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The Latest Auto Extremist Rants

RAGING AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT.
by Editor
14 Jun 2021 at 10:20am

Editor's Note: This week, we're re-running a column that shows Peter at his most reflective about the impending shift from the ICE Age to our EV future. Like many of our AE readers, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing (and this from someone who has owned two Volts), mostly because the whole EV story feels anticlimactic to me at this point, since we've been hearing about the coming 'revolution' for more than a decade now. So in the meantime, this week's Rant invites us to revel in the pure joy of the automobile and build a garage of our own personal ICE favorites. For if you are reading this, you are surely one with The AutoExtremist. Also, please check out On The Table, Fumes and The Line. -WG

 

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Reaching the end of an era in any pursuit is fraught with peril and consumed by endless hand-wringing about its place in history. Was it as good as we thought it was? Or was it even better than we realized? Or is the future so bright that the previous era will be relegated to a quaint but fleeting moment in time?

The endless assessments and evaluations of the Internal Combustion Engine era of the automobile have already begun. It was an era marked by historic developments and relentless achievements. It began with the celebration of a newfound reliability (as compared to the traditional horse power) and progressed through a kaleidoscope of advancements that fueled the idea of creating transportation for the masses, through to a glittering showcase of speed, power and luxury.

There’s no question that putting America on wheels accelerated the development of this vast country. The automobile and the business of manufacturing automobiles became an inexorable part of the industrial fabric of this great nation. And when called upon, the industry responded to the desperate manufacturing needs thrust upon us in World War II with unheard of speed and relentless dedication. And during the post-war era, when this nation was on a relentless upward trajectory, the automobile industry responded again with a dazzling display of innovation and creativity that helped power its way right through to the end of the last century.

But things don’t stay the same forever, and the pace of change in the world and the onslaught of new technologies affected the automobile industry as much, if not more, than anything that came before. The business became global in a 30-year span, a blink of the proverbial eye. And with that globalization came new pressures brought on by the population explosion, the depletion of essential resources and the burgeoning impact on our global climate, which cloaked the industry in a blanket of uncertainty.

The automobile industry has arrived at this point in time with a glowing track record of technical achievements, but there’s no doubt that with those accomplishments comes a legacy that has its share of negativity and low points.

No, the automobile isn’t the only source of pollution on the planet – certainly not when the overarching industrial pollution is taken into account – but it’s the most visible and by far the easiest target of politicians who believe the solution is just a finger-snap away, whether by legislative decree or by eliminating the problem altogether. It’s in this Big Picture arena that the automobile and the automobile industry find themselves in right now and for the foreseeable future – and to pretend otherwise is simply denying the fundamental reality of this time and place.

I welcome what’s coming, because I believe that technical innovation will transform what has been a transformative industry since its very beginnings and propel it – and us – to new and unimaginable heights. Will I miss the Internal Combustion Engine era? Oh yes, very much so. But we will celebrate the ingenuity, the technical achievements, the speed and, of course, the breathtaking style for many decades to come.

Assembling a garage of milestone cars from the ICE era would be fun, but I have never been a collector like that and at this point, I never will. But off the top of my head I have a few favorites, as you might imagine. The following is my list, but your list will probably be different. The beauty is there are no wrong answers.

(digitaltrends.com)

1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spider. What else would you drive down to the Amalfi Coast? It's simply one of the most seductive combinations of speed and style ever created. 

(GM)

1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray. Of the many achievements to come out of GM Styling under the great Bill Mitchell's tutelage, the Corvette Sting Ray remains a singular achievement and is still stunning to this day.

(GM)
Another one of Bill Mitchell's milestone cars: The 1963 Buick Riviera. I actually prefer the '65 with the hidden headlights, but you get the idea.

(mecum.com)

1964 Shelby American 289 Cobra. Shelby's original creation is still my favorite – compact, lithe and like a bolt of lightning in its day. I am lucky enough to have experienced it in its prime.

(legendarymotorcar.com)

1966 Shelby American 427 Cobra. Shelby took his original concept and said "more." The result? A better, wider chassis, better suspension, better steering and brakes, and, of course, big horsepower. It is still, to this day, one of the most ferocious sports cars ever built. (And no, not the "S/C" version; the street version with under car exhausts.)

(Richard Michael Owen/Supercars.net)

1966 Lamborghini Miura P400. Groundbreaking in design and engineering, the mid-engine Miura remains one of the most significant cars of its era. 

(hiconsumption.com)

1973 Porsche 911 RS. I have many "favorite" Porsches from over the years, including the present-day 718 GT4. But if I could have only one - actually, if I could only have one vehicle in my ICE Garage - the 911 RS would be it. 

(mecum.com)

2008 Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. It was beautiful the moment it arrived and still is; it would be perfect when the weather doesn't allow you to drive the California.

(bjmotors.biz)

2019 Ferrari 488 Pista. The modern day Ferrari with just the right amount of technology, but not too much. The emphasis is on the driving, as it should be. And it is blistering fast.

(Lamborghini)

2020 Lamborghini Huracán EVO RWD. I have never imagined owning a Lamborghini, but if I had the opportunity, I would order one of these.

(GM)

2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. Yes, the new mid-engine Corvette is everything they say it is, and more. It's a tribute to GM's True Believers, who deserve all of the kudos coming their way. I would wait for the upcoming Z06 and enjoy it to the fullest.

(Dodge)

2021 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack Shaker Widebody. I would need to have one, purely Bad Ass car in my ICE Garage, and no, I don’t need a Hellcat. The normally-aspirated 392 Hemi V8 would do just fine.

Yes, it’s a list, I’ll say that much. Is it complete? Oh hell no. But if this is the end of an era, and these are the cars in my ICE Garage to visit and drive while I motor around in the latest BelchFire Electric GT, then I would be exceedingly happy.

Needless to say, I don’t plan on going gently into the night. I will hammer whatever I have for all it’s worth and make every single moment count as the glow from the ICE era slowly fades into the twilight.

As Dylan Thomas famously wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And that’s the High-Kilowatt Truth for this week.


CAP?N JIMMY?S LOVE BOAT.
by Editor
5 Jun 2021 at 10:17am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. It never ceases to amaze me that The Motor City is still a company town like no other (well, except for Hollywood, which is its own special brew). Unless you live around here, it's hard to understand what I'm talking about, but once again I've been presented an opportunity to paint for you a vivid picture of what I mean. Last Thursday (June 3rd), the Detroit Free Press - or is it the Detroit Ford Press? Or, is it the Ford Free Press? - actually ran a story (above the fold, no less) with the headline: "Lightning's bonus: A full spare." The gist of the story is that Ford's new Lightning EV pickup is the only one of the coming EV pickups to have been designed to accommodate the placement of a full-size spare tire. Yes, you read that correctly. That this "news" would merit a front-page placement and a full page inside is almost incomprehensible and flat-out tedious beyond belief. But that's what passes for journalism these days at the Freep, as it is nicknamed, and in this crazed company town. No, you just can't make this shit up, but little did I know this was just the warmup for what was to come.

Late the afternoon before, Ford PR chief Mark Truby put out a lengthy – and breathless – email statement about how Ford was realigning its PR department for the new world. Not a huge surprise, as corporate kumbayas have been de rigueur for a while now. In this era of corporate responsibility, if a major corporation isn’t wearing some cause, or stance, or crafted persona on its sleeve in full view of the public, well, something’s just not right. And I think this is generally a beneficial development and constitutes proper corporate citizenship. After all, trying to contribute something to the greater good is a worthwhile endeavor.

But sometimes, as in most things when corporations get involved, things can go awry, and in a hurry. And when it comes to car companies, there’s always a chance that things can go off the rails with blazing speed. 

Given that, the big news with this PR announcement from Ford was that the company had hired Caroline Adler Morales, who previously toiled for former President Barack – and Michelle – Obama. With a long and illustrious career in the political arena, Morales has been given the title of “director of stakeholder advocacy” at Ford, which Truby explained thusly: "In this role, she will be responsible for bringing our purpose to life through great initiatives and creative communications, helping us become far more intentional about showing our values to the world."

"We want to be a company that is not only known for products and services but we want our corporate character to shine through," Truby continued. And then, this is when it got sketchy. "You want to be part of the cultural conversation. We want to build advocacy — like when you think of Patagonia, Disney and even Tesla. They're very intentional about helping others tell their story and about building fandom and support, whether in the environmental community or people who just love Broncos or Mustangs or F-150s," Truby said. 

"We have the potential as a brand to have even more love and support and advocacy from the public than what we do. But we have to be intentional about it. At the highest level, Caroline will be working on those types of strategies — from corporate giving to ESG — environmental, social and governance priorities."

Oh, really? The PR minions over in Dearborn can’t possibly believe this mumbo jumbo, can they? Love and support and advocacy from the public? You have got to be kidding me. I know certain high-ranking members of the Dearborn-based automaker have lofty, bordering on the touchy-feely, opinions of themselves and Ford’s place in the world, but this is laughable, and unmitigated bullshit of the first order. (Even China's President Xi Jinping wants to do a rebrand so that his country becomes more "lovable." It's like a plague.)

That would have been enough, thank you very much, from Ford for one week, but then the lamentable Phoebe Wall Howard weighed in with a gushing, 2500-word online piece late Friday afternoon (and, of course, it appeared on Page 1 in Sunday's Freep) with the blaring headline: “Ford stock was cheaper than a sandwich. Now shareholders are gloating.”

Now, it’s no secret that Howard has been, shall we say, CEO Jim “Jimmy Har-Har” Farley’s biggest booster, but now even other members of the usually compliant media that cover the auto biz whom I talked to were saying out loud, “WTF?” As in, what gives with Howard and Ford? Another said, “This is just getting fucking ridiculous.” Or, as one observer said to me succinctly, "Why don’t they just call the Freep the Ford Free Pass?"

Here are a few highlights: 

“Ever since Ford CEO Jim Farley made his much-anticipated Capital Markets Day presentation on May 26, industry analysts have raved, Ford's stock spiked and has held steady.

He talked about billions in new investments, keeping promises and being a disruptor.

While new products play a significant role in the stock surge, faith in Farley is an essential element, analysts and shareholders often say — before and after Ford's investor calls.”

She goes on to quote Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, who sees a direct comparison between Farley and the company founder — who employed Farley's grandfather. (Which right away should tell you that O’Mara, author of “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America," clearly doesn’t know jack-shit about the automobile business.)

"I think a lot about how Henry Ford himself was the face of the brand and himself an innovator," O'Mara said. "He was like Steve Jobs later at Apple, producing something for the masses that had been a boutique product for a few, and figuring out ways to make the product accessible and transformative."

"It's an interesting parallel that I think Farley is trying to pick up on," she said.

Off the rails? This train of thought is stopped dead in the desert, waiting for the rest of the railroad to get built. Comparing Farley to what Jobs did at Apple is ha-ha laughable. And flat-out wrong.

"There were a lot of computer companies and Apple wasn't the leader. But they did ads that really were designed to enlarge the market beyond tech enthusiasts and explain how this computer was going to transform your life — in education, home finance and different ways the computer had not been understood as a tool.

"That's a really great parallel to Ford," O'Mara said. 

No, actually it isn’t, Margaret, but just go on making a complete fool of yourself. 

During his investor presentation last month, Farley said Ford is transforming from a traditional automaker that does build-and-sell transactions "to a lifelong, always on, customer relationship ... Our ambition is to lead the electric revolution. We really mean that."

Well, Farley may really mean that, but no one with a properly jaundiced eye believes a word of it. 

Then, Howard went on to tout the efficacy of the new F-150 Lightning EV pickup, which she has done so much since its intro, you’d think that no other pickup truck ever existed. I won’t bore our AE readers with that sidebar, but suffice to say it redefined the definition of tedious. But that was just a warmup for more Farley bootlicking.

“Yet Farley often downplays expectations, which seems to play to his favor. He's an under-promise, over-deliver and exceed-expectations kind of guy.” 

Really? Farley is a consummate bullshit artist, and he always has been. I’ll give him this much: He’s smart enough to know when a gift has landed in his lap, and to exploit it for all it's worth. It has defined his entire career. He’ll just engage the power of his smarm offensive and put it on display – ably abetted by Truby’s PR minions and Howard – so that the people who don’t really know the inside story of his career will never know any better. 

Howard seems to have the unique ability to conjure up a rogue’s gallery of so-called “experts” to provide quotes for her stories. Like this one:

"Ford is ... supremely hedged by continuing to offer internal combustion, hybrid and EVs in a situation where being hedged will not only save the company but make it stronger," said market analyst Jon Gabrielsen. "GM is standing naked as a jailbird with all bridges behind them burned. This is pragmatism and wisdom versus hype."

Really, Gabrielsen? Are you watching the same business, or are you just making it up as you go along? The fact of the matter is that GM is much better positioned than Ford when it comes to the ICE vs. EV balance. Yes, GM CEO Mary Barra has made a deep commitment to EVs, but in the meantime GM is going to bury Ford over the second half of this year with more inventory and more profits with a plethora of hot-selling vehicles. The second half of 2021 is shaping up to be a nightmare for Ford, and Ford has even admitted as much. 

(Oh, and by the way, the real Bronco, as opposed to the faux Bronco Sport? It was supposed to be oozing out of showrooms in May, then it was June, and now Ford has delayed it yet again. This has been the recurring theme for this company for at least a decade. Apparently Farley’s “genius” is unable to crack that code.)

In a rare admission by Howard, who never ever has had even a remotely negative word to say about Farley, she says toward the end of her latest paean to Farley and Ford that critics of Farley inside the company complain he is all hat and no cattle. 

Ding, ding, ding!! Those critics inside the company are pissed off, because they know the real Jim Farley, not the manufactured sheen proffered by Truby and Howard. And they loathe him as much as any CEO who has ever bumbled down the halls of Ford, and that includes Jacques “I’m the smartest man in the world” Nasser. But does Howard expand on that? Oh hell no. Instead, she comes back with… “But external observers share a different opinion.” And then proceeds to quote another chip-genius, who weighs in with:

"I love everything coming out of Ford lately. I’m finally hearing them talk like a Silicon Valley company instead of a stodgy old-world company," said Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a consortium of business and government leaders working to address regional challenges. "When California passed clean air laws with higher smog standards Silicon Valley companies went out and hired engineers. Detroit companies hired lawyers. That’s always been the rap on Detroit."

"Tesla's CEO wasn't thinking about selling cars; he wanted to solve a planetary crisis," Hancock said. "That meant creating an electric car that excited passion. Suddenly Detroit is turned on its ear. And Detroit is totally getting it." Memo to Mr. Hancock: How can I put this gingerly? We don’t care what you think of “Detroit.” And by the way, in the immortal words of John Boehner: Go fuck yourself.

Howard can’t help herself, apparently. She says, “The public has witnessed that disruption innovation in autos is not just a dream.” And then she proceeds to quote yet another instant auto expert who apparently just crawled out from under a rock:

"When people have been thinking about cars, the only disruption to date has been Elon Musk and Tesla. He created this vision no one could believe. He created a signal effect that anything was possible," said investor Melissa Bradley, a business professor at Georgetown University and managing partner of 1863 Ventures. "There’s a new level of belief and expectation within the car industry that Farley is willing to capture. It's pretty f-ing awesome."

Yes, yes, Melissa, absolutely no one thought of EVs before Musk, and Farley is the only CEO with the vision and foresight to pick up that mantle. What a bunch of bullshit. Again, par for the course for one of Howard’s “experts.”

And here’s one more contribution from the peanut gallery: "When people see measured approach, there’s a sense of security that wasn’t there with (previous CEO Jim) Hackett," said Marcus Hudson, executive director of the Calderone Advisory Group based in Birmingham (Michigan), which advises suppliers in the automotive industry. Farley's approach resonates, he said. "It's a master class in risk management."

Again, really? Farley makes one speech in front of the investor community, and he’s anointed the industry savior, someone who can walk on water and lead Detroit to the Promised Land? I will say this, I didn’t think much of the investor “community” – or the industry “experts” in academia – before this. But this article and Howard’s wrangling of these so-called “experts” who come off sounding like a passel of ill-informed clowns damn-near put me over the edge.

And so, dear AE readers, that pretty much sums it up. No reporter, and I mean no one, has come close to genuflecting on behalf of a car company to the excruciatingly syrupy level that Phoebe Wall Howard has on behalf of Ford. And this piece will go down as the most disgusting journalistic BJ in this town’s history.

But it has also painted a wonderful picture for me. With the sun setting low over the Detroit River, I can see Mark Truby, with a team of PR minions gathered around, babbling about Ford’s purpose in life, plus a bunch of investor hacks and wannabe industry experts from academia, all on board Cap’n Jimmy’s Love Boat as it sets sail in search of even more accolades. With First Mate Howard gushingly reporting every move, of course.

And that’s the High-Kilowatt Truth for this week.


I?M NOT FINISHED.
by Editor
1 Jun 2021 at 9:53am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Twenty-two years ago, I opened the very first issue of Autoextremist.com with the following:

The Bare-Knuckled, Unvarnished, High-Octane Truth. 

You've come here for a reason. You're either curious, bored, or in some internet-fueled haze that's taken over your body and turned you into a quivering jellyfish that has lost all concept of time and space. Well, for whatever the reason, welcome. I'm not going to sit here and make promises about what Autoextremist.com will or won't do for you. I will say, however, that you will not read anything like it when it comes to the weird world of automobiles, because the people here are the most committed automotive enthusiasts in the world. So much so, that we operate in a dimension that other so-called "car people" find bewildering and even frightening. The Truth will do that to people. Especially in Detroit, which is one of the strangest places on earth. This place is dominated by the automobile companies. Ford in Dearborn. DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills. And of course, General Motors, who appropriately enough, has taken over the monolithic Renaissance Center on the Detroit river. And we mean dominated. People outside of this city can't comprehend how dominant and pervasive the automobile business is in this town. It is stifling. Oppressive. Demented. And flat-out crazy. Executive changes merit front page space in the daily newspapers and lead stories on the local TV news. It is beyond being a "company town." It is a company philosophy. A company social structure. Company clubs. Company communities. Company morality. And of course, company cars. And it isn't just the car companies themselves. It's the multi-billion-dollar juggernaut suppliers like the Lear Corporation, all the way down to the guy who knew how to work a lathe pretty well, who is now knocking down a million a year out of some skanky building in Madison Heights. Yup, it's crazy alright. Which brings me to our lead story for Autoextremist.com No. 1... 

It's hard to understand the impact of those words now, but believe me, this was revolutionary stuff at the time, unheard of and totally unexpected. After the first emails went out announcing the website – I had stumbled upon a media list from a car company’s PR department and used it to great effect – the buzz grew exponentially. I wrote about things that the mainstream automotive press would only talk about in off-the-record or deep background conversations with PR operatives, usually at the bar when no one else was listening. I wrote about subjects that were taboo, blatantly calling out major screwups, and horror of horrors, calling out the individuals responsible and naming names. Oh my, that just wasn’t done around here. 

Indeed, for me, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The ad biz had become overrun by spineless weasels, recalcitrant twerps and enough bloviating fools to make my skin crawl, and that was just on the client side. The agency side had its own rogues’ gallery of unrepentant, unmitigated assholes, egomaniacal empty suits, and a laundry list of vacuous, small-minded “Leader-Emperors” with no clothes who specialized in daily humiliation and condescension because it made them feel better. It wasn’t pretty. 

And after three months of doing this site under an assumed name, it was time to go. (At my last meeting at Campbell-Ewald, the head of the agency closed the meeting with, “Hey, have you guys read that website Autoextremist.com? I know he’s in advertising, because he knows too damn much.” A few nodded yes. I remained silent, thinking to myself, “I gots to go.”)

As I have told my readers many times, there was no “plan” with AE. It was just me and WG creating commentary and content that was laser-accurate and uncomfortably scary to this town. Remember, this was a place that was used to existing in a “bubble” of rote press release regurgitation and endless softball stories passing for “coverage" of the auto industry. Everyone was walking around in a blissfully unaware stupor – that is, until we came along. 

One thing that absolutely drove the upper hierarchy of the automotive companies bonkers and still does was the fact that I had the unique ability of knowing the auto executive mindset like no other. I knew what they thought and why they were thinking it almost before they did. It was an innate ability that I developed over the years after being exposed to countless executives in this business. And to be blunt, it scared the shit out of them. I lost count of the executives who have told me personally over the years something like, “I don’t know how you do it, but it’s like you’re in the room with us.” This was usually followed by, “I don’t like what you write about us but it’s so damn accurate and you’re usually right, which really pisses me off.” 

Everyone was convinced I had moles everywhere, especially Sergio and his minions out in Auburn Hills. The reality? I just knew what those guys were thinking before they even thought it. And it indeed pissed them off. Sergio even sent his PR minion out to have dinner with me and scope me out. The guy actually used the word “inconsequential” to describe me to my face, and it was one of the most unpleasant dinners I’ve had in my career – and I’ve had a bunch of ‘em – but if I was so “inconsequential” why did FCA management come to a halt to pore over my latest column about them as soon as it hit the Internet? I’ve had several people who were “in the room” out there back in those days confirm to me that they were convinced I had a mole, because, “It was uncanny how you nailed what was really happening.” But I digress.

Creating content for AE every week has been exhilarating, debilitating, gratifying, frustrating and relentless. Usually all in the same day, in fact. And some days it has been “a pride swallowing siege” to quote a favorite line by Cameron Crowe. Having said all of that, it still doesn’t quite cover what it has been like over these 22 years. When I say relentless, you really have no idea. Because of the way we’ve conducted ourselves over the years our readers have come to expect a level of quality in our content that isn’t expected in other auto sites. It can be a burden, yes, but it also depends on how you look at it, because it also is a source of immense pride for us that we have established a very high standard. So, relentless it is, but frankly, at this point, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

So here we are. Yes, I have been thinking seriously about stopping the website or putting it on hiatus. Reaching the end of an era in any pursuit is fraught with peril and consumed by endless hand-wringing. Was it as good as we thought it was? Or was it even better than we realized? That’s for others to judge at this point. The thought of stopping has been a burden unto itself. When I got bounced from one of my previous advertising gigs, I took great pains to say that I refused to be labeled by who I was and it was good to be just “me” without the title.

But who’s kidding whom here? After 22 years I am The Autoextremist. It’s who I am, it’s what I do, and it will be my persona until I’m not an active participant on this planet anymore. And that is definitely not a burden. In fact, I am proud of the moniker.

We have accomplished a great deal with this website. We have rattled the sacrosanct cages, we have reduced grandiose executives to the egomaniacal weasels they truly are, and we have focused on the act of designing, engineering and manufacturing the automobile, which is still one of, if not the most, complicated endeavors on earth.

Needless to say, I don’t plan on going gently into the night. As Dylan Thomas famously wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I will hammer whatever I have for all it’s worth and make every single moment count with Autoextremist.com from here on out. And I’m happy again to defer to another giant - Robert Frost - at this point: 

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on." 

So, we go on, with great pride and renewed focus and fortitude. WordGirl and I want to thank all of our readers for reading and listening over the years. And, thank you for all of the kind words that you sent to us in Reader Mail

It has been a fantastic, glorious run, but I’m not finished. Not by a long shot.

And that’s the High-Kilowatt Truth on our 22nd Anniversary.

 

Editor's Note: Please go to "On The Table" for more on our 22nd Anniversary, and check out "Fumes" and "The Line" for our coverage of the Indianapolis 500. -WG

Just for fun.

 


WATCHING THE WHEELS.
by Editor
25 May 2021 at 9:47pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Editor’s Note: Next week (June 1) marks 22 years of Autoextremist.com. Since next week’s issue doesn’t fall on the actual day, it looks like we’re going to mark the milestone over the next two weeks, judging by Peter’s column today. I’ll let you in on a little inside knowledge too. I have no idea if this website will continue after next week’s issue. Peter and I have gone back and forth about the possibility of bringing this site to a close over the last few months, and frankly, it’s a tossup at this point. I know Peter has other interests involving writing, but he still loves bringing this site to life every week and he still loves bringing it, period. So, here we are, 22 years later. I will never forget that April morning when Peter called, furious at what had just transpired in a creative meeting with the Chevrolet client, fed up with his own agency's “executive” stumblebums and their serial incompetence, and telling me, “I can’t do this shit anymore.” I then reminded him that it might be time for Autoextremist and that we could do it on the Internet instead of messing around with a print magazine. Six weeks later we were up and running. And now, it's our 22nd year. -WG

 

Detroit. Longtime readers have heard this story before, so I’m not going to regurgitate all of it. How I grew up in a serious car family rooted in the heyday of Detroit, with a special emphasis on anything and everything to do with GM; how I hammered away in my automotive advertising/marketing career for over two decades, trying to make sense and make a difference in an environment - and a town - that was rapidly descending into a giant sinkhole of irrelevance; how I came up with the idea for a car magazine called “Autoextremist” in 1986 that wouldn’t have any advertising so we could say exactly what needed to be said about the cars and the business of designing, engineering, building and marketing cars; and how I had to shelve that idea because I was still toiling away in the midst of my ad career. And how, disgusted with what car advertising had become – both with the clients and ad agency side of the equation – and tired of watching “Detroit” wallow in its own serial incompetence, I resurrected that car magazine idea thirteen years later and honed and polished it for the Internet.

The result? Autoextremist.com debuted on June 1, 1999, as a weekly Internet magazine featuring my perspectives, insights and commentaries on all things automotive: specifically, the people, the products, the marketing, and all of the good, the bad and the ugly that entailed.

Working under a pseudonym while my ad career was winding down, my “Rants” in Autoextremist.com blew the lid off of the oppressively staid auto business as practiced around these parts – as well as the rote press release regurgitation that passed for news coverage back then – and changed the way the business was covered, talked about and assessed.

My early columns – “White Boy Culture,” which was our debut, excoriated what the Detroit mindset had become and why it was contributing to the industry’s descent into madness, and “The Sad Saga of Saturn,” blew the lid off of the fiefdoms and the egomaniacal game-playing that dominated GM’s rigidly obsolete culture and contributed to the demise of the once-promising Saturn division – set the tone for what was to follow.

As I said in my book The United State of Toyota, Autoextremist wasn’t for everybody, and needless to say, it wasn’t for the faint of heart: "From Day One, the real essence of Autoextremist.com was the fact that I said what others were merely thinking or would only discuss in 'deep background' and in 'off-the-record' conversations. It was never a 'touchy-feely' publication that coddled its readers and genuflected at the feet of the car companies. There's plenty of pabulum in this world. And if becoming a lifetime member of the 'Milquetoast & Crumpets Afternoon Tea & Automobile Society,' while sitting around the fire chatting about Renault Dauphines floats your boat, there are plenty of other automobile publications out there to satisfy your primordial need for blandness. But that's not Autoextremist.

I continued: “Born out of a defiance and frustration with the status quo that I believed was stifling creativity and squeezing the very life out of the automobile business - particularly as practiced here in the Motor City - and then fueled by my passion and vision for how great the business could become again and what was necessary in order for it to get there, Autoextremist.com was not only a labor of love for me personally - it became an influential force to be reckoned with in this industry with an impact far beyond my most vivid imagination."

And today, on the eve of the 22nd anniversary of this publication, I am immensely proud of Autoextremist.com and what we’ve accomplished with it. And I’m even more proud to say that, despite countless imitators, Autoextremist.com is still the force to be reckoned with and still the destination for the kind of commentary and insight about this business that simply can’t be found anywhere else.

I should pause here to say that it hasn’t always been easy. We set a high standard here from the very beginning, and at times “bringing it” every week has proven to be difficult. The odd hours, the intermittent – at best – sleep, the relentless cadence knowing that the moment an issue is finished I have a few hours before I start thinking about the next one – it has been a relentless grind. But then again, if I had to do it all over again, would I have done it any differently? Not a chance. When I left advertising, it was time to go, and even though the only “plan” I had was to say what needed to be said about this industry, I think it worked out pretty well.

Observing this industry after being immersed in it from a young age has given me a perspective that not many can bring to the table, and I am grateful for that. My insights into the auto executive mindset have been well-documented – as WordGirl says, “It’s like a gift” – but I doubt if some of those execs on the receiving end of my searing insights appreciate it. Too bad.

It’s no secret I’ve been edgy of late. I know I should be mellowing, according to what “they” say, but that just isn’t happening. My fury is growing, in fact. I am impatient with the Grand Transition to electrification. Every vehicle announcement of late is so premature that it is laughable. Any time a model year is given for a vehicle to arrive in-market you can add another year to that. As I’ve said before, at this rate 2025 is going to be bangin’. If we’re still awake for it, that is.

No matter what, the industry wheels keep churning. But pay attention, promises are being made that can’t be kept. A reminder: Just because a car company has a glittering press conference does not mean that they will be able to follow through in a given time frame. That has been a proven fact of life in this business time and time again. And electrification or no, that is not about to change. I am gratified about one development of late, however, and that is that people are finally realizing that mainstream autonomous vehicles are decades away, and I view that to be exceedingly good news.

After creating the content for Autoextremist.com all of these years, I am reminded of one of my all-time favorite songs - Watching The Wheels - written by John Lennon from the album “Double Fantasy” (1980). I have been thinking about this song a lot lately. It makes me think about what life might be like on the other side…

People say I'm crazy
Doing what I'm doing
Well, they give me all kinds of warnings
To save me from ruin

When I say that I'm okay
Well, they look at me kinda strange
Surely you're not happy now
You no longer play the game

People say I'm lazy
Dreaming my life away
Well, they give me all kinds of advice
Designed to enlighten me

When I tell them that I'm doing fine
Watching shadows on the wall
Don't you miss the big time, boy?
You're no longer on the ball

I'm just sitting here
Watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

Ah, people asking questions
Lost in confusion
Well, I tell them there's no problem
Only solutions

Well, they shake their heads
And they look at me as if I've lost my mind
I told them there's no hurry
I-I'm just sitting here doing time

I'm just sitting here
Watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go
I just had to let it go
I just had to let it go

And that’s the High-Electron Truth, 22 years on.


SMOKIN? UAPs.
by Editor
18 May 2021 at 6:14pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. In case you missed it, “Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon” is the new, official U.S. Military term for what were formerly known as “UFOs.” It remains to be seen if we’re any closer to finding out about – in the immortal words of Vince Lombardi - exactly What The Hell Is Goin’ On Out There, but it seems that decades of denying that there was some strange shit going on up in the skies has finally been put to rest, because this just in: apparently, it’s a veritable feast of UAPs out there all the time.

Am I surprised? No. But the timing of this revelation happens to have unmasked the other UAPs that exist in this world, in this case, Unidentified Automotive Phenomenon, or - in a nod to Bob Seger’s album, “Smokin’ O.P.’s.” - the Smokin’ UAP.

Now, these Unidentified Automotive Phenomenon have been occurring over the last couple of decades in this business, but it’s always fun to be reminded about some of the more notable sightings. 

The “Unlimited Pie” UAP: This disc-shaped, mind-altering UAP is a favorite of auto executives around the world. Unexplainable and inexplicable, this phenomenon used to be confined to background screens hovering over auto executives appearing at auto shows while presenting to the carpal-tunnel-warped media and announcing to all present that their new BelchFire Dynamo would capture 35 percent of whichever segment they’re aiming at. The only problem was that a half-dozen auto operatives appearing before and after them promised the same exact thing, resulting in a sales “pie” that totaled up to, oh, around 320 percent. The reason this qualifies as a UAP is the fact that no one bothers to point out this fundamental math discrepancy, so it remains unidentified. In fact, we’re in the throes of a completely new burst of “Unlimited Pie” UAPs as auto companies are lining up to boast about the future market share and success of their EV pickups, when some of them haven’t even figured out how they’re going to build them yet. 

The “Mysterious Blue Orb” UAP: These mirror-like orbs seem to regularly appear in the oddest places, but their most pronounced visibility is orbiting around certain CEOs’ heads. That they are rumored to masquerade as those ubiquitous lawn ornaments and then rise in the night sky undetected has not been confirmed, but has anyone with these blue orbs actually accounted for their whereabouts at all times? The power of these orbs has been well documented, because their mirrored, reflective surface allow CEOs to talk to themselves in a Stuart Smalley-like monologue, usually right before a press conference intro

These Blue Orbs allow certain CEOs to voraciously digest their press coverage and actually start believing that they’re somehow better than everyone else, usually ably abetted by certain sniveling, sycophantic members of the press. Their pre-press conference speeches always go something like this (while looking at their reflection in their Blue Orb): “I’m going to put on a good show today because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me!” Even though in most cases, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The “Elusive Loss Leader” UAP. The rarest Unidentified Automotive Phenomenon over the last several decades have been the “loss leader” vehicles produced by the auto companies to establish their base prices in every segment. These elusive vehicles have almost never been seen at the dealerships, however. In fact, the last time one appeared was in a grainy black & white photograph taken on a back lot of a suburban Detroit Chevy dealership back in ’72. Oh, sure, there have been claims of many sightings since then, but when special response teams showed up to investigate, the stories always fell apart. Suffice to say that at this point, this is one UAP that can be retired, because it never existed to begin with.

The “Magical Hovering CEO” UAP. This relatively new Unidentified Automotive Phenomenon goes well beyond the usual swamp gas formations and unexplained forest lights that describe the more mundane UAP appearances. This phenomenon originated with, and has been dutifully reported by, certain self-anointed “stellar” members of the aforementioned bootlicking sycophantic automotive press. The theory is that certain CEOs are so remarkably gifted, so resolutely brilliant and so fluent in all things “car” that reports of them hovering over their acolytes and actually walking on water have been trickling out with implied certainty. No one tethered to reality actually believes any of this, of course, but there is no doubt that there’s a burgeoning cottage industry in spreading this ugly fantasy.

The “Track Star” UAP. There are many, many confirmed sightings of this particular UAP, primarily at the Nurburgring Nordschleife in Germany, and in broad daylight too. This strange phenomenon fixates on the useless notion of running SUVs – exclusively produced by the German auto manufacturers, of course – around the world’s most famous road course to set a “fast” time that is apropos of exactly nothing. The frequency of the “sightings” has grown beyond tedious, because no one really gives a shit. In fact, this UAP has officially transitioned to becoming a TAP, for Tedious Automotive Phenomenon.

And that’s the High-Electron Truth for this week.

 


THAT COBRA SUMMER.
by Editor
12 May 2021 at 7:09am

Editor's Note: To say that Peter has led a charmed automotive life is an understatement. His recollections and stories from his childhood and beyond have been memorably documented in the pages of Autoextremist.com. But there are always more. Peter's family connection to GM's heyday, along with his brother Tony's Hall of Fame Corvette racing career (see this week's Fumes) is a story that never gets old, but you may not know that they experienced the emergence of the Shelby Cobra in real time too. And yes, this is just one of the Cobra stories. Enjoy the read. -WG

 

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. As most of our AE readers know by now, I have lived an impossibly charmed automotive life. My dad was appointed Vice President of Public Relations in 1957, which turned out to be right at the beginning of General Motor’s golden era. At that time, being a VP at GM was a very big deal, and the fact that he was the youngest person ever to ascend to that level (at the age of 40) was an even bigger deal (John Z. DeLorean would eclipse that years later at the age of 39).

Back then, GM’s automotive divisions were fiefdoms akin to small countries, and if you were a VP, General Manager, of one of those divisions, you were like a potentate with immense power. GM’s divisional General Managers had control over engineering, production and sales - everything but design, in fact, which remained under the iron-clad purview of Harley Earl and then Bill Mitchell. (Talk about fiefdoms!)

The other difference back in that era was that the upper echelon executives at GM knew each other well, often socializing together on the weekends. And being GM’s PR Chief, my dad - and mom - were always in the thick of it. Two executives in particular who were frequent guests or dinner companions with my parents were Bunkie Knudsen and Ed Cole (and their wives, of course).

Bunkie had just been appointed General Manager of Pontiac, which back then was a staid enterprise featuring uninspired, mundane cars that was barely treading water; it was sort of the forgotten division in the burgeoning GM empire. But Bunkie was out to change that, and in a hurry too. I will save that story for another column, but suffice to say, Bunkie assembled some of the hottest young engineering talent available (including the aforementioned John Z.), and he was off to the races, hell-bent on turning Pontiac into the hottest car company in the industry. Which he promptly did.

One thing that Bunkie did every summer was send over the hottest Pontiac model for my mom to drive, usually a hot red Bonneville convertible with the biggest engine available at the time. It started out with a 389 cu. in. V8-powered Bonneville in ’59 and quickly transitioned to the 421 cu.in. V8-powered Pontiacs through the years. And, of course, my brother Tony - who is eight years my senior - was happy to have those hot rods around the house. He washed them and eventually drove them, and we had a blast with every single one of them. (I seem to remember spending all day one Saturday painting the tire letters on the sidewalls of one of those Pontiacs white; it’s just what you did back then.) To this day, Pontiac is a favored brand of mine, and I was lucky enough to work on the Pontiac account in one of the stops during my advertising career too.

We moved from Flint to a suburb of Detroit at the end of December 1959, and it was instantly clear that being closer to the action had its immediate benefits. It was car heaven all the time because we quickly discovered that legends walked among us. Bill Mitchell, the legendary designer and GM Styling Chief lived one block away from us. (Peter’s column about Mitchell is still one of our most-requested columns -WG.) Unprompted, Bill customized a '63 Corvair Coupe and sent it over to my dad. It was bright red with a narrow white racing stripe – with two thin pinstripes on either side of it – painted down the center of it. It also had the Turbo engine in it before it was offered to the public (complete with Turbo emblem on the back of it). We, of course, took it down to the Detroit Dragway to see what it would do, and I remember the tech “inspectors” being mystified at the turbocharger, complete with factory-looking installation and decals that no one had ever seen before.

But that was only one story. There was the time Ed Cole sent over his personal driver for Tony to drive one weekend, which just so happened to be a white '61 409 Chevy with a 4-speed gearbox (how's that for an executive company car?). Ed was one of the fathers of the small-block Chevy V8 and one of the legendary figures of this business, calling him a “car guy” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I spent the weekend riding shotgun with my brother as we drove up and down Woodward Ave., kicking ass with that machine. 

And then there were the Corvettes. My, oh my, there were so many I'm not sure I can recall them all (nah, that’s not true, I recall every single one of ‘em). GM PR had a 1962 Corvette (300HP, 4-speed) that sat unused, well, let me clarify that, it sat unused when it wasn’t in our driveway, as Tony borrowed it every single weekend as he began to “learn” how to drive fast. I don’t know how many miles we put on that Corvette that summer, but it was a lot. There was one Corvette immersion in particular that is still fantastic to think about now, and that was the fall weekend in 1962 when Ed Cole sent over his personal driver at the time, which was a fuel-injected, 4-speed, 1963 Sting Ray Coupe in Sebring Silver. It was right before the car was introduced, and needless to say I will never forget that car and that time. It was like rocketing into the future, and to this day the ‘63 Sting Ray remains the most riveting, iconic machine that GM has ever produced. 

You would think that living in a utopian state of constant Corvettes would be enough, but no, it wasn’t nearly enough. Tony got a job at Pontiac headquarters in the summer of ‘63 - when the Pontiac Motor Division was actually in downtown Pontiac – and John Z. DeLorean had just been recently elevated to Pontiac General Manager. One day Tony found himself wandering through the executive garage when he discovered an interesting little black sports car parked forlornly by itself off to the side. Lo and behold it was an early Shelby Cobra, so early in fact that it didn't have the side vents and it had the original Shelby Cobra emblem on the nose (pre-snake). What had been a life of Corvette-Corvette-Corvette was interrupted by reports in the car magazines of a hot little sports car from California by way of England. And suddenly, my brother added Cobra-Cobra-Cobra to his lexicon. And I, of course, would too.  

After about the third week of seeing this black Cobra sit there unattended and clearly not driven, Tony got the nerve to get a message to John Z. through his secretary, asking if he could "borrow" the Cobra some weekend. And the answer came back, "sure." Needless to say, one weekend turned into damn near the whole summer. 

When Tony first brought that Cobra home, it was like an alien being. People may forget that it was basically a classic British sports car stuffed with a Ford V8. It couldn’t have been more different from a Corvette. It even smelled different, because of its English leather seats. And it was tiny, noticeably smaller in every dimension than the Corvette back then, and the fact that it had gray-painted wire wheels completed a picture that was 180 degrees different from the Corvette.

And then, we went for a ride, and my whole car world instantly changed. Even with its early 260 cu. in. Ford V8 that Cobra was blistering fast. On Woodward Ave. it was the scourge of Corvettes, leaping three to four car lengths ahead of them off the line and disappearing off in the distance. It was exactly then that I learned about having an advantageous power-to-weight ratio, as Tony explained that the Cobra was several hundred pounds lighter than a Corvette. You could feel it, too, it was an entirely different dimension of agile and responsive, even from the passenger seat.

That time is etched in my mind permanently. We drove it everywhere, even down to the Detroit Dragway one night. I even got my foot run over with it, while we were pushing it to the start line. I lived, and it was worth it. After cursory instruction from Tony, that Cobra was also the first car I ever washed on my own, which was a delicate operation since we never put the top up. Sometimes I would wash it twice over a weekend, as we thought if he brought it back clean, he would get to borrow it again. But that was never an issue, because after that Cobra Summer, life would never be the same.

And that’s the High-Electron Truth for this week.


THE DREADED ASSUMPTION DISEASE.
by Editor
4 May 2021 at 2:02pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. It’s no secret that the one constant in the automobile business is change. This endeavor is a churning, burning, seething cauldron of unpredictability, and it can decimate the carefully nuanced plans of manufacturers, suppliers and dealers in an instant. I have often referred to this phenomenon as the “swirling maelstrom,” which some people have taken umbrage with, which, at best, is naive. It’s as if some out there have fanciful notions about this business, somehow equating it to skipping through a park in the sunshine, complete with a “What, me worry?” attitude, steadfastly oblivious to the sobering realities that can upend it in a day.

But right now, this business finds itself well and truly in the midst of that “swirling maelstrom.” Even as record sales numbers pour in from last month, the reality for the auto manufacturers is getting uglier by the day. The chip shortage is real, and it’s likely that it will continue to plague this business well into next year, if not longer.

That means that these eye-popping sales – and profit – numbers will be it for the year. From here on out it is going to be constrained manufacturing for some of the industry’s most profitable models and extremely low dealer inventories to boot, which translates into a giant bowl of Not Good. (Yes, the dealers are happy with the big grosses they’re enjoying right now, but the euphoria is chastened by the real possibility that they won’t get enough vehicles to sell to keep their lights on. The second half of this year is shaping up to be devastating.)

The “chip thing” is not only wreaking havoc on the manufacturers’ near-term planning, but it is also forcing them to reconsider and evaluate everything they’ve come to understand as being “gospel” in this business for decades. That means that the now obligatory “just in time” manufacturing concept has been turned on its ear. Auto companies cannot afford disruptions in their assembly processes, and this chip shortage has exposed a glaring weakness in the concept, as in, what if “just in time” just isn’t there? Make no mistake, this situation is killing these companies, and all of the glowing projections for product hits and profitability made at the beginning of the year have given way to constant “woe is us” hand-wringing, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Great Recession. 

Right now, top operatives at these companies are insisting that they will never be caught out by something like this again. That’s laughably naïve, because altering the system so that shortages don’t occur in the future will require a fundamental shift in the way these car companies approach the way they go about manufacturing vehicles. Redirecting decades of rote processes and beliefs will not happen with a finger snap, and turning these companies away from the past to a new direction will be akin to trying to turn the Titanic away from that giant iceberg. 

Some companies are making giant strides in addressing what’s going on right now, but still, this transformation is going to take time and boatloads of cash. There may be some short-term victories, but this is a long-term challenge that is going to play out in years, not months, which is a sobering reality, to be sure. After all, what good is it to have product “hits” if you can’t build ‘em and you can’t sell ‘em? And what good is it if this situation lingers on, which is exactly what it looks like for at least two manufacturers in particular.

What’s going on right now is a very tough lesson for some of these car company executives. And it’s easy to figure out the ones I’m talking about too, those newly minted members of the “Masters of the Universe” club whose judgment is clouded by ego and the cloak of invincibility assigned to them by the surrounding minions whose sole job is to polish those egos with alacrity, if not downright glee.  

Among other transgressions, these executives are caught in the throes of the dreaded – and always debilitating – Assumption Disease. It is marked by an unfailing belief in their own press clippings – there’s that giant ego thing again – and inevitably masked by a faux humility and syrupy persona crafted by the dutiful PR minions assigned to polish and project that “aw shucks, I’m just a normal guy looking out for our employees and stakeholders” (or something like that) image. And all of this contributes to clouding their thinking, which then propels them to assume that all of their plans are perfectly logical and fail safe, to assume that their product decisions are infallible, to assume that market conditions will be stable and to assume that their brilliance will be there in living color for all to see. But to assume that this business is any way, shape, or form predictable is a fool’s errand that inevitably leads to disastrous consequences. Because this business can go from “happy days are here again!” to, “uh-oh, I think we might be screwed” in less than a quarter, which when it comes to making cars and trucks, is as close to a blink of an eye as you can get.

The automobile business never suffers fools gladly, or otherwise. And what’s going on right now is a test of resilience, foresight, guts and persistence. Lead operatives who have a real understanding of what’s going on will succeed. That doesn’t mean it will be smooth or easy, but those who have a grasp of what’s happening will prevail. The rest? They’re doomed to wallow in ego and woulda-coulda-shouldas, right before they succumb to that dreaded Assumption Disease. 

And that’s the High-Electron Truth for this week.


TIME: THE CRUELEST ENEMY.
by Editor
27 Apr 2021 at 6:11pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Another week, another wave of churning and burning in this “thing” they call the Auto Biz. The manufacturers that are able to straddle both sides of the ICE/BEV fence are looking good – for now – but there are no guarantees about any of it. Even the manufacturers that seem primed for success with their product portfolio ratio of ICE to upcoming BEVs are at the mercy of the whims and prevailing winds in this business, and right now, those winds are blowing ill will in the form of massive silicon chip shortages that threaten to devastate any shred of product momentum able to be gained. 

How bad is it? The chip shortage is not only real, the effects are starting to push the shards of sun peeking through the black clouds back into the gathering darkness. The automobile companies are finding it difficult to maintain anything approaching a product cadence, and the shortage of cars, SUVs and trucks on dealership lots is starting to wear thin on everyone. It’s more than a little problem too. Dealers across the country are begging for product, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about alleviating the shortage. That is, until more chips are manufactured.

One positive byproduct of this crisis? The transaction prices are going through the roof as dealers are selling the cars and trucks that they do have for sticker, or even above. But that’s little solace for these dealers as they see their lots get emptier by the day. In ancient times, pundits would have said that it’s no way to run a railroad. Now? In these less elegant times let’s just say it’s a burgeoning Shit Show of gigantic proportions.

But there’s more this week. There’s always more. Tesla reported record sales and income for the first quarter, including a whopping $518 million in sales of regulatory credits to competitors. That positive news for the company was clouded, however, by another fatality that occurred in a Tesla vehicle, this time, two men in Spring, Texas, were killed. Though the investigation is ongoing, that Tesla has promoted its “Autopilot” function for years with impunity, complete with misleading comments from its leader, who repeatedly boasted about the efficacy of its advanced technology while Tesla customers were enlisted in the actual beta testing of its system, was simply a blatant disregard for the safety of its customers and of the general public. Suffice to say, if a mainstream auto manufacturer had attempted to do that, the hearings in Washington – and the public vilification – would still be going on. 

The fact that Tesla has gotten a free pass over this situation is beyond unconscionable. And even though the company’s lawyers are now taking great pains to insist that it clearly states and has always stated in the owner’s manual that the driver needs to have his or her hands on the wheel to safely operate the autopilot system, the damage was done long ago. 

And as if to add icing on an already dreadful, festering cake, Consumer Reports demonstrated just last week how Tesla’s autopilot system could be “tricked” into operating without a driver behind the wheel. This is a Muskian Nightmare and a giant bowl of Not Good. And the fact that Tesla’s autopilot system was constantly and irresponsibly overhyped for years and has taken its toll on property and most important, the loss of people’s lives, it will be this company’s permanent and deservedly reprehensible legacy. 

Then there’s Ford. Now that we have survived the hype of the Bronco “Sport” for all of these months and watched as Ford marketers and advertisers exploited every avenue available to them to relentlessly hammer the point home that the Bronco “Sport” was, in fact, a real Bronco, the real Bronco is actually due to arrive in a couple of months. At least that’s the current timeline, but you can attach to that a large asterisk, because with Ford product intros it has been well-established that timing is always suspect. 

But after having been inundated with marketing for the faux Bronco “Sport,” it will be interesting to see how Ford marketers will differentiate the “real” Bronco from everything that has been dumped on the consumer public’s heads over the last four months. Will the Bronco Sport become “Tastes Great, Less Filling” and the real Bronco be presented as “A Full Bodied, Meatier Dark Roast”? Can Ford marketers avoid burying the Bronco Sport while touting the “ultimate” Bronco? A giant “we’ll see,” as we like to say.

Yet still, that’s not all for Ford this week. As much as the marketing for the Bronco Sport was a withering display of not leaving any imaginable marketing stone unturned, the hype for the Mach-E crossover has eclipsed even that. The parade of journalists – both real and imagined – who have dutifully reported that Ford’s crossover BEV is the greatest thing since sliced bread has been a wonder to behold. It’s as if most of them had never driven an EV before and that it was incomprehensible that anything could surpass it. But while high-fiving is going on in the halls in Dearborn, the relentless hype for its new BEV crossover has exposed a gaping hole in its planning that could easily wreak havoc on its future. 

This looming crisis for Ford – yes, yet another one (does it seem like Ford has careened from crisis to crisis throughout its history? Why yes, yes it has) – goes well beyond the current chip shortage fiasco. 

It seems that Ford decided a while ago that trusting its battery production supply to a network of suppliers would be its best bet for success in the BEV game. This decision was actually a departure for Ford, as the company is famous for doing things in-house because it truly believes that whatever it is it can do it better, faster and cheaper (even though it has been proven repeatedly that when the company gets involved things take twice as long, cost twice as much and are rarely, if ever, better).

But Ford quickly found out that the battery game is a different animal altogether. Relying on a network of suppliers for off-the-shelf advanced technology left the company ill-equipped and decidedly lacking in the battery development/technical knowledge aspect of the business. Huge mistake. Quite simply, the company has been left exposed and unprepared, and it has squandered its ability to be a leader in a space that desperately calls for in-house developed, proprietary technical leadership.  

Despite the train having already left the proverbial station, Ford is now desperately trying to play catchup, just thinking about getting its cars on the tracks while the rest of the industry is fading off in the distance and disappearing around the bend. Just this week Ford announced that it is spending $185 million on what it calls “Ford Ion Park” – a research and development lab that will focus on battery development – with the goal of eventually manufacturing its own cells. The problem is that it isn’t scheduled to open until “the end” of 2022, and remember, it’s an R&D facility. 

But that’s not all. Other manufacturers have advanced battery development programs and production facilities that are well down the road to completion. GM, for instance, has just announced a second battery build facility (with its partner LG Energy Solution) for its Ultium Cells that’s in the works for its Spring Hill, Tennessee, manufacturing complex and due to be online at the end of 2023. This is in addition to its facility well underway in Lordstown, Ohio, due to be completed in 2022.

What does this all mean for Ford? The clock is ticking yet again. It means that the company is demonstrably behind in the EV battery game. In fact, it doesn’t even have the first oar in the water. That this is a new dimension of Not Good for Ford is the inescapable conclusion. The company better hope that it can keep selling enough faux Broncos, real Broncos, Mach-Es and F-150s to keep the lights on until it can start generating its own electricity. For Ford, time will be the cruelest enemy from here on out. 

As W. H. Auden once said:

… But all the clocks in the city
   Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
   You cannot conquer Time.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
   Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
   And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
   Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
   To-morrow or to-day.

'Into many a green valley
   Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
   And the diver's brilliant bow.

'O plunge your hands in water,
   Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
   And wonder what you've missed.

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
   The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
   A lane to the land of the dead…

And that’s the High-Electron Truth for this week.


THE OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME FOR AUTOMOTIVE DESIGN.
by Editor
20 Apr 2021 at 12:10pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. We have arrived at the point where this entire business is languishing in limbo. We’re between a rock – as exemplified by the money-making ICE vehicles (trucks, SUVs, et al.) – and a hard place – as represented by the new wave of EVs. This transition is going to play out in fits and starts, with manufacturers revealing their advanced designs long before they show up in showrooms in the hopes that we’re all paying attention and that they will hold our interest long enough until they arrive. 

That’s a tall order. Some manufacturers seem to be getting with the program, projecting their future thinking in attractive designs that seem luscious and desirable. Consider the Cadillac Lyriq, Audi A6 E-Tron, Lucid Air and Genesis X, for instance.

(GM) 

(Audi)

(Lucid)

(Genesis)

Other manufacturers seem to be perpetually lost, wandering around in the desert of bad ideas and uninspiring shapes, as best exemplified by the new fully-electric Mercedes-Benz EQS. It represents the desultory design movement at its best, and it’s beyond tedious. This was clearly Mercedes’ attempt at wowing everybody with their self-anointed “smartest guys in the automotive room” persona, but it fell far short of that. How they could possibly imagine that a ten-year-old shape would move the needle to the EV future is beyond me, as in, seriously?

(Mercedes-Benz)

As longtime readers of this site know, design is my favorite part of this business. Having grown up in the heyday at the end of the Harley Earl era, and through the Bill Mitchell era – two giants of automotive design history – I grew to appreciate this aspect of the business. It still excites me to this day, which is why my anticipation – and scrutiny – for each new EV design is amplified.

That we are on the cusp of a new automotive era is clear. Everything we know about this business so far has been duly noted and played out for more than a century, and for the most part it was good. The freedom of mobility, and the ability to see and do and settle new regions fueled the growth of this nation and transformed the way we live and work. Fundamental innovations, breakthrough technologies, high-performance milestones and advancements in safety have left an indelible imprint on our way of life. And make no mistake, as I have said repeatedly, the ICE era will be around for many, many years to come. 

But the movement to BEVs is a momentous moment, in real time. The transition to a new way of mobility for the masses is indeed upon us, and though it remains to be seen how exactly it will play out, some of our entrenched notions and learnings will inevitably be upended and forced to be reimagined. And as I’ve said, I welcome this transition. My experience with my Chevrolet Bolt has been eye-opening. The seamless, right now torque and acceleration, the silent running and the sense that BEVs will not only be adopted, but actually liked by a lot of people is palpable. 

That this business is more competitive than ever is no secret, and new designs from brand-new EV companies around the globe are emerging almost on a weekly basis. (You only have to take in the displays at Auto Shanghai 2021 this week to realize that.) The design arena is fiery and unforgiving, and many of these manufacturers will only get one shot to make a first impression. And the line between design reach and design failure remains razor thin.

That’s why I want to be wowed by the automotive design community. Let me restate that, I expect to be wowed. After all, design is, was, and always will be the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator. Phoning it in is not an option, especially as battery development accelerates and the democratization of this new technology takes hold. It is the look that will propel sales success in the market. And it is the look that will secure a brand’s image for decades to come.

It is important to remember that the automotive business is as much a fashion business as anything else, and it is often defined by fads that come and go as well (the current SUV/Crossover fad isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, unfortunately). But in the end, vehicles that are emotionally compelling to look at draw people in to find out more. That’s just the way it has always been and will continue to be.

Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell understood this implicitly. Earl was the driver of the “jet age” in automotive design, and Mitchell was an absolute genius at translating advanced concepts into mainstream automotive hits. The vehicles below exemplify the Earl and Mitchell looks perfectly.

(GM)

The 1959 Buicks didn’t get as much attention as the hyper-finned ’59 Cadillacs, but under Earl’s tutelage they were stylish and compelling. This PR shot features the 1959 Buick Invicta.

(GM)

The 1959 Buick Electra was the top of the lineup.

(GM)

The 1963 Buick Riviera remains an auto industry milestone and an iconic representation of the Mitchell era at GM Styling.

(GM)

The 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray is still stunning to this day and a perfect tribute to Mitchell's design vision.

As I said, I expect to be wowed. Showing these historical designs isn’t meant to be a nostalgia play or a yearning for the days of yore in this business. They’re examples of blue-sky thinking and design reach that translated into earth-shattering and historically significant designs that resonate to this day.

Memo to the automotive design community: You have the opportunity of a lifetime to project this business into a future brimming of possibilities. Aim high. Anything less will be a monumental disappointment.

And that’s the High-Electron Truth for this week.


THE BEAST IN ME.
by Editor
12 Apr 2021 at 12:36pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. When I last visited this theme a couple of years ago, the year 2030 was upon us. As I stepped out into the darkness in the throes of another sleepless night, I found myself wandering around in a world that looked remarkably as it looks today. I noticed a few stray autonomous vehicles doing their rote routines, with their blue LEDs indicating what they were. But they were – not surprisingly – insignificant, part of the thrum of a new reality, but only a bit part.

And as the darkness lightened slightly, I started to see the ebb and flow of traffic on Woodward Avenue. It was reassuring to see that it still hummed with activity. Some avant-garde designs were noticeable – aero shapes punctuated by their wildly diverse lighting systems – but they were clearly full-zoot luxury machines. Other cars were decidedly less adventurous, a mix of small- to medium-sized conveyances that really didn’t look all that much different from today. And yes, the traffic flow was dominated by SUVs and trucks still, the American consumer having long ago abandoned any thought of going back to a typical passenger car.

The sounds were diverse too. A mix of BEV whine, hybrids and yes, full-on ICE machines as well. It was obvious that the prognostications of a complete transition to BEVs were dead wrong. The “grand transformation” was clearly a work in progress, with scores of people happily clinging to their piston-powered vehicles for two reasons: cost and the freedom of movement with no limitations. I did notice that as I walked past the local Speedway gas station/convenience store, half the gasoline pump islands had been replaced by quick-charging stations for BEVs. They were empty now, but the gas pumps were already busy. 

But as that dream began to fade, the realization that time had accelerated again overwhelmed me. It was with certainty that I could sense that things had fundamentally changed. As Don Henley once said, “Time keeps ticking… ticking away,” and I found myself immersed in a new world, ten years on. 

But was it actually happening? As you get older, they say sleep seems to become more fleeting. There “they” go again. All-knowledgeable, all-powerful and all-tedious. It turns out “they” don’t know jack shit, a secret society seemingly dedicated to cluelessness and misinformation that wreaks havoc on everyday life with impunity. To borrow a catchphrase from John Boehner, “they” can go fuck themselves. 

Despite the societal headlong rush into EVs, it turns out that my dreams are still not battery-powered. They are fuel-injected and raucous, a cacophony of thumping V8s, boosted flat-sixes and screaming V12s, playing out in a kaleidoscope of frenzied images and frantic video POVs that piece together a lifetime. There is little rhyme or reason, no detectable pattern and the furthest thing from a chronological order that you can possibly imagine. They are nightmarishly chaotic and, in some cases, achingly real.

It turns out that the leap from 2030 to 2040 is dramatic and for some, like me, frightening. 

I found myself in a gray-tinged room, with a simple rectangular table in the center flanked by three chairs on one side and one on the other. Cameras were visible, as was a one-way glass picture window. I was facing two bureaucrats from the State of Michigan – a man and a woman (“Mr. Baker” and “Ms. Worley”) – and one representative from the Feds, a female agent named “Ms. Carmichael.” I had no time to figure out why I was there, before they began questioning me, but “Ms. Carmichael” said I could call her by her first name, which was “Tessa.” I declined.

Ms. Carmichael: “Mr. DeLorenzo, on the night of April 10, 2040, you were apprehended on the I-696 expressway for speeding, is that correct?”

“Yes,” I said.

Ms. Carmichael: “We are joined today by the State of Michigan, represented by Mr. Baker and Ms. Worley, who have brought with them all of the salient details from this incident for the purposes of this meeting, including the visual and audio recordings from the State Police Robotics Division, which have thoroughly documented that night.”

Then without missing a beat, they played a series of HD color videos of the event. You could see my jet black 2024 Corvette Z06 as clear as a bell, with my registration and insurance information projected on the screen – along with my driver’s license labeled “RESTRICTED” - as I blew through the various camera angles and checkpoints. 

I didn’t say a word.

Ms. Carmichael: “Mr. DeLorenzo,” she continued in a voice free from nuance or tone, “Not only were you in an unauthorized vehicle, your speed was registered, verified and documented over a six-mile stretch as varying between 195 mph and 206 mph. Do you deny any of this?”

“No,” I said. I mean, what could I say, “It wasn’t me?” They even had enhanced video of me behind the wheel, slowed down and magnified. I looked super-focused at least.

Ms. Carmichael: “You are aware, of course, that this particular expressway is limited to three types of vehicles: the far-right Green Lane for piloted BEVs and Hybrids, the middle Orange Lane for guidance-optional assisted vehicles, and the left Blue Lane for fully autonomous vehicles. Yes?"

“Yes,” I said. The roadways had become heavily skewed to minimizing involvement behind the wheel, apparently, and I was clearly doing the exact opposite, flagrantly violating the rules in an extreme way. 

Ms. Carmichael: “Mr. DeLorenzo, you’re also aware that because of your age you’re no longer allowed to drive any vehicle of any kind. Your license says “RESTRICTED” because it is only functioning as a national I.D. But I’m not telling you anything new, correct?"

“I get tested twice a year,” I was agitated now. “I go through certified high-performance driving programs every year. I have a long list of recommendations and verifications from accredited sources. I’ve forgotten more than you people will ever know about driving." (I loved using the phrase “you people” with bureaucrats.) "I don’t understand why this is a problem, or why it is being held against me.” 

Ms. Carmichael. “Nevertheless, Mr. DeLorenzo, those self-certification programs are irrelevant to this discussion. You have intentionally flouted the law, and apparently this isn’t the first time, according to your record, is that correct?”

I nodded. 

Ms. Carmichael: “Because of your long list of transgressions behind the wheel, and this latest and most egregious incident, I have no choice but to send you to the Driver Attitude Redirection Bureau for no less than six months, or until we are satisfied that you have been redirected properly. Are you clear as to what is expected of you?”

My mind wandered. This was a death sentence. “DARB” was developed by the Masters of Silicon Valley and deployed in 2035 in Sacramento, and the results were so positive after a year – according to government operatives – that the program was expanded nationwide. At “DARB” they put you in EV simulators that are programmed to run a different course every day – a mix of residential streets, urban and suburban landscapes and freeways – and you’re required to drive by the book, while adhering to every law – with various surprises thrown in – for eight frickin’ hours a day. And each time you make a mistake you receive an electric shock through the steering wheel, which varies in degree depending on the perceived offense. An old friend of mine cracked up one day after four months of this torture, apparently. He stood on the go-pedal hard, and after five minutes of going flat-out through that day’s route, blowing through intersections and running cars off of the road, the shock delivered was so severe it vaporized him. The only thing they found was a trace of his right shoe.

Ms. Carmichael: “Mr. DeLorenzo? Do you comprehend what is expected of you? You have been ‘zeroed-out.’ You are being removed from the societal landscape until you demonstrate that you can function according to the rules. It’s completely up to you if you are able to return to the Real World.”

The Real World? Fuck me. I can’t wait to get a hold of that EV simulator. Rest assured, they won’t find a trace of me.

Then, I woke up with a start. The sounds of “The Beast in Me” by Nick Lowe (listen here) flowed from my phone. 

And I was ready to face the day…

The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bonds
Restless by day and by night, rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me

The beast in me has had to learn to live with pain
And how to shelter from the rain
And in the twinkling of an eye might have to be restrained
But God help the beast in me

Sometimes it tries to kid me that it's just a teddy bear
Or even somehow managed to vanish in the air
And that is when I must beware of the beast in me

That everybody knows
They've seen him out dressed in my clothes
Patently unclear, if it's New York or new year
God help the beast in me, the beast in me

And that’s the High-Electron Truth for this week.



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