The Latest Auto Extremist
BILL MITCHELL ? THE PASSIONATE DESIGN MAESTRO.
14 Aug 2018 at 10:39am
Editor's Note: With two of the biggest automotive events in this country unfolding over the next two weeks - the Dream Cruise here in the Motor City and Monterey Car Week in California - we decided to re-run one of Peter's most-requested columns - a look at the legendary Bill Mitchell and the glory days of GM design. This column was adapted from Peter's book, The United States of Toyota, and stands as an enduring reminder of GM's truly incredible design history. Needless to say, it was a different time and a different era. -WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. To say that the ‘50s and ‘60s were a different era in automotive history is not painting a proper picture of just how different it was. Detroit was much more of a freewheeling mindset back then. Car executives were bold, decisive, conniving, creative and power-hungry personalities who inevitably went with their gut instincts – which could end up being either a recipe for disaster or a huge runaway sales hit on the streets. The only committees you'd find back then were the finance committees – and they never got near the design, engineering, marketing or even the advertising unless there was some sort of a problem. These Car Kings worked flat-out, and they partied flat-out, too, ruling their fiefdoms with iron fists while wielding their power ruthlessly at times to get what they wanted – and rightly so in their minds – as they were some of the most powerful business executives on earth. In short, it was a world that was 180 degrees different from what goes on in today's rigid, namby-pamby, never-have-a-point-of-view-and-never-take-a-stand automotive environment.
No one represented the spirit of the business back then more than Bill Mitchell. He was bold, powerful, flamboyant, recalcitrant, maniacal, brilliant, frustrating and probably every other adjective you can think of for someone who was one of a kind. He was smart enough to know and he had the innate sense to understand that he had inherited the legacy of the great Harley Earl, and he never for a second forgot that fact – or let anyone else forget it either. And he played it for all it was worth with a swagger and strut that haven't been seen since. He often bumped heads with the "suits" down at the corporation when they didn't "get" one of his design recommendations – but he usually won the battles and got his way.
Mitchell was, in fact, his own potentate within the GM monolith, and he did outrageous things and spoke his mind and generally didn't give a rat's ass about any of the other bullshit that was part of corporate life at GM at the time. Mitchell was a larger-than-life personality, and it just didn't sit well with a lot of the sober financial suits down on the "14th floor" of the old GM building. He swaggered and strutted his way around the Design Staff like it was his own personal kingdom – and make no mistake about it – it was.
To give you just a small glimpse into how Mitchell held sway over things at Design Staff, the Corvette was the one car that meant more to him than any other. And whenever a young designer did a version and started to gloat even just a little bit, Bill would always set things straight with the following famous Mitchell-ism: "Don't flatter yourself, kid – I'm the one who does Corvettes here." (As a brief aside, one of the most hilarious things I ever witnessed as a kid was watching the mercurial Mitchell attempt to play golf at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club. He was horrible at it, and his frustration level would grow exponentially with each hole – and you could see his complexion glow even more beet-red than it already was almost by the minute. He had absolutely no patience for the game whatsoever, and finally he'd inevitably storm off the course without finishing his round and jump into one of his concept cars – the original Sting Ray, the Mako Shark, the Monza SS – you name it, and then he'd peel out of the parking lot spinning the tires and grabbing gears all the way down Long Lake Road.)
I've heard countless firsthand stories about the man and his ballistic fits in studios while cajoling his troops to go further and reach higher – but I saw a slightly different side to him too.
Because, after all, he lived just a block away from our house...
And I'll never forget the day I discovered that fact. I was still in my bike-riding days back then, but I remember resting with my buddies one blistering Friday afternoon on a corner in our neighborhood after a long, hot day of riding around aimlessly – we did that often back then – when we heard a rumble and roar coming from off in the distance. I knew right away that it wasn't motorcycles and that it was more than one of whatever it was – and just then a pack of the most stunning cars we'd ever seen burst around the corner and came rumbling right past us – the sun glinting off the barking pipes and the canopy of trees shimmering off the perfect mirror finishes of the paint jobs. This "horsepower train" was led by the "original" 1959 Corvette Sting Ray racer in Silver, followed by the XP700 Corvette (a "bubble-top" show car with side pipes also in Silver – it was Mitchell's favorite color), the first Mako Shark Corvette and a concept called the Corvair Super Spyder (also in Silver), a wild racing-inspired show car with dual cut-down racing windscreens and three pipes curling out and around each side in the back. They were so loud we couldn't even hear ourselves screaming whatever it was we were screaming, but after a split second to think about it, we took off, pedaling our guts out after them. It was apparent that these machines were heading for our part of the neighborhood – and as we tried to keep them in sight I realized they were turning on to my cross street!
We came around the corner and saw them pull into a driveway, exactly one block from my house. We stopped right at the end of the driveway with our mouths gaping down to the asphalt, as the drivers of the other cars handed the keys to the driver of the Stingray and he took them up to the front door where a woman collected them. Then, an Impala pulled up and the four men got in it and were gone, leaving the cars sitting in the driveway all lined up ticking and spitting as their pipes started to cool.
This became the Friday Afternoon Ritual of the summer – at least when Bill Mitchell was in town.
He liked having his "toys" at his disposal on the weekends. And every weekend the collection was different, depending on the mood he was in when he made the call to the GM Styling garage. I would watch what cars would be delivered on Friday, and then I would ride over there on Saturdays and just linger out in the driveway studying every square inch of every car hoping to get an audience with The Man himself – and maybe, just maybe – a ride in one of the machines. One thing about Bill Mitchell is he never got tired of the cars, and he never got tired of seeing people's reaction to them or answering questions about them. After about the third weekend of this, I finally got the nerve to introduce myself to him one Saturday morning as he was getting ready to go somewhere in the Super Spyder. From that moment on I was okay in his book because I was "one of Tony's boys" and he said, "Hop in – I'm just running up to the drug store, but come on..."
I jumped in the passenger seat (the interior was done in Silver Metallic leather), and he made sure I fastened my seatbelt, even though he didn't bother with his – and we were off. The Super Spyder was a revelation to me (although I had to look through the cut-down windscreen or off to the side to see) because it was the first time I had been in anything other than a production automobile. Thanks to my brother, I had ridden shotgun in plenty of fast cars, but this was different – this one was exotic to me. The ride literally lasted five minutes up to the store and five minutes back, but from then on I was a fixture in the Mitchell's driveway for the rest of the summer.
I ended up riding in every one of GM's Concept Cars of that era. All but one of them being chauffeured by none other than Bill Mitchell himself. Just for the record, my favorites were the original 1959 Sting Ray racer, the Monza GT Coupe in Silver and the Monza SS Spyder in Red (look them up – they were the stunning Corvair-based show cars with the front ends that ended up on the racing Chaparrals).
And the one not chauffeured by Bill Mitchell? That was an unbelievably wild Pontiac show car called the XP400. It started out as a 1964 Nassau Blue Pontiac Bonneville convertible that had more of a '50s custom look to it (complete with a stowable hard tonneau cover that was way ahead of its time). Big deal, you say? Well, stuffed in the engine bay was a 421-cubic-inch, Mickey Thompson-prepared drag race motor with a 671 GMC blower producing, as Ken Eschebach (the gifted technician at "Styling" who basically kept everything running for Mitchell) said, "All Mickey said was that it had almost 700HP." Oh, and one more thing – it had a lever that you could engage that would open up un-muffled side-pipes any time you felt the urge to.
Bill Mitchell had the XP400 dropped off one summer day in 1964 for my older brother to play with for the weekend. I have two memories of that weekend: 1. Sitting in the back seat with two other guys (a total of five in the car) rolling down a two-lane road headed for Woodward Avenue – in first gear. My brother punched it, and that beast shrieked and howled as it charged down the road, spinning its rear tires in the first three gears, our necks snapping in unison with every shift. The acceleration almost took the wind out of me. He backed out of it at 125 only because we had to stop for a light. The thing was brutally fast – a truly nasty-beautiful machine in every sense of the word. And 2. Pulling into gas stations and getting out to check the oil just so we could see the expression on the attendant's face as we unlatched the hood. And we did that often because Mickey had set the motor up with "drag race piston rings" as Ken told us, so it used 21 quarts of oil in one weekend. Incredible...
Things weren't all blissful in those years. I heard rumblings of things being "different" in the Mitchell household, and the next thing I knew he had gotten divorced – and then he got remarried to a woman who lived around the corner from us, one block away in the opposite direction! I guess he liked the neighborhood.
At any rate, Bill Mitchell's new wife had a stepson (though several years younger than our crowd) who became part of our bike-riding gang. It was during this time that I really got to know Bill Mitchell beyond the occasional car rides. I used to hang out in his basement for hours with his stepson, and I'll never forget what a shrine to the automobile it was – a virtual museum of automotive art and automobilia. The man had his favorite drawings plastered all over the place – beautiful illustrations from the time he first started drawing cars as a young boy that were lit with little spotlights. He had personally signed photos of most of the all-time great Grand Prix drivers from the '30s, '40s, '50s and early '60s. He had a Plexiglas case containing the helmet, goggles and gloves that the great Rudolph Carraciola wore in one of his last drives for the Mercedes-Benz factory racing team (I finally understood why Mitchell's favorite color was Silver – he had Silver Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union stuff everywhere). He had other personal effects from famous drivers all over the place – a Stirling Moss helmet, gloves from the great Juan Manuel Fangio – you name the driver, and he had something personally signed by them and given to him. And there were countless models, original paintings, pictures, plaques and badges – a cornucopia of car stuff that is just staggering to think about now.
There were a few times when he would come down and spend time with us, and since I thought I wanted to be a car designer I'd pepper him with questions about anything and everything. I remember one particular day when he was in an expansive mood, and he took me on a personal guided tour of his collection of stuff – and it was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. Here was a living automotive legend in every sense of the word taking the time to convey to a kid what all of this stuff really meant to him. What struck me right away was how he was as much of a pure fan and in awe of his favorite drivers as anyone. He expounded on every single piece of memorabilia – where it came from, how it came about, his personal experiences with the driver, etc. But the best part was when I'd ask him about a particular drawing he had done, and he'd go off for several minutes explaining every nuance, every line and every shape down to the last detail.
In that brief moment of time, I finally understood the passion, the intensity and the love for everything automotive that was Bill Mitchell. And I realized right then and there that my love for everything automotive had some sort of place in life – and maybe even a future – all because Bill Mitchell took the time to give a kid a tour of his personal automotive museum.
For all that has been said and written about Bill Mitchell – the tough-guy persona, the bluster, and all the stories and anecdotes of his temper tantrums in the studio – I think people forget what a truly gifted and talented man he was. And I also think people have forgotten how his relentless, unwavering passion for the automobile and automotive design inspired countless young designers and helped propel General Motors to the top of the automotive design world in his day. Something that was truly lost on this company for the longest time.
Right now, there are car guys and gals from many disciplines slogging away at every car company on the planet – and maybe even some will read this column. An elite few of them may have even managed to rise to the top in their car companies with their spirit and passion intact, which is no mean feat in this day and age.
But in the face of a business that grows more rigid, regulated and non-risk-taking by the day, there are still lessons to be learned from the legacy of Bill Mitchell. If anything, we must remember what really matters in this business above all else – something he instinctively knew in his gut – and that is to never forget the essence of the machine, and what makes it a living, breathing mechanical conduit of our hopes and dreams. And that in the course of designing, engineering and building these machines everyone needs to aim higher and push harder – with a relentless, unwavering passion and love for the automobile that is so powerful and unyielding that it can't be beaten down by committee-think or buried in bureaucratic mediocrity.
Bill Mitchell had an uncanny knack for getting the best out of the talented people around him. And he led the only way he knew how – and that was by fueling creativity with his passion and by the sheer force of his will. What he believed in is as true and vibrant today as it was in his era – and hopefully, at least in some quarters of a few car companies, that will always be the case.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Bill Mitchell stands next to two of the most iconic GM designs under his reign: The 1959 Corvette Sting Ray racer concept (XP87), and the 1961 Corvette Mako Shark (XP-755) concept. A 19-year-old Peter Brock (who later went on to design the Cobra Daytona Coupe for Carroll Shelby), Larry Shinoda and Mitchell himself worked on the Sting Ray racer in 1957, which obviously influenced the fabulous '63 Corvette Sting Ray production car, and Shinoda and Mitchell worked on the Mako Shark concept. One of the countless anecdotes from the Mitchell era? He caught a Mako shark on a fishing trip in Florida and had it mounted on a wall in his office. He kept telling the designers that he wanted the paint job on the Mako Shark concept to look exactly like the shark on his wall, with the same color gradations. After Mitchell rejected several attempts at painting the XP-755 concept car and amid growing frustration, a few designers sneaked into his office late one night while Mitchell was out of town and removed the shark from his office wall. They then had the paint shop paint Mitchell's prized catch exactly like the latest paint job on the Mako Shark concept. They then put the shark back up on his wall and presented the new paint job on the Corvette Mako Shark concept to Mitchell, who pronounced it "perfect." -PMD
The stunning 1959 Corvette Sting Ray racer is still sensational to this day (and the Autoextremist's all-time favorite car). When (now retired) Ed Welburn took over GM Design, one of his first orders of business was to commission the complete restoration of this iconic vehicle, and it remains the unquestioned jewel of GM's collection of historic vehicles.
The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray is still fabulous to this day. The "split" rear window design was one of its signature design elements but it only appeared for one model year. Zora Arkus-Duntov, the famous Corvette Chief Engineer in its formative years and an automotive legend in his own right, vehemently despised the design detail and fought with Bill Mitchell tooth and nail over it in one of the monumental internal battles in GM history. Mitchell won that battle but Duntov won the war, as the design detail was gone on the 1964 model Corvette.
The introduction of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray remains one of the most memorable debuts in American automotive history.
(Photo by Roger Holliday/The DeLorenzo Collection)
Bill Mitchell visits with Peter's brother Tony on the grid before the Daytona 24 Hour race in 1969. The Owens/Corning Corvette Racing Team made its official international racing debut at Daytona that year and Mitchell stopped by to say hello. Mitchell loved being around race tracks and would often bring advanced GM concept cars up to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to take the pulse of racing enthusiasts. The 1959 Corvette Sting Ray racer used a spare chassis from the ill-fated, one-off, factory-entered Corvette SS, which appeared at Sebring in 1957. Mitchell took the Corvette SS chassis and re-bodied it into the Sting Ray racer and raced it privately on his own dime, with famous Corvette driver Dick Thompson, "The Flying Dentist" at the wheel. The Sting Ray racer made its debut at Road America in 1959, painted in its original red (below). Once the development of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray production car program started taking shape, Mitchell "retired" the Sting Ray racer and painted it in gleaming metallic silver, which was reminiscent of the Mercedes Grand Prix machines from the 50s, his favorite racing cars.
The 1963 Corvair Super Spyder concept as it appears today - in black.
The 1961 Corvette Mako Shark I and the 1965 Corvette Mako Shark II, two iconic concepts from the Bill Mitchell design era at General Motors.
THE NASCAR MESS.
7 Aug 2018 at 9:17am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. The news that NASCAR CEO Brian France was arrested in Sag Harbor, New York, for DWI and in possession of oxycodone tablets over the weekend couldn’t have come at a more precarious time for the stock car racing organization.
It’s no secret that NASCAR has been on a precipitous decline for going on eleven years now. Propped up initially by television networks insatiable for content and willing to pay through the nose for the rights to broadcast NASCAR programming during its fleeting heyday (which ended in 2007) and fueled by its chief enablers at the auto manufacturers, NASCAR has suffered a steady erosion of TV ratings, and a notable drop in in-person race attendance has accelerated at an alarming rate. And even the most successful teams are struggling to find sponsors. NASCAR operatives have taken great pains to explain away the decline as part of the general shift in how consumers participate in sports viewing, but who’s kidding whom? NASCAR is on the ropes, and one man is directly responsible: Brian France.
Brian France has acted like an absentee landlord for a decade, barely involved in the day-to-day running of the organization and only parachuting in for his annual “State of NASCAR” speeches that always proved to be incredibly naïve and painfully out of touch. In his most recent remarks about the sport at the beginning of the season, France came off like a cousin of Alfred E. Neuman with his seemingly endless “What, Me Worry?” refusal to admit that anything was wrong with NASCAR, but he was clearly the only one who failed to see what was going on all around him.
France has now announced that he is taking a leave of absence, and other commentators are pressing the point that he shouldn’t come back, but here’s the thing, France was never there to begin with and his calculated nonparticipation has already proved to be devastating to his credibility and to NASCAR.
As if to underscore France’s screwup (this was the second DWI incident for him, by the way), NASCAR had one of its brightest days in years over the weekend at Watkins Glen, New York, as Chase Elliott (NASCAR legend Bill Elliott’s son) drove brilliantly to deliver his first win. It should have been the positive talking point that the sport so desperately needed to carry it through the rest of the season. Instead, the organization’s CEO stumbled out of his Lexus and destroyed any shred of positiveness associated with young Elliott’s win.
What a mess.
To compound matters, it’s no secret that the France family has been taking meetings about the possibility of selling the enterprise and needless to say, France’s bust certainly won’t help those discussions. Not that it matters, because the prime value for NASCAR peaked well over a decade ago and the France family missed their golden opportunity, just like they missed myriad chances over the years to right the ship. And now? Let’s just call NASCAR a diminished business opportunity and leave it at that, although the strong argument for acquiring the racing organization would be to blow it up and start over if it is ever going to see real momentum again.
And where does this leave NASCAR’s chief enablers – the auto manufacturers? Ford, GM and Toyota piss away $250 million+ a year combined in NASCAR for direct payments to teams, driver contracts, and associated promotional events and advertising. These manufacturers have continued to throw money around in NASCAR like drunken sailors, even in the face of the steady and burgeoning decline of the sport.
To what end? And why? There is no question that there is an incestuous relationship between certain operatives at the manufacturers and the NASCAR establishment, and it stinks to high heaven too. Some of the high-level relationships are so cozy that it’s hard to separate the executives at the car companies from their NASCAR counterparts. So, it’s no wonder that the auto companies rarely put pressure on NASCAR for substantive changes.
It’s no secret that I have been NASCAR’s most outspoken national critic for more than a decade now, but I’ve always made the distinction between the corporate NASCAR, and the drivers, teams and technical people involved in the sport. These are some of the most talented people in all of racing and it’s a flat-out shame that they’ve been saddled with some of the most relentlessly mediocre corporate overlords working in the sport.
The list of negatives created by these corporate bumblers at NASCAR is lengthy. NASCAR has the worse death march of a schedule in all of sports (and with the NBA and NHL in existence that’s saying something), and its steadfast refusal to even entertain any changes to its calendar has been a tediously recurring joke. On top of too many races, the repetitiveness of the schedule and the double visits to the same tracks each season is almost incomprehensible. Everything about NASCAR is stale, and the stench of sameness hangs over the enterprise like a black cloud. The racing organization’s relentless intransigence and its strict adherence to “we’ve always done it this way,” combined with the most virulent strain of “not invented here” that you’ll ever see, have created a moribund corporate entity in need of a giant kick in the ass.
With Brian France’s latest and hopefully final episode, the auto manufacturers have some decisions to make. They must finally take the gloves off and get directly involved in the future of NASCAR, because the way these manufacturers have been operating up until now - this "go-along-to-get-along" drill - is simply unacceptable. If the racing entity is to be sold, then the manufactures have to be included in all discussions because without their participation, whatever form NASCAR takes going forward simply wouldn’t be able to get off of the ground. There’s hope that in Jim France, NASCAR’s interim chief - who is everything Brian France isn’t in that he’s politically and racing savvy, sharply aware and decisive in action - NASCAR has a chance to right itself and move forward. But it’s a giant “we’ll see” at this point.
Changes for NASCAR have been long overdue. It’s ironic that Brian France’s giant flameout and permanent exit might just allow him to finally accomplish something good for the family business.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
SHINY HAPPY RIDERS IN ZOMBIE CARS.
31 Jul 2018 at 1:46pm
Editor's Note: With the CAR Management Briefing Seminars churning away up in Traverse City this week, there is talk, more talk and more blah-blah-blah of how everything about this business will change exponentially, and how the Millennials will lead the transformation. In discussing this with Peter, we thought we'd present the following previously-run column from 2016. It still resonates today, perhaps even more so. -WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The incessant buzz emanating from every auto company executive, every lemming-like regurgitator in the media and every 30-second blurb that passes for news these days is that ride sharing with electrified autonomous cars is The Future of Mobility.
Soon, like by 2025 soon, auto company profits – at least the auto companies that were smart enough to buy in to the notion (and lawyer-up with the key tech companies holding the intellectual property that will help get it done) – will be exploding as our cities become hotbeds for autonomous electric vehicles and the concept of mass ride sharing. The automobile industry and our automobile culture as we’ve come to know it will be upended in favor of a Utopian future where the hoary notion of actually owning a vehicle will give way to a sublime, hassle-free lifestyle enhanced by the act of summoning zombie cars to go to the store, to do errands, to get you to a restaurant, etc.
It will go something like this: You will pay a monthly fee like you do with your cell phone to link up with a transportation company of your choice. This will allow you access to the cornucopia of delights of a car-owning-free society like no bills for insurance, gas, maintenance, upkeep, etc., etc., etc. The sky will be bluer and the grass will be greener, and nary a discouraging word or unpleasant encounter will be found.
And to make things even better - at least from the auto companies’ perspective - this will allow these car purveyors to take on a sheen of hipness unlike at any time in their history (they think) while lapping up tremendous profits approaching 20 percent (according to the most optimistic of estimates), because the mileage will pile up on these vehicles at a prodigious rate and they will have to be replaced at an equally furious pace.
(It should be pointed out at this juncture that this mobility Nirvana will only be available in a handful of the major cities at first, at least the ones that really, really want to do away with the hassles of owning a car en masse. As for the people in the rest of the country, you know, the ones who actually have to get somewhere and do mundane tasks like go over to the next county for work, they will be left behind for the most part to become known as The Expendables.)
The Future of Mobility, according to those who are all-in with the concept, will be a boon to our aging population as the geezer-behind-the-wheel factor will be eliminated, traffic accidents will become a thing of the past, and we’ll become a nation of Shiny Happy Riders as the concept of actually driving becomes part of the dismal past that the futurists would all like us to forget.
It also means – allegedly – that the idea of public transportation, and the use of buses and trains will become greatly diminished as well, as there will be no need for those antiquated solutions because we’ll all be whizzing around in autonomous electric cars with our personal destinations and habits locked in to the system in perpetuity.
This last notion has been made especially ironic – or moronic as the case may be – around these parts because the regional transportation brainiacs here in southeast Michigan have actually approved a 3.3-mile – count ‘em - light rail system in the city of Detroit for $140 million that does little for anybody except allow early drunk-riding between various hot spots in the resurrected parts of the city. (I say early because the system stops at 10:00 p.m.) The expenditure for this system - it’s eventually supposed to be built-out another five miles - will eventually top $500 million. This, remember, in a city that has such an embarrassing, crumbling infrastructure that it’s nothing short of criminal. To call it The Streetcar That Leaves A Lot To Be Desired is the understatement of this or any other year. But I digress.
The Motor City, as it was once quaintly known, will become The Autonomy City if industry overlords have their way. They’re not only betting on this Grand Transformation taking shape, they’re hell bent on leading the charge, because the idea of playing second fiddle to Silicon Valley when it comes to the future of mobility is abhorrent and unacceptable to the auto companies and their suppliers, which is perfectly understandable.
But this Grand Transformation presents an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, the race to electric cars and full autonomy is the new Golden Ticket and everyone wants a piece of it. This – allegedly – will define the new transportation industry and The Future of Mobility. It just doesn’t get any bigger than that for industry futurists, I can assure you. On the other hand, there will still be hordes of people in this vast country of ours stuck in The Real (Old) World who will be left out of this New Enlightenment phase of personal mobility, and The New Mobility companies (formerly known as “the automakers”) will still have to make, sell and service “old school” vehicles that people need and rely on.
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.
The futurists are building on, remarkably enough, the pathetic concept of “over sharing” – the one that has paralyzed this country to the point that it has turned into a national nightmare fueled by the relentless din of social media – turning it into the defining platform for the future of our mobility.
The individual, as you might guess, will be marginalized, and for those who grew up with the concept of mobility being a form of individual expression, well, the sooner we shuffle off of this mortal coil, the better, because The Future of Mobility - as it’s being defined for us - will put a premium on nameless and faceless disengagement.
And the auto industry as we once knew it will be marginalized too. What once was considered to be the lower end of the market – the mundane, bottom-feeder “commodity” cars - will make up the vast majority of the transportation “devices” at our disposal. Yes, traditional brands will still exist at a premium – imagine an autonomous vehicle in a Mercedes or Porsche wrapper, for instance – so as to extract higher monthly fees, but that will be the extent of it. And remember, you might be willing to pay for that luxury wrapper, but you will still be “locked-in” to a system that will have zero tolerance for deviation.
What does this mean for the vibrant network of hot rod builders and gifted craftsmen and craftswomen who dot the landscape across the country, you might be wondering? I believe that they will in fact thrive in the gathering darkness of autonomy.
As long as there are people willing to seek out that last measure of individual expression and freedom of mobility on their own terms, there will be a shred of the American automobile culture, as we once knew it, left. And the gathering darkness of autonomy will be held at bay for a couple of decades, hopefully.
But let’s just hope that these mobility futurists don’t get a hold of a copy of Soylent Green anytime soon. That would be a giant bowl of Not Good.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
AN UNFORTUNATE DENOUEMENT.
23 Jul 2018 at 9:03am
Editor-in-Chief's Note (6:00 a.m. 7/25): I wrote this column early Monday morning, when the extent of Sergio Marchionne's condition was not known, except that it was very serious. And when more detailed reports emerged, it was clear that the situation with Sergio was dire. The very sad news today is that Sergio Marchionne has passed away at the age of 66. As I said in my column, the likelihood that we will see another CEO like him is slim and none. He was the most colorful, shoot-from-the-lip leader this industry has seen in a long time. And even though I was his most consistent critic by far, I appreciated his passion, vision and enduring optimism. CEOs who tell it like it is, or how they think it is, are a lost and unique art. And there’s no question that Sergio Marchionne was artfully unique. Our deepest sympathies go out to Sergio's family and friends, and the people of FCA. -PMD
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. When you wander around this planet long enough you experience how serious illness can devastate people’s lives and tear families apart. And with the news of Sergio Marchionne’s serious illness I would like to say right up front that I wish no ill health on anyone, and I wish the best for Sergio and his family, although the reports certainly are not good.
This is not the way Sergio deserved to leave his career – something he lived for 24 hours a day – and I really feel bad for him. To say Marchionne left his mark on this business is an understatement; because warts and all he was one of the most compelling leaders this business has ever seen.
Now, lest you think I am going to walk back countless negative columns about Sergio’s tenure at Chrysler (now FCA), you’re sadly mistaken, even though last week was clearly National Walk Back Week (didn’t you get the memo out there? -WG). Since the news of Sergio’s illness hit the media sphere, the countless words of praise about him piled up like cord wood, especially with local automotive scribes who were so gushing and effusive in their unbridled praise that I’m sure the push to canonization is well under way and that “Saint Sergio” is not far behind.
But I realized long ago that expecting cogent analysis from some of those card-carrying bootlickers in the automotive media is a fool’s errand. Rational thought and balanced perspective always give way to making sure that their asses are covered and their bread is buttered; after all, they don’t call ‘em “the go-along-to-get-along” posse for nothing. Enough about that; wasting words on some of the unfortunates in the automotive media is not a value-added activity.
As I’ve said repeatedly, in case you have forgotten, Sergio Marchionne is clearly a brilliant guy, but the fact that he reminded everyone within his company and outside of it that he was the smartest guy in the room – any room – was not one of his endearing qualities in a long list of less than enduring qualities. (He was certainly eminently qualified to be CEO, unlike Dan “Captain Queeg” Akerson, the legendary “Accidental Tourist” of a CEO/stumblebum who almost ran GM into the ground.)
Marchionne’s specialty was always deal making, especially with other people’s – and governments’ – money. The fact that he shrewdly surmised that the United States government was up against it with Chrysler’s bankruptcy, and that if he played his cards right he could be “gifted” Chrysler’s assets for a song, is indisputable. Sergio not only acquired Chrysler “all-in” for around $6 billion, Fiat didn’t have to make substantial payments on the deal until eighteen months after it was consummated. That’s “genius” stuff, and Marchionne certainly deserved that moniker.
But once Marchionne got a hold of Chrysler, he and his espresso-swilling minions (you didn’t think Peter would leave that one out, did you? -WG) descended on Chrysler in a blur of “we’re going to show you how it’s done.” Except that the reality was that how Fiat actually got things done back home was so antiquated and out of touch with the ways of modern automobile industry methods that Chrysler operatives were shocked and really had no idea how they were going to move the company forward with the over-caffeinated Italians getting in the way.
This was, of course, after Sergio staged a seven-hour death march of a media show/lecture that was a preview of the runaway hubris and self-aggrandizement that would mark his tenure at FCA from the get-go. In fact, that part of Sergio’s character only got worse as the years went by, especially when he realized that certain bootlicking members of the automotive media would carry his personal PR water for him, no matter what he said and how bombastic he got.
There were the blatant insults to every other auto company executive out there, marked by Sergio reminding everyone that he’d forgotten more than they would ever know; there was the hamfisted overtures to GM CEO Mary Barra that were blatantly insulting and woefully misguided; and there was the constant whining and bleating that the rest of the industry was just ill-equipped to deal with the realities of this business. He was, of course, but everyone else wasn’t. No, Sergio didn’t endear himself to anyone, and when he went around looking for partners to save his enterprise, his hubris wouldn’t allow him to believe that no one wanted to do business with him on his terms. He was genuinely mystified that they could be that shortsighted.
Was Chrysler better off with Sergio than without? No question. But Sergio pointedly swept the True Believers in Auburn Hills under the rug, taking credit for their hard work and creativity at every turn. In fact, it is the True Believers at Chrysler who actually saved the company. Their product ingenuity and savvy propelled the company forward, while Sergio and his posse pissed off suppliers with their calculated demands for lowball bids, and then once they got them insisting that the suppliers “do it for half of that.”
Make no mistake, Marchionne & Co. did not endear themselves to anyone in the trenches with the real nitty-gritty dealings of this business. Again, if it weren’t for the True Believers out in Auburn Hills, none of this latest Chrysler “miracle” wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, something that some of the homers in the automotive media don’t even bother mentioning.
I was also interested to read the glowing comments from certain dealers over the weekend, who insisted that without Sergio they’d be out of business. That may be true, but what about the dealers who bought into Sergio’s promises of world domination, but first they had to spend money on new brick and mortar for Fiat stores? And if they did that, they would be first in line to get a glittering array of Alfa Romeo products, the brand that would be “the next Audi.” I noticed that none of those dealers were asked for quotes, because there were countless numbers of them that lost their shirts because of Sergio’s calculated carnival barking.
And what about the constant shenanigans that FCA pulled with their sales reporting? Marchionne was so hell-bent on showing an uninterrupted monthly sales increase that the company misreported sales figures for six years, all the way back to 2011. It was another reminder of Marchionne’s almost unlimited hubris, that if he said it enough and pounded the table enough, the automotive media would believe it and dutifully spread the word accordingly. And he was right, until FCA got caught, and then Marchionne was strangely silent.
I have just barely touched upon all of Marchionne’s misdeeds at the helm of Chrysler. He was an absolute tyrant behind the scenes and easily in the Hall of Fame for Horrible Bosses. His egomaniacal insistence that only he knew what was best and only he knew what needed to be done lead to a withering 30+ direct reports, taking micromanaging to unheard of heights.
Oh well, enough. I only wish the serial offenders in the automotive media would have deigned to expose “the other Sergio” because there are at least two of him. And the less appealing one is petty, belligerent, egomaniacal and forever ungrateful.
As for Mike Manley, he was the logical successor to succeed Sergio. He was responsible for the upward trajectory of Jeep, and he knows the company inside and out. I will have more to say about Manley in future columns.
But today is about Sergio Marchionne. The likelihood that we will see another CEO like him is slim and none. Overlooking his Dark Side for a moment, he was the most colorful, shoot-from-the-lip leader this industry has seen in a long time. And even though I was his most consistent critic by far, I appreciated his passion, vision and enduring optimism. CEOs who tell it like it is, or how they think it is, are a lost and unique art. And there’s no question that Sergio Marchionne was artfully unique.
I wish Sergio and his family all the best in this most difficult time.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
PMD UNPLUGGED, PART III.
18 Jul 2018 at 8:17am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Editor’s Note: Peter churns out column after column, week after week, and produces a body of work every year that is simply staggering when you really think about it. But every once in a while, I feel it’s a good idea to find out what’s really on Peter’s mind. Not in column form, but through a series of rapid-fire, real-time questions. So, I conducted another email interview for a frenzied hour on Wednesday morning (7/18, 6:00 a.m.), and ready or not, here he is, PMD, in all of his unpluggedness. –WG
What’s your latest take on Elon Musk?
I have not changed my thoughts on “St. Elon” one bit. Smart? Certainly. A visionary? That too. But is he able to execute on his vision when it comes to automobile making? No. I said the Model 3 would be Musk’s Waterloo and I stand by my assessment. There’s an excellent reason why the major automakers are experts at mass production. And there are myriad reasons why Musk & Co. aren’t. His runaway ego won’t allow him to listen or believe that there are other companies out there in the real world that not only know what they’re doing but that they’re able to do it better and much more efficiently than the way Musk approaches things. And Musk absolutely refuses to accept that. Musk has had a good run, but when the major automotive brands start launching serious, all-electric vehicles into the market, Tesla’s fifteen minutes will be up. And rather than lose face – as if he hasn’t already with his latest self-inflicted embarrassments – Musk will sell Tesla and get out of the automobile business altogether, declaring the whole thing too tedious and boring for his brilliance.
Have your thoughts changed about the headlong rush to autonomous vehicles and the insistence by these auto companies – especially GM – and suppliers that they’re poised to make boatloads of cash in The New Mobility Economy?
In a word, no. And I remain beyond skeptical. First of all, the efficacy of the technology is suspect, because it’s fraught with fundamental issues and recurring problems. Anyone who thinks that a magic switch will be flipped and that we’ll all be suddenly awash in autonomous cars careening around faithfully doing what they’re supposed to do is simply wishful thinking. As for the companies lining up to be a part of The New Mobility Economy by cranking out cars for the masses to be squired around town in, on paper it all sounds good. The reality will be far less than that.
GM is insistent that they will be in the thick of The New Mobility Economy and that they will win. What do you make of this?
GM has been insistent about a lot of things over the years that haven’t panned out. What’s different about this time? They’re talking a good game, with Mary Barra and Dan "I Am" Ammann getting all puffed up about GM’s bullish future but it all remains to be seen. They are making a calculated shift to this “New Mobility Economy” but what they’re really doing is turning GM into a commodity company. And that may not end well for them.
So, what about the future?
Anyone who thinks that the idea – and the freedom – of personal mobility will give way to a blissful national mobility stupor dominated by robo cars is missing the mark. As I’ve said repeatedly, robo cars will have limited use and applications in urban centers, but beyond that this country is going to be moved by personal vehicles that people acquire of their own volition for decades to come.
And then what?
I do see a “transportation dichotomy” looming. Some manufacturers will completely throw over to building mass-use autonomous cars, while other manufacturers will retain brands – especially luxury brands – for people who want them, because they will remain profitable. I think in the future people will have a “gray” car, meaning an appliance for when they absolutely need one for mundane duty, but they will also continue to seek out real cars that they actually desire to own. The car companies that squander the legacy of their brands will simply disappear into the fog. Take GM for instance. I can see GM management’s judgment being clouded on the bet that obscene profits will come their way through the promised ride-sharing explosion. But that is a recipe for disaster. The smarter automobile companies will identify brands that they absolutely will not relinquish, and then they will continue to nourish them well into the future. I still have zero confidence that Barra and Ammann understand that.
And what about electric vehicles?
They’re coming hard and fast. And once the big players start cranking them out we’re going to see 25-30 percent market penetration in no time. But the fact that this country doesn’t have a cohesive plan for a national charging network is a travesty and simply inexcusable, and that is going to pose a huge problem. And let’s not forget that actually selling all-electric vehicles isn’t going to be a slam dunk for these automakers either. It’s going to take considerable marketing might to establish these vehicles as part of the national consumer consideration. I remain firmly convinced that in the long-term, hydrogen fuel-cell-powered electric vehicles will be the ultimate winning technology.
It has been a while since their debut, so what do you think of the monthly vehicle subscriptions now?
At first, I thought it was an interesting way of retaining brand loyalty. But when you really study the prices and realize that they’re completely out of whack for all but the most cash-flow rich consumers, I think the concept is a glorified fool’s errand. People who talk themselves into believing that these monthly subscriptions make financial sense are simply delusional, because when you factor in the real costs they’re anywhere from 30 – 50 percent higher than even the fattest leases. Monthly vehicle subscriptions will be a niche of a niche in the overall market, and that’s all they’ll ever be.
You’ve continued your relentless series of columns about The Future of Racing in “Fumes.” What are your latest thoughts on the subject?
I am the most pessimistic about racing as I have ever been. Racing is in deep, deep trouble. With the manufacturers chasing their tails on myriad mobility options, racing will continue to be pushed down the list of priorities. As I’ve gone on record repeatedly, the danger that all racing will become “vintage” racing is very real, as the disconnect between what’s going on in our street vehicles and cars used in competition grows wider by the day. The only hope in all of this is that certain manufacturers will understand that there will be money to be made with high-performance cars and parts for decades to come, and the manufacturers who want to continue to play in the personal high-performance vehicle market will want to be there.
What about the two very disparate racing series, Formula E and NASCAR?
My thoughts on Formula E are expanded in this week’s “Fumes,” and though I was optimistic about the formula at first, the reality of the slot car sounds and the uninvolving nature of those machines leaves me cold. Formula E is missing one crucial component that is an absolutely essential part of racing, and that is passion. The Formula E cars are soulless conveyances completely devoid of passion. Once you get past the novelty of the whole thing, the reality of what it actually is sets in almost immediately, and it's not compelling in the least. And that isn't going to change next year, even when the cars will be able to complete the race distance on a single charge. The consistent allure of racing since Day One has been the visceral appeal of the sound and the fury. The woefully benign sound signature of a Formula E machine has all the audio appeal of a slot car, as in Not Good.
As for NASCAR I have nothing good to say about it. It’s a nostalgia racing play and its appeal is fading faster than even I thought it would. The declining spiral of NASCAR’s popularity is actually accelerating, yet the powers that be in Daytona Beach steadfastly refuse to do anything about it, and NASCAR’s chief enablers – the participating manufacturers (GM, Ford and Toyota) – continue to be dupes of Brian France and his inept posse. NASCAR management’s relentless intransigence, combined with the litany of repeated mistakes, is killing that form of motorsport. It’s up to the participating manufacturers to extract meaningful changes from NASCAR, and that means – at the very minimum – a 25 percent reduction in that death march of a schedule, for starters. The next television contract will be a sobering two-by-four to the forehead of the NASCAR brain trust, because it could be as much a 70 percent less than the current overinflated contract. Maybe that’s why the France family is eagerly shopping the declining racing entity in hopes of cashing out. Too bad they’re about ten years too late, as in everything else they do.
What are your thoughts on the overall health of the market?
Unlike some other media outlets who insist everything is fine, we’re clearly at the end of the longest “up” cycle in recent memory. Transaction prices are going to go up – stumblebum tariffs, or not – because the manufacturers are going to be squeezed, which means incentives will be reduced. (Okay, maybe not in the pickup truck wars, but everywhere else.) Some analysts are insistent that there’s no reason that this current torrid pace in the market can’t continue. But it can’t, and it won’t. It’s just a question of how big the pullback is going to be. And any manufacturer that says it is prepared for whatever transpires in the future is kidding themselves, because they’re not prepared for what they can’t see, and what they don’t know.
On a final note, the winds of change blowing through this industry are ominous and cold. Seasoned, intelligent executives have convinced themselves that they’re on the cusp of a glittering, limitless future that will bury the traditional auto company model within the decade. Some of these executives are going to find out the hard way that their exuberant prognostications are not going to pan out. And because of that, some of the big-name auto companies that have become part of the American fabric will simply disappear.
As Bob succinctly said, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
10 Jul 2018 at 10:17am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Since it has all but been confirmed that the Detroit Auto Show (NAIAS) is moving to June in 2020 - after one last hurrah at Cobo Hall next January – I think it would be a good idea to rethink this event in its entirety. The people involved with staging the show are feverishly working on this as you read this, but as you might imagine, I have a few definitive suggestions.
Back in January I had this to say: The Detroit Auto Show needs to move from its traditional January date to June, immediately following the IndyCar weekend at Belle Isle. I am tired of hearing the media attendees at the press days complain about the weather. But I’m not tired of what they’re saying – because it’s dead accurate – I’m tired of hearing about it because it can be easily addressed with some calculated planning. And all of the naysayers who insist that it can’t be done are exactly the reason that the Detroit Auto Show is stuck in neutral. Everything associated with the Detroit show right now – the media attention, the charity preview, the positive effects on the economy – can take place in June when visitors will not only take away a much better impression of this city, they can see this city in a completely new light.
But moving the show to a new time frame on the calendar can be only the beginning, because the idea that staging anything resembling a traditional auto show is still valid has already been put to rest. The Detroit show became the canary in the coal mine a few years ago when manufacturers started dropping out of participating in our annual January slog left and right. But then it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t just the Detroit show, because manufacturers started dropping out of the major auto shows all over the world.
Old timey “major” auto shows are dead, although let’s be clear, the regional auto shows will still be valid in this country. The Internet, product-specific launch events and other forms of communication, particularly social media, have made traditional auto-focused media events obsolete. With access to information immediate and saturated, assembling the media - and the public - for a major auto show, as previously defined, is just not going to work.
So, what then? What can Detroit auto show organizers do to redefine the show and turn it into a worthwhile event that has serious allure and a “must-see” quality to it? Well, they can begin by throwing out all the knowledge they’ve accumulated about auto shows and start over. But that’s the beauty of starting with a blank canvas - there are no bad ideas, creativity is paramount, and the show’s raison d’etre can be crafted from scratch.
With the Detroit auto experience – and that’s what it must be – moving to one of this region’s most beautiful months, the previous limitations of biting cold, icy streets, treacherous sidewalks and bitter winds are immediately things of the past. This event should take on an immersive, almost Olympic-like quality, with events staged all over the city. Manufacturers should be encouraged to carve out space for experiential displays at venues they deem appropriate (especially with the Detroit Grand Prix weekend handily kicking off the proceedings), while keeping the core show at Cobo. People should be able to drive the cars and trucks, experience major league entertainment, sample the pulse of the city, and take in music and restaurants. I am talking a full week of events and attractions for all ages.
And one more thing, an event like this needs a new name. “Detroit Auto Show” won’t cut it, because this week-long event as redefined, deserves something more. Much more. Remember, the manufacturers will have a blank canvas, too, and they’ll want to showcase advancements in mobility and technology. This will have to be a very big deal if it has a chance at all.
Back in the 50s and early 60s, the “old” GM staged a traveling road show that showcased their products, from production cars to concepts. And it was exceedingly popular. The PR impact was huge, and it captured the imagination of the press and the consumer public. That show was called General Motors Motorama, and its impact still resonates to this day.
I don’t think GM CEO Mary Barra would mind at all lending the “Motorama” moniker to the auto industry extravaganza that will unfold here in the first weeks of June 2020. As a matter of fact, there’s a certain symmetry to the idea. Especially with the “new” Detroit trying to project itself as a glimmering beacon of hope in the darkness.
Showcasing a domestic auto industry emboldened with new products, new vision and a feisty new competitive spirit, augmented by a city that has been reborn and rejuvenated after years of being the country's punchline, one teeming with new enlightenment and perspective while pointing to a limitless future, is just what the doctor ordered.
I think Motorama Detroit has a beautiful ring to it.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The 1953 Corvette was unveiled at the GM Motorama in New York.
The 1953 Cadillac Le Mans concept was another GM Styling project unveiled at the GM Motorama.
The 1956 Buick Centurion was a Motorama star.
GM Styling cemented its visionary reputation with the 1956 Pontiac Club de Mer concept unveiled at GM's Motorama.
The radical, gas turbine-powered Firebird III was designed in 1958 and made its Motorama debut in 1959.
The 1954 Chevrolet Corvette "Corvair" was another concept unveiled at the Motorama.
AMERICA WIDE OPEN.
2 Jul 2018 at 10:49am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Since this week’s issue falls on Independence Day, I thought it might be appropriate to take a time out and think about this country of ours and what it means to be free. If you’re so inclined, you should take the time and read the Declaration of Independence, because it is a most remarkable document with uncomfortable parallels to where we, as a country, find ourselves today.
It’s quite obvious that too many of us have lulled ourselves into taking for granted what it means to be really free, and it’s not hard to see why. Our most solemn national remembrances are now distilled down to days on the calendar for retail sales events, as if all of the sacrifices of the millions of men and women who came before us are mere backdrops for a deal on a couch.
That this is unsettling for a lot of people across the country is no secret, but it seems that any efforts to quell the commercialism surrounding Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veteran’s Day are dismissed as being inconsequential and unwanted.
No, I am not throwing ice water on what now passes for tradition in this country when it comes to Independence Day - the backyard barbecues, family get-togethers and fireworks, but it concerns me that a large faction of this country goes about making plans for “the 4th” completely and conveniently ignoring what it all means.
So, let this be the slightest of reminders, that you might pause at least momentarily to think about what Independence Day really means.
Let’s start with independence of thought. In a country that was founded on the fundamental principles of freedom, I can’t think of a more essential privilege of living here than the freedom to intellectually explore without the threat of reprisal. Yes, this one essential ingredient causes this country myriad problems at times, but it’s who we are and it’s what we do.
Then there’s independence of beliefs. Whether it be political or religious beliefs, we have rights in this nation that other people in the world can only dream about. People still want to come here based on these two factors alone, just as the original settlers of this land did.
An independence to roam. Now, I know this is a quality of living here that most people have all but forgotten, but we live in a vast country that’s as distinctive as the multiple geographies that define it. And we’ve been free to roam and wander and take it all in for so long that we find it hard to believe that places still exist in the world where you simply can’t do that. Dismiss this fundamental freedom of mobility at your peril, because it’s essential to the American experience.
Things may feel a little grim right now, but I don’t believe for a moment that we, together, can’t rise above the current rancor and savor the independence we all enjoy every single day. And it’s important to remember too that it is our unending privilege to honor those that came before us because we are reveling in the fruits of their sacrifices.
I could go on, but I will leave the rest of this to your own thoughts. Think about the big things and the little things that surprise you and at times astound you about living here. We are so very fortunate to be able to call America our home, because it’s a 24/7 experience that’s simply a wonder to behold.
It’s America Wide Open, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
THE NEXT PRECIPICE.
26 Jun 2018 at 11:21am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Last Sunday, Volkswagen made history at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Romain Dumas, driving the purpose-built, 500-kW (680 PS) I.D. R Pikes Peak, not only broke the previous record for electric vehicles, but also bettered Sébastien Loeb’s all-time course record from 2013 by a full sixteen seconds. Dumas attacked the 19.99-kilometer, 156-corner mountain course in a record time of 7m 57.148s minutes.
It was an incredible achievement, not just because the I.D. R Pikes Peak was developed and built in just 250 days in an all-hands-on-deck effort by the True Believers at Volkswagen, but because it represents the final, seismic, transformational shift to electrification in the automobile industry and for electric power in our mass-produced vehicles.
Leave it to racing to signal this sea change. After all, racing has historically pioneered advancements and innovations that end up in the automobiles we drive. And the road to electrification is no different. When I proposed the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation to the industry in January 2007, the idea was to accelerate the development of electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells by racing them in a special event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Major manufacturers were seriously interested - even though the idea was clearly ahead of its time - but ultimately, they balked because a fundamental step needed to be taken first, and that was engineering fully electric consumer vehicles. And now, after many years of fits and starts and promises, we’re getting a serious look at our driving future.
It has been one thing to have Tesla, and individual models like the Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf in the market; it’s quite another to have many major automobile manufacturers preparing to unleash fully electric vehicles across several segments. This will be decidedly different, and I doubt that most of us are really prepared for it. Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Range Rover, Toyota, et al. are preparing technically advanced, fully electric machines to bring to market, and this business will never be the same.
But then again, the automobile business has always been a seething cauldron of change and innovation over the decades. The vehicles we have access to now – from economy to high-performance and everything in between – are the finest vehicles that have ever been built. Yes, I believe we’re suffering through a unpleasant phase of technical overkill, but nonetheless the vehicles being built are considerably better when compared to where we were even ten years ago.
But time doesn’t stand still. New developments in battery capability and associated technologies are proceeding at a furious rate. And we have now arrived at The Next Precipice.
But selling these fully electric vehicles isn’t going to be easy by any stretch, especially since the $7500 government tax credit on fully electric vehicles is coming to an end shortly. With that tax credit gone, fully electric cars are going to have to be sold on their merits alone, which is far from an automatic proposition. Let’s face it, this country simply doesn’t have the infrastructure to support these cars. As I’ve said repeatedly, unless you can pull up to a recharging station at your corner or on the interstate and “fill up” with juice in less than five minutes, BEVs aren’t viable for anything more than urban duty.
And make no mistake, range is an issue. It’s fine to say a vehicle gets 250 miles on a charge, but your battery usage will vary, and on a trip where there is a minimal network of charging stations to access, that’s going to be a real problem. But I think even more of a problem for fully electric vehicles is the amount of time it takes to locally charge vehicles at consumers’ homes and such. Even with 220 installed in your garage, it simply takes too much time to recharge these vehicles. Not to mention the fact that mass adoption of fully electric vehicles will severely affect the nation’s power grid, which no one seems to want to talk about.
I am all for advancements in vehicle technology, but I must say fully electric vehicles hold very little appeal for me, and even the high-performance-oriented ones leave me cold. Their sound is uninvolving, soulless and lacking in fundamental visceral appeal. (Even VW’s Pikes Peak super car, impressive as it is, sounds like a glorified slot car.) And that electric sound signature will be a real problem for consumers as well, because it’s unlike anything most people have ever experienced before, so it’s going to be a big-time adjustment. (Saying that, I could see myself considering a BEV urban runabout as a second car.)
But there’s a sobering reality looming for these manufacturers, too, because there’s a real chance that the number of electric vehicles available for sale by 2020 and beyond will far outstrip consumer demand for them, so this industry is headed for a rocky road during this transition. Creating desirability for vehicles that basically all sound alike will be one of the marketing challenges for the ages.
And what about racing? The sport is headed for a transition as well. It’s clear to me that even though internal combustion engines will be around indefinitely, racing is likely to become more of nostalgia exercise. That means major racing organizations will find it tougher and tougher to sustain what they do, so they will have to focus on fewer, bigger events (which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad idea at all). NASCAR in particular needs to get its arms around this idea, because unless major changes are made in that aging, oversaturated series it will go back to be a regional series like it was in the 60s and 70s.
No, racing isn’t going to disappear altogether and Formula E, the relatively new, all-electric racing series, will continue. (Although I was bullish on this series early on, my opinion of it has soured. Without the sound and fury of ICE-powered racing machines, the appeal of Formula E is severely limited.)
This transition of the automobile business will be pivotal and seminal. Traditional companies will survive with savvy and guile, while others will be forced to partner up in order to live to fight another day. And then again, some won’t survive at all.
Kudos to the True Believers at VW for establishing a new record at Pikes Peak. This was a no excuses, “run-what-you-brung” technical exercise and they nailed it by setting a new all-time record, bringing The Next Precipice right along with them.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
CHASING THE NEW GHOSTS OF MOBILITY, DETROIT FACES AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE.
18 Jun 2018 at 5:47pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. We’re living in the midst of strange days here. The once-vaunted Motor City, which has been up and down again and again, is now on one of its upward trajectories. And this time it looks like it’s going to stick around for a while.
All is sweetness and light of late, with top-down investments into new and rehabbed buildings and new living spaces unfurling at a furious rate. Every day it seems that new investments are being touted, with the latest high-visibility project being Ford’s purchase of the Michigan Central Station, the long-abandoned architectural gem in Corktown that has been dormant for decades.
Ford wants to turn it into a center for advanced innovation in the hopes that it will attract the young and the brightest to come work for the company on its Autonomous, AI and future mobility projects. And it is all good. Or so it seems, anyway.
But even if the prevailing winds seem overwhelmingly positive at this juncture, there’s always a ghostlike reality hovering over the proceedings around here. Yes, the investment is real and seemingly endless, but the downside of it is there for all to see.
Dan Gilbert (the Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures Gajillionaire and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers) is on a quest to be Master of All Things in Detroit, while he accumulates huge chunks of the city’s real estate. Yes, it’s all wonderful, except that anyone who believes this is some altruistic nod to the gods of righteous decency is kidding themselves. Repeat after me: in case you’re wondering, he’s doing it for the money. The sudden explosion in Gilbert’s real estate investments in the city has caused rents to skyrocket, and long-term stores, shop owners and restaurants have been driven from the city, unable to keep up. You can just feel the pendulum already beginning to slow as you read this, and when it swings back it’s going to leave a lot of people in the lurch, especially the newly-minted condo owners who jumped in at the high end with both feet.
Then there’s the $150 million, 3.1-mile QLine, a light rail train to nowhere. That this project was a quintessential waste of time and money can’t be disputed, in fact it’s the poster child of how this latest Detroit renaissance can be borderline irresponsible. A little over a year into its existence the lingering question remains, as in why? It’s so slow it’s glacier-like, it impedes traffic without offering any real reason for being, and it doesn’t offer anything more than a mildly amusing diversion. Except that gigantic number for building it is flat-out criminal, because it would have been much more useful had that cash been applied to the glaring infrastructure problems that continue to plague this city. Detroit would have been better off sponsoring the building of a giant Ferris wheel, at least there’d be a view of something.
And it’s about all of this top-down investment happening right now. I use the term “top-down” because that’s exactly what it is. New projects are being built to attract younger workers and technically hip businesses to the city. In turn housing is being added and the city is lively again, or so it seems. But the real problems facing this city have not been addressed. Year after year the school system is an abject embarrassment, churning out students who are, to put it mildly, ill-prepared for the real world. And the abhorrent crime continues, a dismal daily cadence of atrocities that no glowing headlines about a city allegedly on the move can conceal.
Before I believe in yet another renaissance for this city, I will have to see it happening from the bottom up. That means infrastructures will have to be rebuilt, schools will have to become relevant, and the hopelessness that breeds crime will have to be addressed. And then all the glittery hype of The New Emerald City could be the cherry on top of a solid foundation.
Along with this municipal rejuvenation, the collective “Detroit” and its headlong rush into transforming itself from the Motor City into the Mobility City is the other Big Story. Ford and General Motors in particular are spending money on mobility – no matter what form it takes - like college kids on a drunken bender.
Why, you might ask? Because “Detroit” collectively doesn’t want to be left at the gate of the new mobility revolution, whatever that is. And it’s a noble notion to be sure. Detroit doesn’t want to cede its 120 years of transportation leadership to any other entity, especially to the Used-to-be-Masters of the Universe out in Silicon Valley, because it’s anathema to their very existence.
But therein lies the conundrum. Detroit is chasing the New Ghosts of Mobility, running after so many projects – both real and imagined – at such a dizzying rate that it’s beginning to feel forced, and more than a little dangerous.
Perhaps ominous might be the better word. Detroit is rushing to be a part of a movement that ultimately will destroy its raison d’etre. Every calculated move Detroit is making right now is based on the belief that the future lies in the planned obsolescence of its existence. And Detroit steadfastly believes that it can monetize this new mobility – from electric bicycles to autonomous balsa wood smiley cars – to the degree that untold profits will be automatic and considerable.
I’m not buying it. But the frequency of the “bunny rabbit and rainbow” pronouncements about the New Mobility emanating from Detroit PR operatives on a daily basis are begging us to think otherwise. Based on these communiqués you would think that the time-honored and classically Detroit doctrine of “it won’t be long now” was not only alive and well but thriving.
And that may be the most ominous development of all.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
WHY I?M NOT IN THE PLATITUDES BUSINESS.
11 Jun 2018 at 9:05am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Roaring through life hard on the gas can be an exhilarating ride. It’s visceral, it’s dynamic, it’s loud and colorful at times, and it can be full of memorable stories and experiences that stay with you forever. There are certain pursuits that allow us to experience life out loud like this, and more than a few of us actually get to do what we want to do. But for many, societal demands force us into a go-along-to-get-along dance of drudgery that gets old almost from the moment you sign up for it. Sure, there are fleeting moments of pure joy, but it’s always punctuated, of course, by the sheer sameness that’s part and parcel of the day-to-day reality of it all.
Needless to say, writing for this publication is no dance of drudgery for me. Yes, it’s demanding, relentless and never ending, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Phoning it in is never an option here. I show up and bring it every week because that is what is expected of me, by me.
That this publication fundamentally altered the way this business is covered and written about can’t be denied. And that is tremendously gratifying. Being part of the go-along-to-get-along posse was never going to work for me, and that this has rankled many in this business is no secret. (I have been on more “enemy of the state” lists at the various car companies than I can even count.) The resentment toward me stems from the fact that I don’t play the game the way it has been played – the way it should be played, according to some – for decades before I arrived on the scene.
Up until I came along, access to auto executives was the name of the game for auto journalists. Access was the carrot that PR chiefs dangled – if you played nice and sprayed around the appropriate stories that were favorable to the given auto company -then you were considered one of the “good” ones, and you were granted access to one-on-one interviews and “exclusives.” The PR chiefs were happy, the journalists were happy and more important, their editors were thrilled that their charges were getting insider scoops ahead of the competition.
Then I came along and messed with the status quo. I grew up being exposed to some of the legendary titans of this business and I learned early on what made auto executives tick. I didn’t need access to the modern-day auto executive mindset because I knew how their minds worked. I knew how they approached things, I knew what they were thinking even before their closest colleagues did, I knew whom they were beholden too and why, and I knew where they lived, what they liked and where they were coming from.
So, when I started Autoextremist.com with the column entitled “White Boy Culture” nineteen years ago, to say it was a shock to the order of things in this town was the understatement of understatements. From that moment on I named names, and I exposed the insider stories that were only whispered in “off the record” conversations and in late night bar talk by journalists. I took particular aim at GM not long after with “The Sad Saga of Saturn," and from that moment on my “relationship” with GM was toxic because I knew too much and I made a point of saying it down to the last, excruciating detail.
Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with a lot of people. Why couldn’t I be “nice” and do “nice” stories like the others? Why couldn’t I just go with the flow? Things would be so much better if I played along and didn’t write “those” kinds of columns. Yes, it would be but for whom? The PR chiefs? The executives who wear their egos on their sleeves, some who are so thin-skinned and insecure that it’s painful to observe? How about the business as a whole? Wouldn’t it be nice if I was a cheerleader for the good of the team?
How about no? Dispensing platitudes and “attaboys” has never been for me. I don’t think you should get a trophy for just showing up and participating. It stinks in Little League and it really stinks when we’re talking about how the global automakers conduct their business.
These companies don’t want to be exposed when they’re screwing things up or phoning it in. They don’t want to be reminded that they’re woefully late to a segment or that their product cadence is unfolding at a glacial pace. These executives don’t want to be called out for bumbling their way through their jobs and leaving a trail of mediocrity in their wake. And the so-called marketing “stars” at these companies don’t want to be reminded that they can’t seem to market their way out of a paper bag and that their serial careening is doing deep damage to their company brands.
As we like to remind people around here, the High-Octane Truth hurts. It doesn’t suffer fools and it has no time for pretenders or dilettantes. It acknowledges the True Believers who give it their all every day to make things better but offers no quarter to those who are content with mediocrity, or even worse, those who run amuck with impunity.
This hasn’t been an easy road for me, but living out loud never is. So few of us get to do what we want to do that I will never allow myself to take this for granted, and the memorable stories and experiences will stay with me forever. I call them as I see ‘em and I will continue to do so. When people agree with me I’m a hero, and when they don’t, I’m an asshole. Thus, it was ever so.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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