at least on the surface, but dig deeper and you discover that the rate of subprime loans is reaching fever pitch, and residual values are taking a beating in the crossfire. Sober financial types and industry apologists are assuring everyone, out loud, that we won’t have a repeat of 2008-2010, when auto loan delinquencies approached Armageddon levels, but I’m not buying it.
But rather than blame consumers, who tend to take the path of least resistance when acquiring a vehicle, I'd rather assign blame where the blame is due, which is to the manufacturers that are coldly sucking underqualified consumers into loans they have no business getting into. FCA has been dining on this M.O. for years now, and they’re clearly the most egregious offenders, but let’s face it, 72-month financing is a Black Hole of Buyer’s Remorse for everyone, and most all of the mainstream automakers are guilty of shoving it down consumer throats, which is a giant bowl of Not Good.
But wicked financing scams to maintain sales momentum and achieve a Pyrrhic victory, at best, is just one aspect of the auto business that annoys, because the industry, as it’s being defined in 2016, has turned into a kaleidoscope of rancor, pontifications, hubris and glorified hucksterism, and sometimes, if it’s the M&M boys (Musk & Marchionne), it’s achieved in the same sentence.
At any rate, seventeen-and-a-half years into this excellent adventure called Autoextremist.com, and this business continues to swing from being confounding to exhilarating at a rapid, head-slapping rate.
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 – although with Trump’s pick of Yosemite Sam, er, I mean, Oklahoma Attorney General and jovial oil industry buddy/loose cannon Scott Pruitt as the new head of the EPA, all bets are off - 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, damn it, 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?
While the industry continues to chug on, with optimism on its sleeves and abject fear in the deepest, darkest depths of its soul, the “battle” rages on too. Which battle, you might ask? It’s the battle between the True Believers and the pitchfork-wielding spineless weasels, recalcitrant twerps and human bureaucratic chicanes that exist inside these car companies.
I hate to break it to some of the touchy-feely visionaries, but for all of the progress and talk of enlightenment allegedly going on in this business 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.)
Wait, you might ask, what about the genial, collaborative, responsible and 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 this minute, 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.
Yes, the battle rages on but it's still about the product in this business and it will always be about the product, thank goodness, and my money is on the True Believers winning out more often than not.
So here we are, and, in order to get started on this Autoextremist Year in Review, we have to go all the way back to last January, which seems to be, oh, about ten years ago right about now. (And – just an “FYI” – this column isn’t meant to be digested in one sitting, in case you’re wondering. -WG)
Well done, sir. I think they bought it. That we’ll see a smattering of “Auto Executives Who Should Know Better” make complete fools of themselves next week down at Cobo Hall is the one prediction that is as sure as a bunch of NFL coaches getting fired this week. When you specialize in bullshit sales promises based on nothing more than wishful thinking and a prayer - even though it has become the obligatory dance at auto shows – stupid pronouncements are bound to happen. But then again, with the hordes of PR minions in tow, trying to spin the fantasy before and after the fact and telling their charges “I thought it went really well today,” it’s no wonder that Delusion Creep is one of the sideshows at the Detroit Auto Show. (“THIS IS JUST LIKE TELEVISION, ONLY YOU CAN SEE MUCH FURTHER.” – January 4, 2016)
Silence. The flogging will commence in 30 seconds. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to discern the various auto show presentations from one another. The German manufacturers lecture, like they’re talking to the village peasants gathered for their monthly slog-and-flog, while reminding everyone that they started this whole business, as is their wont. This is usually introduced by some odd musical interaction akin to Mike Meyers’ “Sprockets” SNL routine. Afterwards, the peasants in the media drift away muttering “Why?” yet again. (1/4)
Righteous and uplifting it ain’t. GM was all earnest and cheery, with Queen Mary sounding like she was reading the morning announcements at the local high school while Alan Batey shouted like he wasn’t wearing a microphone while touting Chevrolet’s latest successes. And it was all just stupidly swell. As for the Japanese car companies, they go out of their way to distance themselves from the fact that they are, in fact, Japanese car companies. To do this they trot out their American subjects, er, executives, to deliver the news. As for the Koreans, they matter-of-factly describe how they will rule the world, as everyone looks at their watches wondering when lunch is. Good Times. (1/4)
And then there was the one about Unctuous Prick University, aka the most inglorious Alma Mater of all time. We talked about it, and we finally offered the sweatshirt (below). Not surprisingly, they're all sold out.
WELCOME TO THE "U."
Well, some of you knew this day had to come. After exhaustive and admittedly dangerous, double-secret research, paying off disgruntled moles buried deep in the administration, even resorting to taking a sweatshirt supplier and his wife to a blowout bash (who knew anyone could drink that much Knob Creek?), we have finally gained access - albeit surreptitiously - to the rarest collegiate apparel in the world. Yes, that's right; the one, the only, "The U." No, not that "U" - we're talking about Unctuous Prick University here, that shadowy institution of higher manipulation that dumped such dubious luminaries as Dan "Captain Queeg" Akerson, Juergen "$36 billion-to-0 in Just Eight Years" Schrempp and of course, Sergio "I'm the Greatest Of All Time" Marchionne on the automotive world. Operating out of an undisclosed location in upstate New York (even the locals don't know it exists), Unctuous Prick University is single-handedly responsible for unleashing some of the most egregiously nefarious executives and yes - unctuous pricks - on this business that the auto industry has ever seen. These carpetbagging mercenaries, interlopers and unmitigated hacks have specialized in malicious shit-disturbing, bombastic boorishness and willful disregard for everyone and everything in their path, leaving a legacy of mind-numbing hubris and ego maniacal rancor the likes of which this industry will never forget. With that in mind then, and knowing full well that some of you out there will recoil at even the thought of wearing the colors of UPU, we're going ahead with this offering anyway, because heretofore you had to be a graduate to get your hands on one. That's right, you can now wear your very own heavy cotton blend Unctuous Prick University sweatshirt - available in black with white - to wear proudly, flaunt in executive meetings and confound strangers wherever you go. (1/4)
We don’t have a clue as to what we’re talking about, or what’s gonna happen, but by god we’ll be ready for it, no matter what “it” is. The 2016 Detroit Auto Show left a lot to be desired for one very big reason: Too many car companies took it upon themselves to weigh in on connectivity, the future of mobility, or both. And to put it charitably the distinct odor of vaporware hung over the show floor like a cloud of indifference. Why? Because this just in: It’s not the place for a discussion, think tank or PR apology tour. It’s not a forum for discourse about where the business is going in terms of car sharing or other notions; there are plenty of other places to do that. It’s called an auto show for a reason. It’s just a shame that too many of the manufacturers in attendance forgot that fact. They’re so afraid of irrelevance in the face of The New World Order that they’re scrambling to get a piece of The Future, even though they’re not really sure what that is, or what it means. And that tends to bring an auto show to a dead stop. (“LEXUS GOES LONG, VW FALLS ON ITS SWORD, BIG AUTO WRESTLES WITH THE NEW WORLD ORDER - WE LOATHE THE SMELL OF VAPORWARE IN THE MORNING, BY THE WAY - AND SOMEWHERE IN THERE THE DETROIT AUTO SHOW HAPPENED.” – 1/12)
Face it: Sometimes your favorite car company just sucks. If I don’t mention your favorite car company today don’t be alarmed, it just means that: 1. They didn’t do anything to merit a mention. 2. What they did do was so mediocre and uninspired that it pissed us off. Or 3. They had the temerity to show up at a big-time auto show and stink up the joint so badly, leaving such a trail of winces and cringes, that it was too embarrassing for words. (1/12)
Besides, if we were singling out the poseurs, the spineless weasels and the ill equipped, we’d be here all damn day. To be clear, we’re not talking about the North American Car and Truck Awards because those are open to local "journalists" whose overwhelming priority is to get endless free press cars to drive, even though half of them are so far under the radar that the title "journalist" can only be applied loosely, at best. No, we're talking the Autoextremist High-Octane Truth Awards here, the no bullshit awards designed to honor those getting it right by weeding out the poseurs, the spineless weasels, and calling out the ill equipped and barely-there hordes who came to play and came up woefully short. (1/12)
The “Paul Blart Mall Cop III” Award. This goes to the GM Security detail that was ever present wherever GM's semi-top brass was gathered. I don't have any idea what these guys think they're doing, but whatever it is they leave an impression of paranoid incompetence, which isn't a good look. I have a better idea for GM. Don't have any executives at the auto show, just beam them in from the custom-built audio-video bunker in the catacombs deep under the RenCen. That way we can all get on with our lives with minimal "noise" - aka mindless executive speak - minimal interaction with GM's "crack" PR minions (as if), and no views of the proceedings blocked by GM's roving muscle heads. (1/12)
The "We Don't Have A Clue And We Aren't Likely To Get One Anytime Soon, So Let's Just Go Ahead And Hire Us Some Germans" Award. This trophy goes to Hyundai for the whole Genesis thing, of course. Euisin “Your Tailor Wants His Suit Back” Chung, the Hyundai vice chairman, got up and put the assembled multitudes to sleep with his command of Detroit Marketing Speak, insisting that the new Genesis luxury brand would propel Hyundai to greatness because it would look good, drive right and that they would take care of their customers, which is pretty much what everyone says. (1/12)
The "Pay No Attention To That Diesel Troll Behind The Curtain" Award. Or, we got nothin’ and we won’t have anything of any consequence to talk about until 2018. Audi trotted out Eugene Cernan (The Last Man on the Moon, in case you didn’t know), which was nice, but the meandering press conference was a masterpiece of saying absolutely n-o-t-h-i-n-g. Audi managers introduced the Audi lunar quattro (the company is assisting the Berlin-based engineering group “Part-Time Scientists” in the “Google Lunar XPRIZE”), the A4 allroad quattro and the h-tron quattro - a hydrogen fuel cell crossover concept - plus they launched into the obligatory apologies about the Diesel Thing. They basically danced around for 25 minutes not landing a single punch. And when you're right between Mercedes-Benz and BMW displays, which had a modicum of lively stuff going on, it didn't go over well. (1/12)
The Audi Radio Flyer... err lunar quattro.
The "They came, they saw, they apologized" Award went to VW. Then they apologized again and then they apologized some more. For a minute there I thought VW was going to introduce the 2017 VW Apology. Instead, they rolled out a weak-ass Tiguan GTE plug-in hybrid that said nothin’ about nothin’. A truly pathetic performance, one of the worst in memory, in fact. Where was the BUDD-E all-electric van from the CES? Now that would have been worth talking about, and seeing. In the end, VW shouldn't have bothered. If Matthias "I Apologize" Mueller didn't have anything else to say other than to apologize, then VW should have just gone quiet at the show like Cadillac did. And let's pause for a moment to think about Mueller. Six months ago he was running Porsche on cruise control and soaking up the accolades that came with piloting one of the world's most desirable brands. Now, he’s in a 24-7 Shit Show that never stops. He wakes up apologizing, he brushes his teeth apologizing and he hums apologies to the musical interludes in his head. It's giant Wiener Schnitzel of Not Good for ol' Matthias, that's for damn sure. (1/12)
The VW Tiguan GTE Active Concept.
The “Sounds like a new anxiety drug” Award went to Buick. Do not drink alcohol while taking Avista. This medication can increase the effects of alcohol. Keep Avista in a secure place where others cannot get to it... It has become somewhat of a tradition now, after two years, that GM lavishes attention on its Buick brand the Sunday night before the Detroit show. Last year the Avenir sedan concept was introduced, which garnered raves from near and far (but left me exceedingly cold) and this year it was the Avista, the unfortunately named coupe concept based on the new Camaro architecture. Apparently when a manufacturer does a concept these days it is accepted practice that the media genuflect and race to their phones and keyboards using words like “brilliant,” “must build it now,” etc., etc. This doesn’t sit well with me. Concepts are living, breathing entities, resting on historical legacies of everything that came before. Some concepts are memorable or even game changing, some are merely eye candy that never sees the light of day, and some never see the light of day again for well, good reason. Where does the Avista fit in all of this? As I tweeted while at the event, it’s a little dash of Jaguar, a little taste of Bentley and Tesla, and a giant dollop of derivative. GM Design phoned this one in, pure and simple. And this pains me to no end because GM Design has such an incredible historical legacy, with two truly legendary industry giants (Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell) having set the tone for this business by delivering creatively expressive machines with concept car presence to the streets and byways of America. GM Design didn’t make its reputation doing derivative. And to see them do something like this, with three clear “familiarities” baked in, makes me wince. (1/12)
The Buick Avista concept.
In closing, I couldn’t possibly let this week go by without mentioning the death of David Bowie. When I got up at 3:30 a.m. on Monday morning, the news was burning a hole in the Internet. It seemed so trivial at that moment to be gearing up for another Detroit Auto Show, because the news of Bowie’s death was casting a pall over everything. Some people may dismiss that thought, but Bowie wasn’t just another rock star. For a lot of people, he was a transcendent figure. Fierce, driven, creatively restless and passionate about his craft, Bowie influenced generations of musicians and created music – and art – that resonated deeply.
If you don’t let music into your life, I am sorry for you. But for those of a certain generation, music is so inexorably linked to memorable moments in our lives that it is indelibly inescapable. And Bowie provided some of the most riveting moments of all time.
My favorite – among many – of Bowie’s work was the classic “Under Pressure” performed here with Annie Lennox.
It's the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming, "Let me out!"
And from his 25th – and last – album, “Black Star” released days before his death:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried
(I’m a black star, I’m a star star, I’m a black star)
When someone of Bowie's stature departs, a little bit of all of us goes with him. But the fleeting moments of life that were measured by a distinctive beat, a classic chord or a viciously delicious vocal styling by him will live on in all of our memories. (1/12)
Heard of Soylent Green? Say hello to Soylent Grind. On the one side we have the Zealots of the anti-car intelligentsia, which consists of The Masters of All They Survey, aka the feverishly brilliant (just ask ‘em) hordes in Silicon Valley; the California government auto regulators, whose primary mission in life is to tell the rest of the country what’s good for us (even though with each new strident edict we could all care less), and of course the carpet bagging hordes in Washington, those usual stumble bum suspects in the political ranks who continue their self-aggrandizing dance of egregious ineptitude. The Zealots believe that we will all soon exist in a Shiny Happy World where cars will appear at our beckoning and then disappear to Some Other Place, which presumably will be out of sight and out of mind. Like Iowa. I can just imagine the rationale now: “Oh, I don’t know. Who cares? Ick. We’ll figure that out later!”
The Zealots are all about freedom from the “tyranny” of the automobile, the one (albeit popular) conveyance responsible for all of our problems, both real and imagined. The Zealots aren’t content with just snuffing the life out of the dirty, intransigent automobile business. Oh no, they want to gain control of it first of all because everyone associated with the auto business as we know it is just so relentlessly incompetent. (Didn’t you get that memo? It’s well documented.) Then they not only want to eradicate it from the face of the earth, they want to purge it from our history while they’re at it, dismissing the entire exercise as that “Regrettable Unpleasantness.”
On the other hand The Realists represent the near and future reality of transportation in this vast nation. They represent a business that is part of the industrial fabric of this country, one that propelled the expansion of this great nation and helped create the Arsenal of Democracy when called upon in the time of this country’s most dire need. The Realists build a wide range of vehicles designed to meet the needs of a vastly diverse nation, from urban centers to wide-open spaces, all while meeting a tightening grip of safety, emissions and fuel economy regulations. In other words, the realists know how to make things, a decidedly diminishing skill here, in fact.
To the Zealots, the Realists represent the Old World Order and a dirty, recalcitrant industry that should be put out to pasture in favor of blue-sky thinking and a wonderfully benign solution for our future transportation needs. In the Zealots’ minds they represent the New World Order, what The Unfortunates in the industry formerly known as the automobile industry will be transitioned to and be a part of (albeit briefly) before they’re eventually and mercifully put to sleep. (“THE ZEALOTS VS. THE REALISTS AND DETROIT AUTO SHOW AFTERMATH.” -1/18)
The ugly – albeit ignored – reality for the Zealots is that the sheer vastness of this nation defies categorization, and the wildly diverse needs of the consumer driving public defy categorization as well. It will be a very long time before even a slice of their vision for a utopian driving future makes a dent in our society, and even then it will still be largely confined to the most major of urban centers. Think about that for a moment, because the hype is far exceeding the reality surrounding this subject. And it must be stated that there is a fundamental sense of individualism in this country and a freedom of mobility that goes with it, and it has helped define who we are as a nation. We, as Americans, love to wander, and on our own terms too. And it remains a powerful force to this day. The quaint notion that a small segment of Zealots would deign to disrupt this sense of wander, completely ignoring its power as an essential part of the American experience, is flat-out crazy. But then again, the Zealots are unable to see the sheer folly of this notion because they’re being completely dismissive of the Realists, suggesting that any discussions of “an essential part of the American experience” are merely the lunatic ravings of a hoary segment of society that should be marginalized, if not completely eliminated altogether. And as you can imagine, that train of logic is headed to a place that’s nowhere good. (“THE END OF CADOLATRY, PART II” -2/1)
What is the compelling reason as to why we should give a shit again? I really just threw my hands up when I saw the Acura spot “What He Said” presenting the new NSX sports car, as in, WTF? Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve been talking about and showing iterations of this car for something like five years now. Or maybe it’s the fact that, despite Acura operatives insisting that the NSX represents the very best that the brand has to offer, the car clearly exists in a vacuum unto itself. Acura wants us all to go watch the extended version of the spot, but why? If you can’t get it done in a :60, you just can’t get it done. Acura needs to ask themselves the following questions: Why does the NSX exist in the first place? What does it mean for Acura, other than the fact that, “Hey, look it us, we finally did a new NSX!” What is the compelling reason as to why we should give a shit? Then we’ll talk. Nice audio track though. (“EXCEPTIONAL IT WASN’T.” -2/8)
We don’t have time for no stinkin’ Diesel bad news, but here’s our shiny new R8 that only a few of you out there will even see, let alone afford! Audi showed up on the Big Game again, this time with a former astronaut longing for that elusive rush, in “Commander.” And the Audi R8 is just the car to jolt him out of his wistful lethargy. Nicely done, complete with that wonderful David Bowie track. It artfully dismissed the whole Diesel controversy altogether, which was smart, but I am beginning to think that Audi is wasting its money on the Super Bowl. Massive audience? Check. Massive image-wrangling opportunity? Check. But I am questioning the ultimate effectiveness for the brand in the follow-up, because the image hit for Audi isn’t lasting beyond the big game instead it’s just falling into the Black Hole of Old Super Bowl commercials. Time for Audi to do a rethink on this whole being-on-the-Super-Bowl thing. (2/8)
Buick + Odell Beckham Jr. = What was the question again? Ah yes, let’s trot out a football celebrity to make people experience the “new” Buick. I’m sure this had all the makings of a grand-slam home-run spot in the dark caverns of the Buick and GM marketing operatives’ minds. I mean, what’s not to like, right? They have a new convertible – the Cascada (catchy name, that) - which will achieve instant cult status in rental fleets in the “smile” states across America literally overnight. And they signed one of the NFL’s “new” stars and came up with a spot that neatly (sort of) ties the “new” Buick to what I assume to be a thoroughly parsed and vetted demographic, while giving a visual shout out to one of Odell Beckham’s signature on-field moves, complete with a twist. What was the net impact of all of this? The hired GM social media trolls went nuts claiming that this was big stuff, that the recognition of Buick rocketed to the moon. The reality? It was uninspired air selling in its purest form. And now we have to be subjected to a :30 version of this mindless drivel indefinitely. (2/8)
If you could remove the giant chip off of your shoulder – and get your collective heads out of your asses - you might actually see fit to do a worthy Super Bowl spot. In the effort to break through all of the stereotypes associated with its flagging brand, MINI came up with a Super Bowl spot entitled “Defy Labels” and in one fell self-absorbed swoop managed to reaffirm every single stereotype associated with the brand. MINI’s problem is that its German overlords keep insisting that it can be much more than it actually is. This just in: They are simply dreaming. A few weeks ago I said that half of the battle in this business is knowing and understanding who you are, not who you think you should be. Too bad more car companies, especially MINI, can’t grasp that concept. (2/8)
In a severely depleted field of mediocre creative work, “Portraits” qualified as Best in Show. As for the most compelling automotive commercial on the game, Jeep had one worth noting, “Portraits,” in an otherwise lackluster field overall. With FCA clinging by a thread right now and the Great Sergio admitting that yeah, basically we got nothin’ besides Jeep and some pickup trucks (this after selling the Obama administration a bill of goods to abscond with Chrysler’s assets based on the promise of all of the new fuel-efficient vehicles the reconfigured company was going to bring to market, in case you forgot), the company is going to hammer Jeep's 75th Anniversary into the ground, and then some. The copy on “Portraits” is superb and the visuals are compelling although some of the so-called “connections” to Jeep’s heritage defy authenticity, to put it mildly, and ironically enough some of the images of contemporary Jeeps didn’t hold up at all, which was a giant negative. (2/8)
I’ve seen this movie before. It never ends well. On the one hand, I can applaud industry executives for sticking to their “stay the course” message about where this industry is headed because it signifies a reasoned calmness and a belief that they’re not going to make the same mistakes as they have in the past. On the other hand, these executives and this business are making the exact same mistakes that they have in the past. Too many models and too many nameplates all jostling for the same piece of the pie, with no one pausing and reevaluating, instead just heading into the “business as usual” Abyss. And to sustain the faux sales rate heat in the market the manufacturers are spending too much money on incentives and writing too many sub-prime loans. And the warning signs are all over the place too. The profitability of the luxury brands is eroding. Incentive spending is crushing everything in sight, including future resale values. Sub-prime lending and the subsequent loan defaults are going up by the month. And the overriding tone of the business is “What, Us Worry?” I’m sorry, but it’s just nonsensical and stupid, and this business – and the executives tasked with running it – should know better. (“I’VE SEEN THIS MOVIE BEFORE. IT NEVER ENDS WELL.” -2/15)
Brother Sergio’s Traveling Salvation Show isn’t just out of gas, it’s broke down and busted by the side of the road. For me it was easy to see right through FCA’s Sergio Marchionne, just as it was easy to see right through his agenda and his many calculated media manipulations from the moment he landed here. And the fact that Alfa Romeo had less than a snowball’s chance in Hell of ascending to the level of Audi in a handful of years was the most absurdly transparent of all of Sergio’s grandiose fallacies. I have been writing editorial commentaries about Sergio, the self-appointed auto CEO of the world, for years now. And every time I do, I get the usual array of hate emails suggesting that I am a “disgrace to my heritage,” “completely misguided and wrong,” “plainly mental” and “how do you sleep at night being the biggest asshole in the business?” etc., etc., etc. And those are just a few highlights from the nicer ones.
Yes, I have relentlessly pounded Marchionne, but he has deserved every single word of my scathing assessments of who he really is and what his true mission in life – as he sees it - is. I have kept my foot down hard on Marchionne because frankly, most everyone else in the business – you pathetic lapdogs in the media know who you are - has given the guy a free pass from the moment he showed up here, gathering at his feet like children around a campfire for story time, letting him exhale his fantasy mind clouds containing his view of the world – both real and imagined - while dutifully reporting every word as if they had just witnessed the return from the mountaintop of the New Savior of the auto business, grasping carbon fiber tablets etched with his personal musings and meanderings designed to save us all.
And we had to suffer through the pontificating, the bombast, and the endless media descriptions of his dress and his personal proclivities, including the ugly sweaters and the smoking, the 30+ direct reports (because no one else was truly bright enough to grasp everything that he does), his espresso-swilling minions and, of course, the unbridled arrogance that was never ending and all encompassing.
And Sergio’s Message? He is always right and everyone else is always wrong. So wrong, in fact, as to be laughable, especially here in the Motor City where he could hardly conceal his utter disdain toward the “lesser lights” as he viewed them, toiling away at the other car companies.
And so here we are. Marchionne and his espresso-swilling posse have had a good run. They absconded with Chrysler’s assets for a song and they rode on the backs of the True Believers out in Auburn Hills, turning their tremendous efforts on Jeeps, pickups and a smattering of hot rods into pure gold. (“FIAT DEALERS BAIL AS BROTHER SERGIO’S TRAVELING SALVATION SHOW CHUGS TO AN IGNOMINIOUS END.” -1/23)
And in the process, the key questions remain unanswered: As in, what is Cadillac again? Why does it matter? And why should I care? I have a very sensitive bullshit meter and this latest Cadillac ad work pegs it. Look, I’ve said a million times on these pages that conceptualizing, writing and producing compelling advertising is one of the toughest endeavors there is. I wholeheartedly understand what goes into it because I did it myself. So when I criticize efforts like this it’s because I do know what it takes. I mentioned the “disconnect” between de Nysschen and the traditionalists in the Cadillac dealer body early on in this column. That’s real and it will continue to be an issue for months and years to come. But another chasm exists within Cadillac as well, and that’s the disconnect between the True Believers responsible for the excellent new products, and the efforts of the “suits” in management and marketing. There is always a natural divide to be sure, but in this case it seems to be growing wider by the minute and going nowhere good. Ellinghaus and his “genius” marketers - he has assembled a team of people with no connections to the auto biz, on the idea that this is sure to make Cadillac resonate with people who don’t care about the brand or even cars themselves – are selling high concept “air” here. It’s marketing cotton candy of the first degree, a lovely confection that seems to satisfy in a fleetingly pleasing burst of nothing, and is then instantly forgotten. (“MARKETING COTTON CANDY, CADILLAC STYLE.” -3/1)
Has it been all bunny rabbits and rainbows for BMW here in this market? Oh, hell no. This is the automotive business after all, remember? BMW’s success here in the U.S. helped power the “Germany Inc.” juggernaut in the luxury-performance segment, a segment that the German automakers dominate to this day, despite the best efforts of myriad competitors. The High-Octane Truth is that BMW’s success lit a fire under Mercedes-Benz, pushing that brand to new heights. And the BMW playbook was studied and dissected by Audi every step of the way in its upward trajectory as well. (Lexus aimed more at the Mercedes persona, but make no mistake - BMW’s influence was felt there too.)
A few years ago the bonehead marketers at BMW headquarters in Germany tried to shove the European ad campaign revolving around the concept of “Joy” down U.S. dealers’ throats and the dealers pushed back. Hard. Only disconnected and misguided German marketers – and believe me that’s a traditionally accurate descriptor and there are plenty of them still running rampant today - would think that walking away from one of the most powerfully evocative automotive advertising themes of all time was a good idea. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and they walked back from the brink, and the “Ultimate Driving Machine” is still the signature of the brand today.
No, keeping BMW from going off of the rails hasn’t been easy over the years, but it has been especially difficult over the last half decade. The True Believers within BMW are haunted and harassed by the burgeoning ranks of the dreaded VPH secret society, aka the Volume-Profitability Hacks. These are the bureaucrats within BMW who emphatically insist that there really is no ceiling for the brand, that the company can chase every product niche – both real and imagined – with impunity and that the ultimate goal is a BMW in every damn garage in America, and everywhere else too.
That BMW has gotten dangerously close to the fire on this cannot be denied. Its forays into questionable product niches are a glaring sign that they’re not infallible, that they’re but one lame-ass product away from embarrassing themselves at any moment. Thankfully, the abject stupidity of such products as the 3 Series GT and 5 Series GT are more than balanced out by such glorious machines as the new M2. At least for the moment, anyway. The big buzz for BMW as it embarks on its next century? According to the carefully worded press releases, BMW will be a part of the future of mobility, wherever it may lead. Ahem, how is that different from every other car company saying the exact same thing? It's not different at all, as a matter of fact, and I guess it’s a giant “We’ll See” at the moment, but given BMW’s illustrious track record, I will certainly give the company the benefit of the doubt. (“CAN BMW KEEP IT UP FOR THE NEXT 100 YEARS?” -3/9)
BMW embarks on its next century.
Oh, never mind. Memo to enthusiasts everywhere: Run for your lives, because this whole “autonomous” driving thing has now officially transitioned to the Dark Side. After being relatively optimistic about BMW’s next 100 years last week, I now have to take at least 50 percent of that optimism back. Make that 90 percent. Because when you really delve into the future-think that BMW’s throwing around, it should make every Bimmer enthusiast’s blood run cold. And everyone else's for that matter. BMW CEO Harald Krueger actually said the following last week: "For a better quality of life, the BMW Group is going to turn data into intelligence. Soon, our cars will be digital chauffeurs and personal companions. They will anticipate what we want to do and make our lives easier for us." Oh, really? This corporate gobbledygook emanated – I hate to have to say this – from the BMW Design staff. Normally, designers stay away from this kind of unmitigated bullshit, but Karim Habib, head of design for the BMW brand, described BMW’s semi-autonomous mode as "The Companion." "It is the analogy of the co-pilot who is there to help you be a better driver," Habib said. "You have someone next to you who will metaphorically help you take a curve better and enjoy driving to the maximum." Ugh. (“WANKERS, WEASELS AND ULTIMATE ROBO MACHINES. YES, THE AUTOMOTIVE WORLD HAS GONE FLAT-OUT CRAZY.” -3/16)
Ah yes, as Stevie Wonder once famously said, “New York, just like I pictured it.” And then there was the column when I imagined auto executive quotes from the New York Auto Show. Consider the following and then see if you can match them to the manufacturers:
“We build sports cars that satisfy our desires and fulfill our fantasies. Beyond that we don’t give a shit what you think. That is all.”
"We’ve already totally redesigned this thing aiming for an intro next January, but in the meantime we’re bringing out this tricked-out Black Edition because our dealers have to be able to move some lame-duck metal and we’re totally out of ideas.”
“Every other high-performance SUV in the class should immediately be put on the trailer. We will dominate the segment with our unbridled talent, vision, engineering know-how and sheer force of will. Thank you for coming.”
“I actually don’t know why we even bothered. We have a totally average SUV indistinguishable from oh, about fifteen others. When’s lunch?”
“I like where we’re at. Our dealers like where we’re at too. We’re up in sales for the eighth year in a row, and no one has a clue as to how we’re doing it - well, except for the overabundance of subprime financing and slamming enough cash down on the hood to leave a dent.”
“This sports sedan will humiliate all other sport sedans that came before it. It has more flair in its shift knob than others have in their entire portfolio. It will become the top sports sedan in the segment within two years. I am absolutely certain of it. When will dealers have them in stock? Why do you ask such stupid questions?”
“We had a clue once, and for a brief shining moment we actually had it goin’ on. Now? We couldn’t hit these overreaching sales targets if our lives depended on it. Have you seen our product lineup? It’s like a collective rolling monument to mediocrity. I’m the top sales guy, at least for now. Or at least until headquarters realizes I’m an American and I’ve been here 27 months. Which is about three months too long.”
“Our plan is working. And our dealers are aligned with it. We have eliminated the stragglers and we have new product in place or on the way that will redefine the brand for a profitable and successful future. Yes, of course we’re still totally reliant on gigantic luxury SUVs for our very existence and probably will be for the foreseeable future, so what’s your point?” (“INSIDER SOUND BITES FROM THE NEW YORK AUTO SHOW.” -3/23)
There should have been signs placed at the Nissan display in New York with the words: “Nothing to see here, move it along.” Nissan has been phoning it in for so long with GT-R that the New York two-step with it was the absolute final straw. The GT-R was relentlessly overhyped by the fan boys in the media when it was first introduced, and it has simply been on a downhill slide of irrelevance ever since. At the time of its intro the car was in fact bloated, complicated and replete with a design “language” that was shockingly uninspired right out of the gate. And the new car? Please. There should have been signs placed at the Nissan display in New York with the words: “Nothing to see here, move it along” because there was simply no “there” there. What a miserable excuse for a “new” car intro. As I’ve said repeatedly in this column, Nissan finds success in this market in spite of itself. The cars just aren’t that good and the advertising is truly pathetic, and in fact I am convinced that people buy them as much to avoid consorting with a domestic-sourced product as anything else. If Ghosn and his posse want to call that “having it goin’ on” then fine, after all, we’re talking about a bunch that are enthralled with the dulcet tones of their own thought balloons to a fault. To me it just reinforces the notion that there must be some magic mirrors sprinkled around the Nissan Empire, because Nissan’s image of itself so far overshoots the reality that it’s shocking. (“THE POST-NEW YORK AUTO SHOW BLUES.” -3/30)
I have never read such a disgusting display of “work” by so-called professional journalists in my life. By the time the collective media stumble bums were finished gushing over Elon Musk and the Model 3, and regurgitating their “reports” in various media platforms, one could deduce the following: 1. This car was not only the greatest thing since sliced bread; it would change the world as we know it, turning it into a wondrous place of bunny rabbits and rainbows devoid of wars, poverty and suffering. 2. It would immediately humble cars costing twice as much due to its undeniable, all-encompassing brilliance. And 3. The car represents such a fundamental shift in the Autosphere that it could conceivably put all of the existing “poseur” car companies, some of which have been accumulating transportation knowledge for well over 100 years, immediately out of business. One esteemed member of the media - and an over-the-top, electric car zealot to boot (tediously so, I might add) - even went so far as to explain that the Model 3 was such a breakthrough because, lo and behold, it had been designed from the beginning to be an electric car! As if this had never been thought of, or done, by anybody before. At which point I knew that the whole thing had turned into a circus of irrational thinking and an orchestrated – and ugly - cessation of reality. (“BEHOLD THE CAR THAT PROMISES ETERNAL LIFE.” -4/6)
Over the course of writing for Autoextremist.com I have come to occupy a very strange place when it comes to General Motors, sort of a Twilight Zone made up of a brutal and at times ugly dichotomy. On the one hand, to most of the GM hierarchy I am an avowed Enemy of the State, a scurrilous, reprehensible lout who has done more damage to their efforts than anyone else covering the industry, by far. Dismissing established – and hoary – rules of engagement, I have decimated GM’s coldly calculated PR machine and delivered scathing blow after blow to a company that more often than not richly deserved it – and more – by documenting every excruciating misstep and blunder. And what makes it even more infuriating for the powers that be in those Silver Silos hard by the Detroit River is that I have a rather unique perspective that spans GM’s roller-coaster eras, from the sublime, to the ridiculous and back - almost - again. I was there for the company’s heyday, and then some. Thanks to my father, Tony, who led GM’s Public Relations function from 1957 until 1979, our family was on a first-name basis with some of the most famous legends in the business. And this unique perspective, along with my own advertising career, which gave me an up close and personal view of GM’s long, slow slide to oblivion firsthand, has allowed me to see through many of the canards put forth by the company in its modern era. Make no mistake - this is a giant bowl of Not Good from GM’s perspective. (4/13)
But on the other hand, to most of the True Believers toiling away in GM Design, Engineering and Product Development, I am considered a visionary soothsayer, someone who not only gets it and calls it like he sees it, but who understands that they’re the reason why - even through the horribly embarrassing bankruptcy and the Akerson Reign of Terror - GM is still even in the game. Ed Welburn and I have become more than acquaintances, stopping short of being friends, and much of that is due to the fact that I have this connection to GM Design that spans eras. I said “stopping short” of being friends because the fact of the matter is that it is distinctly frowned upon for any GM executive to have contact with me, although thankfully, Ed and I have managed to share a few moments roaming the halls of GM Design together in the past.
One characteristic that I find most admirable about Ed is his genuine appreciation and understanding of GM Design history, especially the Bill Mitchell era. One of the first things Ed did upon his ascension to the top job at GM Design was to commission the total restoration of the famed Corvette Stingray racer, probably the most iconic representation of the Bill Mitchell-led design era there is, and my all-time favorite car. And recently, Ed has put together a brief tribute video about Mitchell to “educate and set the record straight” for his design team, so that they might come to understand the rich historical legacy of Bill Mitchell and his seismic contributions to GM Design.
While paying homage to GM Design’s past, Ed Welburn has led GM’s design function into the modern era with aplomb. Though GM Design was showing definite signs of life during the Wayne Cherry era, Ed took the reins from there and forged a design renaissance by spurring on the talent at his disposal to achieve great things. And Ed did this while marshaling design troops in a vast, global network of ten design studios, including major centers in Germany, South Korea, Australia, China and of course here at the GM Technical Center in Warren. Needless to say, being GM Design chief is a much tougher assignment in the modern era.
Beyond that, perhaps Ed's most significant contribution is that he broke down the ridiculous, often paralyzing silos between Design and everyone else in the company, especially engineering. Ed dispensed with that obsolete thinking and pushed for the "one team" approach, leading the integration to a better way. The result? Creativity and cooperation between engineers and designers is unlike any other time in GM's history, which is a tremendous accomplishment that will cement Ed's historical legacy. Ed Welburn's reasoned and positive manner has left a winning tone and tempo within GM that will serve the company well going forward. (“ED WELBURN: AN APPRECIATION.” -4/13)
The 1959 GM Cyclone Concept. The car that would inspire a future industry giant.
(the detroit bureau)
Bill Mitchell greets a very young Ed Welburn.
The sensational 1959 Corvette Stingray racer.
One of Ed Welburn's favorite projects at GM was being the design lead on the the experimental Oldsmobile Aerotech high-speed test vehicles created between 1987 and 1992. The Aerotech I consisted of a March Indycar single seat chassis enclosed in an extremely slick carbon fiber body shell powered by a turbo-charged version of the 2-litre Oldsmobile Quad 4 engine. (One version of the engine used had 900HP, the other had 1000HP.) It was driven by four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt to a world closed-course speed record of 257.123 mph on August 26, 1987 at the 7.712-mile test track near Fort Stockton, Texas. Earlier that day the machine hit a top speed over a "Flying Mile" of 267.88 mph. During the runs Foyt hit straightaway speeds of 290+ mph.
The 2011 Cadillac Ciel Concept.
The 2013 Cadillac Elmiraj Concept.
The lobby of the famous Eero Saarinen-designed GM Design building, the Cyclone Concept in the foreground.
Another view of the GM Design lobby. The staircase was designed by Kevin Roche and is made of 7-foot, 4-inch terrazzo slabs, which overlap each other. They are actually suspended from above. Each tread is caught in tension between pencil-thin stainless steel rods.
Under Welburn's direction the seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette - wearing the Stingray moniker for the first time in decades - is a sensational looking sports car worthy of the name.
The 2016 Chevrolet Camaro is another example of Welburn's design leadership and is by far the hottest version of the car that GM has ever produced.
The great Jim Hall leans in to talk to Ed Welburn, who is at the wheel of the Chaparral 2H in a private test drive conducted at Hall's Rattlesnake Raceway in Midland, Texas.
Ed Welburn will take his place with the greats of General Motors Design.
When people and corporate entities find you ferociously unpalatable, utterly loathsome and flat-out untrustworthy, it’s kind of hard to make a deal. Sergio Marchionne and John Elkann - The Flying Pasta Brothers - were banging the drum loudly last week, reaffirming Sergio’s brilliant scenario for a “merger” that would save everyone involved a bunch of money while – sotto voce – saving their bacon. Elkann actually had the temerity to suggest to reporters last week at the company annual meeting that, "What (Marchionne) envisaged with the 'Confessions of a Capital Junkie' a year ago is unchanged and still actual." And of course, Sergio, always one who insists on having the last word, reiterated, "One year after, $10 billion of capital that could have been saved has been wasted." If either of these two industry “titans” were honest for even a fleeting millisecond, they would have said the following: “Let’s face it, kids, we’re one year closer to being flat broke and busted and a smoldering hunk by the side of the road. If we don’t find a sucker, err, partner, in the next year we will be toast.” As if that weren’t enough, Marchionne insisted that Ford, Toyota and the VW Group would be likely merger candidates for FCA. Cue the laughter and the backroom guffaws, folks, because not one of these companies wants anything to do with Marchionne or FCA. Ford even went so far as to release a statement saying, "As we consistently have said, Ford has no plan or interest other than to continue to accelerate our One Ford plan." Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that some corporate entity won’t make a deal with him, but it will never be on Marchionne’s terms, not in this lifetime at any rate. Instead, he will enter the room as a glorified accountant dressed in an ugly-ass sweater formerly known as “The Great Sergio,” just there trying to get the best deal for his boss. (“THE FOOLS ON THE HILL.” -4/20)
April 28, 2016, 10:30 a.m., Detroit. Google, the all-seeing and all-knowing technical juggernaut, is in the late stages of negotiating an advanced technical partnership with Fiat Chrysler, according to a source with direct knowledge of the ongoing discussions. John Krafcik, CEO of Google's Self-Driving Cars operation and Sergio Marchionne, CEO of FCA, began talks not long after the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas back in January, and have been in final negotiations over the last three weeks. (“GOOGLE IN FINAL NEGOTIATIONS WITH FIAT CHRYSLER ON AN ADVANCED TECHNICAL PARTNERSHIP.” – The story we broke last April.)
This craptastic advertising simply doesn't do the product – or the brand - any justice whatsoever. Even though I am decidedly removed from the precious aura of hipness that Ellinghaus & Co. is aiming for, that doesn’t preclude me from commenting on or “understanding” the CT6 campaign, because I know bad advertising when I see it. And I was in the ad biz long enough to know that the campaign for the CT6 is flat-out craptastic advertising at its most offensive. It is so remarkably uninspired and boring - let's face it, does "first ever" CT6 mean anything to anybody? - that it leaves the distinct impression that Cadillac is simply phoning it in. Add to that the fact that the spots are topped-off with a sullen and shockingly juvenile-sounding female voice over, one that grows more grating by the spot, and you have a recipe for disaster. Ellinghaus needs to separate himself from the haze generated from the thought balloons of his precious millennial marketing posse and start making effective advertising that's worthy of the brand. (“CRUCIAL QUESTIONS FOR CADILLAC.” -4/28)
That’s an interesting concept and we’ll give it some serious consideration, but in the meantime can you guys spend another $20 million on activation? Thanks. The last time NASCAR and its participating manufacturers butted heads was when the manufacturers threatened NASCAR with financial cutbacks if they didn’t abandon their silly “Car of Tomorrow.” The “CoT” was a new concept car that NASCAR took great pains in creating. Besides being eminently safer – always a good thing – the car used a common body template (with only decals to indicate the grilles and headlights of the different manufacturers). Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with its hardcore fans, or with two of its manufacturers, who demanded that they make changes back to production-appearing bodies. (I know, because I helped orchestrate the manufacturer pressure to extract those changes behind the scenes.) NASCAR capitulated, eventually, but not before taking all the credit for the new “Gen 6” cars, in typical NASCAR fashion. After all, when it comes to NASCAR, if they didn’t think of the idea, it never existed to begin with. Today, there’s a manufacturer council that’s supposed to prevent things from deteriorating into the threat stage, but who’s kidding whom, here? NASCAR steadfastly refuses to change anything unless there’s a proverbial gun to its head. The manufacturers involved have become NASCAR’s chief enablers, and the NASCAR brain trust’s “MO” of “why fix it if it ain’t broke?” has only served the France family’s interests, while the manufacturers are left shuffling their feet and writing bigger and bigger checks. (“NASCAR’S CHIEF ENABLERS.” -5/5)
This is what will help define Cadillac for a handful of wandering millennials who manage to stumble in off the street asking for a hot cup of I don’t give a shit? “We want to be a global luxury brand that happens to sell cars. We don’t want to be an automotive brand.” That was the now famous quote by Melody Lee, the reigning Queen of Uwe Ellinghaus’s millennial marketing posse - and officially Cadillac’s “brand director” that she gave to Fortune magazine. She followed that up with this, in an interview with Bloomberg’s Hannah Elliott: “We have tried to tell people what you’re supposed to feel from the Cadillac brand. But what we hadn’t quite fully established was an environment that you could walk into.” Dang. Really? This "Cadillac House" is the most crying need for a brand that’s perpetually at the starting gate, an environment you can walk into? This is what Lee and her fellow precious millennial marketers have been working on for eighteen months? Un-frickin’-believable doesn’t even begin to describe the gaping maw of abject futility in this woefully ill-conceived “plan.” If I were a Cadillac dealer out in the hinterlands scratching for every customer I could get my hands on and on a daily basis – living the “up at dawn, pride swallowing siege” mantra so perfectly conveyed by Cameron Crowe in “Jerry McGuire” – I would be ready to wander off of the lot in search of a stiff drink, horrified with the knowledge that Cadillac president Johan de Nysschen is sitting by while Uwe Ellinghaus enables his millennial marketing posse to make complete fools of themselves while pissing away boatloads of money in the process. (“SMOKE, MIRRORS... AND COFFEE.” -5/18)
The “blue sky” aspect of the automobile business’s headlong rush into new think and future technology is commendable, but not for the reasons you might assume. One surprisingly positive aspect of the swirling maelstrom surrounding The Future is that, lo and behold, the Silicon Valley hucksters have found out the hard way that Detroit and the other old-school relics of the auto industry not only know how to build “stuff” but are in fact hotbeds of technical innovation unto themselves, to the degree that St. Elon is turning – yet again – to auto industry manufacturing veterans to dig him out of the hole made by his grandiose promises for the Model 3. My prediction? The Model 3 will get built, but actual production will begin trickling out, at best, at the very end of 2018. As for 500,000 of them? With no track record demonstrating the ability for true mass production, and a glaring legacy of piss-poor launches? Good night and good luck. (“CRYSTAL BALLS.” – 5/25)
I would be so thrilled to report that our latest Brand Image Meter is chock-full of platitudes and “attaboys,” happy in the knowledge that the collective auto marketers appear to have finally gotten out of their own way and are doing stellar work top to bottom, but that’s far from the case. Is it a surprise? Hardly. In fact, I have never seen such a painful disconnect between the auto companies - who are actually making some terrific products at the moment - and their stumble bum marketing troops who consistently fail at coming up with a fundamental raison d'être for those products. Cogent, focused thought seems to be in painfully short supply at this juncture in the automotive marketing arena, and I will gleefully point that out over the rest of this column. As I said when we first introduced our Brand Image Meter four years ago, when it comes to the power of brands and the inescapable importance of brand image, “It’s the one thing that car companies – both good and bad – cannot escape. How a brand is perceived can make or break a car company, regardless of how long and illustrious a run that brand has enjoyed up until any given point in time, because one false move or one discordant note can be crippling in a matter of months.” (“THE AUTOEXTREMIST BRAND IMAGE METER V, OR, LEARNING TO LIVE IN A WORLD OF REDUCED EXPECTATIONS.” -6/8)
And though we take the Internet for granted, sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a deep breath even for a millisecond and consider what it was like before it arrived and what our lives have become with it in full force. Has it all been rainbows and lollipops? No, because there’s a virulent underside to the Internet that has begun to rapidly erode the positive euphoria that has been part and parcel of its overwhelming presence. The Internet has, in effect, turned over the rock on the proverbial anthill, unleashing a swarm of petulant belligerence, rampant asshole-ism and enough outrageously bad behavior to cast a pall of negativity on what once was a conveyance that pointed to a bright future and the promise of “What if?” It’s no secret that the basic tenets of this country’s fundamental ideal of freedom of the press have taken an intense drubbing in the Internet age. Reporting has been replaced with rancor at every turn, and it’s almost as if misinformation has become the currency of the Internet. (“FREEDOM OF THE PRESS IN THE ‘DIE, YOU SCUM!’ AGE.” – 6/15)
Ford wins the GTE PRO class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The win for the Ford GT at Le Mans – 50 years after Ford’s overall win in 1966 – is a momentous achievement for everyone who has been involved with the program from the very beginning. It’s an extraordinarily proud moment for the entire company too. It reminds everyone hard at work at Ford that there’s still room for dedication, perseverance, creativity and the will to win. In fact, none other than its founder, Henry Ford, forged the company’s reputation and illustrious history through racing and it remains a shining legacy that’s as vibrant and essential today. It also means that sometimes you have to say, “What the f---” and just go for it, and be willing to put it all on the line in the world’s most competitive arena in order to demonstrate who you are and what you’re about. (“A WINNING IMPERATIVE.” – 6/22)
The No. 68 Ford GT of Sébastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Müller crosses the finish line at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning the GTE PRO class.
Editor’s Note: The following links are to videos covering Ford’s return to Le Mans. –WG
"Victory At Le Mans" (6/22)
Write Hard, Die Free indeed. Now approaching our eighteenth year of Autoextremist.com, I am proud to say that we still take you "behind the curtain" to give you an up-close look at the Wizards, the Dullards and everyone else in between in this business. I still say what the others are only thinking (or whispering) in deep background, or “off-the-record” conversations, and I will continue to do so. And this publication will continue to "influence the influencers" every single week, even though they're loathe to admit it. Delivering The Truth, The Whole Truth... and absolutely nothing but The High-Octane Truth has been an exhilarating ride. (“Write Hard, Die Free.” – 6/29)
The personal arrogance of Musk permeates everything he touches. When it was revealed that a Tesla Model S owner crashed and died while his car was in autopilot mode, the hue and cry was sharp and unrelenting, even though the company’s second-rate PR minions did their best to stumble through a weak-kneed explanation followed by wildly inept backtracking. The bottom line of this debacle was that the personal arrogance of Musk allowed for beta testing of a sophisticated semi-autonomous technology by the company’s own customers in the real world, an unconscionable lapse of judgment that is simply unbelievable and unforgivable. Don’t agree? Let me put it this way, if it came to light that Ford, GM, Toyota or any of the established automobile manufacturers had deigned to do such a thing I guarantee you that there would be Congressional hearings being conducted on this matter right now, with executives being vilified and serious consequences being levied. (“MASTERS OF THEIR IMAGINARY UNIVERSE.” – 7/6)
How does "It’s like watching a fetid river of sludge" sound? I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again at least a hundred more times before I end this adventure – the history of the automobile business is littered with enough two-bit hustlers, conniving hucksters and slick flim-flam artists to fill the Queen Mary in her prime. It’s also fair to say that history repeats itself in this business with a vengeance and a ruthlessness that are truly awesome to behold. On the one hand, I guess we should revel in the shameful histrionics of two of the most legendary carpetbagging mercenaries this business has ever seen. It’s automotive history writ large, and it’s unfolding before our very eyes so we should all pay attention. On the other, it’s like watching a fetid river of sludge rising to threaten a city, and there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about it. (“A MIDSUMMER NIGHTMARE.” – 7/13)
To put it in sports world jargon, Sergio has lost the team, and things are getting uglier and more chaotic by the minute. The ultimate control freak, each time a senior executive leaves – which is almost a daily occurrence now as frustrated Chrysler employees run for the hills - Marchionne brands them as traitors or lightweights and then assumes even more control of the enterprise. He is now rendering decisions on even the most mundane things, while at the same time not bothering to replace senior leadership positions vacated by the mass exodus. Instead, he is dividing responsibilities to the existing staff that’s still, albeit tenuously, in place, even though he has taken his micromanaging to new levels of absurdity. This is all being done in the name of making FCA more attractive to suitors, or one suitor in particular as the case may be. As for the morale out in Auburn Hills it is, quite simply, nonexistent. The company is in a state of near-total paralysis, “even worse than during the bankruptcy,” as one executive put it. And people are counting down the days before they can make their exits. I said it was getting more ugly by the minute, but just how ugly is it out there? The running joke inside the company is that Sergio’s entire team of direct reports is "nothing more than a bunch of trained circus monkeys who do his bidding… and he is the Chief Organ Grinder.” And those direct reports would never deign to tell The Emperor that he isn’t wearing any clothes. (“KING CHAOS REIGNS IN AUBURN HILLS. – 7/20)
Something was lost and we’re never going to get it back. It’s difficult to see where on this automotive calendar that new car and truck excitement is supposed to happen. In ancient times, the fall intro season for the automotive industry was a huge deal, with the manufacturers carefully orchestrating their product roll outs so as not to step on each other. Dealers in towns big and small all across America got into it, papering over windows, covering the new cars on the transport trucks and then having intro parties in their showroom on “Announcement Day.” But that quaint ritual fell by the wayside decades ago. I’d say we’re all better off for it and that time marches on, etc., but the fact of the matter is that when that ritual became obsolete something was lost in this business and it has never been adequately replaced, even with all of the spectacular high-tech introductions that are commonplace now. Today? The various major league auto shows are supposed to play that role, but the excitement at those shows is fleetingly intermittent, at best, with the obligatory photo and information leaks that are part and parcel of this 24/7 Internet information age sucking the life out of any sort of legitimate surprise. (“WHERE’S THE EXCITEMENT?” – 7/27)
Look, I get the fact that America has become a go-along-to-get-along society, a dismal dance of mediocrity masquerading as “culture” where everybody makes the team and nobody actually loses a game. And I get that everyone is expected to get treats, a trophy and a hug for being wonderful and special in their own right. And I get the fact that the current climate rewards the entitled and coddled just for showing up, but the plethora of automotive “awards” is a complete travesty devoid of substance and it has been a recurring joke for a long, long time. Consumers, whether they’re committed enthusiasts or even the most mundane appliance shoppers, can see right through this charade and need much more than that. It’s about brand image and the essence of product integrity. And it’s about these fundamental questions: What is the reason for being for the product? What can it do for me? And why should I care? And it’s about the efficacy of what a manufacturer’s product actually represents, not the borrowed sheen of a meaningless award handed out by auto “journalists” looking for a better place in the queue. After all, if the recall notices are piling up like so much cord wood, these “awards” don’t really count for much, do they? (“STEP RIGHT UP, FOLKS, EVERYBODY GETS A TROPHY!” – 8/3)
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. (“THE OVERHYPED, THE OVERBLOWN AND THE OVERRATED.” – 8/10)
Where is it all going? Nowhere good, I'm afraid. Right this minute there are shiny happy auto marketing troops out in Pebble Beach patting themselves on the back that they're present and accounted for at Monterey Car Week, even though the research gleaned and goodwill bestowed to prospects amounts to a giant bowl of Not So Much. As for the few brighter lights at the car companies who realize that the million-dollar bills they accrue at Pebble Beach really don't add up to much of anything quantifiable, they're unfortunately offset by the marketers who are whining because they aren't there and who can't wait to get out there next year. So the cycle will continue. (8/17)
Sounds like a recipe for, oh, I don’t know, how does a giant bowl of Not Good sound? Other than the fact that GM’s “crack” PR team has been out of ideas for years, I’m wondering now why Cadillac operatives even bothered to reveal the concept at Pebble Beach to begin with (except, of course, that they had to fly out auto and “lifestyle” journalists to Pebble Beach so that they’d positively gush over the Escala, which they did in rote regurgitation fashion). Why not just go straight to China and do it there? And here is another pertinent question, why does GM Design bother coming up with elegant names like Ciel, Elmiraj and Escala when the Cadillac brain trust is so enamored with alphanumeric nomenclature? Why not just call the Escala the Cadillac CT7 and be done with it? And how long before de Nysschen orders the removal of the name “Escalade” from its biggest and most profitable seller, in favor of XT10 for conformity's sake? The de-Americanization of Cadillac is gaining steam under de Nysschen’s tutelage. Given carte blanche by Miss B. and the ubiquitous corporate schemer, Dan I Am, de Nysschen is remaking Cadillac in Audi’s image and the brand is rapidly being de-balled in favor of a kinder, gentler and more milk-toast version of itself for the ride-alongs in China. (“THE DE-AMERICANIZATION OF CADILLAC.” – 8/24)
Have a terrific day!! And you’re welcome. And then there’s General Motor’s completely dysfunctional marketing department. Let me rephrase that, because GM doesn’t have what can be described as a working marketing department. Queen Mary and Dan I Am Ammann not only do not believe in the efficacy of marketing, they’ve made it clear that the thought of adding another executive with a seven-figure salary and an opinion – aka a Chief Marketing Officer - to their cozy little enclave is abhorrent. The predictable result? Marketing fiefdoms run rampant and decisions are made based on whims, whimsy and wind gusts. How else would you explain those absolutely dismal “focus group” spots from Chevrolet, you know, the “most rewarded car company”-? GM’s marketing “function” is made up of ten percent actual smart people, 60 percent bureaucratic functionaries and 30 percent marketing impersonators who should be exited from the company on a rail, never to be seen or heard from again. Add to this lethal mix advertising agencies that have been yanked around by the prevailing winds and beaten to a pulp by the sheer calculated mediocrity of it all, and you have a recipe for disaster. GM’s “True Believers” are building some outstanding products right now, the best in the company’s history, in fact. It’s just too bad that Queen Mary and Dan I Am are incapable of understanding how they’re completely screwing the whole thing up by their intransigence. Here’s a tip for the denizens of the Silver Silos. On the first day back after Labor Day watch for a plane dragging a banner behind it that says: “Hey, Mary, Still No CMO? WTF?” We have it booked to fly up and down the Detroit River from 8:00 a.m. until noon. (“SAME AS IT EVER WAS.” – 8/31)
It’s no secret that auto industry executives can get sidetracked. They do dumb things; they commit to boneheaded product initiatives and then try to market their way out of their mistakes; they lose track of what they’re doing and why they’re there in the first place; and on and on. Some of them don't mean to be that incompetent, while others just simply wake up in that blissful state. The history of this business is littered with the carcasses of executives who lost their way in pursuit of pots of gold that never existed, a rogue’s gallery of underachievers, maleficent blowhards and unctuous pricks. The result? Failed products, crushing financial mismanagement, missed marketing opportunities, misguided pursuits and a host of other atrocities. (“THE DEEP END.” – 9/7)
Yet another blown opportunity. One of my pet peeves in the ad biz is when product positioning lines or statements see the light of day in the advertising itself. That’s not supposed to happen. It’s kind of like going to an art show and seeing signs placed around the art directing you as to how you should feel when looking at it. In the case of this Genesis brand statement, it’s so matter of fact and uninspiring that it’s borderline tedious. As Chris Rock says, that ain’t right. Not only that, the copy doesn’t create anticipation or project the kind of compelling imagery that promises a piece of impending greatness. Consumers should feel jacked when reading about this car. As in: I. Want. One. Where is the want in this treatise? Nowhere to be found, I’m afraid. And the closing? “…we believe respect is a breath of fresh luxury.” Not heroic in the least, which only adds insult to the injury. Or, as WordGirl put it: a hack line of the first order. I concur. I have gone on record as saying that the new Genesis will prove to be a star in this market. It’s just too bad that the first communication volley for the brand is not worthy of the car itself. (“BRAND WRANGLERS RUN AMUCK.” – 9/14)
Put in Cadillac House terms, Cadillac advertising comes across as an iced soy latte with a triple shot of mediocrity. Cadillac has been running down the wrong advertising road for eighteen months now. The CT6 is, by all accounts, a nicely executed piece, but you’d never know it because the advertising is doing absolutely nothing for the brand, and the goodness of the car is buried in the dismal cadence of a homily to people who don’t have a clue as to what Cadillac is, and couldn’t be bothered to care, either. It’s funny, but a strong-willed GM CMO who had final say in all of the GM divisions’ marketing initiatives could and would put a stop to this nonsense. Too bad nobody at GM has a clue as to why that might be a very good thing. (“THE FIRST AUTOEXTREMIST AUTOMOTIVE ADVERTISING REPORT CARD, OR, CAN THIS STUFF REALLY BE THAT BAD?” – 9/21)
I predict that the transition to this Grand Transformation and the Future of Mobility is going to be a painful one. It’s not just the problems associated with the technology that are sure to come to light, it’s the fundamental phasing out of the idea of freedom that originally came with personal mobility that will become an issue. This country was fueled by the freedom to roam, an enduring wanderlust that drove us to see, and to do, and to be. And we explored and settled its vastness with a relentlessness that knew no bounds. This individual freedom of mobility was part and parcel of the American spirit and it’s part of what made this country great. And now? We’re transitioning to a new dimension of mobility that will leave many out in the cold, and on many levels too. (“SHINY HAPPY RIDERS IN ZOMBIE CARS.” – 10/5)
We’re on the precipice of a fundamental shift. The automotive “thing” is breaking away from what has been familiar for more than 125 years. And it’s going to be jarring and disruptive to a lot of people. Yes, we will have cars with internal combustion engines for many, many years to come, but the mainstream car business, as we know it, is breaking away for good. Will some things remain eerily familiar despite the transformation? Yes, of course, because some things in this business will never change, no matter what. Saviors will come and go. The luminescent and gifted will make their marks, leaving impressions and lasting impacts that will withstand the test of time. Some of these will be genuine pioneers and ground breakers; others will be merely True Believers with the soul and the heart and the innate will to succeed that will drive them to majestic heights. And the charlatans will leave their mark too. Conniving and calculating, these parasites will emerge as the bloodsuckers of the New Electrification Age, leaving a trail of tears and broken promises as companies are left to fester in their wake. And as before, we will be reminded that in this business, as in life, some things – and people – appear to be exactly what they are, while others are mere smoke dancers straining to conceal who, or what, they really are. In the coming years it will be interesting to see both sides of the equation emerge. (“BREAKING AWAY.” – 10/12)
This makes GM’s badge engineering shenanigans among nameplates at its low point back in the day seem downright uplifting by comparison. Whether or not Mercedes-Benz ends up as the “leader” in electrification remains to be seen, but when I see boneheaded marketing moves such as Mercedes handing its compact GLA crossover to Carlos “I’m the next G.O.A.T” Ghosn so it can be rebadged as the Infiniti QX30, I have to wonder if these two self-righteous, relentlessly tedious blowhards and self-appointed legends of the car business have a clue as to what they’re doing. Oh, that’s right, their whims and wishes and will transcend any basic marketing realities. Ha. Where have we seen this before, eh, Sergio? There is a fundamental condescension aimed at consumers on display here that is simply mind-boggling. What Zetsche and Ghosn are saying is that they can play the badge engineering game to their edification – and profitability – and they can do it with impunity because the average consumer out there is too stupid to know the difference. Yeah, every car company does it, but wow. Arrogance personified? Check. Unctuous Prick Hall of Fame? Check. (“A ROGUE’S GALLERY OF SELF-INDULGENT BAD ACTORS.” – 10/19)
The Mercedes-Benz GLA250 4MATIC.
The Infiniti QX30.
Subject: Dear Asshole.
I really think your worth to this industry is overstated. In fact, I am willing to bet that no one gives a shit as to what you think anymore. Our campaign, the one that you love to rip on, has tested through the roof and our sales are up. Apparently you’re the only person on earth who doesn’t get it. How does it feel to be irrelevant?
PMD: Ah yes, another wounded marketing type fighting for his brand. As I’ve stated repeatedly, I call ‘em like I see ‘em. And your current work is not only poorly conceived and pathetically executed; it’s totally beneath the iconic American automotive brand you’ve been given the task to represent. Why is that, exactly? Maybe it’s you and your so-called marketing “posse” that don’t get it. For the thousandth time, what is the brand you’re charged to represent? Why does it matter today, right now? And as a consumer, why should I care? Until you can answer those questions with a compelling marketing strategy and advertising that reflects that strategy in a memorable way, you will continue to spin your wheels and miss a golden opportunity to project the proper image for your brand. As for my standing in the automotive world, I am happy to report that I’m reminded of my influence and relevance every day. (“I GET MAIL.” – 10/26)
High-Octane Truth No. 11: It’s a stone cold fact that in too many cases in this business bad people are making bad decisions negatively affecting good people who know better, people who have been shuffled off to the side for political "considerations" (i.e., they have a backbone and a point of view - and they're not afraid to share it).
High-Octane Truth No. 12: Far from a joyful celebration of the indefatigable nature of the American Spirit and the role the automobile has had, continues to have, and always will play, the business has become nothing but a pathetic caricature of itself - complete with bad actors and even worse props.
High-Octane Truth No. 13: The glaring sameness of the so-called “enthusiast” car publications is mind numbing and highly annoying. There’s no denying that the days for the hard-copy print mags are severely numbered, and when the shakeout finally comes, it will be ugly.
High-Octane Truth No. 14: The state of automotive journalism has never been as weak as it is right now. There are too few writers worth going out of your way to bother with right now, and that’s a flat-out disgrace. Automotive journalism (yes, of course there are notable exceptions) has devolved into a thinly disguised pay-to-play-for-access game. And it’s embarrassing.
High-Octane Truth No. 15: The more a car executive insists that he or she has it “goin’ on” the greater the likelihood that things will go in the opposite direction in a hurry. It’s just the way of the automotive world and it’s amazing to me that there doesn’t seem to be any accrued knowledge when it comes to this phenomenon. But these executives get on a roll and strange things happen to their minds. They start believing their press clippings and actually start to think that the particular run they’re on is going to last forever. This just in: It never does. Mistakes are made. Recalls hit. And in some cases, even calculated fraud is undertaken. It’s a giant, spinning bowl of Not Good. (“FIFTEEN HIGH-OCTANE TRUTHS ABOUT THE AUTO BUSINESS.” – 11/9)
I may have to put up with the automotive world’s continued descent into crossover Hell, but I don’t have to like it. It’s sad, but the inexorable march to the eradication of cars is upon us. It’s crossovers, SUVs or trucks, and there’s not much that can be done about it. There is a huge segment of the consumer buying public that still wants a car, fortunately, which is why the automakers will continue offering them. But I’m afraid when the electrification thing arrives in full force, the number of car choices offered will dwindle. Count me as someone who still likes driving a car, high-performance or otherwise. Step out of driving a crossover after a while and into a car, and it’s a revelation. It’s lighter, more agile, more responsive and this just in: more fun to drive. And that still counts for everything in my book. In fact, it’s what driving is supposed to be all about. (“CROSSOVER HELL.” – 11/16)
If you’ve ever wondered what the white flag of futility looks like in this business, well, this is it. The geniuses at FCA are cutting Fiat sticker prices for 2017 by 20 percent and even more (some models will be cut by a whopping $5,000), according to documents obtained by Automotive News. Despite all of Olivier “I’m a genius, just ask me” Francois’s marketing moon shots, and despite all of Marchionne’s promises of impending greatness, the resurrection of the Fiat brand in the U.S. never took place. In fact, the brand is dead in the water, and this latest pricing move smacks of desperation, and nothing more. With this plan Fiat will instantly become the official bottom-feeder in the U.S. market in 2017, an Italian-flavored afterthought and the brand that time forgot. But the consumers who bought into Fiat and got well and truly hosed won’t forget; and the dealers who are kicking themselves right about now for acquiescing to Sergio’s bad “dream” won’t soon forget either. (“A FINAL OUTRAGE FOR FIAT; AND THE ABJECT FALLACY OF DIGITAL INTIMACY.” – 11/30)
Thanks, but it has been my experience that having friends is overrated. The onslaught of digital invasiveness and calculated immediacy has taken that concept into new, and for the most part, uncharted – and unwelcome - territory. The luxury manufacturers in particular are ramping up their efforts to be your friend and to aim their coddling at your personal triggers, which is beyond offensive when you really start to think about it. It’s everything from birthday greetings and “a night out” on them, to a series of faux “we are your friends” intimacies - like sanctioned vacation trips - that make the blood run cold, or boil, depending on what it entails and how it hits you. The manufacturers all view this ramping up of digital intimacy to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Unremarkably enough, most consumers don’t see it that way. They don’t want or desire an intimate connection with their vehicle manufacturer because they find it to be cloying and more than a little creepy, especially in this age of social media entities knowing entirely too much about them. So they prefer to draw the line and push back from it. (11/30)
Marketing 101: In today’s automotive world having a superior product isn’t enough if it’s saddled with a less-than-compelling name and you’re unable – for whatever the reasons – to market it properly. In one corner, we have a technically advanced product in the CT6 with a painfully generic name that was overpriced from the outset and continues to be tragically mismarketed at every turn and by every conceivable measure. In the other, we have in the Continental a sophisticated expression of American luxury in both look and feel, and though not the technical rival of the Cadillac, the image of the Continental comes off as something special and one to be desired. I suggested long ago that this would be a most interesting marketing test, and I predicted that in this market at least – the future of both nameplates will actually be played out in China - the inherent goodness and resonance of the Continental name would prove to be formidable and could very well take the measure of the generically-named Cadillac. And the early results are in. In November, Cadillac reported sales of the CT6 at 1,169 units, while Lincoln reported sales of 1,419 Continentals, and this is with the current incentives offered of $9,747 on the CT6 and $5,542 on the Continental. When factoring those incentives in, Lincoln is really taking it to Cadillac. (“TALE OF THE TAPE.” –12/7)
It was good while it lasted, but now it’s time to move on to a New Idea. The decline of the North American International Auto Show has begun. With the L.A. Auto Show using its position on the calendar to great effect, and with the inexorable rise of the Consumer Electronics Show, the oddly named “NAIAS” is seeing manufacturers bailing left and right, skipping the show entirely. Bentley, Jaguar Land Rover, Maserati, Mini, Porsche, Rolls-Royce and Tesla are all skipping next month's show. Even FCA is doing a product reveal at the CES instead of Detroit. Once upon a time the Detroit show was a glorified regional auto show put on by the dealers. It was a dismal, insular exercise that was supposed to spur local sales in the grim winter months. The move to become the NAIAS was a good idea at the time, but nothing lasts forever. What can be done? First of all, with the L.A., CES and New York shows rising in prominence, “NAIAS” is meaningless. The time is right to dispense with that awkward moniker and change it to the Detroit Auto Show. Then, throw away the playbook and move the show to June, right after Memorial Day. The whole weather thing is a problem here in January, Global Warming or no, and to have the show in one of our worst months is a joke, except that the joke is on the industry based here. On the one hand, naysayers would view the move as heresy, relegating the Detroit show to irrelevance as being “last” on the calendar. That’s one way of looking at it, but the other way to look at it is that the Detroit Auto Show would now be first on the calendar, and this would be a very good thing for the industry. I am quite certain of two things in this discussion. 1. Renaming and moving the show would prove to be a boon to this region and for the industry at large, and 2. The short-sighted dealers and other honchos involved will keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing until the Detroit show ends up being a regional afterthought again. Damn. (12/14)
And that brings to a close another rollicking, flat-out crazy year in this business. As I’ve said many times before, this industry reels from exuberant euphoria to abject despair, depending on the day. It can be the one of the most exhilarating professional pursuits extant, or it can be a relentless, pride-swallowing siege that cuts to the soul and leaves participants to wander off muttering to themselves about what could have been.
Yes, change is the new mantra in this business. Some manufacturers – as is their wont – insist that they have a handle on things and will not only be there for the Grand Transformation, but will leave the rest of the slithering pack nipping at their heels. It just doesn’t work that way, however. For every manufacturer making moves in preparation for the New World Order in complete confidence, there is a vast undercurrent of the unknown that’s threatening to derail their brilliance at every turn. Some choose to ignore it by making deals at a furious pace and making sanguine public pronouncements, because after all, that’s part and parcel of the business. Others are more wary about what’s next, and are keeping things close to the vest.
But make no mistake, the gathering storm about to swallow the auto industry whole is gaining strength by the day. The commoditization of the automobile is leading this industry down a path of no return. And as the Connected, Autonomous, Ride-Sharing-Imperative Zealots begin to hold sway over the prevailing thought as espoused by the mainstream media in this country, it is clear that the automobile – and the industry associated with it – will be fundamentally altered.
The world has been on an automobile ride for more than 130 years. Specifically, here in America, the automobile and the industry surrounding it played a definitive role in the upward trajectory of this nation, becoming an essential part of this country’s industrial fabric. But then again, it was even more than that.
In the beginning, the automobile encapsulated the freedom of mobility and the hopes and dreams of a growing nation. It was about what was possible and what could be. It was about taking people places they‘d never imagined or experienced before. It played a role in this country’s development and expansion, it played a role in this country becoming a global industrial power, and it played an inexorable role in defining the Arsenal of Democracy.
And yet, it was even much more than that. The automobile became part of the fashion of this nation, creating a sense of rolling style that influenced every facet of American life and culture. It became such a essential part of the fabric of American life that it’s hard to imagine that we’re on the precipice of a monumental shift.
But that’s exactly where we are.
The generations that grew up with the power and passion surrounding the automobile have long since gone. And the last remaining auto-fueled generation is slowly but surely shuffling off of this mortal coil.
And the fundamental change that has emerged over time mirrors the fundamental change that has enveloped this nation. What once was a nation of individualists and dreamers fueled with the heady notions that anything was possible has been taken over by decidedly different notions and much more trivial attachments. The dreams and self-propelled achievement that once fueled this nation are no longer applicable. Instead, a New Way that has been instilled over time has superseded them. Achievement has been replaced by entitlement. Winning has been marginalized in favor of participation. And individualism has been eclipsed by the notion of sharing. We’ve gone from being a nation of blue-sky dreamers to a loose gathering of lowest-common-denominator, self-absorbed “participants.”
Is it any wonder then that the automobile and everything associated with it is going to be finally and permanently altered too?
As I’ve said previously, even though the idyllic notions of ride sharing and autonomous vehicles will be confined to the urban centers of this nation for many years to come, the societal drumbeats are going to get louder by the day. The notion of expressing oneself through the automobile of his or her choice will be belittled and held up for ridicule. People who still enjoy their vehicles for whatever the reason will be labeled as social pariahs and chastised for being oh so tragically unhip.
You don’t think that will be the case? That somehow we’ll all get along and revel in our differences? Haven’t you noticed the doggerel that passes for “political discourse” these days, or that self-righteousness is this nation’s most virulent disease?
So here we are, on the precipice of monumental change. It’s clear that the automobile and those who hold it in high regard are in for a decidedly different experience. For some that will be perfectly okay, and for some it will be anathema. I can assure everyone of one thing, however, and that is the people finding the middle ground in all of this will be in very short supply.
Will great cars still be imagined and created in the future? I have no doubt of that fact whatsoever. But there will be a clear demarcation going forward that will be jarring for some. On the one hand, we will have the commoditization side of the auto industry churning out, for all intents and purposes, true appliances for the sharing masses, and all the ugliness that will entail. On the other hand, there will still be manufacturers creating memorable machines for those who value what that means and who choose to pay for the experience.
A final thought. Wordgirl and I have been at this for seventeen-and-a-half years. Autoextremist.com was and is different from every other auto publication in the world. Why? 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’m happy to say that we 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 in this business 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.
It has been a long road, but I am deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished.
Thank you to all of you out there for coming along for the ride.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for 2016.
(Make sure to check out the “The Best of On The Table.” We’ll see you back here on January 4, 2017. -WG)
The Autoextremist, East Lansing, Michigan, March 1976. "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive..."