The Latest Auto Extremist
BILL MITCHELL ? THE PASSIONATE DESIGN MAESTRO.
7 Apr 2020 at 8:42am
Editor-in-Chief's Note: Hard on the heels of my April 1st column, which seemed to bring a welcome - albeit momentary - relief for everyone, the ugly reality of the terrible times we live in returned with a thud. As you know, the city of Detroit has been decimated by COVID-19. Just this Tuesday (April 7) it was announced that 734 employees in our local Henry Ford Health System have tested positive for the virus, and 1500 employees of the Beaumont Health System have symptoms of COVID-19. Almost 19,000 cases of the virus have been reported in the state of Michigan, with the death toll reaching 845 as of today (those numbers are going up by the hour). Livelihoods have been erased, thousands of jobs have been lost, and the consequences of this pandemic are growing exponentially here and around the nation. Given this atmosphere, I find it difficult to write anything about the automobile business. As our readers know, the Motor City's lifeblood is the automobile business. This is the company town of company towns, and now that our locally-based auto companies are reeling, the entire region is reeling too. But we are also proud of the fact that Ford and GM have stepped up to help produce needed medical supplies because after all, it's what they do. The Arsenal of Democracy isn't some vague notion in our history books, it was a real response to a critical national need. And our founding industry - part of the industrial fabric of America - is responding again when called upon. So with that as background and in the interest of more momentary relief, I thought it would be appropriate to look back to a different era. A fleeting moment in time when the automobile industry was on an upward trajectory and powering to a future that appeared limitless. One of the legendary auto executives that embodied that era was Bill Mitchell, the iconic - and mercurial - design chief during GM's most glorious era. In our past two "On The Table" columns, I have written about the groundbreaking Corvair-based concepts that emerged during the Bill Mitchell era at GM Styling. These columns have triggered a groundswell of interest in that era and in Mitchell himself. (See Robert Cumberford's comments in Reader Mail -WG) So, we have decided to run one of my all-time most requested columns, the one where I share my personal remembrances of that era and of Bill Mitchell himself. After all, he lived just a block away... PMD
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 AUTOEXTREMIST INTERVIEW: AL CANTARA - THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE ANOMOLY.
31 Mar 2020 at 6:32pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Editor’s Note: Peter has been trying to get this interview for years, and with the forced downtime due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the window of opportunity to get this “get” with the reclusive Mr. Cantara finally presented itself. This interview was conducted in secrecy from an undisclosed location using Zoom, with all current social distancing protocols observed. -WG
Detroit. As anyone in the automobile industry knows, “Alcantara” is the brand name given to a commonly used synthetic textile material that’s known for its soft, suede-like microfiber pile. Famous for its durability, Alcantara is often used in automotive applications – especially in high-performance luxury automobiles – as a substitute for leather and vinyl, but it also has applications in the design, fashion, consumer electronics and marine and aviation industries.
Some versions are even designated as flame retardant in order to meet certain fire standards for both furnishings and automotive applications, including seats made for F1 racing cars.
As the “official” story goes, Alcantara was developed in the early 70s by Miyoshi Okamoto, a scientist working for the Japanese chemical company Toray Industries. It was based on the same technology as another product from the same company named Ultrasuede. Shortly after, a joint venture between Italian chemical company ENI and Toray formed Alcantara SpA in order to manufacture and distribute the material. That company is now owned by Toray and Mitsui.
According to Wikipedia, Alcantara is “produced by combining an advanced spinning process (producing very low denier bicomponent ‘islands-in-the-sea fiber’) and chemical and textile production processes (needle punching, buffing, impregnation, extraction, finishing, dyeing, etc.), which interact with each other.”
Again, this is the “official,” well-documented description of how Alcantara came to be, but I often suspected that there was more to this story. Much more. And as it turns out, I was right.
I stumbled upon the “Alcantara” story through my dealings with Mr. James “Jimmy” Fu, (now 72), and Mr. S.L. “Sonny” King, (now 70). As longtime AE readers may recall, the two figures had operated in the shadows of the burgeoning Chinese industrial machine for years. Mr. Fu started manufacturing model cars in the late 70s, and it has now been confirmed that he controls every toy making concern in China through a labyrinthian network of mom-and-pop factories and several other large conglomerates that he lords over. Mr. King became partners with Mr. Fu after initially supplying the elaborate wheels and carefully detailed tires on Mr. Fu's model cars. The two have been partners for going on more than four decades now.
I first got to know Mr. Fu and Mr. King after they approached me at the Los Angeles Auto Show one year. Apparently, they had stumbled upon Autoextremist.com after they first became familiar with the Internet, and they regaled me with the fact that they both learned English by having my ‘Rants’ columns translated for them. When I first met them, it turned into an uproarious encounter as they blurted out some of my patented phrases that they had learned phonetically, like 'notgonnahappen.com' 'halle-frickin'-luja,' and 'the Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking.'
Mr. Fu and Mr. King have remained in close contact with me ever since. In fact, I am still working with them on their latest projects at Fu-King Motors, which include a six-wheeled, all-electric, giant SUV (Jimmy has code-named the project ‘Godzilla’), a high-performance, hydrogen fuel cell-powered supercar (Sonny says that it will be ‘better than McLaren for 1/3 the price!’) and an all-electric semitruck that looks eerily like the Bison advanced long-haul trucking concept that GM Styling created for the 1964 World’s Fair.
As I’ve gotten to know Jimmy and Sonny, their frenetic pace and boundless energy never cease to amaze me. The calls I receive at 3:00 p.m. my time are usually booze-filled stream-of-consciousness skype rants by Jimmy with Sonny yelling things over his shoulder, accompanied by stylish model types dancing to disco music in the background at their secretive Shanghai lair. And their appetites are even more boundless. In fact, Jimmy is still fond of aspiring female pop stars, while Jimmy is a very generous sponsor of a female gymnastic academy. Fast American muscle cars are overflowing in their underground garage, which is an enthusiasts’ cornucopia of greatest hits, including three Purple Dodge Demons (each modified to deliver 1000HP), two original “narrow-hipped” 427 street Cobras, matching L88 Corvettes (with two new C8s on order) and a couple of specially-built Gasser replicas from the 60s, reserved for terrorizing the neighbors in the middle of the night). Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon is still their drink of choice, and they absolutely love their twin Gulfstream G650s (Jimmy’s is Jet Black; Sonny’s is Chaparral White).
Despite all of this flamboyance, Mr. Fu and Mr. King nonetheless pride themselves on avoiding the limelight. And over the years I’ve seen an introspective side to them too. In fact, it was one of those introspective nights - albeit after two bottles of Knob Creek were consumed between the three of us - that the real story of Al Cantara was revealed.
It turns out that one day back in 1971, a young salesman by the name of Al Cantara was granted an appointment with Jimmy and Sonny in their 30’ x 30’ office (they sit on opposite sides of a giant, Pentagon-shaped desk and yell over the phone and at each other all day long). The man got the invite by promising Sonny that he had a “breakthrough” fabric design that would be perfect to line the specially-built cases for their most expensive models. When the man arrived, it was clear that he was very young. In fact, he was a fresh, high school graduate from Sherman Oaks, California. Jimmy told me that night that “after fifteen minutes of this kid showing us his stuff, Sonny and I looked at each other and yelled ‘Deal!’ at the same time."
The problem, Jimmy, said, slurring his words, is that the kid didn’t have a clue as to how to ramp up to make a quantity of the stuff, so, “We helped him!” Sonny and Jimmy said in unison, which they often do. “We loved his mouse fur!” From then on, Al - with Jimmy and Sonny’s support and tutelage - became known as the father of an invented fabric that achieved recognition far and wide literally overnight. It was then that Jimmy and Sonny made Al a deal that would make him a very rich man. The problem was that when Al signed the deal, even though he got 20 percent of everything in perpetuity, he also signed over all rights to the fabric, which would be named, in tribute to him “Alcantara.”
You know where this is going, of course. Al became disenchanted with the constant grind of partying and the yelling – always the yelling – and went back to the U.S., never to be seen again. Jimmy and Sonny say that they continued to make deal after deal for the fabric, and that Al gets electronic direct deposits in the multi-millions every year, which are sent to a bank in the Cayman Islands.
But I digress. I have been enchanted and intrigued with this story ever since, and part of my deal with Fu-King Motors is that Jimmy and Sonny would help me track down “Al Cantara.”
And so, here we are.
After a series of unanswered emails, cryptic texts, and four years of delaying, denying, endless obfuscation, and much pleading – I suspect Jimmy and Sonny sent him a special “gift” – Al Cantara finally agreed to sit down to a Zoom interview from an undisclosed location.
When the video first came up, I could see that Al wasn’t going to fully reveal himself to me, so though I had to peer through the darkness and occasional revealing shards of light, I got a picture of a burly guy with a full beard and longish hair, sort of like Francis Ford Coppola, circa 1980.
I can’t say that he was all that cordial, but he seemed to warm up a little as time wore on.
Autoextremist: Thank you for doing this Mr. Cantara; I know you were very reluctant to talk to me…
Al Cantara: Yeah, whatever; I decided it was time to clear the air a little bit.
AE: Your story has fascinated me for a long time now. And when Jimmy and Sonny told me how it all came about, I was even more intrigued. Did you really develop your fabric in your parent’s garage?
AC: I did. I was a real nerd in high school, but I was really interested in chemistry and physics. My girlfriend was a real nerd, too, and she was lamenting the fact that she had to get some sort of dress to wear to our senior prom. I, for some reason, had been trying to invent a sweat band for the tennis team, which I was on. And after months of experimentation, I came up with this fabric that was unlike anything I had ever seen anywhere else. But I also thought I was just a kid with warped dreams, and I didn’t really think much of it beyond that. But my girlfriend loved it enough, and we found a seamstress who turned it into a pretty attractive dress.
AE: Where is that girlfriend now, do you know?
AC: Last I heard she was a bigwig at Microsoft, but we lost touch with each other a long time ago.
AE: What possessed you to go to China and cold-call Jimmy and Sonny?
AC: I was a pretty accomplished model car builder in high school, and I developed a pretty good business selling my completed models. People were paying serious dollars for my work, and by the time I went to Stanford I had $50,000 in the bank. I had researched all of the manufacturers of model kits, but the one frustration for me is that I had to build special crates for my models so they could be shipped and delivered. That’s when I started experimenting with finding a fabric that I could line my model crates with. It was during this time that I discovered Fu-King Industries, and I just felt compelled to go meet those guys.
AE: What was it like when you first met them?
AC: Man, it was frickin’ wild. I mean I was barely eighteen and these guys were like aliens from a different planet. I remember that they had a very young – and hot – translator there and she could barely keep up with their yelling, but we established a rapport pretty quickly. I guess they appreciated the balls it took for me to get myself to China and track them down.
AE: It must have been a heady time.
AC: It was flat-out crazy town. Those guys have hearts of gold, but the frenetic pace was stupefying. But I learned so much from them. It was the best time of my life.
AE: Yet, you had a falling out?
AC: Not initially. I mean the deal I signed was for $2 million – in cash – plus 20 percent of everything after that. I thought they were crazy to pay me that much, because how many model boxes could they sell? But what they did after that with “Alcantara” is just amazing. If anything, I was just mad at myself for not having the vision that they did. I’ve mellowed quite a bit, which is why I decided to do this interview. I mean Jimmy and Sonny have made me a very rich man, and in retrospect, it’s hard to be mad at them. In fact, because of your persistence, we’ve resumed communicating, and I must say the late-night drinking – and yelling sessions – are something I now very much look forward to.
AE: So, I have to ask, do you have anything with “Alcantara” in it, by any chance?
AC: As a matter of fact, I do. I have a 2019 Porsche 911 RS in Purple - in honor of the boys - and every time I grip that “Alcantara” steering wheel I get a big smile on my face.
AE: Well, on that note, I am glad things have come full circle for you, and I am glad you’ve gotten reacquainted with Jimmy and Sonny. They’re worth staying in touch with. And thank you again for agreeing to do this interview. I’m sure our readers will appreciate the rest of the story.
AC: Thank you for being persistent. I am in a much better place now and you’re responsible for that. So, stay safe up there and be well in these difficult times.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this first day of April.
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW.
23 Mar 2020 at 5:39pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. When this COVID-19 crisis grinds to its inevitable and excruciating conclusion, things are going to be much different around here. Despite this country’s (sort of) best effort to craft an economic stimulus package that will make a difference in people’s lives, the fact remains that countless small to medium businesses will be lost for good, and the ensuing recession will be pronounced and severe. The restaurant industry in particular will be decimated, as well as thousands of local mom-and-pop stores across this nation. It will not be pretty.
There is no doubt that the automobile business is one of the industries that will be hardest hit as well. The manufacturers have been forced to start conserving cash to the extreme as the lockdown takes on new urgency, which means new product development will be slowed and hard decisions will have to be made as to what gets attention and what is left to languish in limbo. Auto dealers are going to be rocked, as their entire raison d'etre exists in 30-day increments, and it’s fair to say that some won’t survive this onslaught either.
Getting this business going again will take a lot more than multi-month payment waivers, "0 percent" financing and lengthy consumer loans. When people have had their finances destroyed, buying or leasing a car will be pretty far down the list of priorities. This is going to put the fundamental question of affordability front and center in this business. It’s a subject I’ve written about often over the last couple of years, but when we start to come out of this crisis, I strongly believe it will be the overriding issue for most consumers.
Cars and trucks were simply getting too expensive before this pandemic, and from now on that fact will be even more pronounced. Yes, the new driver assistance and heightened safety packages that people like are costly, but generally the pricing of vehicles seems to have gotten out of control. And this crisis will put the spotlight on this issue when things start to ease up for our daily living.
What can the manufacturers do? The aforementioned incentives and financing deals will be obligatory, but the manufacturers need to take a hard look at their product programs and identify vehicles in segments that can be re-contented and re-packaged now before the assembly lines get rolling again.
The pickup truck segment would be an obvious place to start. The manufacturers have become very adroit at coming up with high-value packages as a matter of course. These special editions are usually targeted to specific regions, but when this industry gets ready to roll after the lockdowns fade away, I expect to see the smart manufacturers who took the opportunity to do their homework in this enforced lull emerge with special packages that have enough desirable content with corresponding special pricing to lure buyers back into the market.
For instance, you often hear consumers fondly recall the compact Japanese pickup trucks from back in the day, and it’s no wonder. They were fairly basic, simple, offered good fuel economy and delivered excellent value. And no, we can’t turn back the clock, but I could certainly see a specially equipped and priced mid-sized pickup today that would at least approach those values from the past. I could see, for instance, a special Chevrolet Colorado – not stripped but decently equipped – slotted at the entry level for that nameplate. The same goes for the current full-size pickups as well. Ford, GM and Ram have all demonstrated an uncanny ability to come up with value editions, but this current situation demands that they come up with something truly unexpected when this business gets going again.
This approach can be applied to the Crossover/SUV segments too. It’s not too hard to see what this formula should look like: high-value content + strongly reduced pricing = exactly what consumers will be looking for.
It’s really hard to see our way out of this crisis right now, because the constant thrum of very bad news is almost too much to endure. But the Day After Tomorrow will eventually arrive and as it pertains to the automobile business,
I believe the manufacturers who don’t address this concept of high-value/low pricing now - while they have the time to figure it out - will be left at the starting gate when we return to a sense of normalcy, whatever that looks like.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
17 Mar 2020 at 2:27pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. I am sure we’ve all grown tired of hearing that we’ve entered “uncharted territory” by now, but that’s exactly the situation we find ourselves in. Saying this isn’t the America we’re all familiar with goes without saying. In a matter of three weeks America as we know it has been altered for a long time to come, if not permanently. So, trying to come up with something uplifting to say is a thankless task.
This health crisis has triggered an economic calamity that has yet to play out, but it should be obvious that thousands of small businesses are not going to survive. From glamorous restaurants to mom and pop diners; from the local shops and the shopkeepers that keep them running; countless businesses big and small, this is a sad situation that will get far worse before there’s even a hint of recovery.
The sense of being rudderless is palpable everywhere. As a nation we’re used to going and doing and being, but now, we’re all kind of lost in a Twilight Zone that swings between claustrophobic apprehension and abject boredom. This isn’t the collective “us.” This isn’t the America we’re used to. Nothing about this situation reminds us of anything that has come before. It’s like we’re floundering and flailing as a nation, and it isn’t pretty in the least.
And the social isolation thing? To be honest it is something I’m very comfortable with, because after creating this website for more than 20 years now, it has become part of who I am and what I do. But I can tell this has hit the rest of the nation very hard. An entire region sheltering in place, like what’s happening in the San Francisco Bay area? Simply unheard of. Maybe that sense of anonymity that is part and parcel of the contemporary American “thing” as we know it will give way to a new sense of community for all.
I sincerely hope that is the case, at any rate. Unfortunately, we, as Americans only pick our heads up and see what’s happening around us when there is a national emergency. It is then that a real sense of urgency emerges, and we’re forced to remind ourselves of who we are and who we feel we need to be.
Is there a light at the end of this darkest tunnel? I actually believe there is, but this nation is going to suffer greatly because of this unholy virus, with the horrific estimate of more than two million deaths finally shaking the current administration by the lapels and coaxing it out of its Pollyannaish stupor. Is it too late? It will be for many, unfortunately, according to the medical predictions.
But I actually do see one positive in all of this, and that is that the divisive rancor and polarizing hatred seem to have been put on hold, at least for now. (I know, some bastions of hate will continue unabated, but that’s clearly not the prevailing thinking right now for the majority of citizens in this country.)
This crisis is forcing us to remember that we’re all Americans, and that we’re not only in this together, the only way we’re going to emerge on the other side of this is to stay together and help each other. This virus doesn’t care about our political affiliation, or our ethnic background; it doesn’t care about where we live, or what we do, or what our financial standing is; it doesn’t care about our educational credentials, whether we’re CEOs, or toiling at a 24-Hour Gas ‘N Go.
It’s the most ferociously democratic predator we, as a nation, have ever faced. Which is why it is not only forcing us to come together as a nation; it is forcing the collective “we” to be better, to be more compassionate, to look after each other to a degree that we couldn’t even fathom before this moment in time.
And that is one very good thing to come out of this.
As I stated earlier, I do believe we will overcome this threat to our very existence and to this great nation we’re all a part of, but the toll will be horrendous and the long-term consequences are destined to be crushingly severe. I also retain a shred of optimism that, unlike with past disasters when we all returned to acting exactly as we were before in no time, like it never happened, that this time will be different.
I am hopeful that this difficult time will teach us all some incredibly valuable lessons going forward: That myopic self-absorption is not a trait to be proud of; that callous indifference to our fellow citizens is never a good thing; that caring for the well-being of our elders, or for people less fortunate than us is something to relish and aspire to. Because, frankly, the way this great nation has been trending in recent times has been nothing to be proud of. This medical crisis is the most terrible way to force us back on track; I just hope we can all stay there for a very long time to come.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
IT?S STILL ABOUT THE PRODUCT, STUPID.
10 Mar 2020 at 12:10pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Since the swirling maelstrom has been turned up to “11” as the global auto industry gets sucked into the throes of COVID-19, it might help to remember that there is nothing more important right now in this business than the product.
If you’ve frequented these pages, you know that this is one of the founding mantras of The High-Octane Truth: Outstanding products are simply the lifeblood of this business. It’s a fact about this business that never grows old or out of style.
There have been outstanding auto companies – at least on paper – that have been crippled by piss-poor products, or seemingly promising products that those companies in question are unable to build in a timely fashion. Conversely, there are some auto companies out there that have managed to alight on breakthrough products that have effectively saved the companies from disaster, while masking a cornucopia of ills and internal chaos.
Take Ford, for instance. In the early 60s, it was a mediocre car company that was stumbling its way through this business in fits and starts. And then the Mustang happened. That brilliant piece of automotive serendipity transformed the company’s entire raison d’etre; it also changed the company’s executive mindset and how they approached the business, fuel-injecting the persona of Ford and taking it in a completely new “Total Performance” direction. It was damn-near magical.
Fast forward almost 60 years, and Ford is at the precipice once again. This time it’s decidedly different, however. Ford has the F-150, which is the closest thing that this business gets to a perennial sure thing. The F-150 is “The Franchise” for Ford and without it the company would be in dire straits. Add the success of the reimagined Explorer and Escape, and the rejuvenation of Lincoln, and you would think the company would be smooth sailing through life.
But it’s not playing out that way. Jim “The Professor” Hackett doesn’t exactly engender confidence that he knows what he’s doing whenever he deigns to speak to the press, or anyone else for that matter. His esoteric pronouncements always seem to lack something, and that has hurt Ford tremendously when it comes to the denizens of Wall Street. Now granted, Wall Street’s influence over ongoing matters is highly annoying, but the fact remains that the financial picture for Ford is undeniably grim, and the company is losing the image battle because of Hackett. With Hackett’s hand on the tiller, no one is really confident that he has a handle on where Ford is going, which, needless to say, is a huge problem.
Add Jim “The Two Jims” Farley to the mix, and it’s no wonder that Ford remains a giant “we’ll see” for most observers. A delusional self-promoter with a penchant for insisting that he’s a quick study and a master of all things – Ford PR minions are now presenting him as a “tech expert,” which has managed to dupe a few gullible Wall Streeters – Farley is also clearly being positioned as the heir apparent to Hackett, which has more than a few Ford insiders apoplectic and fearing for the future of the company.
Keep this background in mind when considering the two pivotal products that Ford is about to unleash on the market: The Mustang Mach-E and the Bronco. The Mach-E is the all-electric crossover with the Mustang nameplate hung on it. Ford is counting on this product to set off a furious firestorm in the market, but there are a few things conspiring to prevent that from happening. For one thing, the product has been rushed to market – and it shows – because the battery technology is nothing to write home about. The fact remains that an all-electric “sort of” Mustang is not a foregone conclusion, and it’s easy to understand that there’s a good deal of hand-wringing going on both within Ford and from the perspective of outside industry observers. Add to this Ford’s piss-poor record of product launches of late (no one believes the late 2020 intro date), and the “success” of the Mach-E – even though Ford insists that it’s all sold out – is a breathtakingly large “we’ll see.”
The Bronco will deliver just the opposite for Ford in this market, especially since some excellent pictures of it have just leaked out indicating that they didn’t screw it up (thank goodness). Starting out with the undeniable advantage of one of this industry’s iconic nameplates, the new Bronco should have the denizens of Auburn Hills quaking in their boots, even though it's a good five years too late. Now, if Ford can only get it launched without its usual gamut of serial launch disasters, the Bronco might just be what the Dearborn-based automaker so desperately needs: a certified, grand slam home run. One even capable of masking the built-in deficiencies of Ford’s upper management team, at least for a while.
Another indication of how pivotal the product is in this business? Last week GM downloaded its future BEV portfolio for members of the media and financial analysts (see the details here -WG), and as stunning as the future designs are – GM Design is definitely at the top of its game again – the story of the advanced battery technology was even more impressive. GM suffered through a lot of heat generated by Tesla’s fanboys over the last several years, but they didn’t let any of that unmitigated bullshit detract from its mission. And GM delivered a portfolio of advanced technology battery electric vehicles that are more than capable of leading this industry into the future.
That didn’t dissuade some hand-wringers in the media from immediately predicting GM’s BEV program was doomed to failure when GM cancelled the official unveiling of the Cadillac Lyriq next month in Los Angeles due to COVID-19 concerns, but that’s unmitigated bullshit too. GM made a wise decision given the current climate. The Lyric is a stunning crossover that will offer BEV intenders an emotionally compelling choice, and it will be a certified hit in the market.
The aforementioned discussions come down to the fundamentals of this business that remain solid to this day. It’s all about the product, it has always been about the product, and it always will be about the product.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
THE OTHER ILLNESSES AFFECTING THE AUTO INDUSTRY.
3 Mar 2020 at 4:21pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Now that we’re deep in the throes of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – and it is no laughing matter in terms of the devastating effect it has having throughout the global auto industry – the predictions of how this will ultimately play out, or what the duration will be, are simply pure speculation at this point.
The sign that things were no longer normal, or under control, in terms of dealing with this virus was the sudden – and last-minute – cancellation of the 2020 Geneva Motor Show, a decision that cost the collective manufacturers hundreds of millions of dollars. That this might have a snowball effect throughout the industry and spread to other events on the global auto calendar is turning the business upside down at the moment. And how it will shake out remains to be seen.
But rather than dwell on COVID-19, because we’re all really sick of it and hope it goes away in a hurry for lack of a better course of action, since we’re all basically helpless up to a point, I thought I’d spend some time today discussing some other illnesses affecting the auto biz. Fortunately, these assorted illnesses won’t put anyone in the hospital, but they have their own set of devastating effects nonetheless...
The dreaded “Not Invented Here” Syndrome. You would think that this time-honored homage to mediocrity and delusional thinking was put to pasture long ago in this business, but you would be wrong. As much as manufacturer operatives talk a good game about being open to new thinking and engaged in embracing different points of view, ultimately it comes down to the notion that they’re much more comfortable in their own boots and their own hoary avenues of thinking. One Dearborn-based manufacturer in particular has an overwhelming belief that it can do whatever it is better, faster and ultimately cheaper than anyone else, when in fact it doesn’t do it as well, takes at least twice as long to do it – if not more – and brings it in for three times the cost (usually much more, in fact). And they have suffered greatly over the years because of that company credo.
The debilitating “Kick The Can Down The Road” Affliction. This particular illness is not fading away. In fact, it is growing in stature and importance. Scheduling a meeting has become an art form. It allows the players involved to hear themselves talk – which is a sub-illness unto itself – and it provides the illusion of actually doing work while allowing the participants to seem interested and engaged. That decisions of consequence are usually not made in these meetings is part of the protocol, because everyone is waiting for the executive who gave the original directive to make a decision, or change his or her mind, whichever comes first, which then allows the whole process to start all over again.
The classic “Cover Your Ass” Infection. I wrote about this in the very first issue of AE. Back then it was ingrained in middle managers that their first order of business was not to do a great job on a project, or to go the extra mile to complete an assignment. No, it was to make his or her boss look good, no matter what. That took priority over anything else, because in the bureaucratic morass that defines the “vast gray middle” at these car companies, covering your ass meant the path to proverbial gold stars, a suitable bonus or even a promotion. Is it still going on? Yes, of course it is. It might be masked, or couched in more subtle tones, but it is definitely present and accounted for.
The “Emperor Has No Clothes” Pomposity Virus. That executives are easily sucked in to the pomp and circumstance of the job is well-documented. This is understandable, after all, because it’s human nature and auto executives display a boatload of human frailties at any given moment. It’s also very easy for your typical auto executive to start to believe his or her own press clippings, since too many in the automotive media are prone to canonizing these executives for no legitimate reason other than to gain more “exclusive” access through their dedicated PR minions. (See the pitiful past performances by the media when it came to Sergio, Carlos, Captain Queeg, etc.) The net result of all of this orchestrated bootlicking is that these executives start to believe in the dulcet tones of their own thought balloons, to the detriment of everyone and everything else.
The devastating “Sun Spot Contagion.” Last but not least is the uncanny knack by car company executives and operatives to assign blame to absolutely anything and everything else, rather than embrace the notion of accountability. A bad quarter? “We had to make some difficult decisions due to in-market disruptions.” (We stunk it up so bad that none of the top executives are available for the analyst call.) The latest Belchfire Luxury 8 isn’t selling? “Our product mix was front-loaded with heavily optioned units; we’ve corrected that now.” (It’s such a design disaster that dealers have simply stopped ordering them until the incentives are jacked up.) The latest product launch is a disaster? “We had some initial glitches, which required us to spend more time than we liked on after-production fixes.” (It was such a cluster that we’re having to rebuild the sonofabitches one by one.) The ultimate culprit taking its place in the blame game, whether it be a disastrous product launch, a horrid financial performance, or a piss-poor design failure?
Sunspots. You can always resort to blaming it on Sunspots.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
ANOTHER EGREGIOUS EXERCISE IN EGOMANIACAL STUPIDITY BROUGHT TO YOU BY PORSCHE.
25 Feb 2020 at 11:47am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. So, perhaps we’ve all gotten over the fact that Porsche is now predominantly an SUV/Crossover manufacturer that happens to make sports cars on the side to keep in touch with its heritage.
Way back when the decision was made to produce the original Cayenne SUV, Porsche operatives predicted correctly where the market was going and then reaped huge profits that not only fueled its growth and funded its survivability, it allowed the company to continue building its sports cars and its racing programs. This begat another even more popular SUV – the Macan – which is now the single most successful Porsche in terms of sales.
A win-win for all concerned, right? After all, the hardcore Porsche enthusiasts can still have their pick of myriad iterations of hot 911s and 718s – if they can afford even looking at them – while the company retains its boast of being the most profitable car company in the world (well, at least in the top three anyway) by pushing Cayennes and Macans to well-to-do suburban dwellers in seemingly endless quantities.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot, apparently.
Though some of you have absorbed the lunacy of the Porsche pricing strategy (I haven’t), which has gone wildly out of control over the last half-decade – an “entry level” Porsche simply doesn’t exist anymore – and the Porsche option list remains the most usurious form of gulp fiction that exists in the industry today, a monument to gouging that is almost incomprehensible to behold, the insistence by Porsche operatives that they have, despite all of their success pushing SUVs, been able to retain their focus and are still adhering to their heritage is simply not true anymore. In fact, these Porsche operatives have gotten so far away from any lingering vestiges of “heritage” that it’s time to present them for what they are: greed merchants looking for their next score.
The latest evidence of this – besides the fact that there’s a whole generation of Porsche buyers out there who don’t even realize the company was once known for its sports cars – is that the boffins in Porsche’s “Exclusive Manufaktur” in Zuffenhausen (the division of Porsche that takes the concept of hosing its customers to stratospheric levels) have managed to come up with another new and absurd way of extracting cash from the Porsche faithful as described by the Porsche PR minions: By “using an ‘innovative’ direct printing method developed by Porsche, graphic elements of the highest visual quality can now be printed onto the painted body parts of a vehicle. Initially, customers who purchase a new 911 can have the bonnet personalized with a design based on their own fingerprint.”
Huh? Let’s read that again: “… customers who purchase a new 911 can have the bonnet personalized with a design based on their own fingerprint.”
Porsche is so proud of this development, that the press release goes on and on and on about it, with this gem from Alexander Fabig, Vice President, Individualization and Classic: “Individuality is very important for Porsche customers. And no design can be more personal than your own fingerprint.”
Somehow this reminds me of the old Johnny Carson bit when he said, “I did not know that.”
In case you really want to know how this works, Porsche’s PR minions are happy to explain: “If a customer decides to enhance their 911 with the direct printing method, the specialists in the Porsche Exclusive Manufaktur disassemble the bonnet following series production. The customer’s biometric data is processed so as to make sure it cannot be used for an unauthorized purpose. The entire process takes place in direct communication with the customer, who has a complete overview of how their personal data is used and is also integrated in the creation process of their print graphic. After the robot paints the unique design, a clear coat is applied and the bonnet is then polished to a high-gloss finish in order to meet the highest quality standards. Then the enhanced component is reinstalled.”
I feel a nightmare coming on.
I suppose for the now unfortunately stereotypical buyer of a Porsche – you know, the ones who think they should drive a Porsche but can’t for the life of them really tell you why – this new level of self-aggrandizement will be embraced with a fervor akin to getting the best table at the latest “hot” restaurant of the moment. But for the rest of us it’s just another example of Porsche underpinning its very existence by catering to everything but its heritage.
I pity the first fool – I mean the first Porsche buyer sucked in by this unmitigated bullshit – because by actually appearing in public with their fingerprint on the front of their 911, he or she will instantly shout to the world that they’re The Biggest Tool in the Shed, hands-down.
Porsche, not content to leave this revolting development alone, says that “In the medium term, other customer-specific designs will become available.
This service is available through the Porsche Centers, which establish contact with the customer consultants at the Exclusive Manufaktur in Zuffenhausen. These consultants discuss the entire process with the customer, from submission of the fingerprint to completion of the vehicle.”
Speaking of tools, how much will this egregious exercise in egomaniacal stupidity cost? Porsche says to be prepared to pay 7,500 euros (including VAT) in Germany and the company will begin taking orders in March, 2020. Yes, it will be available in the U.S. too, and I shudder to think of the visual carnage soon to be appearing on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A.
Porsche operatives can now spare us from any talk about how they’re so deeply in touch with their heritage and that nothing else matters as much to them, because they have simply become greed merchants and brand charlatans. Which, in predictable fashion, means that Porsche is now officially just another car company.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
WE?VE REACHED PEAK ?JUST SHOWING UP.?
17 Feb 2020 at 4:55pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. All the rage of late has been the debate on whether we’ve reached “peak” car or not, that with the advent of ride sharing, mobility initiatives and ultimately, autonomous vehicles, the personal use of cars and trucks will eventually start to wane. Well, this just in: I’m not buying any of it.
The power of the freedom of mobility is not only alive and well, it is thriving. Get away from the urban centers long enough and it is readily apparent that the lure of the open road is still vital and vibrant. Add to this the fact that younger people starting to have their own families have quickly come to the realization that in order to accomplish all of the things they have to get done – the appointments, the recitals, the sports teams, the errands, etc., etc. – they are required to have their own transportation suited to their specific needs that they can rely on.
But let the pitchfork-wielding anti-car zealots have at it with their half-baked theories and their breathless urgency to force mass transportation solutions down everyone’s throats, because their blind belief that the day we all rely on generic pods to get through life is right around the corner is a fantasy that will go unrequited.
But there is a “peak” going on that has nothing to do with “peak car,” and that is the peak PR banter being generated over upcoming cars both real and imagined. In fact, I’ve never seen anything like it. From breathtaking numbers promised by super cars that don’t even exist (except in the various boutique car companies’ dreams), to promises of unheard-of range and performance by BEVs that haven’t been built yet, just showing up has taken on a new – and undeserved – credibility for these manufacturers.
It goes something like this: A manufacturer envisions a vehicle that will leap small buildings in a single bound (or something like that), with the carbon footprint over the life of the vehicle equivalent to a single decomposing leaf, complete with a promised range of 500 miles on a single charge (or a 250 mph top speed if it’s a supercar, or both, as the case may be), and a sales experience that basically whisks the vehicle to your door with just a signature. Add to this the inexperienced members of the mainstream press who hungrily bite hard on any news that promises unheard of fantastical performance numbers, and you have a recipe for disaster.
PR minions have figured out in this new age of instant communication fueled by the insatiable consumption of the Internet, that the mere mention of a vehicle complete with “projected” performance numbers is enough to generate the kind of buzz that heretofore used to be hard won with quantified substance and in-the-flesh proof of existence.
Now? Manufacturers, from boutique to major, can generate huge impact and dominate the news cycle at least for a few days without even showing anything but a computer-generated image or video promising that The Future will be bright and that their ElectrifiedEight will redefine transportation for the next decade, if not more. It doesn’t matter that actual production timing is sketchy, because those little details seem to escape the mainstream media’s scrutiny every time. And it doesn’t matter that the manufacturer in question didn’t exist until a couple of years ago, because it is immediately assigned a gravitas rivaling an auto manufacturer that has been in business for 100 years, without having produced one vehicle.
This “peak showing up” is seriously out of hand, flat-out crazy in fact. All a manufacturer has to do is craft the right kind of press release with the right kind of visual support and it is immediately considered a player in the industry, just like that. And this is occurring despite seasoned industry observers pointing out that the car company in question either has no cash or is burning through cash at such a prodigious rate that there’s not a chance in hell that an actual vehicle can be produced, let alone a way of selling and servicing them.
There’s little rhyme or reason to what’s going on and not even a shred of reality can be assigned to some of these alleged manufacturers. Here we are almost a quarter of the way through this new century and the concept of “selling air” has taken on a new urgency and a gravitas by default, fueled by people who don’t know any better – and sadly, some who do – this industry has been taken over by Sideshow Bobs looking for a big score based on rumor, conjecture and flimflam.
How will all of this shake out? Just like it has over the last 125 years in this business. Substance eclipses promises, performance supersedes conjecture, and the ability of a manufacturer to design, engineer and develop a product in a timely fashion and with financial realities and deliverables in place always wins.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
FORD?S HIGHWAY TO HELL.
9 Feb 2020 at 12:30pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. (posted 2/7, 3:00 p.m.) "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."
No, Charles Dickens didn’t write about the automobile industry, but he might as well have, as the Sturm und Drang and the semi-controlled chaos that are now part and parcel of everyday life in this industry have become magnified with each passing month.
And nowhere is this more on display than at the Ford Motor Company. That Ford has fallen into a kind of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde swirling maelstrom of contradictory forces is no big secret. On the one hand, Ford is limned as a train station rehabbing, AI deal-making, Mustang Mach-E-purveying, F150-churning benevolent American icon. This is the Shiny Happy Ford, the car company brimming with indefatigable spirit and with roots that go back to the very beginnings of the auto business in this country.
That this version of the Ford image is carefully crafted and honed to a polished degree is no accident; this is the preferred image for the Ford Motor Company that chairman Bill Ford Jr. not only wants to portray but one that he believes in with all of his heart. And Ford lives up to that ideal in terms of the countless examples of financial support the company gives to the greater Detroit community. That is to be commended and is truly appreciated by the denizens of the Motor City.
But as I indicated, there are two sides to this story. Though Ford operates as Benevolence Inc. and wears its heart on its sleeve while doing so, the company can’t control everything in terms of image and the burgeoning reality of how outsiders view the company.
And the news from Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn early this morning didn’t help. Was it shocking? Oh, maybe for 30 seconds or so, but then again, it really wasn’t a surprise at all. Ford president Joe Hinrichs was being “retired” - at 53 – and Jim Farley was named Chief Operating Officer for the company by CEO Jim Hackett. That Hinrichs was forced out – taking the fall for the company’s dismal fourth quarter financial performance – was no secret, and the fact that Farley had become Ford’s new “golden boy” had already been telegraphed by a series of puff pieces in the media for going on well over a year now. This was after Bill Ford told me four years ago that Farley and Hinrichs "represented the future of the company."
More on Ford’s heir apparent in a minute, but before I get into that, the most pressing question must be asked: Why did Hackett, who presided over the near-cataclysmic financial results that rocked Wall Street, keep his job? I have been waiting for the Hackett miracle to come to fruition for three very long years now, but Ford’s in-house “Professor Moon Beam” has failed to impress at every turn.
Why does Bill Ford persist in sticking with Hackett? Well, to his credit - or detriment - depending on how you look at it, Bill is loyal to a fault to people he believes in and trusts. Take Alan Mulally, for instance. Bill Ford had absolute confidence in Mulally, and Alan didn’t disappoint, delivering results and profitability while working diligently to fix the “behind the curtain” parts of the business that aren’t glamorous but are so desperately crucial to a company’s success.
Bill Ford didn’t want Mulally to leave and why would he? Bill slept easier knowing Alan was at the helm. After Mulally declined to stay on any longer, Bill channeled his beliefs into who he hoped would be Ford’s next savior, his friend Jim Hackett, an executive who brought a resume to the table that on the surface had nothing to do with running a giant auto conglomerate. Bill Ford alighted on Jim Hackett - who ran Steelcase furniture, with stops at the University of Michigan and in Silicon Valley thrown in for good measure - to be his new “Alan,” or hoped he would be at any rate.
Except it hasn’t worked out nearly as well as he’d hoped. Hackett marked his first year by making esoteric pronouncements on what organizations need and how Ford employees could do better at just being. And while Hackett was busying himself with lectures to the employees and the media on how organizations should run, the people who actually designed, engineered and produced the products were working diligently to keep Ford in the game. After Hackett’s first year of nothingness - and Wall Street’s growing impatience waiting for the “new” Ford - Hackett embarked on the now time-honored industry strategy to reduce costs within Ford with a scorched-earth ruthlessness, endearing himself to exactly no one.
But the biggest issue Wall Street has is that the professorial, touchy-feely Hackett talks around and around, suggesting the best ways for things to happen, and the way everyone should feel while things are happening, but in true “I’ve-been-lost-on-campus-so-long-I-have-grown-completely-irrelevant-and-out-of-touch” fashion, he is nothing more than an expert air salesman at this juncture. And as we well know – or at least you should know by now – selling air counts for exactly zero in this business. “Selling Air” is the modern-day sequel to the Emperor’s New Clothes, and it’s much ado about nothing because, well, it’s much ado about nothing. So, as much as I loathe the calculated fleecing that’s part of Wall Street’s relentless M.O., the professional scammers there understand when they’re being broadcast to by an air seller, and they don’t much cotton to it. I don’t either.
Now this has nothing to do about whether Hackett is a decent guy or not, because by all accounts he is, but it has everything to do with the projected image of the Ford Motor Company beyond this region. Here, we accept the fact that Ford does good things for the community, but “out there” in the real – and ever hard-core – investor world, it’s all about “what have you done for us lately?” And Jim Hackett talking about how things are going to be and how we should all feel while these things are happening understandably leaves everyone cold.
And now, at the end of Hackett’s third year in charge, Ford has suffered major screwups with its product launches and recalls, the company’s regions across the globe are in disarray – especially in China, which is Ford’s recurring nightmare – and the company just delivered a devastating quarter of bad news that has the industry talking and Wall Street-types shaking their heads. Tell me again why Hackett isn’t being shown the door? Oh, right, there’s that loyalty to a fault thing, and in this case it’s to the Ford Motor Company’s detriment.
The High-Octane Truth is that Hackett just doesn’t have the depth and breadth of experience to make a real difference at Ford. And right now, the one thing Ford desperately needs more than anything else is a chief executive who understands this business inside and out and can guide Ford through perilous waters. But that is neither here nor there at this juncture. The reality is that Joe Hinrichs got fired, and Jim Farley is now the heir apparent to replace Hackett whenever Bill Ford decides that his loyalty oath has reached its “sell-by” date.
And what are we to make of Jim Farley? As I said in the beginning, the rise of Jim Farley was almost preordained when he was brought back from Europe three years ago. But who is Jim Farley, anyway? Let’s review, shall we? He is the former Toyota wunderkind who was responsible for the launch of the Scion brand, and who was brought in by Alan Mulally to be Chief Marketing Officer way back when.
And not unexpectedly, his debut at Ford didn’t exactly get off to an auspicious start. Farley didn’t waste any time transforming himself into an enfant terrible right out of the gate. Displaying a prodigiously short attention span and burdened by an excruciatingly painful interpersonal awkwardness, Farley’s belligerent, condescending style of dealing with underlings, along with his classic “parachute in, helicopter out” M.O. - which has defined bad actor executives for decades in this business - became his calling card. Internally, Farley became known as "The Two Jims" and interactions with him became a crapshoot, hinging upon whether people encountered the "good" Jim or the "bad" Jim on any given day. Needless to say, when the "bad" Jim was unleashed, Farley left a trail of bad feelings and highly questionable decisions in his wake.
Farley has long considered himself to be “the smartest guy in the room” at Ford, much to everyone’s endless chagrin, because the reality is that he isn’t. It’s a carefully crafted façade that is hollow to its core. Farley’s bad executive behavior starts with his inability to listen, considering his own counsel to be by far the best source when it comes to decision making. And because of that, as well as a host of other annoyances, Farley left such a bitter taste in people’s mouths that when he was shipped off to run Ford of Europe several years ago the overwhelming sense of relief internally at Ford was palpable.
Blissfully unaware that he was universally loathed back in Dearborn, Farley seized upon his assignment in Europe, seeing it as a stepping stone to the executive suite at Ford. And the planets were aligned for him to come off as a hero there, too, because the European market had been in the doldrums for so long that the only way it could go was up. Steve Odell, who had been running Ford of Europe and had done all of the heavy lifting by closing plants and laying off people, set the table for Farley to succeed. And the inevitable happened, as Ford’s fortunes recovered in Europe along with the overall market. Farley took advantage of the opportunity and made sure all of the execs back in Dearborn could see what a genius he was, and unfortunately, too many fell for it.
And when Mark Fields was jettisoned from the company, not only did Bill Ford bring in Hackett, he brought Farley back from Europe and made Joe Hinrichs and Farley co-No. 2 executives reporting to Hackett. It proved to be a fateful decision, because at that very moment Farley decided that he was very much going to be The Guy.
An emboldened Farley, unfettered by rational thought and untethered by accountability, turned out – predictably – to be disastrous. With his eyes set firmly on Hackett’s job, the very worst of Farley returned to Ford headquarters, only now his most repugnant qualities were magnified and amplified, with no one seemingly able to rein him in.
Besides his now-signature belligerence and rudeness in full view, Farley started to get out ahead of his skis, making decisions that were puzzling at best and potentially harmful to the long-term health of the company. Having been gunning for Ford’s advertising agency – the WPP-owned GTB – for years for slights both real and imagined, Farley almost immediately put the massive Ford account up for review. This, after WPP/GTB had been involved with Ford for 73 years. Could the advertising be improved? Certainly. And there's a way to do that. But destroying a long, fruitful relationship to assuage Farley’s gargantuan ego was flat-out irresponsible and uncalled for.
Farley also commandeered company appearances in front of financial analysts, something completely beyond his ken, thinking that if he demonstrated his acumen there he would gain favor with Bill Ford and the board. And true to form, this proved to be a total disaster as well. Industry analysts are still talking about Farley’s cringeworthy performance at a Deutsche Bank Global Auto Industry Conference here in Detroit several years ago, where he came off as being someone who was flippant, woefully ill-prepared and not ready for prime time, and consequently Ford came off poorly too. Do you wonder why Ford can’t gain any traction on Wall Street? Farley’s dismal performance that night didn't do the company any favors.
Am I picking on Farley? Hardly. I have only scratched the surface in describing this egomaniacal character and his blatant power grab, and now that he has been given the reins and deemed to be the heir apparent, he could wreak havoc on the company’s future for years. And this simply shouldn’t be, of course. One bad actor shouldn’t be causing this much consternation and hand-wringing throughout the enterprise, threatening to jeopardize everything the Ford Motor Company stands for.
The only good part of Ford’s announcement today was that Hau Thai Tang – Ford’s Product Chief – will still be a factor. That Thai Tang is extremely talented and capable, and one of the best and brightest at Ford is indisputable. In fact, he should be the future of the company, not Farley.
As I said earlier, Ford PR has been working overtime on pumping up Jim Farley’s image for well over a year now. It has been a charm offensive - or should it be smarm offensive - that has known no bounds. In fact, reading some of these stories, the uninformed might think that Farley walks on water, possesses the riveting intellect that occupies a space in the stratosphere beyond mere mortals, has never put a wheel wrong in his entire career, and is now solidly in the discussion to replace Jim Hackett when "Professor Moon Beam" wanders off into the sunset. These pieces were designed to portray a wonderfully benign Farley, an executive whose rise has no perceptible limit, and whose enduring warmth is something that people crave to bask in. This latest "humanization" campaign of Farley is unmitigated bullshit - and it has nothing to do with the "real" Jim Farley - the one hordes of people at Ford have grown to loathe with a seething level of disgust that is palpable.
This announcement from Ford makes me fear for the very future of the company. In fact, the company has embarked on a Highway to Hell. I think Ford has five years – tops – to make it. And I am not optimistic. At that juncture the family could very well be forced to make a deal to sell the company, or have their share significantly reduced in some sort of orchestrated takeover. That’s how dire I view this situation to be.
Because when everything is factored in, Jim Farley is simply the wrong person, at the wrong time, at the wrong car company.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY OF THE SUPER BOWL CAR ADS.
3 Feb 2020 at 8:51am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. The Super Bowl has long been a battleground for advertisers looking to introduce a new product, burnish their image, or make a memorable statement about who they are, or at least who they think they are.
Automotive companies have a checkered past when it comes to appearing on the big game, with some rising to the occasion with commercials that transcend the category and create a lingering buzz for the manufacturer in question. But those memorable auto spots have admittedly been few and far between over the years, because the norm is that car spots on the Super Bowl have too often been predictable, or worse, instantly forgettable.
It certainly isn’t easy for a car company to generate a positive impression on the biggest television event of the year. After all, it’s a creative environment that lends itself to raucous, laugh-out-loud spots or immersive, heart-wrenching commercials and not much in between. So, auto companies are up against it before they even contemplate the idea.
But still, if they show up, I feel compelled to write about them, and this year is no different. And yet again, the creative efforts brought forth for the biggest television/sports event of the year run the gamut from really good to embarrassingly bad.
I should point out that my continuing disappointment surrounding the Super Bowl car commercials is the fact that these car companies just can’t seem to contain themselves and end up releasing the ads before the game. The thinking behind this is that they can control the information flow and maximize the impact of the spots through social media. And that is flat-out wrong. Instead, these auto marketers dilute the impact of their spots immeasurably and hasten their spots departure to Afterthought Land. Only one manufacturer seems to get the idea that the impact of the creative execution lies in the surprise – and the buzz – of the moment. Read on…
Disingenuous, Thy Name is Audi. What can be said about this Audi spot besides that it’s grating, disingenuous and annoying? Well, plenty, actually. The :60 spot dubbed, “Let It Go” is a classic example of marketers completely blowing a golden opportunity on every level. Utilizing the actress Maisie Williams from “Game of Thrones,” far from an inspired choice by the way, and regurgitating the song “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen – a monument to musical tedium if there ever was one – this commercial plants Williams behind the wheel of an Audi e-tron Sportback only to find herself stuck at an intersection, which, according to Audi PR minions, “represents a crossroads of today’s preconceptions and old notions of consumption, success, and status. Williams chooses to reverse course and leave it all behind, breaking into the familiar lyrics of ‘Let It Go’ as she drives toward a more sustainable future. Along the way, fellow drivers, pedestrians, and others join in, representing the brand’s efforts to usher in a new era of sustainable mobility. The journey is a metaphor for how the decision to make more sustainable choices takes all of us doing our part.”
Really, this from a car company that willingly cheated with their diesel emission software for nine frickin’ years, while touting “clean diesel” from the rooftops, as if they had discovered the Holy Grail? Now they think they can snap their fingers and start lecturing us – the German auto manufacturers just love to lecture the rest of the industry on how they’re technically superior – and suggest that the “old” way is obsolete and Audi is going to lead the charge toward the “new” way because they’re ultra-environmentalists all of a sudden? What a bunch of unmitigated bullshit.
The VW Group – with Audi being their spear carrier – lied to the world for almost a decade and sold vehicles that spewed diesel emissions into the air with impunity, in effect running a calculated criminal enterprise, and now we’re supposed to just “let it go?” This is an annoyingly insipid spot on face value to begin with, but add in the backstory and it becomes despicable – and a flat-out disgrace.
It was good for Chrissy Tiegen and John Legend, but what was the car again? The Genesis spot was supposed to bury our preconceived notions about “old” luxury and tell us about “new” luxury, but instead it turned out to be just a vehicle for the aforementioned Hollywood couple. As for the vehicle that the spot was supposed to be about – the Genesis GV80 SUV/crossover – Hyundai’s Genesis division is finally present and accounted for in the hottest segment in the market. Beyond that, crickets.
It’s baaack, with an all-electric vengeance. The GMC/Hummer spot was shocking for a couple of reasons. First of all, the horsepower, torque and performance numbers of this super-luxury truck are mind-bending. Secondly, any lingering notions of what the Hummer used to represent have been instantly relegated to the dustbin of history. There will still be people out there that will equate the Hummer with being a bad actor, but the rest of us – at least those who can afford one – will embrace the notion that the Hummer is the pinnacle in its category. I just wish the spot had been 60-sec. instead of 30-sec., and I wish the gist of the spot hadn’t been leaked out beforehand. This spot was more about the emphatic return of the brand, but the execution was good too.
Hyundai will park it for you. Hyundai’s optional “Smaht Pahk” function on its new Sonata got a fun intro in this spot. Featuring John Krasinski, Chris Evans, Rachel Dratch and David Ortiz, it was clever and well done, and I liked it. But one comment: This “Smaht Pahk” feature is great and all, except when Sonata owners are emboldened to park their cars in spaces too close for anyone else to get in or out of their cars. And in our typical high blood pressure cities, this might spahk more than a few confrontations.
Jeep’s “Groundhog Day.” This spot for the Jeep Gladiator was hands down the best car ad on the Super Bowl. Once again, Olivier Francois – the CMO of FCA – demonstrates that he understands the massive scale of the moment implicitly, and bringing Bill Murray back along with a few other key players from the original and much-loved movie was genius. And the fact that the spot was released at 6:00 a.m. on Groundhog Day was simply perfect. This commercial was so far ahead of the rest of the pack that nothing else was even close. Nicely done.
Kia Gives It Everything. “Tough Never Quits” for the Kia Seltos delivers a powerful message and it has an appealing tagline at the end: “Give It Everything. This was an excellent effort on behalf of the Korean brand.
Porsche’s nightmare. Did Porsche actually need to do a Super Bowl commercial? Is that really what this company needs at this juncture? My short answer: How about no?
First of all, it’s nice to see the Porsche museum and some of its iconic cars on screen, but the spot quickly deteriorates into an insipid car “chase” that is just painful to watch unfold.
Once the commercial gets into the car chase scenes, it’s as if any connection to Porsche’s vaunted “soul” is pitched right out the window and the spot devolves into a rote – and painful – regurgitation of every car spot of the last 30 years. It pegged the AE Wince Meter – our advertising barometer – as soon as the cars left the museum.
I’m sure that there are some Porsche enthusiasts out there who will love the spot simply because they get to glimpse iconic Porsches from the past that are on screen in the beginning of the commercial. And I can relate to that. But it would have been a much more impactful commercial if it had never left the museum, giving us looks at some of the great Porsches of the past while suggesting that the Taycan will soon take its place among the great Porsches of all time.
When I heard that Porsche was going to do a spot for the Super Bowl this is exactly what I was afraid of. In its quest to make the brand more approachable – always the death knell for luxury-performance auto manufacturers – Porsche operatives have managed instead to trivialize the brand, reducing it to an insipid car chase that suggests nothing but a giant waste of time and money.
Porsche’s night at the museum “Heist” commercial is not just a bad dream, it’s a nightmare. It’s a cautionary tale for all auto manufacturers and a reminder that contemplating an appearance on the most viciously competitive advertising arena in the world requires laser-like focus and – especially in Porsche’s case – an appreciation of who you are and what your heritage stands for. Porsche set out to make a statement and failed miserably.
Toyota’s Un-heroic Heroes. This was a mess of a spot on behalf of the new Highlander. Sometimes an ad agency – egged-on by clients who should know better – slips into and overreaching mode because it’s a spot for the Super Bowl. And unless it’s an impeccable idea that has true resonance, it usually fails miserably. This is one of those times.
As for the rest of the spots, I really liked the Google commercial called “Loretta.” It was just beautifully done. And, the Mountain Dew spot featuring Bryan Cranston; the NFL spot “Next 100”; the Rocket Mortgage spot with Jason Momoa; “Scout” from WeatherTech and Reese’s “Rock,” which was topped-off by the head-up-his-ass visual. Perfect. And a special award goes to every P&G spot on the game: collectively these were the worst ads on the game, and a quintessential waste of time and money. Ouch.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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