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The Latest Auto Extremist Rants

IT WAS GOOD. AND HARD. AND FAST.
by Editor
14 Sep 2021 at 11:47am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. I am the passenger. I am a Technicolor Dream Cat riding this kaleidoscope of life. I’ve seen some things, indeed, more than most. Magic things. Loud things. Fast things. 

I once looked up at a ghostly tornado finger drifting overhead in Flint. It was ominous and beyond scary. A lot of people died that day too. But then, a few years later, I saw my first 707 hanging in the sky. It was majestic and powerful. And the Jet Age was on.

I got introduced to horsepower, side pipes and chrome, and I happily got sucked in. Corvettes and 409s, GTOs and Starfires. And Sting Rays. Forever Sting Rays. And in the midst of all that, I bought and rebuilt a Bug go-kart, had the Mac 6 engine rebuilt and hopped-up, painted it bright orange, and spent one summer terrorizing our neighborhood. I dubbed it the Orange Juicer Mk 1, and found out how fast 60 mph felt that low to the ground. It was everything, all the time. 

It was good. And hard. And fast.

Woodward wasn’t just a thing. It was Life. In 0 to 100 bursts. It all came alive at night. Open pipes, rumbles and roars, dares and boasts. The drive-ins smelled like burning rubber and French fries. Girls leaned and preened. Boys slouched and crouched. To get a better look. Riding shotgun with my brother, it was a world that called me. 

From there, it was riding with The Maestro, Bill Mitchell – our neighbor – in the original Sting Ray racer, thinking it was normal and knowing it was not. But I soaked it all in anyway, and it was just the beginning. There were Mako Sharks, Monza Super Spyders and GTs; and XP-700 Corvettes and XP-400 Pontiacs. And on and on. It was all stunning to look at. And be in. The grass was greener and the sky was bluer, and the sounds were intoxicating.

It was good. And hard. And fast.

And then came the Cobras. All lithe and tiny next to the Corvettes. And a new kind of fast. Blistering, neck-snapping fast. A two-car-length jump off the line fast. Open-top roadsters lurking for a fight. It was the smell of English leather and burning tennis shoes when running the Cobras in the cool of the night. And believe me, there was nothing else like it. 

And then road racing came calling. My brother Tony’s driver school at Watkins Glen in June of ’64. In a Tuxedo Black Sting Ray that had been personally massaged by Zora and his troops, complete with straight pipes to install when we got there. Riding on Goodyear Blue Streaks the whole way. The Glen Motor Court beckoned, but the track was the thing. That Sting Ray barked and blurted out speed, and Tony was the fastest man there. There was no turning back at that point.

It was good. And hard. And fast.

Next up was a “A” Sedan Corvair that we flat-towed all over hell and back. Starting out at our local Waterford Hills raceway, and then on to Nelson Ledges, Mid-Ohio, Lime Rock, Vineland, Grayling and even a 12-Hour endurance race at Marlboro, Maryland. But that was just the pre-game. 

The real stuff was coming in 1967. We ordered what turned out to be the first of just 20 427 L88 Corvette Sting Rays built that year. I remember when we went to Hanley Dawson Chevrolet in Detroit to see the bad-ass Sting Ray for the first time. It had just been unloaded off the truck and it was stunning. We hopped in it just to see, and suspicions were conformed: It was a wild, unruly beast. We dismantled it over a weekend and had a roll bar welded-in, installed a set of American Torq-Thrust racing wheels and bolted-on some OK Kustom headers. We added a few other tweaks and we were off to our first SCCA Regional race in Wilmot Hills, Wisconsin. In “A” Production. There was a 427 Cobra there, too, but it was no match for our Super Sting Ray. Tony won going away. And then it was off to the races, literally: Mid-Ohio, Road America, Blackhawk Farms, Nelson Ledges, Watkins Glen, Daytona.

It was good. And hard. And fast.

And then everything changed. Owens/Corning Fiberglas became our sponsor. And the races got bigger. Twenty-two straight wins in “A” Production, with twelve 1-2 finishes with teammate Jerry Thompson, who would go on to win the National Championship in ‘69. Then it was the major endurance races with GT class wins at Daytona, Sebring and Watkins Glen. And the Trans-Am series in 1970 with Camaros, and in 1971 with ex-Bud Moore factory Mustangs. And finally, the infamous Budd-sponsored Corvette in 1973, with Tony sitting on the pole at Sebring for the all-GT 12-hour race that year. 

They were fleeting moments in time, but they were unforgettable. Pouring a bucket of water over my head after gas spilled all over me during a pit stop at Marlboro. Waking up in the cab of our semi on the Ohio Turnpike in the middle of the night on the way to Lime Rock only to see that my brother was fast asleep as we were running diagonally off the left shoulder and headed for the median. I yelled. We made it. But that was just the way it was back then. No sleep for days on end getting the cars ready – to the point of exhaustion – only to then have to load up and drive to the next race. It was relentless. 

Then there was the infamous Pontiac street race in 1974. It was a dubious track at best, with haybales and guardrails offering little protection for the drivers, or the crowd. Tony was passing a slower car during the race and the driver moved over on him. The move forced Tony into some haybales, turned him sideways, causing his Corvette to barrel roll 20 feet in the air taking out a light pole. That impact with the light pole saved him from going into a spectator area of at least one hundred people. I was a fair distance away when I saw a flash of his car going end-over-end (after the light pole impact) down the straightway on Wide Track avenue. I sprinted to get there, only to see the car burst into a fireball. I arrived to see my brother laying on the ground. He had gotten out in time, barely a moment before the car burst into flames. It was only later that we found out that a guy who was keeping the car in Florida in-between Daytona races had removed the check-valve in the fuel cell “to save weight.” Idiot. 

Needless to say, that was a dark day, especially since a reporter at the event called one of my dad’s GM PR staffers – my mom and dad were at an outdoor party with his entire PR staff – and informed him that Tony had been killed in Pontiac. (He never saw Tony get out of the car.) My dad’s right-hand man informed my parents that they had to go to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Pontiac immediately. They feared the worse, of course. So that was me at the hospital seeing the ashen look on my parents’ faces when they arrived. I took them to see my brother on a gurney in the hallway; he was alert but battered and extremely sore. My parents were relieved, and so was I.

But that was only part of my ride on this kaleidoscope of life. There was the time we built a prototype ’69 L88 Corvette roadster (in black/black, of course) called the “Daytona GT” with the intention of selling customer versions. It was basically one of our racing cars equipped with a few more comfort options. We even got display space at Cobo Hall during the Auto Show to show it off. But the pressures of running the racing team meant that the project was shelved. The Corvette was eventually rebuilt to fully race-prepared OCF racing team specs, given a psychedelic paint job and sold to a German Lufthansa pilot who used it to terrorize local and national racing events over there. But before that all happened, I was tasked with keeping it in running order and exercised. Needless to say, I relished that assignment and I happily terrorized the area with open headers on my “exercise” jaunts.

It was good. And hard. And fast.

Then I veered off on my own and became enchanted with the Porsche 911. I bought a used ’75 911S and proceeded to drive that car all over hell and as fast as it would go. I spun-out once going 100 mph on a two-lane road because unbeknownst to me the shoulder had just been graded and there was dirt all over the road in a left-hand sweeper. I came to a stop with the rear wheels right on the edge of a 20-foot drop. And then there was the infamous late-afternoon run from East Lansing to Ann Arbor that I did flat-out, rarely going below 100 mph the entire distance. I made it to my destination in just under 30 minutes, door-to-door.  And it is just as vivid for me today as it was when I did it. Fleeting moments indeed.

And then there was the time during my ad career that I spent shooting commercials at the Nurburgring Nordschleife, for a full week. We were short performance drivers, so I spent the week assisting with the driving while tearing around the circuit for the filming. And if that wasn’t special enough, NATO jets were using the wide-open terrain to practice high-speed, low-level maneuvers. How low? We could see the helmet marking on the pilots as they banked over us at tree-top level. It was a week-long orgy of speed that I will never forget.

The point of all this? I’m still a Technicolor Dream Cat riding this kaleidoscope of life. This column gave you fleeting glimpses of some fleeting glimpses. There’s plenty more to tell and a long, long way to go. And I'm not close to being finished.

It was good. And hard. And fast. Indeed. 

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

The Autoextremist. March 1976, East Lansing, Michigan.


CHIP HELL.
by Editor
6 Sep 2021 at 2:30pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Good morning (or afternoon, or evening, or whenever you might read this). We were going to re-run a column this week since I normally do my writing on Sunday and Monday – just to give myself a bit of a Labor Day break – but since we’ve already updated the rest of the website, there’s no reason for me to step away from my keyboard.

Besides, the swirling maelstrom that defines the current state of the automobile business refuses to slow, and in fact, it is picking up speed. Not to belabor the obvious, but the effects of the chip shortage, as I mentioned last week, are actually accelerating. For those who live in and around these parts – as well as in automobile centers around the world – this situation is wreaking havoc on product programs and cadence, dealership infrastructure, and, most important, profits. 

I recently took an extended tour and visited dealerships around here, and the reality is shockingly grim. The inventories at these dealerships are nonexistent, and any cars or trucks they do have are either already spoken for or are marked up beyond all recognition. (There are persistent rumors of new, full-size Broncos being marked up $50,000, and although I did not see it for myself, I have heard that it is happening many more times than once. The “first-on-the-block” types never learn, apparently.) 

Yes, dealerships are getting very creative – or trying to anyway – by taking orders on new vehicles and assembling low-mile used cars to sell, but who’s kidding whom here? Livelihoods in this industry are at stake, and with this shortage situation threatening to extend all the way to the 2023 model year, the very foundations of this business may be altered permanently. 

Think about this for a moment: It has been 75 years (basically since WWII) that consumers in this country didn’t have enough new vehicles available to purchase. We’ve grown accustomed to the constant “sell-a-thons” (thanks, Toyota), holiday sales, end-of-year blowouts, and a kaleidoscope of other sales and promotional gimmicks designed to move the metal, basically since we all can remember. This is simply no longer the case. And the long-term implications? You can count on higher prices, for one, and many fewer “deals,” for another. This industry has salivated at times over the idea of the “no-dicker sticker.” Don’t be surprised if that concept becomes a permanent result from the shortage.

Let’s see, what else is percolating this week? Still basking in the glow of Ram Truck’s big win in the latest J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, Stellantis operatives are high-fiving as you read this. I don’t put much stock in Power’s “IQ” study, but there’s no denying that Stellantis has made huge strides in delivering quality in the last 24 months, especially after having been near the bottom for many years. I will give them this one. Yes, it is a big, positive deal.

But there are storm clouds gathering on the not-so-distant horizon for Stellantis on another front. And this has to do with the launch of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee L. (In case you were wondering, there’s no “resting on your laurels” in this business. There’s always a burgeoning Shit Show brewing somewhere. -WG.) You’re familiar with this new “big” Jeep, right? It’s the one with the vaunted “three-row” seating, “A Legacy Extended,” as Jeep marketers say. Three-row seating has become the Holy Grail for SUVs in this business (even though minivans do it easily 100 percent better), because manufacturers have come to believe that without this feature they are losing out to the competition. 

In some circles, that may be true, even if owners use the third row so infrequently that the extra ca$h wasn’t even remotely worth it. Be that as it may, Stellantis operatives talked themselves into the “need” for a big Jeep.

How is that working out for them? Well, not so great. For one thing, the new Jeep Cherokee L has absolutely zero presence on the road in terms of design. It’s ungainly and brick-like, and its Jeep styling cues come across as being forced, almost strange. The one Jeep dealer I visited was swimming in Cherokee L Jeeps, probably the result of a couple of truckloads being emptied. But the one thing that stood out about them for me is that they didn’t belong being parked next to “real” Jeeps. Whereas the Gladiator made sense, design-wise, the Cherokee L comes off as a “wannabe” Jeep that simply doesn’t belong anywhere near the rest of the brand. Don’t be surprised if the Cherokee L doesn’t take with Jeep customers. And don’t be surprised when shoppers new to the Jeep brand simply go elsewhere. To paraphrase, Dr. Evil: It’s not quite Jeep enough. It’s true, it’s quasi-Jeep; it’s semi-Jeep; it’s the margarine of Jeep; it’s the Diet Coke of Jeep - just one calorie, not Jeep enough.

In other news, the degradation of Mercedes-Benz Design has been an ongoing train wreck for several years now. Except for one spectacular concept presented four years ago – the Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet – Mercedes designers have been on a downward spiral that simply boggles the mind. 

(Mercedes-Benz)

The Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet.

In fact, no design group has done less with more than Mercedes-Benz Design. The company’s glittering legacy is being pathetically underserved. The latest evidence? Check out our “On The Table” column this week for a look at the latest EVs from M-B designers. The work is simply appalling, the G-Class concept in particular. Ugh. Memo to Mercedes-Benz honchos: Mediocrity isn’t bliss. If you don’t get a handle on what’s happening and reverse what appears to be an inexorable slide, then you will get what you deserve. (Then again, BMW’s big news from Frankfurt is two electric bikes and a concept for 2040 that left us chilly. As in, WTF? You can see them in “On The Table” as well. -WG.)

And finally, as I’ve often said, it’s the dedication of the True Believers that makes the difference between success and abject failure in this business. Without them, and their willingness to do things the right way every day, these manufacturers would simply fade away to oblivion. Please go to my “Fumes” column this week and read about some exceptional True Believers from this industry’s past. Their incredible legacy lives on.

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


LAST TRAIN TO NOWHERE.
by Editor
31 Aug 2021 at 12:38pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Once upon a time in an automotive galaxy in the distant past, automotive enthusiast magazines would generate endless content about the latest and greatest sporting machines on the horizon, or available to consumers right that moment. For car enthusiasts of a certain age, it was an endless parade of the latest and greatest and fastest. Fanned by calculated auto PR minions and boosted by high-quality editorial writing, the whole exercise was designed to pump up the “I Want” factor times ten. And it worked so well that the machines the enthusiast magazines were salivating about, translated into enthusiast consumer excitement, which translated into sales, which heavily influenced the overall market. Because in the 60s in particular, even plain-jane family sedans had performance options. In fact, if you didn’t get the optional engine at least, something was decidedly wrong.

Probably the most famous story from that era was when Car and Driver magazine touted a face-off between a Ferrari GTO and the Pontiac GTO in 1964. And even though it didn’t quite pan out as planned (look it up -WG), the story generated enough buzz to propel the Pontiac to superstardom. (The fact that Pontiac engineers – ahem – heavily “massaged” that particular GTO for that “road test” came to light afterward and suffice to say that was the baddest GTO in existence at that time, by far.)

Then, of course, this all came to a screeching halt for three primary reasons: 1.)  The insurance companies came down brutally hard on muscle machines. 2.) The whole concept of emissions regulation started to take hold. And 3.) This was quickly followed by the gas crisis, which hit American drivers with endless waits to fill up their tanks. In other words, the entire automobile business pivoted to Not Good overnight. This was followed by such dismal choices as the Mustang II and 150HP Z/28 Camaros, and for all intents and purposes the whole idea of “performance” was put on the back burner.

But as we all well know now, things change in this business. The digital revolution as well as the many technical and engineering advancements unleashed over the decades transformed our automobiles yet again, to the point that we’re experiencing what looks to be the final “Golden Age” for ICE-powered machines. Performance? The machines available today are light years better in every respect than any previous “Golden Age.” They’re faster and have handling and braking performance limits to match the exuberant horsepower numbers. I’m not talking about just the exotics (Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Porsche, et al.), because the performance in all vehicle segments is historically at its peak. We have never had access to this kind of high performance before, especially in the last half-decade or so, and it is intoxicating. And it is also officially yesterday’s news.

Why? We find ourselves in the midst of change in this business again. Extreme, track-focused high-performance is out, replaced by rugged, off-road performance. Every manufacturer worth its 22” off-road wheel package is offering off-road performance versions of their various charges, whether they are needed, or not. Beyond the usual suspects – Chevrolet, Ford, Ram, Toyota, Land Rover et al. - GMC, for instance, is offering an entire lineup of AT4 off-road-oriented spec vehicles. Which means it’s now officially an epidemic.

The PR minions who used to scramble to book racetracks all over the country for the latest “fly-in” press events are now scouring exotic landscapes previously only attainable by mule to stage press events designed to demonstrate the off-road capabilities of their latest BelchFire SuperPounder Trucks and SUVs. These PR minions are trading in their obligatory black pants and white logoed shirts and clipboards for canteens and wardrobes right out of the latest Huckberry.com online catalog. 

It is flat-out crazy. So crazy, in fact, that some journos are actually criticizing car companies for even bothering to offer sedans or traditional hatchbacks, believing that we’re supposed to be all-SUVs-and-jacked-up-pickups-all-the-time now. 

I happen to disagree with this latest all-in for RuggedVille frenzy, however. I strongly believe that there are plenty of car buyers out there who happen to like sedans and hatchbacks, including me. They’re fun and efficient instead of ground pounding and lumbering. It’s just a different style of motoring. Are there fun SUVs and crossovers to drive out there? Sure, but that doesn’t mean everyone has to have one, or want one. 

I get the fact that the latest manufacturer focus is full-zoot rough riders and all-terrain mashers. After all, that’s what they think people want in order to traverse the Costco canyons and Home Depot hollers. Even if you aren’t planning to go to Moab next week, you could if you wanted to, right? And therein lies the hook. The “hook” that auto manufacturers have exploited since people traded in their horses. (Way back when the hooks were: You could sit on the front row at Indianapolis in your BelchFire8, if you wanted to; or you could qualify for Le Mans in your SuperSqualo Meteor, if you wanted to. And even recently: You could qualify for an IMSA GT race in your Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, if you wanted to.) Those hooks are lethal, and highly profitable.

As I’ve said repeatedly since founding this website, the automobile business is first and foremost a fashion business. It is consumed by trends, fads and what’s perceived as “hot” at the moment. And before we’re immersed in the Next Big Thing – the coming EV Revolution – these vehicles designed to take us on adventures to nowhere are going to be the thing until further notice, which is not exactly good news in my book.

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


I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW (EVEN IF THE RAIN ISN?T GONE).
by Editor
23 Aug 2021 at 6:34pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. "The Dog Days of Summer" doesn’t quite do justice to the sense of malaise that has descended around these parts. This is always the case after the Dream Cruise weekend (except for last year when it didn’t happen, of course -WG). With the last vestiges of corporate performance art – which made its return this year in the form of myriad displays, manufactured events and venue takeovers – having been removed, the only thing remaining are the imprints of countless streaks from the burning rubber, curling like black snakes up and down Woodward Avenue.

My big takeaway from the weekend? Despite the Lightning pickups and Mach-Es being wheeled by Ford operatives, and the Hummer EVs piloted by GMC execs (even Polestar made an appearance near Pasteiner’s) up and down The Strip, this EV thing has a long way to go. It doesn’t matter how fast EVs go (more on this in a moment), and it doesn’t matter how – allegedly – they will improve your life (the overpromising is being taken to ridiculous levels by certain manufacturers – yeah, you know who you are), the fact remains that the vast majority of the driving population is going to have to be sold on the merits of EVs. And it’s shaping up to be the most formidable marketing challenge the auto industry has ever seen. 

Yes, of course, range is a factor, and plugging in, and re-charging times, and on and on. But the real issue is price, and it will remain the issue for a half-decade to come, at least. It doesn’t help that the coming wave of EVs counts very few “affordable” entries among its ranks. Yes, there are some price leaders, but for the average consumer, EVs fall into the manufacturer “show pony” category. In other words, six-figure concept machines brought to life for a select few. And the manufacturers touting the fact that you can get one of their EVs well-equipped for around $60k, suggesting that makes them reasonably affordable? I got news for you: It doesn’t. And this will be a burgeoning issue that’s not likely to go away with a snap of a finger or a shiny happy PR campaign. 

And it also needs to be said that the Chevrolet Bolt recall for the replacement of batteries isn't helping matters when it comes to the adoption of EVs. In fact, it's a huge negative. LG battery issue aside, this is exactly the word-of-mouth news that is making the EV revolution a tough sell. Anytime you mention the words "fires" and "recall" in the same sentence, it's never good for the industry. And in this case, it's worse than that, because it casts a pall over the whole consideration set for EVs in general.

The other factor for a lot of people is the lack of noise from EVs. I didn’t have any problems in that regard with my Bolt, but my expectations were kept well in check and I was quite happy with it overall. But for a lot of people new to the category the lack of sound isn’t going to be a selling point. Instead, it’s going to be a liability. And despite the fact that synthetic audio overtures can be created for inside the vehicles – FYI: The one used in the Porsche Taycan is so lame that it’s borderline offensive – it’s not going to cut it in the least. And, if all that weren’t enough, let’s not forget that EVs are the biggest examples of “It Won’t Be Long Now!” going on the business right now. If manufacturers are touting 2022 with their EVs, you can go ahead and add eighteen months to that. I am not kidding. 2025 will finally see a (minimal) array of EV products in showrooms. Think about that for a moment, and then plan on enjoying your ICE vehicles for the rest of this decade.

I had to laugh when Dodge operatives promised that the next dimension of Dodge muscle will be electrified with great fanfare during the runup to the Dream Cruise. Why? Because the overwhelming high-performance cars of choice over the weekend were the legions of Challengers and Chargers running up and down Woodward. It wasn’t even close, in fact. They were like sharks parting the waters of the mundane with their classic V8 sounds that echoed far into the night. Yes, the purpose-built hot rods and drag cars were cool, but the fact that you can plunk your cash-ola down in a Dodge showroom and drive out with a 700HP beast has turned America’s streets and byways into teeming canyons of muscle car rapture. And it’s unlike anytime in automotive history too. These are the good old days. 

Back to those Dodge operatives. A word of warning: They can go ahead and create a Dodge EV muscle machine, but there is no way in hell it will eclipse their current crop of muscle cars. Why? Even though whatever they come up with will probably be the fastest thing they’ve ever offered, without that V8 sound it will be just another EV sewing machine to their faithful, no matter how much synthetic sound they plan to project from it. I sincerely hope they keep building their fantastic ICE muscle machines indefinitely, because they’re going to discover – no doubt the hard way – that the “brotherhood of muscle” isn’t going to come along for the EV ride.

Which reminds me – and I will be covering this in one of my future “Fumes” motorsport columns – but if the powers that be at the various manufacturers think that EVs will eventually takeover racing, they are sadly mistaken. Formula E has demonstrated unequivocally that without the visceral sounds associated with racing it’s just not racing, or, even more to the point, not racing that anyone but the bored and curious find the least bit interesting. 

The other reason for this languid sense of ennui hanging in the air like a fine gauze haze around here? It’s the fact that The Battle of the Missing Chips is not going away. In fact, I predict it will remain a major problem well into 2023. With Toyota finally acquiescing to its own Chip of Doom scenario – expected to lose an eye-watering 40 percent of its production in September – any notion that this chip “thing” can be portrayed as anything short of an unmitigated disaster is pointless. It is and has been, in fact, devastating.

I appreciate the boundless optimism being bandied about by some PR operatives right now, because it’s their job to do that. But the chip “thing” is crippling the auto industry, and the effects from this crisis will extend out at least a couple of more years. That is a crushing interlude in this business. 

But all of this has allowed me to see clearly now. The real Dawn of the EV Age is being pushed back to 2025 at the earliest, and it will unfold in fits and starts going on to 2030.

As for the Death of the ICE Age? Reports of its impending death are way premature. I expect the Twilight of the ICE Age to go on for another fifteen years at least. And the manufacturers that are able to hedge their bets while straddling both ends of the market will win out in the long run.

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

 

Editor's Note: Click on "Next 1 Entries" at the bottom of this page to see previous issues. - WG


JUST ANOTHER MANIC WEDNESDAY.
by Editor
17 Aug 2021 at 3:15pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Now that we’re more than halfway through the year, it’s incredible that the level of chaos in this business is not calming down in the least. In fact, it’s ramping up to new levels. 

The chip shortage thing, which has thrown the entire retail end of the market into an unsustainable frenzy, has also ravaged the auto supplier community. Now, suppliers who were begging for positive developments after the Shit Show that came to define last year instead find themselves in the barrel again this year with little signs of relief on the horizon. Not to mention the fact that huge chunks of volume have been taken from the manufacturers, which will have a devastating effect on their collective bottom lines.

But that’s just one dimension of the chaos. The other is that it looks like Elon’s Muskian Nightmare of promoting the Autopilot option on his Tesla cars – a function that never performed to its level of promise and that has been in myriad fatal accidents since its introduction – is now facing proper and intense government scrutiny for the first time. This past Monday, according to reporting by Neal E. Boudette, writing for the New York Times, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – aka NHTSA – has opened a formal investigation into Autopilot. The agency said it was aware of 11 accidents since 2018 involving Teslas that crashed into police, fire and other emergency vehicles with flashing lights parked on roads and highways. In one of the incidents, a Tesla smashed into a fire truck in December 2019 in Indiana, killing a passenger in the car and seriously injuring the driver.

That it has taken this long for NHTSA to investigate Tesla’s Autopilot function is simply unconscionable, especially since St. Elon has made promise after promise about the option’s capabilities in a never-ending stream of public statements and calculated brow-beating meant to deceive the consumer public. And judging by the insanity generated on Twitter by Tesla Fan Boys (and Girls) vehemently defending the function as being safe and that it works as promised, it suggests that Musk has snowed a notable – and vocal – segment of the population to believing the unmitigated bullshit he has been spewing. (It’s easy for me to ignore the crazed bleating from Musk’s cultists, but clearly others out there haven’t been able to.)

Tesla’s legal minions have tried to back the company away from Elon’s incendiary statements on more than several occasions, but the damage has been done. Accountability, something that has been Musk’s Kryptonite basically from the very beginning, is going to come down in decisive hammer blows on The Reigning Blowhard from Silicon Valley. It is long overdue, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving target.

In other news, my column on Ford a while back stirred some hard feelings from the Dearborn contingent, including from the Top Man himself. I was too harsh and over the top, according to the assessment, and I had gone too far in my criticism of the company and its current CEO. I see it differently, of course, and I stand by every word of that column. 

That said, the one thing I have been consistent on in criticizing Ford is the company’s piss-poor performance on vehicle launches. To say that the company has botched major product launches over the last half-decade is a painfully true understatement (the latest being the Explorer in 2019), and it has cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, adding up to billions when it was all said and done. 

But this is supposed to be a New Era for Ford, captained by the currently anointed Golden Boy who has made a career out of good fortune falling on his head. To his credit, he has taken advantage of every gilded spoon thrown his way and spun a muddling propensity for vindictive mediocrity into a golden cloak of fame and fortune. 

That is all fine and dandy if you’re one of The Chosen One’s bootlicking apostles, but I would like to interrupt this ongoing lovefest with one particularly salient question: If this is the best that the Ford Motor Company can muster in terms of executive leadership, then how to explain the burgeoning screwup that has completely paralyzed production of the company’s latest cash cow – the (real) Ford Bronco?

What’s going on with the botched launch of the Bronco is rewriting the history books for serial automotive incompetence. The details? As reported by Michael Martinez in Automotive News, and I quote: 

“In another setback to the troubled launch of one of Ford Motor Co.'s highest-profile vehicles, the automaker last week said it needs to replace all (Bronco) hardtop roofs made so far because of quality problems. 

That will push back deliveries for months, further irking customers who already had their orders delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the global semiconductor shortage and earlier issues with Webasto, the same supplier involved in the latest snag. The previous roof issues, which were unrelated, forced Ford to postpone production of certain configurations.” 

And to further explain the situation, here’s more from AN:

“With saleable Broncos so scarce — at the end of July, Ford had built 13,380 but sold just 4,078 of those — some dealerships are marking up the few that have made it onto their lots by as much as $50,000.

Ford officials are scrambling to clean up the mess. It has hired an Ohio design firm to shower increasingly frustrated owners with Bronco-branded gifts as the setbacks pile up.

It's unclear how much the damage control and replacements will cost Ford or for how much Webasto will be responsible.”

What exactly is the problem with the hardtop roofs? According to Ford PR minions, the molded-in color roofs can have an “unsatisfactory appearance when exposed to extreme weather or humidity.” Or basically, when exposed to standard, day-in, day-out use. To say that this is simply unacceptable for a contemporary automobile manufacturer in today’s cutthroat competitive environment is being kind. This is an unmitigated disaster of stupefying proportions. After promising that the botched launch of the Explorer would never be repeated, here Ford is at it again with an even higher profile screwup.

Do I relish having to write this about Ford? No. I want all of our Southeast Michigan-based auto companies to do well, with full employment, booming sales and breakthrough product introductions coming one after another. But reality suggests that it can’t be all “bunny rabbits and rainbows,” and to see Ford stumble and bumble its way through another product launch disaster is almost too painful to watch. 

I can’t closeout this week’s column without mentioning the non-Dream Cruise that’s happening this weekend here in the Motor City. As in past years, the action up and down Woodward leading up to Saturday’s ”main event” has been nonstop. And if you live anywhere within earshot of Woodward, the ground-pounding V8s can be heard racing hard into the night. 

Just the other day, in the middle of a non-descript afternoon, I was waiting at a light on Woodward next to a Charger Hellcat. The driver gave no indication of what was coming, but when the light turned green, he nailed the throttle and that Charger disappeared in a fog of tire smoke that was prodigious, and he kept his foot in it at least up to 100 mph.

I had to smile to myself, even though that sound and fury is slowly fading into the past. Yes, EVs can be brutally fast, but those future sounds will be synthetically manufactured, and it will never, I repeat, never be the same. Which, in my estimation, is a crying shame.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth, especially for this week.


DESIGN MATTERS, PART III.
by Editor
10 Aug 2021 at 4:13pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. In this conclusion of my series on Automotive Design (read Design Matters, Part I and Part II – WG), it’s clear that I place a high value on the efficacy and execution of design. It’s also no secret that I believe that design will maintain its position as the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator going forward, in fact, even more so than ever before.

This series has generated a lot of comments from within the industry, especially – and understandably so – from the design community. I would say that the vast majority of the comments we received were positive, and that’s gratifying, because I have the utmost respect for the creative talents who work in the design houses all over the world.

As I’ve said many times before, the artisans who toil in design studios are the most influential people in the automobile business. They set the tone for brands and lead the word-of-mouth, “street look” discussions, and their visionary work can make – or break – a car company’s fortunes. It’s grueling work, too, because designers live in a particularly strange Twilight Zone where they have to dwell in the past and present, while working on a future that’s coming well down the road. That means lead designers have to present “new” designs to the media and public that have been basically “baked” three-to-five years before. Then they go back to their respective studios to put the finishing touches on designs that will appear five years into the future.

This work requires, vision, discipline and a savagely creative mindset that is instantly graded the moment the wraps are taken off of their latest designs. It is a tough, tough profession, but when you talk to designers, most wouldn’t trade it for anything. Seeing something in concept or production form that they had a key role in creating presents a level of exhilaration that’s extremely hard to beat.

That intro was kind of a labyrinthian way of getting to my final discussion topic, which is a question that I get asked all the time: “Given everything you know (and have discussed especially these past few weeks), who’s doing design well right now?”

That’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it? Design matters more than at any other time in automotive history. In this 24/7, nanosecond-attention-span world we live in today, the hot “street look” of the moment captures all the attention and interest, and usually results in red-hot sales figures too. 

Exotic cars lead the discussion, but just because a car is expensive doesn’t mean its design is automatically compelling. Unless, of course we’re talking about Ferrari. The newest Ferrari – the 296 GTB – is compact, lightweight and has a taut skin that stretches over its fenders and haunches to create a damn-near perfect form. It is simply extraordinary from every angle and it is the definitive supercar of the moment.

(Ferrari)

The 2022 Ferrari 296 GTB.

(Ferrari)

(Ferrari)

(Ferrari)

But you’re probably saying, that’s Ferrari, we expect a Ferrari to have jaw-dropping street presence and compelling design. Fair point, but I can also mention several exotics that have little to no appeal at all. We’ll skip that for now, however.

When I consider contemporary design, I am going to leave pickups, SUVs and crossovers out of the discussion. I am just not interested, and even though they are the overwhelming choice in the mainstream market, they bring nothing to the design table. At all. (The exception being the Cadillac Lyriq, which is due next spring.)

That word “mainstream” is key. It’s one thing to do provocative concepts that shine under the auto show lights, but it’s quite another to bring those high-concept executions to the street. Bill Mitchell, the exceptional design legend who inherited the mantle from Harley Earl and propelled GM to incredible heights during the company’s heyday (1957-1977), specialized in bringing concept car looks to the streets and byways of mainstream America. It was a 20-year period unrivaled in automotive history, in fact. No one did it better, and no one influenced contemporary automotive design quite like Bill Mitchell did. The 1959 Corvette Sting Ray racer; 1963 Corvette Sting Ray; the Mako Shark concepts; the 1963 Buick Riviera (although I prefer the ’65), the Oldsmobile Toronado; the Cadillac Eldorado; the Chevrolet Camaro; the Pontiac Firebird, Grand Prix and GTO; and the list goes on and on. 

(GM)

Bill Mitchell and the 1959 Corvette Sting Ray racer.

(GM)

The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray.

(GM)

The 1963 Buick Riviera.

(GM)

The 1961 Corvette Mako Shark I and 1965 Corvette Mako Shark II.

And when I think of Mitchell and his thoughts on design, and his absolute belief in bringing the “good stuff” to mainstream America, I believe there is one contemporary car that would meet with his approval, and that is the Lexus LC 500 (images below). Yes, it is pricey (at around $100,000), but when this machine appeared as a concept several years ago and then appeared in showrooms pretty much untouched and intact, it resonated with people and still does to this day. Why? It is fluid and expressive, its surface detailing is impressive and its overall form is flat-out gorgeous. I would argue that no mainstream contemporary car manufacturer stuck to its guns like Lexus did with the LC 500. They could have pulled up short and faked it in spots, but they didn’t. Instead, they executed it perfectly and the result is especially pleasing to the eye while projecting a street presence that is unmistakable. Mitchell would have been pleased.

That does it for my design discussions, at least for now, but I can’t leave you without mentioning the annual events taking place out in Monterey, California, this week. “Monterey Car Week” stopped being about the purity of automotive enthusiasm a long time ago, and all perspective has been most assuredly lost. Now, it is a Greed Fest extraordinaire, with a level of hucksterism and debilitating, fleecing auctions that far exceed anything even remotely resembling “normal.” When WG pointed out to me that tickets for The Quail had risen to $995.00 each, with a six-month advance purchase awarded through a lottery, I knew that the whole thing had become a pathetic exercise that we’re very happy to miss.

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

(Lexus)

The 2021 Lexus LC 500.

(Lexus)

(Lexus)

(Lexus)


DESIGN MATTERS, PART II.
by Editor
2 Aug 2021 at 4:36pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. I heard from a lot of friends in the business – especially in the Design community – who savored last week’s column (and the week before that) and added their points of view as well. Though my perspectives ruffled quite a few feathers (Really? We’re shocked. – WG), my points were well taken and agreed with for the most part.

To further understand why design matters, you really have to think about how design affects our daily lives, because pretty much everything we come across in an average day is directly influenced by design. One thing about design that remains true is that even if most people don’t understand the inner workings of the process, or the whys and wherefores, they respond to what they like emotionally, as in, I want to go there. Or, I want to be a part of that, or quite simply, I want that. 

Think about it for a moment. Our eyes are drawn to logo and typeface designs of all kinds. For instance, just walking through a supermarket aisle is a test of that, with graphics, logos and colors fighting for our attention at every turn. Or, how about digital shopping? Everything we see is visually presented and orchestrated to draw you in. Fashion in and of itself is a design kaleidoscope of fabrics, colors and styling crafted to entice people in for a closer look. Shoes, one of the most important dimensions of fashion, are constantly being reimagined to create design “looks” that are new, fresh and juiced with enough I just have to have that style that make them irresistible, at least to those so inclined.

What makes us gravitate to one shoe or another? Design. What about to a coat or a particular pair of boots? Design. And how about furniture? Design. Everything we come across as we go about our day is directly attributable to design, from residential and commercial architecture to graphic presentations in videos and on TV, and everything and anything in between. Even mundane places – such as gas stations and their attached convenience stores – have graphic designs helping to create their look and feel. Design sets the tone and creates an ambience, and even if we’re not consciously aware of its power and influence, it is always there.

And when it comes to automobiles, of course, it’s no secret that the power and influence of design are magnified exponentially. Design not only matters in the automobile business: It. Is. Everything.

Let’s consider one segment for this discussion: The one that is still (quaintly) referred to as “pony” cars. Started by the Ford Mustang in 1964 and followed by the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge Challenger and even the AMC AMX among others, this segment – now most often referred to as “muscle cars” – has endured through a series of peaks and valleys over the decades. Consumer interest in these cars is notoriously fickle, usually gravitating to the newest and latest cars when they hit the market, to the detriment of existing competitors.

Why pick what is basically a segment in limbo? Because it gives a good example of purity of design, and a segment that isn’t dependent on the vagaries of whatever the four-door crossover “coupe” of the month is. (Besides, four-door crossovers are so tedious. -WG)

There are only three cars to talk about in this segment: The Ford Mustang (not the Mach-E, please), the Chevrolet Camaro and the Dodge Challenger. The Mustang is expertly rendered with proportions that I consider to be damn near perfect. It harkens back to the original fastback Mustang just enough, and despite the modern pony cars’ inherent heftiness, it looks crisp, uncluttered and clean. This is design that works.

(Ford)

The 2021 Ford Mustang Mach 1.

The Camaro is another story. Full disclosure, my favorite Camaro of all time was the ’67-’68 Camaro. It was light, purposeful, it looked more compact – especially in Penske/Donohue-prepared Trans-Am guise – and it was the perfect counterpoint to the Mustang at the time. The Camaro has had several iterations over the decades – some more successful than others – but it’s no secret that I find the latest version to be a mishmash of themes and a disappointment. It’s fat in places – especially from the side – and it’s scrunched-up in others, as if to counter the ungainly profile, and it’s far from pleasing to the eye. GM designers have worked hard on this latest version, and it’s certainly better than what it was, but it lacks the kind of fundamental design cohesiveness that the nameplate deserves. I don’t know where GM takes the Camaro from here – if it even exists in the oncoming EV age – but this is a car that sorely needs to be reimagined, because right now it looks like a committee-think car with a very low desirability factor. And when it comes to a segment of cars that people don’t really need, that’s not even remotely good enough.

(Chevrolet)

This Camaro had a special color applied for the SEMA Show in 2018. The fact that we had to search and search through several sources to even find a decent Camaro shot says a lot about the Camaro's standing within GM. And the fact that the company's NASCAR entry is called a "Camaro" means nothing. The Camaro is officially lost in translation, apparently. 

And finally, there’s the Dodge Challenger. Bigger and heavier than the other two machines in this discussion – to a notable degree, in fact – the Challenger nonetheless is the quintessential definition of a modern pony-muscle car. Talk about emotionally compelling design that matters: the Challenger is brutish, purposeful and badass, and it rings all the bells and pushes all of the buttons, especially in “widebody” form. The design conveys exactly what this machine is all about and does so in such a way that the desirability factor is simply off the charts. If you want to ride off into the sunset for the remainder of the ICE Age with your foot hard to the floor – and you don’t want to spend six-figure dough-re-mi to do it – the Challenger is the machine to get.

(Dodge)

2021 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack Shaker Widebody.

Yes, the aforementioned “pony” segment is a veritable blip on these manufacturers’ radar screens in this era of gussied-up and bloated “four-door” crossovers and SUVs. A sad and depressing era that has been reduced to a variety of front and rear clips – with sculptured side surfacing! - that supposedly counts for design “differentiation.” It doesn’t and it’s not. 

But design still matters in this business, despite the tedious four-door crossover trend. You see it everywhere. How about the most profitable, highest-volume segment in the business? Don’t think that that design matters in pickup trucks? These car company design studios spend hours and hours and hours coming up with the right look for their pickup trucks. If they get it right, it can add multi-billions to the bottom line of the company. Conversely, if they get it wrong, it means a costly mid-cycle re-do. There are plenty of examples of car companies that came up short in the last decade because they didn’t go far enough – inside and out – with their trucks. We’re talking crushing disappointment, folks, and huge balance sheet disruptions, just because a company didn’t reach far enough or made misguided assumptions about what people would settle for, as oppose to what they really wanted.

Speaking of "design reach,” I am going to close this week’s column with some quintessential definitions of pure design reach. Are they practical? Not necessarily. Did they end up in production? Only parts of them. Then, why? 

Because designers need to reach for the blue sky and dream of what could be. Because without it, the art of design will die in a cloak of mediocrity. And our world would be crushingly boring if that ever happened.

(Mercedes-Benz images)

The Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet concept exemplifies the idea of “automotive haute couture,” according to Mercedes PR minions. And boy, does it ever. It is projected to be powered by a four-motor, all-electric, all-wheel-drive system with a combined output of 750HP, and capable of accelerating from 0-60 in under four seconds. Design reach, indeed.


(GM Design images)

No, the Cadillac Ciel concept never gets old. Now ten (!) years old, it still succinctly and perfectly captures the “idea” of Cadillac. A majestic car in person.

As I’ve reminded my readers previously, in the face of a business that grows more rigid, regulated and non-risk-taking by the day, we must 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.

Design still matters? Yes, absolutely. In fact, with the onslaught of EV similarity, design is everything.

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


DESIGN MATTERS.
by Editor
26 Jul 2021 at 6:00pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Last week’s column about “blandtastic” design stirred the pot yet again among the AE faithful as well as with industry insiders. Some readers were stunned at the profile similarities on display from the different manufacturers, which is understandable when you’re really able to see them juxtaposed against one another. 

But then again, it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. The members of the design community have mimicked and frankly ripped off each other for decades now. The design schools have contributed to this phenomenon by churning out graduates taught with similar perspectives who then go to work at the manufacturers’ design houses. Yes, of course, safety standards and interior packaging requirements come into play, but the systematic blandness that has overrun what should be the most exciting part of the business has resulted in a homogenization of design that is debilitating. 

As I’ve often said, design is the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator, and in the transition to the EV Age, compelling design will become even more critical. With similar battery platform designs – aka “the skateboard” – and other technical commonalities such as range and charging capability, the look and street presence of vehicles will directly affect consumer desire. That’s not to say that interior design isn’t important, because it certainly it is – after all, that’s where we spend all of our time when driving. But exciting, breakthrough interiors will never be enough on their own; you first have to lure the consumer in for a closer look, and it’s the exterior design that does that, no matter how impressive the interior is.

Since Day One of the automotive design business, which started with the “Art and Colour” department at General Motors in the 1930s under Harley Earl’s direction, the concept of design “reach” has been an ongoing battle. The easiest thing to do in the design business – before Earl arrived on the scene – was to stay the course, do a few tweaks and call it good. This attitude sustained itself more often than not over the previous decades. But in Detroit’s heyday, roughly from the mid-50s to the early 70s – when GM Styling (now Design) often set the tone for the entire mainstream automobile industry – every year was a momentous year, because "design reach" were the operative words of the day. Staying in place was not an option back then, and each year a series of breakthrough designs was unleashed on the long-since-lost “Announcement Day,” with the manufacturers vying for consumer attention with designs that made the previous year’s lineup instantly obsolete. (Planned obsolescence wasn’t always a bad thing.) And, Bill Mitchell, Earl’s gifted successor, was the absolute Maestro at it. 

Understanding this and despite what I presented last week, all is not lost, however, as evocative designs – though few and far between – still have a way of surfacing, which is a very good thing. Given what I know, I have a few comments on what’s out and what’s coming…

(BMW)

I was super critical of BMW’s move to the overexaggerated front-end in the past, but I will give BMW designers this: 1. At least they have a distinct point of view that is directly influenced by memorable designs from the earliest beginnings of the company. And 2. The front end and the non-functioning grille actually work best on their crossovers/SUVs. That doesn’t mean I am exactly warming up to the look, but I get it. If there were ever a graphic demonstration of "design reach," this is it.

(BMW)

The front end on their electric SUVs will have other functions – to house myriad sensors, etc. – and from a road presence perspective there will be no mistaking when a BMW is coming at you.

(BMW)

I don’t like the front end on the coupe and sedans – it looks added on and unattractive, but I will admit that the racing version is not bad. Not bad at all.

(Mercedes-Benz)

Mercedes-Benz has the direct opposite problem from BMW. This is the company’s new all-electric flagship, the EQS 580 4Matic. This top-of-the-line, $150,000+ luxury sedan lays claim to be the most aerodynamic production car in the world, with a Cd of just .20. It is loaded with a plethora of gee-whiz stuff, which I won’t go into right now, but there is nothing gee-whiz about its design. In fact, it is instantly forgettable. Given the all-new, clean computer screen opportunity of designing for the EV future, this is what Mercedes-Benz designers come up with? Ugh.

(Mercedes-Benz)

One thing about the new EQS that does resonate is the interior. The 56” MBUX Hyperscreen display is really good, but in this case, they’re not first. GM’s wide, almost full-dash display in the ’21 Cadillac Escalade arrived first, and the upcoming super-luxury flagship from Cadillac - the Celestiq - will have an even wider full screen display. But for now, I will give M-B credit – this I.P. is super-slick.

(Hyundai)

This is what Hyundai says about the new IONIQ 5 EV: “The futuristic-looking Hyundai IONIQ 5 is based upon Hyundai’s breakthrough Electric Global Modular Platform (E-GMP), which delivers faster charging, increased driving range, superior handling and more interior space. In addition to revolutionizing sustainable mobility, the IONIQ 5 offers an interior that provides a whole new in-car experience – redefining living space and moving space. Environmentally friendly materials, such as eco-processed leather and recycled yarn, are used extensively in the IONIQ 5.” This crossover/hatchback thingy is getting a lot of attention of late. For good reason? Maybe. The shape is certainly not breakthrough, but the overall execution is concept-car-like. And it definitely has a distinct point of view. Will it deliver? That remains a giant “we’ll see.”

(Hyundai)

The IONIQ 5 interior is of the contemporary “minimalist” school of interior design, with everything packaged on screens. Not exactly an unexpected approach, but it seems clean, simple and no doubt ultra-functional. Full disclosure? I like gauges, either in place or virtually presented. And I like the new, now-obligatory screens when they look like old-school instrumentation, or can at least be programmed to look like it. That said, I’ve grown to appreciate - and really like – head-up displays, especially if they’re executed well.

(Hyundai)

The exterior surface detailing on the IONIQ 5 is its compelling drawing card. This car will resonate with buyers once they see it in real time. No, not exactly a breakthrough shape overall, but the exterior design will draw people in to learn more.

(Hyundai)

The rear view of the IONIQ 5 is decidedly ho-hum, which is directly the result of the modified crossover box shape. Not a deal breaker, but not its best view by any stretch.

(Porsche)

Now, for something completely different from, of all car companies, Porsche. This is what they have to say: “Insight: Interior of the Renndienst Study. The designers at Style Porsche in Weissach journey far into the future of mobility. They think and design visions for the day after tomorrow in order to derive steps for tomorrow. They ask themselves how far they can expand Porsche’s design language and to which products it could be applied. This is how the Renndienst came into being. A minivan; a family-friendly interior design concept for up to six people. Challenges such as these keep the designers’ world of ideas fresh.” How about, no? After discussing "design reach" earlier, this is a classic example of a territory that has no business being explored by Porsche, unless the car company completely walks away from anything remotely resembling its founding principles. This is one of those conceptual ideas that should have never seen the light of day. As in, WTF? And why?

(Porsche)

Oh look, yet another execution of a future van interior. No thanks.

(Porsche)

Cringeworthy doesn’t even begin to cover it. “We thought about how we could still give a distinctly Porsche flair to a passenger compartment that is so far removed from the classic sports-car interior,” said chief designer Michael Mauer. “And how autonomous driving could be designed,” Mauer explains. The second aspect is certainly worth discussing. After all, sports cars are a symbol of self-determination. “We don’t assume that our customers want to give up using a steering wheel,” says Mauer. Oh, why not? When you’re this far gone, does it really matter? This will go down in our “Answer To The Question That Absolutely No One Was Asking” Hall of Fame.

Talking about giants like Earl and Mitchell earlier might seemly oddly out of touch when it comes to talking about the design challenges of today, but I think that is a narrow-minded perspective. As I’ve reminded my readers previously, there are car people from many disciplines slogging away at every car company on the planet. And an elite few of them may have even managed to rise to the top in their respective 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 in particular. 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.

I just hope there are enough visionary leaders in the design community to push the discipline to new heights, while keeping the excruciating missteps to a bare minimum.

Because Design Matters, probably more so now than at any other time in automotive history.

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


BLANDTASTIC DESIGN? LOOK AROUND YOU.
by Editor
19 Jul 2021 at 12:49pm

Editor's Note: As we await the all-EV future, the designs of today continue to be less-than inspiring. For an industry that prides itself on design (and that certainly has the talent), the current vehicle offerings leave a lot to be desired. This week, The Autoextremist reprises his discussion of this sorry state of design affairs in the auto industry. -WG

 

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. As longtime AE readers know, design is my favorite part of this business. There is nothing like being in one of the design studios and smelling the clay, seeing future vehicle explorations on wall after wall, and, of course, seeing advanced products up close and in the flesh.

The design function is one of the most creative parts of this business and, I would argue, probably its toughest. Designers inhabit a strange Twilight Zone where they’re touting upcoming product introductions with the media that they’ve been living with for four years or more, while at the same time they’re working on products that won’t be revealed for at least four (or five) years down the road. 

It has been put forth many times that automotive design is a fashion business, and in many respects that is very true. In the 1950s, the great Italian design houses had tremendous influence on the automobile business. In fact, GM Styling legend Bill Mitchell would often park the latest Ferrari in the design courtyard at the GM Technical Center so his designers would be inspired. It often worked, too, because during Mitchell’s reign GM Styling burnished its reputation as creating some of the most influential mainstream – and successful – vehicle designs in the world, including the Corvette Sting Ray, Buick Riviera, Cadillac Eldorado, Oldsmobile Toronado, several Pontiac models and many, many more.

Design is still very much a fashion business, but like everything else, today is markedly different. There are design schools all over the world churning out gifted future designers who have been given the kind of depth and breadth of experience that in past eras was very hard to come by. To say that today’s young designers hit the ground running is an understatement. In fact, many are able to make meaningful contributions right from the start of their careers.   

As in past eras, trends come and go, but it is amazing to see certain design “signatures” – whether they originated in Korea, China, Japan, Europe or the U.S. – sweep the business all over the world seemingly at the same time. Much of this can be attributed to the similar teaching methods and influences that young designers are exposed to coming up. The other reasons have to do with the fundamental parameters of the design package itself, meaning the specific drivetrain requirements, the passenger accommodations, the vehicle segment, etc., etc.

That all seems rational, right? I would agree that packaging dictates much of the look and feel of today’s vehicles, at least up to a point. But then again, how do you explain the look and feel – and the design sameness – of the vehicles below? What, do designers plug the parameters into a computer and out pops the basic shape and they go from there? Because that’s what it looks like to me.

I mean, really, how can designers stand behind this work and call it… good? I can just hear them now… “Ahem, given our Belchfire EV’s advanced powertrain and the passenger and cargo packaging requirements, we feel this ‘four-door coupe’ design presents the finest expression of our brand, blah-blah-blah…” Or something like that. 

Ah yes, the “four-door coupe.” This is the design trend originating in Germany that emerged from a battle of one-upmanship between BMW and Mercedes-Benz. And in design terms: it sucks. There is no such thing as a “four-door coupe” of course, but thanks to those two German luxury manufacturers we’re all stuck with this design abomination until further notice.

So, take a look at the cars below – forgetting the price points – and revel in the relentless sameness and the blandtastic design executions.

(Audi)
The Audi E-Tron Sportback: Searching for even a shred of visual interest? You won't find it here.
(BMW)
BMW was one of the co-conspirators – along with Mercedes-Benz – of the “four-door coupe.” This is the X4 M. Even if you squint it doesn't inspire... much of anything.
(Mercedes-Benz)
The Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 Coupe: Just because it has a giant three-pointed star plastered on the front doesn’t make it good. (Porsche) The Porsche Cayenne GTS Coupe: No, the shot doesn't point in the same direction as the others, but you get the idea. Even Porsche couldn’t resist the "art" of visual blandness, apparently. (Ford)
The Ford Mustang Mach-E: No, it hasn't grown on me one bit. Not a shred of originality in sight, and it looks even more uninspiring on the road. “A Mustang for the Next Generation!” according to Ford. To that we say, UGH. (Photo courtesy of greencarreports.com) Putting an exclamation point on this discussion: The Tesla Model Y.

Where is this all going? Nowhere good, apparently. The various design houses around the world have to shake off this relentless tedium and get back to the inspirational creativity of designing compelling automobiles. Because if they persist on this current path they might as well just turn in their pens and acquiesce to being replaced by computers. At least then we can rage at the machines instead of lamenting the fact that the design craft just ain’t what it used to be.

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


IT?S NOT CALLED BRAND POSITIONING HELL FOR NOTHIN?.
by Editor
11 Jul 2021 at 2:03pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Automotive marketing, like the business itself, is one of the toughest endeavors in the world. While from the outside it may look easy, it is anything but that. Yes, the product is paramount, but if the launch is bumbled and the communication about that product is garbled or less than it should be, a golden opportunity is wasted, and marketing operatives are left “looking for new challenges.”

One of the major problems about marketing – and advertising – is that a lot of people know what’s good after the fact. It’s easy to pick out brand strategies that are successful and why, and it’s easy to identify a commercial that airs and pronounce it “good.” But committing to a focused brand strategy, and then identifying advertising creative that supports and enhances that strategy is extremely difficult. Sometimes it’s even a go-with-your-gut crapshoot, because all of the research that can be mustered beforehand only reveals so much.

I’ve written about – and rated – many marketing strategies and advertising campaigns on this site for 22+ years now. There have been a few thoroughly outstanding campaigns, along with some truly excellent efforts, many decidedly average ones unfortunately and, of course, a cornucopia of craptastic campaigns that should have never seen the light of day. 

One thing these marketing campaigns all shared from the start was that the initial work began from a brand positioning statement. Sounds simple enough, right? Put together a group of words that best projects what the brand represents to the real world and voila! That’s easy, isn’t it? Except it is definitely not. Why? These carefully crafted statements are intensely fought over by an array of fiefdoms entrenched on the client marketing side, and, of course, by their counterparts at the advertising agencies. Everybody wants a piece of these statements on both sides of the aisle, so when an agreement is finally reached, it’s a minor miracle. 

That’s just step one. But amazingly enough, all of that hard work to come up with those brand positioning statements can instantly go off the rails when those brand statements end up creeping into the actual advertising. This usually happens when clients become attached to the brand positioning language because it makes them feel good about their respective brands – and themselves. But when that happens, it usually never ends well. Brand positioning statements are just that, and they're not meant to end up in the advertising. But it happens all too frequently, and it results in “less than” advertising that doesn’t do justice to the brand. And I'm being kind.

So, given this background then, I have to applaud Stellantis operatives for having the cojones to present brand positioning statements for all of the brands under their watch last Thursday, with emphasis on their lineup of future EVs. This was no coincidence, either, as the perception that Stellantis is exactly nowhere with their EV plans is an actual thing, and the company wanted to put to rest that train of thought out in the media sphere.

Mission accomplished? Not exactly. Though it was refreshing to see Stellantis “put it out there,” so to speak, that doesn’t mean they got the results they wanted. Let’s take a look…

Jeep: "Zero emission freedom." Not exactly accurate; in fact, it’s not even close. Plug-in hybrids will dominate Jeep’s “zero emission” premise for the foreseeable future, with the product rollout taking years at least, and that’s if everything goes well. Sorry, but that doesn’t translate to “zero emission” in my book. Stellantis teased fully-electric Jeeps by 2025, but will that come to fruition with noteworthy volume? A giant “we’ll see.”

Ram: "Built to serve a sustainable planet." Hmm, really? Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares suggested that the brand will be prepared if there actually is a mass market for electric pickup trucks in a couple of years. In the meantime, that statement is unmitigated bullshit.

Chrysler: "Clean technology for a new generation of families." To this I say, huh? That Stellantis is clinging to the notion that there’s a place in the world for the Chrysler brand based on whether or not they can keep building minivans that people want is quaintly misguided. That there wasn’t much promised beyond the words in the brand positioning statement suggests to me that this is one brand – despite its myriad accomplishments – that could easily be relegated to the dustbin of history. And Tavares know it.

Dodge: "Tear up the streets… not the planet." Stellantis operatives openly admitted that it has pretty much reached peak HEMI V8-power in its current Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger muscle cars. And with Stellantis committing to be part of the coming EV era for real, they will be transitioning to something called "eMuscle" cars by 2024. But unless they stop showing burnouts in their advertising – the biggest one-trick pony image of the last decade – which isn’t even remotely good for the planet, this is going to be one very painful transition. 

Alfa Romeo: "From 2024, Alfa becomes Alfa e-Romeo." To this I say, WTF? The fact that the Alfa “serpent” is becoming a power plug doesn’t pique my interest in the least. Stellantis inherited this premium brand, but I don’t think the transition to EV is going to go well. In fact, this very well could be the one brand that doesn’t survive the “Grand Transition” to EV.

DS Automobiles: "The art of travel, magnified." Sounds interesting enough. Launched in 2014, this obscure premium brand (until further notice at least) is said to revolve around the ideas of craftsmanship and "French savoir-faire." It will participate in the premium group at Stellantis with Alfa Romeo and Lancia. Why do I feel a train wreck coming on?

Lancia: "The most elegant way to protect the planet." Even though Lancia has had its day(s) in Italy, the idea that it survives as an “elegant” EV is another stretch for Stellantis. 

Maserati: "The best in performance luxury, electrified." Wow, talk about a brand positioning statement that could be applied to any number of luxury manufacturers. It’s now clear to me that Stellantis doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping the Alfa Romeo, DS, Lancia and Maserati brands in existence as luxury EVs. This is classic automotive arrogance in all its glory. Maybe Tavares should have introduced the following brand positioning statement for the company’s EV future: “We’re Stellantis and you’re not.”

Opel/Vauxhall: "Green is the new cool." In the immortal words of John McEnroe: “You can’t be serious!” I don’t care if this German brand plans on becoming fully electric by 2028; that brand positioning statement sounds easily a decade old. To this I’ll add, why bother?

Fiat: "It's only green when it's green for all." Cute, and wildly optimistic. EVs simply aren’t all that affordable yet. And this Italian mass-market brand has been on life support for decades now. But in an EV world? Goodnight and good luck.

Abarth: "Heating up people, but not the planet." This is just flat-out embarrassing. No further comment necessary.

Peugeot: "Turning sustainable mobility into quality time." Unless you plan on building autonomous vehicles for the masses, like next week, what a way to ruin this former flagship brand. At this point, Tavares should have called “timeout” on the meeting and left.

Citroen: "Citroen electric: Well-being for all!" I don’t know, maybe “Shiny Happy EVs” would work better.

Again, this stuff isn’t easy, but there was really no urgent or compelling reason for Stellantis to hang its collective corporate asses in the breeze and go on record with this nonsense. Couldn't they have just presented a technical white paper delineating the scope of its planned EV technologies without identifying the brands that this future technology would be applied to? I would suggest a couple of things to Stellantis: 1. Work on the brand positioning statements closer to when you actually have real products to talk about. Maybe it will broaden your horizons and make better sense, because it's clear that there is a lot of vaporware here. 2. Stop thinking you have the firepower to sustain and differentiate multiple luxury EV brands. You don’t, and you won’t be able to either.

The carefully crafted image of Tavares is that he’s a smart guy. But I’ve known plenty of allegedly smart people in this business who thought they could juggle multiple luxury brands better than anyone else. And most of them failed miserably. He should really take note and stop listening to the dulcet tones of his own thought balloons for once.

It’s not called Brand Positioning Hell for nothin’.

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



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