The Truth About Cars » Interview The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Fri, 28 Aug 2015 20:00:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars » Interview Dreamweaver – Living The Dream With His Feet Planted Firmly In The Real World Wed, 03 Apr 2013 14:02:09 +0000 I’m not a reporter. I don’t even pretend to be one. What I do is tell stories and sometimes, if I am fortunate, they resonate with people. So when guy name Joe here in Buffalo contacted me and offered me a ride in his 1995 Lotus Esprit I was torn. Naturally, I wanted a ride, […]

The post Dreamweaver – Living The Dream With His Feet Planted Firmly In The Real World appeared first on The Truth About Cars.


I’m not a reporter. I don’t even pretend to be one. What I do is tell stories and sometimes, if I am fortunate, they resonate with people. So when guy name Joe here in Buffalo contacted me and offered me a ride in his 1995 Lotus Esprit I was torn. Naturally, I wanted a ride, who wouldn’t? Still, I had to tell him up-front that I didn’t know if that a ride would generate a story good enough for the illustrious readership here at TTAC. Luckily for me, he invited me over anyhow and I got my ride, but in the end it turns out I was right. A ride, no matter how exhilarating, really wasn’t enough for me to create an entire story. That’s fortunate though, because Joe’s story about his almost lifelong connection to this one specific car is better than anything I could have invented.

To an ordinary guy like myself, the Lotus Esprit is one of those legendary cars that only live in posters on the walls of kids’ bedrooms. It is a low wedge of a car built for speed and handling and the car I found waiting for me in the driveway next to Joe’s house looked painfully out-of-place in the working class Buffalo neighborhood. The fact that it occupied a space next to a Renault Alliance, Motor Trend’s Car of the Year back in 1983, blew my mind, but the truth is that both cars are perfectly representative of the amazing person that their owner is. The Lotus is what Joe aspired to when he was a child and the Renault is where he comes from. The fact that he has both says something good about the man.

The car was low and difficult for me to clamber into, but once inside it felt surprisingly roomy and comfortable. The engine behind me hummed with pure energy as Joe put the car out onto the main road near his house, the pop off valve hissing impressively every time he switched gears. “This is one of those cars that gets a bad rep,” said Joe, “I don’t think that reputation is deserved though. A lot of guys take them out, flog them before they get fully warmed up, don’t rev match when they downshift and they generally beat on them. It’s a hand-built car, after all, I mean back in 1995 they only built 46 of them. TThese things need a little more TLC than your average sports car, but they are damn good cars” We continued up the rutted street, Joe using the car’s superior handling to dodge manhole covers and, as we drove, Joe’s amazing story trickled out.

When he was a kid, Joe was fascinated with the Esprit. He studied the specs in the magazines, read about them in books, admired them in film and photo and decided that one day he would own one. So intense was his desire that as a 14 year old riding with his mother, when he saw one on the road he forced her to turn around and chase after it. “I believe in the code of exotic car ownership, “Joe told me as he grabbed third gear, “One of the rules is that when kids come up and ask about your car that you encourage their interest. I know exactly what that means.“ The owner, it turned out was of a similar opinion and he encouraged the boy’s interest. The two soon became friends.

Eventually the cost of speeding tickets and insurance became too much and Joe’s friend sold the Lotus. Joe mourned the loss of the car, but continued his friendship. Flash forward almost a decade when Joe, a recent college graduate, decided to make his lifelong dream of Esprit ownership come true. “I got on-line and looked at dozens of ads for used cars.” He told me, “I knew exactly what I wanted, a 95 Esprit S4 like my friend’s and it took a long time to find one. On the very last page of the classifieds I finally found the perfect one. It was in Texas but I knew right away that this was the car. There was only one made in this color combination, it was my friend’s – the same Esprit I first saw when I was 14.” Joe contacted his friend and flew him out to Texas to check out the car. It turned out his suspicions were right. “I sent a check and had my friend drive it back to Buffalo. I have had it ever since and I’ll never sell it.”

As we headed home we passed an old steel mill, now shuttered and dark. “My dad worked In that building for 38 years.” Joe said over the growl of the super car’s engine. “Buffalo is changing and those changes have taken a lot of jobs with them. This town has been on a downward spiral for a lot of years but I think we’re past the worst of it, though.” He said hopefully, “The industry is gone but the people have always been what made this town special. They still do, Buffalo is the city of good neighbors, you know?”

Back at home the Lotus slipped into its spot next to its polar opposite, the battered Renault. “I always wanted this,” said Joe from the seat of the Lotus, “But I grew up in that.” He said waving to the small car. “My dad was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and I got that so we have something to work on together when he gets better. I had to spend a lot of time finding one like he had, but I finally got it. I think we’re going to have a good time with it.”

The childhood dreams that most of us have fade away over the years as we grow into adulthood so it’s nice to know that sometimes people make those dreams a reality. It’s nicer still, to know someone who lives those dreams but remains firmly grounded. Joe knows who he is, where he is from and what is really important in life. It was my honor to meet him and to tell some of his story. That’s all I can do, I hope it resonates.

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

The post Dreamweaver – Living The Dream With His Feet Planted Firmly In The Real World appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

]]> 26
“Forget Volume:” After Work Talk With Johan de Nysschen, CEO Of Infiniti. Part 2 Thu, 27 Sep 2012 08:15:16 +0000 In Part 1 of our talk with Infiniti CEO Johan de Nysschen at his new office at the Infiniti world headquarters in Hong Kong, we talked about his new job, about new directions for Infiniti, and for the brand. In the second part, we talk about the new cars Infiniti will bring, where they will […]

The post “Forget Volume:” After Work Talk With Johan de Nysschen, CEO Of Infiniti. Part 2 appeared first on The Truth About Cars.


In Part 1 of our talk with Infiniti CEO Johan de Nysschen at his new office at the Infiniti world headquarters in Hong Kong, we talked about his new job, about new directions for Infiniti, and for the brand. In the second part, we talk about the new cars Infiniti will bring, where they will be made, what engines will be in them, and what deNysschen thinks about the plan to sell half a million by 2016.

In April at the Beijing auto show, Nissan’s Andy Palmer said he wants to see 500,000 Infiniti sold by 2016, while conceding that this is “an aggressive target.” In the last fiscal year, Infiniti sold 141,000 units worldwide, 105,000 of those in the Americas. In carefully crafted words, de Nysschen explains what he thinks of the 500,000 unit target:

“Forget volume. Whether those 500,000 come in 2015 or 2018 is less important. We are building a brand. If you put the volume first, and every day when you go home you check whether you hit the scoreboard, that forces you into a more short term orientation.”

As strong product portfolio “is the very core of establishing a brand,” says de Nysschen, and he wants more and better product.

Already in the pipeline is a “new compact premium model that we will position below the current G as a car that will be manufactured in Europe.” De Nysschen does not want to comment on reports that this compact premium is being developed together with Daimler, and that it will be built at Magna-Steyr in Austria, but his face says that the reports are not delusional.

A second new Infiniti ”is in the consideration phase, not yet in the decision phase,” but when it is decided, then this car “potentially could, I say COULD be manufactured in Mexico.” Why not in the US? Because Mexico has a free trade agreement with Europe, the U.S. has not.

There definitely will be an Infiniti to be built in China, actually two, as a start. “We have to expand our footprint in China,” says de Nysschen. “China has got to be a new volume hub for us, and a prerequisite for a volume hub is localization.”

Despite the disclaimers, de Nysschen states that “so now already we have three other factories that would complement the production in Tochigi.” Tochigi is Nissan’s plant north of Tokyo that currently produces most Infiniti models, all for export. Straining under the high yen, this is an expensive proposition, and producing in three locations outside of Japan will make the yen more palatable..

De Nysschen is outspoken in his demand for a halo car: “I want to have a product that will be emotionally appealing, and also very premium, and which very easily will draw a great deal of attention.”

Tying de Nysschen down to something more specific becomes a bit of a fencing act with a very agile opponent. No, it won’t be what at Audi he would have called a “D-class” car or “what we call the F segment here. That is a market segment that is populated by the S-Class, the 7-Series, the A8. No, I don’t think we want to enter that segment, it is overpopulated, its customers tend to be very conservative and very brand loyal.”

Then what?

De Nysschen feints, throws out a few other segments where “Infiniti has white space,” from crossovers to “wagons for Europe.” When I suggest that a high end Infiniti sports car could surely be very appealing and would draw a lot of attention, de Nysschen stops me in mid-sentence, issues a warning look and says: “Let’s leave it at that.” Cut off, I am unable to elicit whether the aspirational auto will be one of the four aforementioned, or whether it will be a fifth one.

With the Nissan GT-R, with a possibly resurrected Renault Alpine Berlinette, and with talk about possibly another sporty luxury brand residing under Renault, there should be enough DNA around for a successful super-sport cross-fertilization. It could do Infiniti good.

While we are busy creating new rumors, de Nysschen takes the opportunity of squashing old ones. Before he does that, de Nysschen paints a hyper-realistic picture of Web 2.0 car journalism:

One reporter reads or hears something, he interprets it in a slightly different way so that he can report it uniquely and originally, and by the time the 20th reporter does that, we have something that it is very distant from the truth.”

True, true.

A prime example of those twenty degrees of separation are recent reports that Infiniti wants to deprive the world of the V8. Emphatically not true, says de Nysschen. He won’t “instruct our development engineers to design a new 6 liter V8.” But kill the current V8s? Heavens, no. Actually, he praises the wisdom of U.S. lawmakers that prevented wholesale murder of the mighty mills:

“With the way the American legislation has been formulated, with trucks in the American definition having to comply with a different set of requirements than passenger cars, there will be less urgency to phase out the big V8s.”

The V8s also could be made more efficient, as an ecologically responsible de Nysschen quickly adds.

But in the very long term, de Nysschen thinks that big bad engines definitely could be endangered species:

 “One of the inevitable phenomena that comes with wanting to reduce the carbon footprints, and reduce emissions and consumption, is that that displacement will come down and that the vehicles will become lighter without compromising on performance. In the long run, I could imagine that the high performance ICE of the future will be a smaller displacement V6 that probably uses turbocharging technology and a whole host of engine management, extracts a great deal of power and in the combination with lighter weight gives a vehicle with improved handling dynamics and lower fuel consumption without sacrificing one grain of driving enjoyment and performance.”

While the world will not be deprived of V8-powered Infinitis for the foreseeable future, de Nysschen needs smaller engines fast. When he was touring dealers and regions, one question was asked again and again: Where are the four cylinders? At that, de Nysschen gets, well, stimulated:

We need an extension of the available powertrains. We need smaller capacity 4 cylinder engines for China, Europe, and the U.S. In the U.S., where one would think big powerful engines are common, half of the BMW 5-Series sedans are bought with small engines. Same with the 3-Series. With the Audi A4, the take rate for four cylinders is 80 percent. We don’t have anything to play. We need the same for Europe where the penalties for powerful engines with the CO2 taxation is quite large, and of course, we need diesel. You can’t play in Europe without diesel.”

Working at an Infiniti that is owned by Nissan, de Nysschen is daily asked to render a confession of faith in the electric vehicle, and he is ready for it before I am done asking the question:

Every car company right now should be working on some form of electric vehicle. If they aren’t, they are going to be behind the curve. That does not mean that we want to have an Infiniti version of the Nissan Leaf. We have our own ideas of what we want. The young premium consumers are very progressive and forward thinking in terms of technology. I want to make sure that Infiniti has a compelling offering for that audience as well.”

Also, says de Nysschen, as a future big player in China, Infiniti must be ready for stringent requirements in terms of emissions and consumption.

The sun has set somewhere over China as I ask de Nysschen a last question. How does he feel that Infiniti cars don’t get sold in Japan? Does he want to change this?

“Philosophically, I would say the answer has to be yes. Ironically, we take models that are unique Infiniti platforms, developed for Infiniti, and in Japan, we put a Nissan badge on them. I want to go and speak to my colleagues who are responsible for the Japanese domestic market and explore a way in a pragmatic manner in which we can respect their needs and their expectations and their requirements for the Nissan dealer network, but also that we can give Infiniti the opportunity to establish the brand in its home market.”

After emigrating to Hong Kong, Infiniti might finally come home to Japan.

The post “Forget Volume:” After Work Talk With Johan de Nysschen, CEO Of Infiniti. Part 2 appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

]]> 11
After Work Talk With Johan de Nysschen, CEO Of Infiniti. Part One Tue, 25 Sep 2012 12:30:00 +0000 A few months ago, Nissan’s Infiniti premium division moved out of the office building in Yokohama and out from the shadow of its parent company. Infiniti set up its new world headquarters in Hong Kong. Nissan also snagged Audi’s America-chief Johan de Nysschen as Infiniti’s new boss. Last Friday, after work, we sat down with […]

The post After Work Talk With Johan de Nysschen, CEO Of Infiniti. Part One appeared first on The Truth About Cars.


A few months ago, Nissan’s Infiniti premium division moved out of the office building in Yokohama and out from the shadow of its parent company. Infiniti set up its new world headquarters in Hong Kong. Nissan also snagged Audi’s America-chief Johan de Nysschen as Infiniti’s new boss. Last Friday, after work, we sat down with de Nysschen in his new office on the 35th floor of the Citibank Tower in Hong Kong’s downtown, to talk about his and Infiniti’s plans for the future. This is a two-part interview. The second part will appear tomorrow.

De Nysschen’s office is spacious, but subdued in comparison to the workplaces of other leaders of industry. No armed guards, no sometimes more dangerous personal assistants bar the entry. He sits at a working man’s desk: Three computers of various sizes, a printer. A glass door provides limited privacy from otherwise open floor offices with space for maybe 100 people when Infiniti’s World Headquarters are fully staffed. So how does the new CEO like the new office in the new city?

Space is more constrained in Hong Kong, but the view is better. From my old office in Auburn Hills, on a clear day, I you could see Chrysler. From here … “ de Nysschen makes as sweeping motion while the sun sets over a still unfamiliar Hong Kong skyline, and he stops. “Honestly, the two months I have been here, I haven’t had time to admire the view a lot.”

He also did not spend much time at the office. His severely battered aluminum Rimowa case in hand, de Nysschen went on a familiarization tour around the world, met with customers, dealers, importers, employees.

De Nysschen is a self-confessed workaholic:

“60 days into this job , I can tell you that it has been quite a while that I had worked that hard and around the clock. I like to  immerse myself into the business. This is immensely stimulating.”

“Stimulating” is a word we will hear more often tonight.

Impressed by the surroundings, I immediately inquire how one gets such a job. It turns out that de Nysschen and Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn go a long ways back to the times when both of them had arrived in Japan in 1999.  Ghosn immediately wanted to hire de Nysschen, and add him to his stable of international executives that engineered what entered history as one of the most spectacular turn-arounds, the rescue and ascend of Nissan. Ghosn had to take a rain-check:

“I was not ready before. There was a lot of work to be done at Audi, it was a very satisfying and stimulating career I had at Audi.”

This time around, Ghosn had an offer that sounded stimulating to a man who had been in charge of Audi in increasingly important markets: South Africa, Japan, finally the U.S., where de Nysschen was CEO of Audi of America since 2004. In these jobs, he pretty much had to sell what was sent by Ingolstadt. At Infiniti, he can truly mold products and brand.

“To influence the brand from the core was a large part of the attraction. In the US, a key market for Audi, I could get involved in the last 25 percent. The only exception was the forthcoming Audi A3 sedan. That I could influence 100 percent. At Infiniti, I can influence from zero. And that of course is very stimulating. I have always been good at construction businesses, turning around underperforming businesses, molding and holding a brand. Those are my strengths because I get stimulated by it.”

De Nysschen is a native of South Africa, and when he says “good,” it sometimes sounds like it rhymes with “foot.”

De Nysschen and Ghosn share a common vision, and, says de Nysschen, “my contractual agreement with Mr Ghosn was to ultimately deliver on our vision: A tier one premium brand as part of the Nissan stable. A second major revenue and profit stream for the Nissan group.”

It will take time to get there, but de Nysschen brought the time. The 52 year old sees this as “the final chapter in my career – establishing a premium brand is a long term thing. Great brands are not born overnight.”

Most carmakers attempt to replicate the success of Audi. De Nysschen worked for Audi since 1993, right after Ferdinand Piëch took the helm coming from Audi, which he had managed since 1988. When Piëch took over, Audi had an image, sales and profitability worse than Opel, something that is easily forgotten. The brand turned around under Piech’s guidance, and only came into full bloom in the new millennium. De Nysschen knows it took time and hard work, he was there. And that’s why he is at Infiniti.

The Infiniti brand has been around since 1989, but to de Nysschen, it is still “like a toddler.” It is time for Infiniti to grow up, and de Nysschen will be coach and teacher. Like Toyota’s Lexus and Honda’s Acura, Infiniti was fathered by the Plaza Accord, when, after serious rounds of Japan-bashing, the Japanese government was intimidated into allegedly voluntary export restraints. The restraints were unit-based, Japan went upmarket, sold bigger, more expensive cars under new luxury brands, with the unintended consequence of draining the life out of Detroit’s most profitable segments.

“Premium car companies of can be quite profitable,” says de Nysschen, implying that Infiniti could grow up also in this regard. “If you look at the financial performance of BMW, Mercedes and Audi, they are immensely profitable car companies. Audi contributes approximately 40 percent of the total profits of the Volkswagen group. And it comes from a market segment which a Nissan brand cannot reach.”

Growing up to be self-sufficient and successful means that Infiniti must cut the cord from a sometimes overbearing mother Infiniti. He needs to take the same course Piëch took: “Markentrennung,” as it was called during de Nysschen’s Volkswagen times, brand separation. Says de Nysschen:

“The Infiniti brand as it existed until now has really been managed in the same way, in the same philosophy and with the same processes as Nissan. Nissan has been very successful for the mainstream brand. But in a way, ironically, those very same philosophies and processes and policies are also the ones that inhibit success in the premium market. Expectations and requirements for success are fundamentally different. I think the realization has come that that status quo for Infiniti needs to be challenged.”

Of course, this would be easier if, as at Audi, Infiniti would be its own company, with its own factories, R&D, and a boss who becomes group chief and who can put words into action. But with a strong Carlos Ghosn shuttling between Paris and Yokohama, and with Infiniti on its own in Hong Kong and out from under the Nissan coattails, with a little extra effort, it can work. It won’t be the same as at Audi, where de Nysschen, according to lore, banned the word “Volkswagen.”

We need to live out the Infiniti values, and I will work on brand separation. We need brand purity. At the same time, we need to have the protection and support from the Nissan group. We have to be proud that we are Infiniti, that we are separate, that we have our own identity, but we also have to recognize that we would not be successful without the support of Nissan. We need to respect that. There will be a far higher degree of codependence with Nissan than what might have existed in my previous life.”

Tomorrow, we talk about the new cars Infiniti will bring, where they are made, what engines will be in them, and what de Nysschen thinks of the plan to sell half a million by 2016.

The post After Work Talk With Johan de Nysschen, CEO Of Infiniti. Part One appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

]]> 15
Racing Dogma: An Interview With Garth Stein, Author Of “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” Tue, 08 Nov 2011 21:22:23 +0000 Garth Stein is a better driver than you. Really. In 2003, he won the SCCA Northwest points championship in his Spec Miata before a crash while driving in the rain, no less, ended those Senna dreams. The novel that sprang from those experiences is a lot like his little Miata: a bit cutesy on the […]

The post Racing Dogma: An Interview With Garth Stein, Author Of “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” appeared first on The Truth About Cars.


Garth Stein is a better driver than you. Really. In 2003, he won the SCCA Northwest points championship in his Spec Miata before a crash while driving in the rain, no less, ended those Senna dreams. The novel that sprang from those experiences is a lot like his little Miata: a bit cutesy on the outside but equipped with such a perfect balance of heart and engineering that you can’t help but go back for more. Maybe that’s why it’s been on the New York Times best-seller list for over 120 weeks and Patrick Dempsey, more race car driver than actor now, has picked it up for the big screen.

I should mention that the story is written from the perspective of a dog. But, so was White Fang and The Call of the Wild and I dare you to tell the old oyster pirate Jack London he wrote a kids books. Driven by his desire to be more than a dog, Enzo, the puppy protagonist in Racing in the Rain, is the perfect vehicle for Stein to explore racing, philosophy and humanity. Stein explains that Mongolians believe good dogs will be reincarnated as men when they’re ready. Enzo’s owner and semi-professional racing driver, Denny Swift, serves as a model human, whose skill at navigating obstacles on the racetrack translates well into real life where he battles for custody of his daughter, a dying wife and trumped-up rape charges. Denny’s racing mantras, like “the car goes where the eyes go,” and the intense, accurate driving scenes help the reader to learn along with Enzo that lessons learned from racing–courage and balance, for example–are just as applicable to life.

Stein’s writing is fresh, darkly comic and devoid of cynicism. His deep appreciation of cars and racing culture makes this a perfect choice for racing enthusiasts and car guys. More importantly, wives and girlfriends of car guys will gain a deeper understanding of what makes their significant other tick while enjoying a heartstring-tugging, Marley and Me meets Le Mans, high-revving good read.

Garth Stein pitted long enough to chat about the novel:

TTAC: A dog named Enzo?

Stein: I think that car people will get the connection, it may be a bit overdone if I had to explain Enzo Ferrari. When I first started writing the book, Enzo was Juan Pablo, after Juan Pablo Montoya, but clearly Enzo is the better name for a dog.

TTAC: Any stories about racing in the rain?

Stein: Only that I crashed my last race car during a downpour. If you’re in a race in the Northwest, you really need to be comfortable on a wet track, so that title, The Art of Racing in the Rain came from Don Kitch, Jr. who runs a race school out of Seattle.

TTAC: Have you raced at all the tracks mentioned in the book?

Stein: No, in fact, I met one of the owners of Thunderhill at a reading I did in Sacramento and he said, “Boy that was just great, you really know the track well.” I kind of bluffed because I’ve never driven Thunderhill. Basically, I studied some in-car camera footage from a buddy of mine who’s raced there several times and another friend lent me his track notes and I wrote the scene. I’ve always wanted to race there. A dream of mine is to race the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. I kind of had to bluff my way through that, and I guess it worked.

TTAC: What has Enzo learned that readers haven’t yet?

Stein: The whole Enzo philosophy, which is, “that which you manifest is before you,” means we have to take control of our destiny. If we allow other people to dictate where we are, we are no longer in control of what we’re doing. If we maintain control, at least we can pull out of the spins in life.

TTAC: Ayrton Senna plays a large role in Enzo’s spiritual development. Any insight there?

Stein: Senna was a very religious man, but this book was more of a universal spiritualism rather than a specific religion. People ask me if I’ve studied Zen Buddhism, the answer is no. When I was racing, my buddies and I would goof around that we could apply the same rules that we used on the racetrack to life. You know, “Don’t worry about something that’s already happened, you can’t change it. Only worry about the things in front of you that you can change.” If we do that in our daily lives, then we’ll be good fathers, husbands, etc. Really, that’s where Enzo came from.

TTAC: I see “Go Enzo” stickers plastered on race cars now.

Stein: It’s very popular with the racing crowd because I think a lot of club racers feel somewhat misunderstood by their friends and family. You know, “Why would you spend all of this time, energy and money to make this sport?” And I think this gives them a voice. You know, “Here, read this book. You’ll understand why.”

TTAC: How did your wife take it?

Stein: She laughed when she read the book. She said, “Oh, now I understand why you were doing all that racing; you were doing research.” Which is totally not the case. I was doing it for four years and then I wrote the book.

TTAC: You still racing?

Stein: I’m not racing currently, though I certainly enjoy it and hanging out with the racers. Talking shop and stuff like that. I was just at the Grand-Am Awards ceremony last month and I got to present an award to professional racers and team owners. It’s been a lot of fun. I mean, racing’s fun. There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of the green flag.

The post Racing Dogma: An Interview With Garth Stein, Author Of “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

]]> 19
The Ten Myths Of Bob Lutz Mon, 19 Sep 2011 18:28:17 +0000 I’ve often wondered if there is a relationship between the decline of the automobile’s cultural relevance, and the decline of the larger-than-life auto executive. Clearly the car’s waning ability to excite, inspire and shape material culture is a complex phenomenon with no single cause, but it’s got to have some kind of connection to the […]

The post The Ten Myths Of Bob Lutz appeared first on The Truth About Cars.


I’ve often wondered if there is a relationship between the decline of the automobile’s cultural relevance, and the decline of the larger-than-life auto executive. Clearly the car’s waning ability to excite, inspire and shape material culture is a complex phenomenon with no single cause, but it’s got to have some kind of connection to the people making the cars. After all, the original Mustangs, Corvettes, and Model Ts emerged from firms led by such oversized presences as Lee Iacocca, Bill Mitchell and the original car-guy-as-folk-hero, Henry Ford. Today there’s no shortage of brilliant, engaging, passionate people working in the car industry, and yet few contemporary executives have made the kind of cultural impact that their predecessors once did. This, in a nutshell, is why Bob Lutz fascinates me: though he never made as wide of a mark on popular culture as an Iacocca or DeLorean, he’s one of the last remaining links to an era in the car industry that now seems impossibly out of reach.

But because he is not a man of the times, it’s incredibly easy to misunderstand the guy. In fact, having spent several hours chatting with him on and off the record, I’d argue that the best anyone can hope for is to simply not misunderstand him. In that spirit, I’ve assembled ten impressions of the man that I found not to be true in our conversation. But be warned: just because these “myths” aren’t completely true doesn’t mean they’re completely untrue either…

1. Bob Lutz is calculating about his own image.

This is a bit of a tough one to start with. Even as I write this, I can hear the clamoring from the comment section. “He got you, Ed,” you’re thinking. “So much for that journalistic toughness, you got played by a master.” But bear with me. Clearly Lutz has a well-defined persona: the cigar-chomping (he puffed an enormous stogie throughout our interview), martini-drinking, Cobra-driving, jet-piloting, hard-charging corporate warrior. And there may well have been a time when he worked at that image. But having spent some time around a number of latter-day execs and PR guys, the directness with which Bob Lutz engages you, his apparent lack of internal filters, is one of the major impressions I left our interview with. Even when his answers to a question skewed more towards self-serving rather than purely truth-serving lines of logic, they emerged almost as soon as the question was asked with little of the pause for calculation indulged in by modern execs (this was particularly surprising when he was faced with questions he clearly wasn’t expecting, like “why are GM cars so heavy?”). Reasonable people can disagree over whether there is daylight between his truth and their personal version of the “objective truth,” but  he tells his truth with the spontaneity of a person with no concern for what the world thinks of him. Indeed, over the course of our conversation I picked up the distinct impression that Lutz would rather be seen as complex, even contradictory, than consistent. And by the time I left his pied-a-terre outside Ann Arbor, I had a less concise idea of who the guy is than when I arrived.

2. Bob Lutz hates the media.

In his most recent book, Lutz rails at length against the media, assigning it what I believe to be an unfair share of the blame for the decline of GM. Heck, he even calls The Truth About Cars “a website that often offers anything but”… for a headline written by a New York Times editor.  And yet, nobody held a gun to his head and made him invite me to his own home for an extended conversation. And because he did invite me, I was able to ask him about his relationship with the media. We were talking about the politicization of the Volt (see myth number three) when the subject came up, so I asked Lutz: “you devote quite  bit of the book criticizing the media, and yet most people in the media feel that you’ve always been pretty well treated…” Lutz jumped in

I was, yeah. I have no complaints about my personal treatment, I mean, I always got along well with the media, and that’s globally… I think they recognized that I was a force for the good. No, I’m talking about the way the media generally treated the US car industry. We had a colleague of yours from Der Spiegel magazine in Germany… he asked “what were the factors behind the decline of the American car industry,” and I said, well, you know, I mentioned the US media. And he said, “you know, this is a curious thing because this is the only country that I know of where the media routinely trashes the domestic product. He said “the German media thinks Volkswagen, BMW, Porsche Audi are wonderful. Opel and Ford of Germany are semi-wonderful because they are, after all, American owned. French cars, well, if you must and the Italians and Japanese… yes, yes, they’re getting better, but they’ll never be [a German car]. Same thing in France. Japan. Korea.”

I’m not for a chauvinistic media, it should be objective and realistic, but with the American media you could put out some pretty good stuff and it was… dismissed. Dismissive was the best you could hope for. The Cobalt was routinely trashed in the media, but every time anyone actually drove a Cobalt, they said “this is a nice little car.”  It’s very refined… it’s peppy, has good brakes, good steering, the interior is… OK… seats are nice. I mean, it’s a nice little car. It deserved a lot better press than it got. I’ll put a Cobalt against a current generation Corolla any day.

Now, this whole rant was not unlike what appears in Car Guys, and it hardly disproves myth number two. But here’s the thing: I had driven a rented Cobalt out to Lutz Farm, and he was right. It was nowhere near as terrible as I was expecting. And looking through TTAC“s Cobalt review archives, the conclusions certainly belie TTAC’s reputation for GM bashing. Because Lutz has some valid complaints (there’s another that I’m saving for a final installment of “Cars Only Bob Lutz Remembers”), and more importantly because he only seems to really care about what the media said about his cars, I don’t get the sense that there’s as much personal animosity as comes through in Car Guys. On the other hand, I’m also not convinced that the media isn’t something of a convenient villain for the Car Guys narrative, and that Lutz gives it too much credit for the downfall of GM.

But all that aside, when pushed with the fact that Toyota reviews now feature the word “beige” with the same consistency that Buick reviews used to feature the word “elderly,” Lutz admit that

there’s a gradual change in how American cars are being treated in the American media. The Toyota troubles forever destroyed the myth of Japanese invincibility and superiority.

Now that the shoe is on the other foot, and Toyota, rather than Buick is getting the “one-note” treatment from the automotive press, Lutz seems less concerned with the media’s failings.

3. Bob Lutz is a right-winger.

So, obviously Bob isn’t a left-winger. His views on global warming, for example, are well-documented. But if you tease out the politics that he weaves throughout his answers, what emerges is a man well out of step with the modern right wing. He sings the praises of socialized healthcare as an issue of economic competition, arguing that placing that burden on private business puts manufacturing industries at a disadvantage. He argues strongly for an “intelligent” gas tax, on the grounds that oil price volatility wreaks havoc on product planning. He even concedes that the latest version of CAFE is not totally objectionable. And when it comes to the Volt, he has nothing but contempt for what he calls the “extreme right wing” that tried to publicly kill it. When I asked if the politicization of the Volt was inevitable, or if it had something to do with the car itself, his immediate answer was unequivocal:

I think it predominantly had to do with the extreme right wing media, who will grasp at anything, right, wrong, accurate, inaccurate, to attack the Obama Administration.  The Rush Limbaughs, the Glenn Becks, the Mark Levins… these guys said “how stupid is this? This is the kind of car you get when the government owns a car company.”

Again, the guy has a point. When, in my NYT Volt Op-Ed I had written “In short, the Volt appears to be exactly the kind of green-at-all-costs car that some opponents of the bailout feared the government might order G.M. to build. Unfortunately for this theory, G.M. was already committed to the Volt when it entered bankruptcy,” Rush Limbaugh quoted the first sentence repeatedly and left the second sentence un-quoted. But Lutz wasn’t done attacking the right:

“…and,” [said the right-wingers], “this thing is so bad, the government is going to offer you a [$7,000 tax credit] to get you to buy it. The same government that is forcing this on the American public is, in addition, going to spend your tax dollars to get you to buy it.” Conveniently forgetting, of course, that the [tax credit] went in under the Bush Administration. GM was the target of the extreme right. If they hadn’t have worried about a backlash (which would have inevitably happened), they would have cheerfully organized a right-wing boycott of General Motors.

Regardless of how Lutz feels about any one political issue, his ultimate loyalty is to Detroit, to the American car business. After all, have you ever heard a right-winger argue that

it’s silly for us to be paying $3.50 per gallon when Europe is paying $7 or $8 dollars per gallon


4. Bob Lutz only cares about extreme cars.

Even though we were sitting in an office festooned with models of yellow HUMMERs and billet Cadillac Sixteens, as soon as I mentioned that he was best known for his “emotional” cars like the Viper and Solstice, he cut me off

That’s a little bit unfair because I was highly instrumental in the second-generation Chrysler minivan, you know, the great big round one. At its heyday we were doing over 500,000 of those things each year and they were ringing the cash register like mad. I also get very excited about full-sized pickup trucks and sport utilities… I mean, I lavished so much affection on the current generation of GM sport utilities and pickup trucks. Supporting design in certain things and then getting the body gaps down to, like, Lexus-minus tolerances and getting beautiful interiors in… still, I think the Tahoe and Yukon have, for a mass-produced SUV, still one of the nicest interiors around. And of course the Escalade is off the charts… it’s “bling,” but it’s beautifully done.

So, I get just as excited about stuff like that as I do about a Corvette ZR1… in fact, maybe more so. The Lambdas, for instance… one of the beautiful things when you see an Acadia, Enclave or Chevy Traverse, is that beautiful taper towards the rear. You know, the way the body goes from near-vertical, to where it starts to roll in gradually, and you get that lovely tumblehome from the back which makes it look so stable. It gives them that dramatic appearance on the road. When they started out they had straight bodysides, like a Honda Pilot, and I said “why are we doing that?” “Well, it increases rear seat width and maximizes the internal cube.” I said “guys, that’s not what it’s about.” They also said “there’s one more thing. If we do it the way you want, we’ll never have a version with sliding doors.” I said, “well, we’re not doing a version with sliding doors.” [As a result], I think the Acadia, Enclave and Traverse are, from a body-surfacing standpoint, some of the best work done by the American industry.

So, why did it take so long for Lutz to put his touch on the Malibu, GM’s entry in the most important mass-market segment?

Yeah, [chuckles], three, three-and-a-half years. That’s normal. I had to live with the stuff that had been done before.

5. Bob Lutz hates “bean counters.”

As I point out in my review of his most recent book, the title “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters” seems almost to be more a reflection of the author’s internal complexity than a description of an actual battle within GM. Lutz has spent enough time in the business world to know that no business can survive with creative chaos or stifling discipline alone. And just as GM as a whole ebbed and flowed between the creative power of design and the disciplined control of finance, Lutz acknowledges that it takes a balance of two very different instincts to create a successful business. He admits:

The beanies do their job. I’m all for finance, financial controls, cost-cutting and tough discipline… I did it myself… for instance, the Malibu LT2 had a regular aluminum wheel with very shiny, circular machining on it. The LTZ wheel had finer machining, to where it almost looked like the surface of a compact disc. The guys showed them to me and said… “there’s a forty buck difference, it’s ten dollars a wheel.” I said “take it out.” [Costs] get in that shouldn’t be there in the first place. You just can’t let the beancounters be in charge and philosophically drive the organization… because that’s when it gets off track.

Indeed, the king of the car guys has an MBA, not an engineering degree, and his entire argument for his turnaround of GM was predicated on a beancounter’s argument: if controlling the bottom line is killing you, do something about the top line.

The product development guys, whether at Ford, BMW, Chrysler or GM, liked my leadership because I insist on good rather than cheap. And it’s definitely paid off. The average transaction prices of GM cars are up so much it more than offsets, way more than offsets, the maybe thousand bucks I put into the vehicle.

6. Bob Lutz loves/hates electric cars.

Nowhere are Bob Lutz’s internal complexities better displayed than in the world of electric cars. To the EV enthusiast community he’s been both a villain of “Old Detroit”, railing against “the theory of man-made global warming” and the savior of the electric car, as internal champion of GM’s Volt.  In hopes of getting to the bottom of this mystery, I asked Lutz if he thought Nissan would gain a “first mover” advantage (alá Toyota’s hybrid advantage) over the competition by being first to market with a mainstream pure-electric car. To which he answered:

No. I don’t see the Leaf generating the “cool factor,” the “gotta have it factor,” the “this is the car to have factor.” I don’t see that in the media, it’s not generating any of the buzz you would expect from that. I think the Leaf is going to be a relatively low-volume vehicle. The problem is range anxiety. You hook a range extender onto that, which of course immediately drives cost for a second powertrain, but if you have a nominal 100 miles electric [range] plus another 200 on the gas engine if you need it… now you’re talking. But people with a pure electric, unless it’s got a 250 or 300 mile range… and the Leaf doesn’t even get 100 miles after a few years, or on a cold day.  So, the Leaf gets 70 miles on a good day and 50 miles on a bad day… meanwhile there are guys getting 56 miles  [of electric range] on the Chevy Volt.

In short, when the topic turns electric, Lutz wants to talk about his baby: the Volt. He half admits that the range-extended Chevy was a “PR exercise,” saying

PR has such a nasty flavor… let’s call it a “reputational adjustment exercise.” What the Viper did for Chrysler in 1992,  the Volt is doing for the Chevrolet brand [in an entirely different way].

And he argues that, although the Volt’s design is fundamentally less efficient over longer distances than a conventional hybrid or PHEV, that misses the point. “People want to drive 40 miles on electric power,” he says, “if you look at it through the eyes of the customer and not the EPA, they see it as ‘I’m getting 40 miles every day, practically for free.'” Is it, I asked, counter-intuitive to design a “green halo” car not to maximize efficiency?

It is if you look at a hypothetical usage profile. But we knew that 80 percent of Americans drive 40 miles per day, and the Volt is for them. I wanted to look at the real usage profile. An airplane engineer will tell you “you know, we can make this fighter much more efficient if we don’t add all the weight and complexity of an ejection seat”… but good luck finding someone to fly it.

Of course, even at a 70-mile range, the Leaf will still be able to get most of that 80 percent to work and back… especially if they can charge at work. But finding a consistent principle in Lutz’s opinions generally isn’t a question of analyzing any of these arguments. Though he wasn’t being paid by GM at the time of our interview, it was clear that Lutz’s principles are allied almost entirely with GMs. And if he has any regrets anything about the concept and development of the Volt, he isn’t ready to admit them.

7. Bob Lutz hates industry-outsider auto execs.

Though he rails against the “brand management” era of the 1990s, and the outside board members and packaged-good industry executives who championed it, Lutz is not entirely against outside influences on the car industry. He is not, as are many longtime industry insiders, completely convinced of the notion that  you must be steeped in the car business to understand the car business. Quite the contrary, he argues

Because we’re all trained the same way, a traditional automobile person from Ford, GM or Chrysler can move from company to company, and the way programs are created, the way they’re measured, the way they proceed through the approval process, the way they’re then finally executed… you hardly notice the difference. It is this finance-driven, metrics-driven approach that was originally put in by McNamara and the “Whiz Kids” at Ford… and it eventually translated to the whole industry. Ford Motor Company is so proud of the fact that they, I would call it infected, the whole industry with it. So, you take some 30-year veteran of that system, they know how that works, they know those rules, they know you set tough cost targets and then you turn the crank again and you drive costs down some more, the top line is more or less assumed, the argument that if we make a better car it will bring in more money just is not recognized. The top line is the top line, don’t mess with it.

So if [post-bailout GM] had gone back to some veteran automobile guy, there would be a high risk that we’d lose it. Again. But the fact is that all the Detroit Three are run by non-traditional Detroit guys, and the way Dan Akerson and Dan Ammon look at it,   is “30 years of doing it the wrong way resulted in decline and ultimate failure. Now, with a focus on excellence, and willingly doing the best engineering and manufacturing that we possibly can, do not skimp, don’t try to substitute margarine for butter…  now our average transaction prices are up four or five thousand dollars.

Though a product of the system he derides, Lutz was able to see its fatal flaw: a fundamental lack of desire to improve the top end. Convincing outsiders that you can “leave the butter in” and see investments in product quality generate much larger returns in transaction prices (again, a “bean-counter” argument, at its heart) was actually easier than convincing executives steeped in the Detroit business model. And in the old days of GM, changing the basic approach to the business was nearly impossible due to what he calls a culture of “genteel arrogance.”

It wasn’t an aggressive arrogance, and it wasn’t an active arrogance. It was a passive, genteel arrogance… somewhat like medieval aristocracy dealing with the peasants. Infinitely polite, fair… [mimics an upper-crust Mid-Atlantic accent]  “yes, that’s a good point… I don’t think we’ll be using your idea, but thank you very much.” So it was always very genteel, but it stemmed from this somewhat inbred culture that never drew people from the outside. It was almost a world of its own, and it was bred in the 50s and 60s when GM inarguably had total dominance of the market.

So, once his “top-line” argument started being taken seriously by Wagoner, the post-bailout influx of outsiders actually helped build support for his ideas. He recalls being told by one of GM’s new senior execs that “your fingerprints are all over this company,” and from the sound of that anecdote, there are no plans at the top of the Ren Cen to get away from Lutz’s basic philosophy. The contrast to the “brand management” days is clear: then, outsiders came in thinking they knew it all; now, the outsiders are steeped in the Lutz philosophy. No wonder the tune has changed.

8. Bob Lutz hates Toyota.

Lutz agreed that Detroit-based car executives “had good reasons to dislike Toyota,” but one of the biggest surprises of our conversation came when I asked if Toyota were owed some credit for its innovations.

Oh, absolutely. I don’t think they’re great at product creation… I’ve always said Toyota is vulnerable because the only image component that is driving sales is reliability and resale value, and if they lose [those two qualities], God help ’em. The cars look average, they drive average… I mean, let’s face it, they’re bland-mobiles. It became a default purchase for people who knew nothing about cars, and didn’t care about cars… and sure enough, [the reputation for reliability and resale value] was true. And, early on, Toyotas were also beautifully finished, inside and out. Even a Camry or Corolla had a beautiful interior… not so much any more.

But, there was no doubt that Toyota’s success lay in the actual manufacturing of the car. The Toyota Production System, Just-In-Time inventory, error-proofing, Andon cords in the factories, the blend of human operatives and automation… all of that stuff, we undeniably learned from Toyota. If you have a bracket that has to attach to something, Toyota  would engineer that bracket in such a way that you could not mount that bracket upside-down. The whole industry was transformed from… looking back, you almost have to say haphazard manufacturing and quality control to designing a process flow in manufacturing that almost guarantees you perfection with every single vehicle. So, all the credit in the world to them for that.

I also think they had a very good and productive relationship with their suppliers, which we didn’t always have. Detroit keeps slipping into these periods of “let’s beat the hell out of [suppliers] and suck all the profitability out of them because it belongs to us”… with devastating results each time. They also showed, maybe by default, that you maintain residual value by not oversupplying the market. We would oversupply the market… “alright, another 50,000 into daily rental”… it looks good in the short term, you make the numbers, you make your market share, and then you wonder why the two-year-old off-lease Malibu was worth only 38 percent [of its original value].

This last bit is pretty key to Lutz’s “bean-counter” argument about improving the top-end of the business. That he learned the lesson at the hands of Toyota and manages to give credit where it’s due is a compelling admission, given GM’s notorious reputation for “not invented here syndrome.” And later in the conversation, when the new Camry came up in passing, he remarked

Apparently they were able to take 250 lbs out of it, while maintaining structural rigidity… everyone says it’s not a bad car… good for them.

Apparently he even has more respect for Toyota’s product development than you might think.

9. Bob Lutz can’t admit a mistake.

The quote above might be enough to show that Lutz is more reflective and self-critical than his “damn the torpedoes” public image would suggest, but his most significant admissions of failure have to do with GM. The on that is most damning, in my eyes, is his admission in Car Guys that he was not enthusiastic about GM’s expansion into China. Had Lutz been in charge, you could make the case that a late entry into China would have damned the company to bankruptcy years earlier than 2009. But there are other, more concrete examples of mistakes that he heartily admits to… mistakes in his own area of expertise. None looms as large as the GMC XUV, a vehicle he calls a “disaster.” And though he discusses this incident in the book as well, in our conversation he connects the episode with his critique of GM’s culture: executives at GM were, by and large, too smart for their own good. And Lutz himself, a man with no lack of confidence, found himself overwhelmed.

There were some times when I deferred to the GM people because they seemed so smart and seemed to have done their homework so well and they were so convincing and the PowerPoint presentations were so great. I felt like I was dealing with people of a really superior intelligence… and I was! That’s how the GMC XUV happened. I just got myself convinced… I hate it, but that doesn’t mean anything. I may not be the customer for this sort of thing, but these people have done their homework and we’ll let it go.  That one proved to be a waste of about $275 million, down a rathole, for nothing. That vehicle was a joke.

This anecdote goes against the grain of the bean-counter-slaying Bob Lutz narrative, but it also confirms a basic premise of his philosophy: being too smart is as bad as being dumb. Over-thinking things can lead to as many bad decisions as it can avoid. And if Lutz is going to admit a mistake, it will typically be a mistake caused by the head winning out over the gut.

10. Bob Lutz is old and out of touch.

When I showed up at Lutz Farm for our conversation, it never occurred to me that Lutz was just days away from returning to the payroll at General Motors. I knew he had been doing some “consulting,” but I didn’t imagine that he was as involved in decisions as he is. Indeed the first hint that he might still carry significant weight inside GM’s product development organization came in the answer to my very first question, in which I asked him to compare his time at Chrysler with his time at GM. After some background he explained

First of all, when I arrived at Chrysler, I didn’t have the all-encompassing powers over product development that I do now.

Part of me wanted to ask him how much I should read into that little  Freudian slip, but Lutz was off and running and I spent the next several hours just trying to keep up. And really, it would probably be a better question to ask Mary Barra, the relatively unknown actual head of product development at GM.

In any case, Lutz’s continued involvement at GM has raised more than a few accusations that “it’s time to let Lutz go” and that “the old man is past his prime”… but I saw nothing that led me to believe he couldn’t be helpful to a young exec trying to take charge of GM’s product development. When he was serving espresso before the interview began, I thought I saw his hand shake almost imperceptibly… otherwise, I wouldn’t have pegged him for a day over 60. For hours he puffed his cigar and kept up with my often-abstract questions, answering them rapidly, deploying pop-culture-references and decades-old anecdotes alike. His phone and Blackberry  chimed relentlessly throughout the interview, and he would sometimes interrupt the interview briefly to fire off Blackberry messages with the dexterity and nonchalance of a 13 year old.

I certainly hope to be in his shape when I reach 79… and anyone fascinated by the world of cars would be glad for the opportunity to spend part of an afternoon listening to his prodigious perspective. There’s no doubt that Lutz is a man from another time, but he’s also a man with the grit and determination to stay remarkably relevant in a rapidly-changing world. Agree or disagree with him, love him or hate him, Bob Lutz is a living link to an automotive era that seems unlikely to return… and from which the industry can still learn a lot.

The post The Ten Myths Of Bob Lutz appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

]]> 77