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The Latest Auto Extremist Rants

INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN.
by Editor
10 Dec 2019 at 1:43pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Last week my column was about time, and a surprise for our readers too. The fact is that writing strictly about cars and the auto business can get tedious at times. This man can’t live on cars alone. Even though I grew up in the business, worked in the business and am still immersed in the business, I have plenty of other interests, so, I offer no apologies. I will zig and zag at times from here on out, just to keep things interesting, at least for me.

I mean, what’s in the news now that hasn’t already been pounded into the ground? The coming BEV revolution, even though no one is ready for it, especially real live mainstream buyers? It’s the biggest fundamental change in this business in more than 100 years, and no one can predict how it will go. It’s a giant “we’ll see” and the 2022–2025 time frame will tell us a lot. Some companies are quietly hedging their bets, while others have their asses hanging so far out in the breeze that if the BEV revolution doesn’t happen as planned it could have dire consequences. What else? The corrosive level of corruption that permeated the upper echelons of the UAW? Was that really a surprise to anyone? Hardly. The only surprise was the depth and breadth of the scale of the corruption. And the huge piles of money involved.

So, if last week was about time, this week will be about space - a concept we all deal with every day and throughout our lives. Some of us crave wide open spaces, and some of us would like to trip the light fantastic and actually go into space. Some desire their own space and need a wide berth to function properly. Others aren’t so claustrophobic and welcome close contact.

Our spatial relationships have been upended over the last two decades. Office hierarchy gave way to cube farms, and now people just wander around and plug in wherever they feel like it. Or they sit out in the open, until they have to go to a conference room to make a phone call. (I am happy to report, however, that there are serious rumblings about the pendulum swinging back and that actual offices are making a comeback. It couldn’t happen soon enough as far as I’m concerned.)

Some of us can space out at a moment’s notice, lost in a daydream or some lingering “woulda-coulda-shouldas.” Others are just spaced-out as a matter of course, or go through life intentionally detached from reality. To those people space isn’t an esoteric concept; it’s just Tuesday.

Our lives may be dictated to by the digits of a clock, but we’re consumed by the concept of space. Floor space at an auto show is crucial. The right retail space can make or break a business. Parking spaces can be like gold. Our personal space can be invaded, or flat-out ignored by individuals or crowds on subways and planes. The square footage of an apartment can add up to be a costly space. We make things evenly spaced when the situation demands it. Or we can cast things to the wind when we just… space out.

Space can be deep, or lost in, or somewhere we’ve never gone before. It can be explored, studied, charted and traveled. It can be observed and viewed through a telescope or by way of satellites. Or, by putting a man on the moon and just being there.

A blank space on a sheet of paper or a canvas can either be an inspiration for creativity, or a daunting millstone that shuts a person down and prevents things from getting started. We can space things out so that we don’t become overwhelmed. A space can be unoccupied, or we can rent storage spaces because we don’t have enough… space. We rarely have such a thing as too much space, however. Because space can be limited. Or confined. Or restricted. Or at a premium. Or only available on a first-come, first-served basis.

A space can be solemn, haunting and sad too. Arlington National Cemetery. Gettysburg. Shiloh. Antietam. Manassas. Vicksburg. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Tragic reminders of the fragility of life and all those who died to protect our freedoms.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, those aforementioned wide-open spaces? They can be beautifully breathtaking. Moab. The Painted Desert. The Grand Canyon. The Badlands. Yosemite. Yellowstone. The Continental Divide. Joshua Tree National Park. Glacier National Park. Big Sur. We daydream about them, write about them, photograph them and paint them. They make us feel alive and invigorated, they can make us feel incredibly small and inconsequential, too, but they are oddly life-affirming and precious at the same time. (Everyone should drive across this great country at least once to be immersed in those wide-open spaces; it remains the quintessential American experience.) 

Our relationship to space says a lot about who we are and how we live life. I tend to avoid confined spaces, much preferring the wide-open spaces both in the physical realm and in thought. Needless to say, a narrowly defined path never really suited me. Tom Petty had it right when he said, “The sky was the limit.”

As it should be. 

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


DOES ANYBODY REALLY KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?
by Editor
4 Dec 2019 at 8:24am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. With those lyrics from one of Chicago’s early hits barely audible in the background at 1:30 Wednesday morning, I’m not sure the time is right to think about… time. But here we are. 

We can make good time, we can attempt to compress time (yeah, right), we can use time to our advantage, we can watch the time and we can fret about time. We can change the time but only on our clocks, because it keeps ticking. And ticking. And ticking.

The time goes by fast, or so “they” say. But what about when things seem to take forever? What about when the guy in front of you at the bank is getting a boat loan? At the drive-through window? What about when time stands still? Then again there’s a time for everything, either that or the time is now, at least sometimes anyway.

We can glance at it, look at it, lose track of it and run out of it. We can schedule it and attempt to manage it, but who’s kidding whom? Time manages us. It dictates our days, weeks, months and years. It tells us when to leave, when to get there, how to plan ahead and how to save the date. 

Yes, we can go back in time, if only in our thoughts and memories and images. Or we can certainly dream about time, should we choose to. I fantasize about time traveling between seconds, where I live for moments or years in a totally different time and place, and then I’m back a second later. I’d have drinks with Ulysses S. Grant. I’d be a fighter pilot in a WWI dogfight. I’d be a crew member for the Lotus Team at Indianapolis in 1963. I’d be there when Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein. I’d investigate the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde through the fog-shrouded streets of London. I’d race a Ferrari in the Targa Florio. I’d be there when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. Tripping through time, lost between seconds.

There’s the inevitably of time, of course, as in the classic “time waits for no one.” Time is short, but is it really? Chris Rock famously said that life is long if you’re not happy. Truer words were never spoken. Time drags without passion or purpose. The drudgery of the day-in, day-out rote regurgitation of life can crush anyone’s soul.

You can lament bad times and remember good times. You can keep time, do time and squander time, but that wouldn’t be making the best use of your time, now, would it? What would we do without time? Would we live by the movement of the sun like our ancestors? Would life slow down if our lives weren’t dominated by schedules, appointments and… time? 

(I’m somewhat amused by the impact of the TikTok craze. Frittering away time to the beat of social drums? What a perfectly contemporary concept, and monumental waste of… time.)

The inexorable march of time consumes our every waking moment; in fact, it looms over our heads like a giant Big Ben hanging in the sky. And what can we do about it, exactly? Not much.

Let me clarify that. Time shouldn’t hang over our heads, just the opposite in fact. Time should be cherished. It should be relished and exulted in. Savor every moment, because it turns out that is the best use of our time. 

I’ll leave it to Chicago to close things out: 

Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?
If so I can't imagine why
We've all got time enough to die

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


THREE THINGS.
by Editor
23 Nov 2019 at 11:22am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. The swirling maelstrom otherwise known as the AutoVerse was in full-throated roar this week, with a kaleidoscope of stories that captured everyone’s attention. 

First up? The GM lawsuit against FCA, which accused the Italian-owned automaker of bribing UAW officials to gain advantages in their contracts over the years of Sergio Marchionne’s reign, which negatively affected GM’s competitive position, big-time. GM was accusing FCA of underhanded dealings from the moment Marchionne took control of the company. Was this a surprise? No. After all, from the moment Marchionne was gifted FCA by the U.S. government it was clear that he was willing to manipulate the system in any way possible, or that he could get away with. As I wrote in my column “An Unfortunate Denouement” (7/23/18):

“Make no mistake, Marchionne & Co. did not endear themselves to anyone in the trenches with the real nitty-gritty dealings of this business. Again, if it weren’t for the True Believers out in Auburn Hills, none of this latest Chrysler ‘miracle’ wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, something that some of the homers in the automotive media don’t even bother mentioning.

I was also interested to read the glowing comments from certain dealers over the weekend, who insisted that without Sergio they’d be out of business. That may be true, but what about the dealers who bought into Sergio’s promises of world domination, but first they had to spend money on new brick and mortar for Fiat stores? And if they did that, they would be first in line to get a glittering array of Alfa Romeo products, the brand that would be ‘the next Audi.’ I noticed that none of those dealers were asked for quotes, because there were countless numbers of them that lost their shirts because of Sergio’s calculated carnival barking. 

And what about the constant shenanigans that FCA pulled with their sales reporting? Marchionne was so hell-bent on showing an uninterrupted monthly sales increase that the company misreported sales figures for six years, all the way back to 2011. It was another reminder of Marchionne’s almost unlimited hubris, that if he said it enough and pounded the table enough, the automotive media would believe it and dutifully spread the word accordingly. And he was right, until FCA got caught, and then Marchionne was strangely silent. 

I have just barely touched upon all of Marchionne’s misdeeds at the helm of Chrysler. He was an absolute tyrant behind the scenes and easily in the Hall of Fame for Horrible Bosses. His egomaniacal insistence that only he knew what was best and only he knew what needed to be done lead to a withering 30+ direct reports, taking micromanaging to unheard of heights.

Oh well, enough. I only wish the serial offenders in the automotive media would have deigned to expose ‘the other Sergio’ because there are at least two of him. And the less appealing one is petty, belligerent, egomaniacal and forever ungrateful.”

But of all the sins Marchionne perpetrated on this business, his calculated manipulation of the UAW was most egregious. Interestingly, the name Alphonse Iacobelli was mentioned in GM’s lawsuit dozens of times in its 95 pages. As vice president of employee relations for FCA, Iacobelli was directly involved in carrying out Marchionne’s plan to keep UAW officials beholden to FCA, before he left the company and went to work for GM as executive director of labor relations for eighteen months. Iacobelli was terminated from GM after he was charged with multiple crimes during his FCA tenure, and he is now serving a 66-month sentence in federal prison in Morgantown, West Virginia.

After a few cryptic emails from him that were sent to our website, I met Iacobelli (at his request) twice in August 2018 at a Starbucks in Rochester, Michigan. I approached the meeting with no preconceived expectations; I knew what he was charged and convicted of – he was awaiting sentencing – but I was willing to listen to what he had to say. And having never met him before, he struck me as someone who had been humbled and humiliated. He didn’t offer any excuses for his conduct, instead he offered details of the circumstances, having brought a three-inch thick stack of documents that included emails and meeting notes, with a remarkable level of detail. 

Why was I asked to meet him? He said that my series of columns about FCA and Marchionne “were so devastatingly accurate that the company virtually stopped to digest them whenever they came out.” And given my writings, he felt that "you are the only person who I can trust to tell the inside story of what really went on, preferably in a book." My columns were so pointedly accurate that, “they were convinced that you had insiders at the very top levels of the company secreting info to you.” (I didn’t.) And that, “Marchionne and his crew had a complete meltdown over your columns on a regular basis.” (I knew this to be true, as I had been told this multiple time over Marchionne’s reign.)

Over those two meetings, Iacobelli presented a devastating account of just how deep the payoffs to UAW officials actually were. The FCA-UAW training centers were a complete joke, with UAW members reporting to the centers to do nothing, if they bothered to show up at all. And the tales of payments for plane trips, vacations, binges in Las Vegas and myriad other gifts, cash and prizes were eye-opening, including a $2 million retirement party for an outgoing UAW executive that was staged in Las Vegas. Iacobelli said approximately $250,000 a month was spent keeping the UAW officials in line, in some months less, but in some months much more than that. And it was all designed to extract favorable considerations from the UAW, which translated into reduced labor costs to FCA.

And Iacobelli named names. In fact, every single UAW official revealed by the Feds so far as having been either indicted or under scrutiny was mentioned by Iacobelli. He said, “they were all on the take and were all going down,” and he was dead right. And make no mistake, Marchionne was up to his eyeballs in every bit of it, according to Iacobelli. In fact, given what he said – including Marchionne gifting expensive watches to key UAW officials with a carefully-worded note attached so they couldn’t be construed to having any value - I surmised that Marchionne would have been indicted if he hadn’t passed away, and Iacobelli didn’t disagree with my assessment. (I never spoke to Iacobelli again, but I still think it would make for a fascinating book that would probably destroy what passes for the UAW these days.)

So, GM is taking the extremely aggressive move of suing FCA for manipulating contracts and altering its competitive position to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to gain advantages over its competition, specifically GM. Marchionne believed he could operate outside the bounds of the system and believed he could manipulate the playing field to his advantage with impunity. Accountability was never a working part of Marchionne’s vocabulary, because like an Emperor, he made up his own rules as he went along. But facts are stubborn things, and this time I believe accountability is going to finally catch up with FCA. 

And given what I know, I wouldn’t bet against GM on this one and I applaud the company for going after the carpetbagging mercenaries at FCA. GM has the goods on FCA, and it’s going to get ugly.

The other thing this week? Well, of course it’s Tesla’s “Cyber Truck.” With a typically overhyped reveal – a Elon Musk specialty, or Muskian Nightmare, depending on your point of view – the “truck” was unveiled to the usual assortment of Muskolytes, hangers-on, and a few objective members of the motoring press, at least those who hadn’t been given IVs of the Muskian Kool-Aid beforehand. 

As I commented on Twitter: Ask a designer and “Design Reach – projecting into new shapes and forms – is one of the toughest tasks to accomplish. When it works it’s a revelation; when it fails miserably it’s an instant abomination. Needless to say, the “truck” doesn’t work for me on any level. It’s a fantasy truck, designed to appeal to those who regret they never had the chance to go to fighter pilot school. 

It’s clear to me that this “Cyber Truck" is going to be a niche of a niche vehicle. It is no threat to what the mainstream truck manufacturers are doing, and besides, they will have fully-functional electric pickups of their own by late 2021. (Musk claims that the Tesla “Cyber Truck” will appear in 2021, but given his highly-dubious track record I wouldn’t expect it until 2022, if not later.) 

And let me reiterate this notion of fully functional. The “Cyber Truck” is a long way from being that (the “protective glass” demo that went awry already underscored that, live and in color). Again, given Musk’s track record of letting buyers do the final development on its vehicles, to say it will trickle out in fits and starts is an understatement. The people who don’t blindly buy into the pronouncements from Dear Leader Musk understand this. The rest? Well, they already have a picture of the “Cyber Truck” as their screen savers; not much you can do with that, or them. The Muskolytes believe in whatever Musk tells them to believe and they will blindly proclaim their love for the Dear Leader, so that they might bathe in his brilliance.

The Tesla “Cyber Truck” will be a niche of a niche, a “pickup” for elitist swells who truly believe they have it goin’ on. In fact, the entire BEV pickup space is going to be carved into little niches (see Bollinger, etc.). So, if you want to pretend that you’re an F22 pilot, Tesla has your number. As for the rest of the real pickup buyers out there? I’m sure they’ll do just fine without it. 

And the third thing? Try, at least for a moment, to do your part to quell the rancor and chaos that has become part and parcel of our daily life here in America. Try to put aside the knee-jerk reactions and aggressive pronouncements; try to savor the moment of peace and be thankful for the blessings that you do have, instead of harboring resentments for what you don’t. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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


FORD GETS A PARTICIPATION AWARD FOR THE MACH-E. NOW WHAT?
by Editor
18 Nov 2019 at 11:08am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. The big hyped show had the now-obligatory orchestrated Tesla-esque presentation, including the cheering minions and the be-there-or-be-square manufactured “event” quality. And, of course, the sniveling members of the press, who ran the gamut from rabid bootlicking enablers – It’s revolutionary! It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread! (you get the idea) – to a few who had the temerity to actually offer some reasoned perspective. (In other words, it’s a giant “we’ll see” until further notice.)

It even had a Hollywood celebrity on hand – actor Idris Elba – to kick off the show, claiming his fealty to Ford was long-lasting and real, which completely fell flat when the actor and Bill Ford participated in a painfully stilted and forced interview/conversation on stage.

The Ford Mustang Mach-E is yet another new electric crossover (about the size of the Escape) with all of the currently accepted ingredients present and accounted for: rear- or all-wheel-drive; available in both standard-range (75.7 kWh lithium-ion battery) and extended-range (98.8 kWh battery), which has a “targeted” EPA-estimated range of at least 300 miles in rear-wheel-drive configuration (the batteries feature 288 lithium-ion cells in the standard-range version and 376 lithium-ion cells in the extended-range); the battery is located on the floor between the vehicle’s two axles and secured inside a waterproof battery case surrounded by crash-absorption protection; the batteries are liquid-cooled to optimize performance in extreme weather and to improve charging times; the Mach-E is targeting 332 horsepower and 417 lb.-ft. of torque, with other versions getting more (see pics and more info in “On The Table” -WG). 

The Mach-E also features a Tesla-esque interior, featuring a do-everything center stack that is supposed to represent Ford’s advanced “connected” vehicle configuration going forward. (They made the mistake – Mistake No. 1 – of calling it the “next-generation” SYNC. Ford’s signature system has been a glaringly weak link ever since they launched it despite overhauls, fixes and improvements. So why not ditch that compromised – at best – name for this alleged “revolutionary” new Ford?)

So, that about covers the basic ingredients, but it's only the beginning of my thoughts on Ford’s Tesla fighter.

First of all, what about the fact that it’s called Mustang Mach-E? Longtime readers of this website know I have advocated that GM leverage the Corvette image and brand name for an expanded lineup of vehicles for years, in order to go toe-to-toe against Porsche in the market, with the ultimate goal of creating an all-new performance division for GM. I still feel that way. So, why does it feel different for Ford?

I have written about the Mustang being “the soul” of the Ford Motor Company for a decade, with the F-150 being “the franchise.” Make no mistake, the F-150 has been directly responsible for the Ford Motor Company’s profitability for so long now that to imagine the Ford Motor Company without it would be to imagine that the company went out of business. But the Mustang is the remaining link to Ford’s “glory days” of the 60s, when Ford’s “Total Performance” racing/marketing onslaught transformed the company image. (Yes, of course, the Ford GT does that, too, but on a much more limited scale; for most people, the Mustang is Ford’s approachable mainstream sporty car entry.) 

But to call this frumpy looking crossover – squint and it looks like 20 other crossovers in the market – a “Mustang” is so egregiously wrong that it makes me cringe. Let me make this clear: I learned to drive a stick-shift in a 1966 Shelby Mustang GT350. We raced an ex-Bud Moore Mustang Boss 302 in the ’71 Trans-Am season with my brother Tony at the wheel. In short, I know Mustangs, and the Mach-E is no damn Mustang. In fact, it’s a crushing disappointment and an insult to the legacy of the Mustang, especially when you have the blistering fast and perfectly brutal looking new Shelby GT500 Mustang just hitting the streets. 

The fact that Bill Ford got up on stage Sunday night and said that the Mach-E had “soul” is borderline absurd. The Dude does not abide. And no matter how much Ford sound engineers play with the dulcet sewing machine tones of their upcoming BEV, the Mach-E is in no way, shape or form a Mustang. It won’t sound like one, it doesn’t look like one, and just because you can dial up the battery power to make it super fast, it’s not going to feel like one either. 

Ford, like every other automaker, is hell-bent not to be left behind in the BEV race, because that would mean a death sentence, a sign that it is desperately unhip and even worse, irrelevant. So instead of crowning its emboldened thrust into the “next” market with a new nameplate that would signal a new Ford, they hang the Mustang name on it from out of the blue, to the collective groans of “huh?” 

Right now, Ford gets the participation award for coming up with a “me-too” electrified crossover with a patently stupid and ill-advised moniker. And that’s it. But rather than leave you with that thought, I’ll leave you with this: Ford is calling the Mustang Mach-E a 2021 model, which will be out one year from now. Rest assured, given Ford’s dubious track record of blown product launches of late, the likelihood of a Mach-E hitting dealer showrooms in any meaningful numbers before the spring of 2021 is slim. And none.

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


THE SAGA OF THE ORANGE JUICER.
by Editor
12 Nov 2019 at 2:35pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. When “No Particular Place to Go” came over my satellite radio this week, Chuck Berry’s ode to driving took me back a way. A long way back. Because lately, I’ve been thinking about those fleeting moments of my car life. It’s like my fuel-injected, Technicolor dream with a Kodachrome blur thrown in; plus, an accompanying soundtrack that never grows old. 

Our dedicated readers have heard many of my car stories; the Corvette and Cobra adventures riding shotgun with my brother; the surreal moments with GM Design legend Bill Mitchell riding in many of GM’s most memorable concept cars from the 50s and 60s; the racing years as my brother pursued his competition dreams; and on and on. But there are always more stories to regale you with, and this week seemed like a good time to share a few of them.

Only a few of my close friends know about the infamous Orange Juicer. I found an ad in the local paper (I was thirteen) for a Bug go-kart with a McCulloch Mac 6 engine. The kart was beat up and not running, but to me it was a little rocket ready to be brought back to life. The Mac 6 engine was a worthy motor that when right was capable of blistering speeds back then. So, I spent the winter stripping the kart of its ugly green metallic paint; I had my mom drive me down to Ruttman’s in Dearborn to drop off the engine for a rebuild and get some parts ordered, and I slowly but surely created a little jewel of a racing go-kart. 

And when it came time to decide on a color, I went with a bright orange that I applied myself using several spray cans. When finished, I loaded up the go-kart and took it to back to Ruttman’s and they did the final assembly on it. I had ordered a very trick butterfly aluminum steering wheel, a chrome gas tank that hugged the back of the seat, and Ruttman’s put all new front steering, aluminum pedals and brakes on it to complete the build.

When my friends and I unloaded it in the driveway – my mom went inside pretending that whatever was going to happen would be okay – we stood over it thinking it was by far the coolest thing we had ever seen. But starting it would prove to be, ahem, a bit problematic. The Mac 6 was race prepped, and to say it was reluctant to start was an understatement. We must have pulled on that cord at least twenty times, with only a few grunts from the motor to show for our efforts. But, finally, it snorted alive, and afraid it was going to stall out, I jumped in it and took off down the driveway and out into the street.

Now, back then our neighborhood was an endless series of wide, perfectly paved roads with switchbacks, hairpin turns and a few long sweepers mixed in. In other words, it was perfect for a go-kart with a race motor and kids too young enough to know better, or care. So, I gassed that kart for all it was worth, and as most enthusiasts will tell you, there’s nothing – nothing – like a go-kart for the sure thrill of what driving is all about. I was sliding it through corners and powering out of them in oversteer mode as I went screaming through the neighborhood – and I mean scream, that Mac 6 was LOUD – and then turned back so I could blast by the driveway for the benefit of my buddies. I turned around and headed back and saw the big grins on all my buddies’ faces, but none was bigger than mine. 

I hopped out of it and said that it felt really fast. And then I paused for a moment and announced, “I’m going to call it the ‘Orange Juicer’” and everyone stood there reverentially and pronounced it good. We then topped off the tank and checked the oil and found out the hard way that if cold starting the Orange Juicer was a bitch, trying to get it started when hot was damn-near impossible. Once we got it going again, I let my friends drive it, only this time we never allowed the engine to stop between driver changes until we shut it off for the day. And it survived that kind of beating just fine. We terrorized the neighborhood for several days in a row.

It turns out that little go-kart was blistering fast. My brother paced it one day with his car at 65 mph, and through the neighborhood of 25 mph speed limits at just two inches off the ground, believe me, that was fast.

Oh, there were a few incidents to be sure. At one point the chain snapped and almost took one of my buddies' right ear off. And another time an irate neighbor threw a rake at one of my other buddies as he blasted by, he was so pissed-off, but other than that it was a sensational time. 

Well, there was one more episode still worth grinning about after all of these years. After we had been running for hours in 85-degree heat and we were all covered in oil residue and sweat, a local township cop car pulled into the driveway at about four o’clock in the afternoon. We were ready to go out for one more run and he knew it. Stone. Cold. Busted. The young (thank goodness) officer got out of his car and paused for a moment. Now, needless to say, we weren’t supposed to be running the Orange Juicer on the street, but it was so damn addictive we couldn’t help it. So, the officer says, “Nice kart. Now you boys weren’t running it through the neighborhood today, were you.” We all answered in unison, “No, sir.” Then, with a big grin he said, “I didn’t think so.” And he got in his car and left.

We all laughed like a bunch of jackals knowing we had just escaped certain death, or at least trouble with a capital “T.” From then on, we took the Orange Juicer to a local elementary school a few blocks away to run it because it turned out it had a circular drive that if driven just right formed a perfect little oval track. Even my brother relished taking the Orange Juicer out for some laps back then.

Was there an Orange Juicer Mk II? Why yes, there was. But it was a bright orange Chevrolet panel van that was used primarily to move band equipment around in. That generated a whole new set of adventures, as you might imagine. 

Will there be an Orange Juicer Mk III? You just never know. I often fantasize about a bright orange early 70s Porsche 911. Or an Arancio Borealis Lamborghini Huracan or a Papaya McLaren, but there will never be another Orange Juicer Mk I. 

And maybe that’s how it should be.

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


OH, PENDULUM, WHERE ART THOU?
by Editor
5 Nov 2019 at 8:47am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. As we rush headlong into the unknown with this electrification thing, and the corrupt union management thing, and another round of the subprime loans thing, the thing that bothers me most right now is the degradation of design that continues to play out before our eyes. As I’ve said repeatedly in this column, as we go forward with similar electrified propulsion systems, design’s role as the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator will become even more important. After all, if the whisper-jet power systems rely on artificially-tuned sounds, the only thing left to create brand character are the exterior designs themselves. 

Compelling, beautiful design lures people in; it’s what makes people look and want to see more, and ultimately buy. Which is why I am more than a little concerned with where we are today with design. A quick tour of the latest "electrified" designs coming from auto manufacturers is frankly scary. Why? Everything looks alike. And the vehicles making their way around the American landscape are too often predictable, boring and uninteresting. I get the fact that we’re living in an all-SUV-all-the-time world, but it’s getting ridiculous out there. Here are a few examples of what electrification has wrought:

(Mercedes-Benz)

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz EQC. It doesn't exactly scream "Mercedes," does it?

(Audi)

The 2020 Audi E-Tron. Q5-inspired? Ugh.

(Infiniti)

The Infiniti Q Inspiration and Qs Inspiration forecast the brand’s new design strategy. We Can Wait.

(Nissan)

The Nissan Ariya Concept. We Can Wait, Part II.

(Volkswagen)

The Volkswagen ID. Space Vizzion Concept. Uh, huh?

(Ford)

And Ford has teased its concept for a “Mustang-inspired” electrified SUV that has been dubbed Mach-E although everyone in the automotive world hopes that this is not the final name. (Please say it isn’t so, Ford.) And "Mustang-inspired"? It sounds more than a little depressing frankly, but we'll classify it as a giant "we'll see" for now and leave it at that.

So, what the hell is going on out there? Even the future-look concepts are SUV/Crossover things that are as inspiring to look at as the cereal aisle at the grocery store. Check that, actually the cereal aisle has more vision and imagination in their box designs than I’m seeing in these rolling monuments to mediocrity. The easy explanation is that consumers are all the way gone for SUV/Crossovers. They’ve decided that they're more useful and more convenient to get in and out of, so, end of story. As in, why bother with anything else? And it’s clear that the design houses at the various automakers have pretty much given in to that reality. 

Or is it? There’s a growing trend among younger car buyers when it comes to cars – at least the ones who haven’t entered the “having kids” stage – that indicates that the desire for sedans is coming back. It’s the old “we’d rather not drive what our parents drove” chestnut rearing its head.

Is it real? It’s too early to tell. (Full disclosure: a local couple took over the lease on my Alfa Romeo Stelvio. I am now driving a sedan.) The sameness of the SUV/Crossover Hell we’re living in right now is undeniable. The suburban slog around here is populated with massive pickup trucks and SUV/Crossovers. Audi? BMW? Cadillac? Mercedes-Benz? Porsche? Ford? Chevrolet? GMC? Buick? Does it really matter? They’re all variations on the same SUV/Crossover theme; they run together in a blur of alleged practicality – and hugeness – that has grown to be mind-numbing and relentlessly tedious. That’s why when a car like a Challenger or a Corvette rumbles by, or even a crisply executed sedan appears out of the blue, it’s almost a revelation.

Will the pendulum ever swing back? I am out there looking for it right now, but given the projected designs I am seeing for the Electrification Age I am more than a little concerned. Designers around the globe appear to be stuck in neutral designing variations on the rolling box theme, shifting a line here, playing with the greenhouse there and coming up with basically the same damn thing. 

How uninspiring is that?

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


MONSTERS AND OTHER SCARY STUFF.
by Editor
29 Oct 2019 at 3:49pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Now that the glowing, borderline euphoric reports about the new 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 are streaming in, it’s clear that the automotive enthusiast world is being gifted another 700HP+ (760HP to be exact) high-performance monster for the street. 

That it’s the first GT500 that actually handles with aplomb and stops with equal ability to match its blistering performance – 0 to 60mph in 3.3 seconds and 10.7 seconds in the ¼-mile (or thereabouts) – is excellent news, since the Shelby GT500s of the past were nose-heavy blunderbusses that didn’t particularly live up to their vaunted reputations. 

By all accounts the True Believers at Ford have delivered the best Mustang ever built – unless you fancy the normally-aspirated Shelby GT350, of course – and for a starting price of $70,000+ (although you can easily spend $20,000+ on options), it damn well better be.

(Ford)

That this seems to be Ford’s last gasp in the high-performance internal combustion arena, before it starts fumbling around with high-performance electrified crossovers – let’s hope the excruciatingly bad “Mach-E” moniker is just a code name for their “Mustang-inspired” SUV EV – is obvious. In fact, we’re witnessing the beginning of a clear demarcation in the automotive market as we know it, with the “new” represented by electrified vehicles of all stripes and the “old” being represented by internal combustion engine-powered vehicles.

Although I don’t think it will be that simple. 

As I’ve stated many times before, “ICE” vehicles will be around for decades in various shapes, sizes and forms. And that will be especially true in the high-performance arena, where the sizzle and hum from electric EVs do not sit well with buyers who appreciate their high performance accompanied by a visceral soundtrack that hits the gut. 

Yes, EVs can be blistering fast, that has been well documented time and again. But it’s how you go fast that will come into play for a lot of enthusiasts. Which is why cars like the new Shelby GT500 Mustang and the super-heated Challengers and Chargers from Dodge will continue to hold sway with enthusiasts for years to come. The same goes for the all-new mid-engine Corvette, and of course the exotics from Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren (and others). Porsche couldn’t possibly be hyping its new Taycan EV more, but the 911 and 718 sports cars will live on as ICEs, eventually with hybrid systems built-in, but that special sound will be part and parcel of the Porsche “aura” for the foreseeable future. 

Back to this aforementioned clear demarcation thing. There are already pitchfork-wielding EV zealots out there vehemently denouncing drivers of ICE vehicles as pathetic Luddites who are clinging to the past. I suppose that is no surprise, after all why would we expect any different considering the uncivil behavior that passes for political discourse these days?

Before now the hoary formula proffered by the anti-car, anti-Detroit hordes was that Detroit = Bad, and everybody else, i.e., The Imports = Good. But Detroit got better at building cars and especially trucks and that formula is obsolete. Now, a new formula has emerged, which skips the anti-Detroit bashing altogether and which has EVs = Good, and everything else, specifically ICEs = Bad. 

This abrupt demarcation may please the EV zealots, but it requires a suspension of belief that has no basis in reality. Yes, of course, EVs are coming, and a wide array of them in almost every segment you can think of too. But that doesn’t mean that the acceptance of EVs will be automatic, especially for lower-income buyers and people who live in apartment buildings with no easy access to overnight charging, to name two disconnects.

Just one example of the speculation about the degree of success that EVs will actually have? The entire industry is buzzing about VW’s major EV investment to the tune of over $50 billion, because it is either going to turn out to be the most brilliant thing the company has ever done post the Diesel debacle, or it could end up being a devastatingly slow starter that could cripple the company permanently. That’s the thing about demarcations these days. It’s rarely – if ever – a cut-and-dried proposition. Instead, it’s a divide with a huge gray area in-between, which will see some players succeed and others go down in flames. 

I think EVs will have success in the higher-end segments and in very specific niche applications. For instance, Bollinger seems to have the right idea with its trucks in that they are starting with the premise that they have no intention of being all things to all people, and because of this “not for everyone” positioning the company has a good chance at being successful for buyers with access to horse country, hunting lodges and ranches, and who think nothing of spending thousands on a weekend hunting outfit, even though the only hunting they might do is for an older bourbon that no one else has.

As for the monster ICE machines, I say bring ‘em on. Because the day the sound and fury fades away is the day life as we know it will get darker and less interesting.

A scary thought indeed. 

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


THINGS THAT MAKE YOU ASK? WHY?
by Editor
22 Oct 2019 at 8:43am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. We’re right back in the swirling maelstrom this week as the automobile business continues to careen between good tidings and bad news at a dizzying rate. On the one hand the GM strike seems to be over, with ratification from the UAW rank and file seemingly on track. But then it’s Ford and FCA’s turn in the barrel, and more strikes are not out of the realm of possibility. So, there’s that.

That this isn’t a business for the faint of heart has been well documented, and the difference between success and abject failure is razor thin. The success part is usually fleeting, a momentary day in the sun before “the grind” presses on. As for the failure part, the two most dangerous words in this business are complacency and mediocrity, because when those two pillars of ugliness take hold of an organization, bad things inevitably ensue.

And why is that? Why, in this day and age, after everything that has transpired in this business over the last decade, would complacency and mediocrity even have a place at the table? Why, indeed.

Let’s take Ford, for instance. As the naysayers seem to have faded into the woodwork about CEO Jim “The Professor” Hackett, with the media apparently having been been lulled into thinking that Hackett could be “the guy” (not yours truly, of course), all of a sudden Ford has another product launch debacle on its hand. Only this time it goes right to the heart of its profitability, with the new Explorer and Lincoln Aviator. 

Are these good vehicles? No, they’re excellent vehicles, with impressive execution and an overall refinement that is noteworthy. And they’re crucial to the success of the company going forward. Yes, the vaunted F-150 is “the franchise,” but Ford needs these two vehicles to soar in this SUV-crazy sales environment that drives the market today. And to have these vehicles beset with problems is inexplicable. Yes, some are minor, but some are glaring faults with systems and electronics that simply shouldn’t be occurring. Why is this happening? There are rumors of personnel unrest in the Chicago assembly plant where the vehicles are built, but this isn’t the first time that Ford has had problems with the launch of a new vehicle. In fact, Ford has a checkered history with botched product launches, and to see this happening again is unacceptable. 

Ford operatives are insisting that all is well now, and that the vehicles are being delivered to dealers as planned, but the question remains, why? With the new “enlightened” Hackett era allegedly taking hold at Ford, why did this happen? And the buck stops with Hackett, in case you’re wondering. He’s responsible and now all of the doubts about him have resurfaced and he’s right back where he started, which is under the gun. I’ve never been a believer in the Hackett “aura” and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. And the bad news for Ford is that the “whys?” far outnumber the answers at this point.

But of course, Ford is not alone in the “why?” business. You only have to look across town at General Motors to see that. Let’s consider the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, which is “the franchise” for GM. It generates tremendous profits for the company and it has been the bedrock for the Chevrolet division for decades. No, it hasn’t eclipsed the Ford F-150 in sales for four decades, but it was comfortably and solidly in the No. 2 position and combined with the extra juice delivered by the GMC Sierra pickup, it allowed GM to remain a formidable force in the market. 

Until recently, that is, because FCA’s Ram truck has upended the status quo in the pickup segment and has passed Chevrolet to become the No. 2 pickup truck in the market. According to Automotive News, Silverado has 22.6 percent of the full-size pickup segment in the first nine months of this year. That’s down from 24.2 percent a year earlier. And Ram? It has 25.2 percent of the full-size pickup market after the first nine months of this year, which is up from 21.4 percent from a year ago. And those numbers don’t reflect the disruption from the strike. (For the record, Ford has 36.5 percent of the full-size pickup truck market, down from 38.6 percent a year ago.)

How did this happen, or better yet, why did this happen? Is the Silverado a good truck? No, it’s an excellent truck - the best-engineered pickup ever built by GM. But to a lot of customers, apparently, the Ram is that much better. For some reason, GM pulled back on the interior of the Silverado, figuring that buyers wouldn’t want or need some of the detailed features found on the Ram, including Ram’s massive 12-inch center stack screen. Whether this was a case of GM operatives figuring that “good enough was good enough” while making the obviously flawed assumption that pickup customers wouldn’t care, or it was simply a cost-tinged decision, it really doesn’t matter, because customers who got into a Ram instead of a Silverado are now out of the market for at least two to three years, and it will be very expensive for GM to get them back. If they can get them back.

This development in the full-size pickup truck market would have been inconceivable as little as three years ago, and the entire industry is looking at this and asking, “Why?” As in how could GM allow this to happen? How can GM squander a franchise like the Silverado and cede huge market share to a rival? Make no mistake, this is a crushing development for GM. Brand loyalty is usually ironclad in the full-size pickup segment, and to see these Chevrolet buyers wandering off to Ram - buyers who may never return - does not bode well for GM’s future profitability. 

In case you're wondering, the “whys” will continue to vex this business as long as it exists. It’s a simple formula, actually: Complacency + mediocrity = loss of customers and market share. And from there the downward spiral begins. 

Will Ford and GM get a handle on these “whys?” and back them up with solid answers and meaningful improvement? It’s a giant “we’ll see” at this point.

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


THE SUN SETS ON THE GERMAN CAR THING.
by Editor
15 Oct 2019 at 9:14am

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. There is a lot of hand-wringing going on in The Biz right now about German luxury cars and their falling residual values. Automotive News even mentioned it in this week’s issue. One entity quoted in the piece suggested that Tesla was the culprit, insisting that the success of the Model 3 has turned the market upside down. Hardly. That statement is wrong-headed and flat-out silly, and not worth going into.

What’s really going on is that the years of egregious behavior on part of the German automakers is finally taking its toll, and it’s going to get uglier. But before we get into that, let’s remember the halcyon days when the German automakers created their reputations almost solely based on their legacy of performance on the Autobahn, a nirvana-like dream state that driving enthusiasts over here could only imagine, unless they took a trip over to Germany to experience it for themselves.

Back then, German cars felt different, looked different and hell, they even smelled different than what we were used to over here, especially since our domestic auto industry at the time was churning out craptastic monuments to mediocrity at a furious rate. 

Everything about German cars back then was damn-near mesmerizing - the fit, the finish, the details, the quality and most important, the driving difference they offered. It was a whole ‘nother country in terms of the automotive spectrum, and American driving enthusiasts were hungry to partake. 

And the ad themes resonated too: “Engineered Like No Other Car in The World” (Mercedes-Benz). “The Ultimate Driving Machine” (BMW). “There Is No Substitute” (Porsche). The campaigns were filled with Autobahn runs and idyllic coastal drives that implied that you were really missing something and your life would be better if you drove one of these glittering German high-performance machines. People bought into the German Car Thing in droves, and the American market was transformed because of it.

Remember the hilarious scene in Lost in America, the brilliant Albert Brooks film where he was talking on the phone to “Hans” at the Mercedes-Benz dealer about buying a Mercedes and Hans was explaining the details of the car and the cost? It was a minor scene early-on in the movie and then Albert’s character gets blown out of his ad job and he never actually buys the Mercedes, but it spoke volumes. The German Car Thing was actually a thing.

The German Car Thing swept everything in its path, especially at the domestic automakers, as they scrambled to crack the German car code with “Euro-like” entries of their own. American cars sprouted numbers instead of names, vinyl tops and white walls were ditched in favor of black wall performance tires and aluminum wheels, and the designs were heavily influenced by “the German look.”

That didn’t mean, of course, that the American entries had the substance of the German cars, but they scrambled to ride the wave anyway. When I was working at Pontiac’s ad agency back in the day, I remember sitting through a lengthy presentation by Pontiac operatives about how the Pontiac 6000 STE would be The Answer to the German Car Thing. (I fell asleep in the meeting only to be elbowed by a co-worker to wake up; it was that inspiring.)

And who could forget the ill-fated Cadillac Cimarron, the hastily put together and shockingly offensive effort by GM to capture the European wave? Based on the forlorn GM “J” cars (Chevy Cavalier, etc.), the Cimarron was an unmitigated disaster of badge engineering and an absolute low point for GM (one of many, it turns out). 

There were other entries, of course. Ford jump-started its “Euro” efforts by actually importing its Mercury Merkur models from Germany. This seemed like a savvy idea on paper, but Merkur was almost dead on arrival in this market, performing listlessly until the experiment was ended in less than five years. And there were countless other “Touring” and “Sport” models unleashed from the domestic manufacturers too. 

But the largely reactionary efforts did little to stem the tide of the German onslaught on the American market. And slowly but surely the realization came over the American automakers that in order to really compete, they had to actually design and build better cars – what a concept - which we can thank the German manufacturers for.

But the good times couldn’t last, because over time the German automakers got sloppy and greedy. Their collective arrogance deluded them into thinking that everything they touched would automatically turn to gold in the U.S. market. They started churning out models for every niche – both real and imagined – they could think of. Model proliferation became standard operating procedure, and they started playing in segments they had no business being in. Going down-market, the German manufacturers started peeling the luster off of their brand images, layer by layer, year by year.

And even worse, in their quest to generate more and more volume, the German automakers started playing big in the leasing game, becoming so dependent on incentivized leasing to prop up their sales that leasing now accounts for around 50 percent and above of monthly sales volumes for Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. (You’ve all seen the ads. the seductive - and illusory - lease number per month that sounds great until you factor in the down stroke, which adds at least $200-$300 per month to the total.) But those low payments have a devastating cost, resulting in highly depressed residuals at the end of the leases, which is where all of the aforementioned hand-wringing comes in. 

This just in: It simply isn’t sustainable.

So where does that leave the German Car Thing? In tatters, frankly. The democratization of technology has made the finest ingredients in performance and safety available to any automaker that wants to pay for it. You only have to look as far as the elevated car making by the Korean manufacturers to see that. And the American manufacturers have elevated their games too. Not to mention Lexus, which remains formidable. 

Unlike when the German wave first started, consumers have choices. And with the German automakers having moved down-market, they find themselves fighting myriad competitors for smaller – and less profitable – slices of the pie. You’re seeing “suites” of technology equipped on lower-cost models that used to be exclusive to the German luxury manufacturers, but that simply is no longer true. A consumer can get a tremendous car without paying the freight for what used to be a mythically attractive German luxury-performance machine.

The raison d’etre for The German Car Thing has all but been destroyed. Yes, of course, they still make outstanding machines, but you have to spend over six figures to get something really special.

Can this slide be reversed? I don’t see the German manufacturers reducing their collective sales volumes to restore their brand integrity. They’re simply too far gone down the high-volume road to turn back now. 

The ugly reality is that greed ultimately killed The German Car Thing, and now they can put their sunglasses away, because their day in the sun is officially over.

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


HAGGARD HACKS AND GLORIFIED VAPORWARE.
by Editor
8 Oct 2019 at 5:02pm

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. While savoring the most beautiful weather of the year around these parts, I was jolted out of my Fall stupor by longtime reader Jim Jones, who hails from Missouri, and had this to say: 

The “On The Table” column features the VW ID. Buzz van for what seems like the 809th time. While not blaming AE directly for this, I, for one, am getting weary of seeing this whatchamacallit splashed everywhere, on every venue or medium VW can find. So exactly WHEN will VW deem fit to bestow this and the other iterations of ID Buzz? Somebody? Anybody? Bueller?

Excellent point, Jim. One of our favorite sayings around here at AE is “It Won’t Be Long Now!” And it’s not a compliment. We grew to embrace this homegrown saying after sitting through countless auto show press conferences while watching an endless parade of executives get up in front of the assembled carpal-tunnel-burdened wretches in the press and promising that not only do they have it goin’ on, but that their flashy new products and guaranteed sales success are “just around the corner!” 

This was rarely true, of course. The reality was that a Haggard Hack du jour from the fill-in-the-blank car company was dancing in front of his or her bosses – and the press – to save his or her job after a shocking decline in sales, blown product introductions, and our favorite go-to reason: serial incompetence. 

A dead giveaway in these pressers is when said executive gets up to talk about a vehicle that is at least eighteen months away, but everyone in the room knows that’s only if the planets align just right and that particular car company manages to launch the first product in its recent history on time, on budget and with no issues. And given that particular car company’s past performances, the chances of that happening are slim. And none. 

After sitting through one too many of these presentations – an exercise in Tedious Maximus, as Janice says (we don’t call her WordGirl for nothin’) – we developed our own phrase for automotive futility, aka “It Won’t Be Long Now!” 

It has worked satisfyingly well for these past two decades of AE, and it is still shockingly accurate in this day of “perfect” (cough, hack) product launches and flawless products (How about no?).

We only have to look as far as the new and highly touted Lincoln Aviator, which by all accounts has the potential to be a standout entry in its segment, (and which has Matthew McConaughey beating the drum on its behalf in a series of ever more annoying TV spots that are bound to make you sick of it before you even see one in the wild), but I digress. Well, it seems that the greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread, brand-spanking-new Aviator has been plagued by a series of annoying issues big and small, as first reported in the Detroit Free Press. 

These various issues have required Ford to bring the newly assembled Aviators back to its Flat Rock assembly facility – where the company has performed countless “fixes” on new product launches in the past – to deal with issues that are simply unacceptable for a new product in this day and age. Nothing ever changes with Ford it seems; it has this two-steps forward and five-back dance of mediocrity down pat when it comes to launching vehicles. But to hear the denizens of Dearborn tell it, the good times are right around the corner, and, you guessed it – “It Won’t Be Long Now!”

But bungled product launches are only one situation when our pet phrase resonates and is deliciously appropriate. The other, as referenced at the beginning of this column, is the constant drum beating about products that are so far over the horizon that even if you squint you can’t imagine them seeing the light of day.

The worst example happens to go to Ford – again – when they botched the return of the Thunderbird years ago. They showed it at the Detroit Auto Show as a concept; then at the following Detroit show they showed it again as a production version. Then they showed it again at the next Detroit show, because it was about to hit the dealers at any moment; except it didn’t because they had massive production problems, which completely botched the launch. By the time the actual production car had hit the dealerships it had been hanging around for three and one-half years and was correctly deemed as being yesterday’s news. No wonder it died a quick death.

And remember when GM first showed the return of the Camaro – as a concept – at the Detroit Auto Show? It didn’t come out for three long years after that and in the interim appeared in the Transformers movie franchise and showed up at other various car events. The initial impact of that memorable unveiling – when they brought out famous Camaro racing cars of the past – was lost because the surprise was totally gone. In that case it was, in fact, a long time. And I remain convinced that it seriously hurt the relaunch of the Camaro.

And now here we have VW beating its reincarnation of its famous microbus, the all-electric ID. Buzz. It’s cool, it has captured the hearts and the imagination of a lot of people – young and old alike – and it has generated ahem, tremendous “buzz” for VW. But what’s wrong with this picture? How about everything? No, not with the product, because if VW can’t get 350 miles of range out of it by the time it hits the streets, I will be shocked. It’s the reality of when the ID. Buzz will be available to the public, which is shaping up to be 2023. Yup, five years after it was first shown to the public and four long years from now.

I get it, VW is so desperate to put the massive negativity associated with the Diesel cheating scandal behind it that it is going all-in on electrification and the ID. Buzz is one of its glittering electric show ponies. But there is no way that VW can scream “It Won’t Be Long Now!” because this just in: the ID. Buzz might as well be glorified vaporware at this point. 

And it doesn’t matter how many Nike appearances (see “On The Table” -WG) and other creative attempts at keeping the “buzz” going for the public VW comes up with, because the ID. Buzz will be ancient history by the time it finally hits the dealerships. And that’s a giant microbus of Not Good.

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



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