In between long stints behind the keyboard and the wheel of an Audi, I’ve been reading Robert Lacey’s epic Ford: The Men and the Machine. Catching up on the story of Ford, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Crazy Henry had somehow cheated death and was still around to witness the recent travails of his company. Ford’s deep commitment to basic transportation may have been a liability in the heyday of the American automobile, but things seem to be coming full circle. The decades of glamor and expression in automotive design and marketing launched GM to dizzying heights and threatened to leave stolid old Ford behind. But Ford never completely embraced the planned obsolescence and marketing-heavy development patterns that defined GM’s success. The Blue Oval’s best products always had a certain affordable and rugged charm that seems to be coming back in style. Ford now finds itself positioned to become the first American automaker with a lineup weighted towards competitive small and mid-sized cars. If it can succeed with this strategy and stay focused, Ford has a chance to reinterpret its original brand appeal and vindicate Henry Ford’s philosophy in a thoroughly 21st Century fashion.
As Robert posted below, TTAC is redoubling its efforts to get timely road tests by reaching out to the very manufacturers we lay into on a daily basis. But why, you might ask, would these giant firms feed the mouth that bites them?
Like most people under the age of 40, I never read car magazines. Actually that’s not true. I’ve been stealing copies of Auto Motor und Sport from my dad for years. Even after its long trip across the Atlantic, the anal-retentive German’s anal-retentive car magazine still manages to scoop the American mags on many of the most compelling industry developments. But the real draw is the mag’s road testing, which really confirms every stereotype of Teutonic attention to detail. No metric is too mundane to be measured, graphed and scored… think Consumer Reports for people who actually like cars and think OCD medication is for the weak. On the other side of the equation is evo magazine, which is hands-down the best enthusiast-oriented car magazine.
GM claims to be calibrated to break even at a Seasonally Adjusted Annual sales Rate (SAAR) of 10m sales. Which assumes that GM’s portion of those sales will remain steady. As we’ve learned today, that’s not likely. GM’s market share is being pummelled by bad news, bailout backlash, and (according to the Merrill Lynch report) poor product replacement rates. While GM talks up the Volt, discusses a Prius fighter and touts an American-made compact, its major product push has been centered around a single dying brand (Buick) and its single new product, the LaCrosse. Yes there’s a new Equinox, but has anyone noticed? Camaro may be the choice of bold, audacious lemmings everywhere, but for how long? It’s gut check time . . .
$8.2m it turns out (yes, sins of omission count). Which is almost as much as the wages of investing in a fraudulent cellulosic ethanol firm. But what about Fritz, Lutz, LaNeve and the rest of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight? If Wagoner gets nearly $10m for overseeing consistent declines in sales and market share, and after being canned for the good of the nation, where’s the motivation for the old, new crowd? Ditto for the cellulosic ethanol industry, if Cello’s fraud leads to increased subsidies to get the Renewable Fuel Mandate back on track. Forget peak oil, it seems we’ve reached peak common sense. A while ago. Now, back to the cars.
“People don’t want cars named after hungry old Greek broads! They want names like ‘Mustang’ and ‘Cheetah’ — vicious animal names,” according to Homer Simpson’s automaker brother Herb. Yesterday I learned another good rule of thumb for car naming: if it doesn’t sound hilarious with the word “anal” in front of it, it’s probably not a great car name. Think about it… Commander, Wrangler and Legacy good; CTS, MKT and Optima bad. It may not be safe-for-work, but dammit it’s the truth.
This weekend’s announcement that “Maximum” Bob Lutz will stay on at GM is the biggest blow to GM’s re:invention PR since Fritz Henderson was handed the helm by Rick Wagoner. In essence, Lutz’s “unretirement” sends the very same message Wagoner once repeated ad nauseum: GM’s turnaround would be going well if it weren’t for that darn economy. And, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Lutz arrived at GM in 2001 with a single thesis: excitement could turn the General around. Eight years later, and the results speak for themselves. Despite injecting Pontiac with its best products in decades, Lutz couldn’t even save GM’s “excitement brand.” Though Lutz created the Malibu to add his aesthetic appeal to GM’s long-ignored mid-sized offerings, the car only excited automotive journalists. Consumers preferred the plain-jane Impala. Ultimately, Lutz proves exactly how little GM has changed. His old-school, hard-charging pursuit of glamor, performance and excitement are little more than a fading afterglow from the good old days of Motorama excess. The market has moved on, but GM hasn’t.
Ex-Car Czar Bob Lutz has made the jump to hyperspace, joining New GM as . . . Car Czar. Of course, Bob can’t quite leave the Old School behind. More specifically, in keeping with CEO Fritz Henderson’s obsession with speed, he’s pre-pared excuses for failure on the forecourt. “There will have to be some form of economic recovery before any automobile company can hope to be profitable,” Lutz tells NPR. Perception gap much? Of course. All things considered, where’s the reinvention here?
Why is Chrysler’s new board chock full of former airline men and the governmentally well-connected? Because auto firm experience isn’t necessary for these things. Just ask Chrysler’s former owners Cerberus. Or, for another perspective, ask United Airlines employees about their experience with employee ownership. Meanwhile, the Aveo still sucks and the SL65 Black Series is still bat-shit loco. Plus, we’re working on getting our sales data in a more universal format.
Because it wants to, Buick is headed upmarket. Because it has to, Cadillac is headed downmarket. Who wins? Not GM. An Epsilon II, FWD/AWD Cadillac isn’t going to have the phrase “standard of the world” tripping off anyone’s tongue. And since GM exists at the pleasure of the politicians, it doesn’t seem likely that Cadillac will ever get around to making the huge investments in opulence that it would need to regain its former glory. And besides an aging CTS and a “2005 called and wants its SUV back” Escalade, what is Cadillac again? Some days it’s a good day to die. Some days it’s a good day to record a podcast.