The Truth About Cars » Product Reviews The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:29:19 +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 is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Product Reviews Book Review: No Time to Cry by Wilmer Cooksey, Jr. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 11:30:57 +0000 wilcooksey2

“On one occasion I was called out into the yard because there had been a shooting. A guard, a line worker and a car thief had been shot. The thief had been wounded gravely by the guard and was bleeding but he had made it into the cab of the car hauler and had driven for some distance before he crashed and was caught.”

The line worker probably wasn’t an unfortunate bystander, relates former Corvette plant manager Wil Cooksey in his gritty, totally human and completely engrossing autobiography No Time to Cry. At General Motors’ St. Louis assembly plant in the mid-70s, claims Cooksey, hourly workers were often accomplices to professional car thieves. These criminals planned armed raids on storage lots with the help of plant insiders, leading to occasionally deadly results. In Cooksey’s account, St. Louis resembles a battleground more than a car plant, emblematic of the worst of the bad old days of the American auto industry. This book isn’t just a rehash of the “GM dysfunction” genre pioneered by John Z. Delorean, though. As the story of a fascinating American life, No Time to Cry is a compelling read.

As a production engineer working his way up the GM ranks, Cooksey had plenty of time to observe the inner workings of one of America’s most powerful corporations. Before that, he was a poor black kid from Texas with an absent father and a mother that struggled to provide for her seven children. With some guidance, he managed to get into Tennessee State University in Nashville and earn a degree in electrical engineering. While at TSU he met his future wife Liz, who became his soul mate despite the obstacles between them. He moved on to a job as a process engineer with General Mills in Toledo, but soon, war intervened. He was drafted and after completing Officer Candidates’ School was sent to Vietnam. The experience would haunt him for the rest of his life, but it did contain one positive development. A chance encounter with a new Sting Ray in Hawaii turned him into a passionate Corvette lover, and helped change the direction of his career. After the war, he was hired to teach at the General Motors Institute in Flint. He transferred to the St. Louis assembly plant a few years later, in pursuit of his dream of managing Corvette production.

What emerges from Cooksey’s account of his sojourn through various GM plants is a picture of a company marked by sharp contrasts. St. Louis embodied virtually every stereotype of American auto plants in the 70s: racial animosity, workplace violence, sabotage, absenteeism, alcoholism and substance abuse. Cooksey claims he hid a revolver in his car and carried a six inch blade out of concern for his own safety. He describes being sucked into the toxic culture of the plant, where both management and hourly workers got loaded in the bar across the street as their coping mechanism. This, combined with the unwanted advances of many of the plant’s single women, nearly destroyed Cooksey’s marriage. However, he was able to patch things up with his wife and move to the Doraville, Georgia assembly plant, temporarily distancing himself from Corvette production.

Labor relations at Doraville weren’t great, but they were a marked improvement from St. Louis. Cooksey was able to surround himself with a cadre of trusted advisors, and made some progress on improving both quality and productivity. He had his easiest time as manager at Fairfax Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri, which he describes as a “joy” to manage. He chalked this up to differences in plant culture, brought about by a combination of both management and labor tactics. Cooksey is harshly critical of the UAW at times, as one might expect of a production supervisor. In St. Louis he describes the union as a “fierce, three-headed, Hydra-monster” that eventually brought about the plant’s demise. He does strive to make a distinction between the union and individual workers, the majority of whom he defends as good employees. Some, such as an unnamed “informant” at the Bowling Green plant, were essential to helping Cooksey stamp out persistent safety violations and improve quality and productivity. Labor only absorbs one part of Cooksey’s criticism.

Cooksey’s struggles with upper management, especially after he landed his dream job supervising Corvette production at Bowling Green in 1993, compose a large part of the text. He describes a dedicated core of “Corvette people” including himself, product engineers such as Tadge Juechter, management executive Joe Spielman, and Corvette marketing director Harlan Charles. They clashed with other managers and departments on a variety of issues, especially in terms of quality control. It was Cooksey who made the decision to halt production of the then-new C5 Corvette in 1997 to address persistent quality issues, a moment that he describes as one of the lowest points of his career. Despite these setbacks, his time in Bowling Green was more than just gloom and doom. The plant became one of GM’s best for initial quality under his tenure, winning numerous internal and external awards. He retired in early 2008, shortly before GM went under and he was left with a stack of worthless stocks. Those looking for a long discourse on the bailout will be disappointed, but Cooksey’s insights into the daily running of an auto plant are more enjoyable anyway.

At $3.99 for the Kindle edition, this book is a steal. Or, you can get a signed hard copy from the Corvette Museum like I did. Either way, you’re getting one of the best auto industry memoirs of recent years, and a must-have for any Corvette diehard. It’s littered with the kind of trivia and insights that can only come from someone as intimately involved with production as Cooksey was. The biographical side is what makes this book, though: the human passion and pain of a man trying to build a life and a legacy side-by-side, one Corvette at a time.

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TTAC Exclusive: The Sunday Morning Drive – An Audi R8, 40 Sportbikes and the Pacific Coast Highway: A Short Film by Ole Schell Fri, 11 Apr 2014 11:00:00 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

Let’s face it, most of what you read at car related sites, just like you do at sites for other interests, industries and hobbies, talks about the same usual topics. In the case of car enthusiast sites, the same cars, the same commercials, the same companies. Maybe that’s why it’s exciting when I’m ranging far afield of the automotive realm on the web and I come across something that I’m pretty sure will be of interest to TTAC readers and it also happens to be something that you probably haven’t seen anyplace else. In this case I was doing my rounds of some of the non-automotive sites I link to from Cars In Depth and I came across a brand new short dramatic film called The Sunday Morning Drive about a beautiful woman in a 430 horsepower Audi R8 racing more than 3 dozen sportbikes up a winding and treacherous 14 mile stretch of California’s Pacific Coast Highway.

Was  I correct about it being of interest to you?


Ole Schell directs films and documentaries, and is based in New York City. His dad’s a writer, his mom’s a photographer and he grew up in an artists’ colony in northern California and later San Francisco. A graduate of NYU’s film school, he started out making documentaries including Picture Me: A Model’s Diary, Win In China (about entrepreneurs in China), and most recently Lil Buck Goes to China, about a Memphis hip hop dancer traveling to China to perform onstage with Meryl Streep and Yo Yo Ma. He and his work have been featured in many major publications, on major television and radio networks and have been distributed theatrically, on cable television and as an on-demand video. Picture Me won the best picture award at the Milan International Film Festival and it has been screened or broadcast in over 25 countries.

Schell told me that he’s always “loved cars”. In addition to his documentary and dramatic films, he’s also directed commercials including a spot for Wrightspeed featuring a turbine-electric powered truck racing a helicopter on the Bonneville Salt Flats, an aircraft stunt ad working with Sony Creative for Goulian Aerosports, and other commercials for brands big enough that they don’t need me to give them free publicity. His next film will be on a bit deeper subject, a man who survived the Burundi genocide. In the future he hopes to do “bigger and better projects in the automotive and motor-sports space.”


Combining his interest in cars, aircraft, and a desire to get his feet wet shooting in 3D, Schell dreamed up The Sunday Morning Drive about a fictional annual motorcycle road race on California’s Pacific Coast Highway that allows a high performance car to compete. Since it’s fiction, Schell got his friend, Australia based supermodel Kasia Grabowski (link almost safe for work), to play the driver. Schell didn’t have a large budget to work with but through careful planning and networking he was able to produce a polished product complete with aerial footage.

Click here to view the embedded video.

While I didn’t bother plugging all of Schell’s commercial customers, he’s graciously allowing TTAC to be the first automotive site to review the film so I will point out that all of the filming was done with either GoPro’s Hero 2 or Sony TD20 video cameras. The TD20 shoots 3d natively, and for the GoPros Schell used GoPro’s own 3D kit for the Hero 2 (the camera company recently introduced a 3D kit for the newer Hero 3 cameras), and, I believe Al Cauldullo’s “Superhero” 3D rig. GoPro kicked in some technical help with their 3D rigs, associate producer, Peter Paris Mars and his sportbike buddies provided the two-wheelers, and post production was done with Sony software and the assistance of Sony Creative and 3D consultant Al Cauldullo. By the way, if our Editor in Chief can tell his fans they’re welcome to send him presents like guitars, I will say that I have no objection if someone likes my writing and/or photography enough to give me a Superhero and two Hero 3s. Alternatively, I’ll be happy to review those products, in case Al and the folks at GoPro are reading this, hint, hint.


Now that the credits are out of the way, what do I think of the movie? Well, the plot is indeed fictional, since I’m not sure [spoiler alert, or is that a trigger warning?] that a car could actually pass all those bikes on such a tight, winding public road. The voiceovers for the airplane spotters are kind of cheesy (deliberately so, I believe, but then, as it is written, so is Cleavon Little’s radio announcer in Vanishing Point), and somehow Ms. Grabowski ends up losing her racing suit in favor of a nicely modeled blue bikini, so it’s not like we’re talking Shakespeare here. It’s a demo film and it’s certainly entertaining enough automotively that I don’t think you’ll find the 8 minutes or so a waste of time. A great, fast car, a pretty lady and one of the world’s great roads. What’s not to like?

Click here to view the embedded video.

How’s the 3D? Pretty good for the most part and some of the shots are pretty damn good. Particularly the low angle shots from the bikes, the car and the edge of the road are very effective, as are the shots from the wing of the airplane, capturing it, the racers and the cliffside road. There are a small number of 3D anomalies. Like Schell says, “3D post [prodution] is hard!”. It took about a year and working with 3D pros in five cities in the U.S. and Asia to edit down the eight and a half minute film. Nothing’s going to make your eyes bleed, but in a couple of spots I noticed some motion blur and once or twice something’s a bit too close to the cameras for your brain to resolve the extreme parallax. However, considering that Schell was working with what are consumer cameras, not James Cameron level 3D rigs, as I said, the results in 3D are pretty damn good. Fast, horizontally moving objects are one of the more rigorous tests of left-right synchronization and The Sunday Morning Drive captured that well.

Click here to view the embedded video.

I’ve embedded the 2D version at the top of the post and it’s cool to watch. I expect that now that we’ve posted it, The Sunday Morning Drive will start showing up on other car sites in the mono version. but I would recommend that you watch it in 3D if you can. The YouTube 3D player is compatible with any form of 3D you’d have at home, either with a 3D monitor, a 3D tv set to which you can port your computer or otherwise access the web, or with cheap anaglyph glasses. If you’re adept at the “cross eye” method, you can even watch in 3D without using any glasses at all. Speaking of 3D glasses, Schell and his associates have hooked up with IngriDahl, a company that sells a variety of 3D glasses formats in a variety of fashionable styles to put on a contest to win free 3D glasses. If you don’t care about style, I’ll send the first two dozen people who email me at a pair of cheap red/blue (properly they’re red/cyan, but we won’t quibble about Pantone shades) glasses courtesy of Cars In Depth if you mail me the proverbial SASE.

With the advent of the internet, a number of car companies have started producing both long from versions of their broadcast commercials as well as short films. Audi comes to mind most quickly in that regard,but they’re not the only company. Also, 3D displays have started sprouting up at the major auto shows. In previous years, both Mercedes-Benz and Toyota’s Scion brand have put up polarized 3D flat screens in their booths and given out plastic framed 3D glasses that show attendees could take home and use at the movie theater when watching stereo films. At this year’s Detroit and Chicago shows, the video racing sim in the Honda booth used a head mounted 3D display. Nissan let you “build” one of their concept cars using a virtual reality HMD, which might have used the guts of an Oculus Rift unit. Just this week, when I visited the SAE World Congress, in Ford’s booth you could ride along as Ken Block drifts his rally car, and since the Oculus Rift goggles they used can do motion tracking, you could look around yourself in the virtual realm. Facebook just bought Oculus Rift for 2 billion dollars, seeing opportunities for virtual 3D beyond the gaming world. I won’t be surprised if Ford isn’t the only car company using VR with Oculus Rift headsets at next year’s auto shows.

Someone has to produce and direct those long form commercials and short films. Someone has to create the content for those auto show 3D displays, and while car companies are indeed major advertisers with substantial budgets, they’re not going to just turn some artiste loose with lots of money. That’s going to be up to people like stereographer Neal Nathanson and filmmakers like Schell. I think that Ole Schell’s done a good job at demonstrating that one can create engaging 3D video content at a professional level while still keeping within a realistic budget.

I’m looking forward to seeing Schell’s work in the future. He’s excited about the results with The Sunday Morning Drive and I’m sure that it won’t be the last time that he works with cars or with 3D (or with cars and 3D).

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Book Review: “Detroit: An American Autopsy” Tue, 18 Mar 2014 13:00:33 +0000 Detroit

(When I put this into the TTAC “back-end”, I forgot to change the author. This article is the work of John Marks, not Jack Baruth — JB)

Former Detroit News city-beat reporter Charlie LeDuff’s memoir Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013; newly out in paperback) fairly pulsates with not-quite-controlled rage, but at least he came by it honestly. A working-class native of Detroit who parlayed his talents for finding stories and for telling stories into a position at the New York Times, LeDuff quit what once had been his dream job in 2007.

After ten years (a span of time that included 9/11), LeDuff had had enough of the Times’ “intellectual mud wrestling and… oblique putdowns.” The straw that broke his back was an editor’s telling him that he spent too much time writing about “losers.” (One gets the idea that if that editor wasn’t a Brown graduate named Chauncey who was wearing a Brooks Brothers oxford-cloth shirt, he might as well have been.)

After a brief unsatisfying stint in Los Angeles, LeDuff and his wife and infant daughter returned to Detroit in 2008, so he could “chronicle the decline of the Great American Industrial City.” His timing was impeccable, to say the least.

Circling back to Detroit was instinct, like a salmon needing to swim upstream because he is genetically encoded to do so. Detroit might be the epicenter, a funhouse mirror and future projection of America. An incredibly depressed city in its death swoon.

But it could also be a Candy Land from a reporter’s perspective. Decay. Mile after mile of rotting buildings, murder, leftover people. One fucking depressing, dysfunctional big glowing ball of color. One unbelievable story after another.

Detroit is a city where homicide cops have to take the bus to crime scenes because there is no money to fix the squad cars, where firehouses have to sell their brass poles to raise money, where schoolchildren are told to bring their own toilet paper to school because politicians and public employees are feathering their own nests, and where automaker executives take private jets to Washington to ask Congress for $25 billion.

But, as the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that every bit as important to LeDuff as having a ringside seat at the implosion of his hometown was unfinished business in his family’s past and in his own past. LeDuff’s extended family includes his deceased streetwalker sister (who jumped out of a stranger’s speeding van and encountered a large tree at high speed) and his niece (the streetwalker’s daughter), who died young from a heroin overdose. He also has various brothers, one of whom is a repentant former fast-talking junk-mortgage salesman. The former mortgage pusher has just been evicted from the house he bought using the kind of surreal mortgage he had been in the business of selling. When we meet him, he and his wife are sorting and cleaning screws in a machine shop, and getting paid $8 an hour.

LeDuff’s writing alternates between the gritty particularity of a dispatch from a war zone, bouts of world-weary detached and nearly hopeless reflection, and moments of rage. There is none of Damon Runyon’s louche chic and none of Jimmy Breslin’s comical bad-guy local color in this book.

LeDuff’s subjects, including himself, often seem stunned, unable to figure out how they got to the terrible place they find themselves in. (It isn’t giving away much to tell that by the middle of the book, LeDuff has been arrested for domestic assault, spending a night in jail as a result.)

Settling in after his first day of work—the day Detroit’s young Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted for what normal people would call stealing public money—LeDuff gets his testicles groped by the wife of a member of the US House of Representatives. He also visits a dead body frozen in the ice in the flooded basement of an abandoned warehouse, spends a lot of time in homeless shelters and the coroner’s office, and is threatened by several people who are not very nice. The book includes a portfolio of photographs by Danny Wilcox Frazier. My favorite is of a nearly naked streetwalker and a trashed motorboat inside the former Packard factory.

Comparisons to Hunter Thompson have been made and are rather obvious. I think they are slightly off the mark, because Thompson was reinventing himself as a fictional character while visiting places in which he didn’t live. LeDuff just tells the truth as he perceives it, because he came from and lives in the city about which he’s writing.

LeDuff recounts the histories of Detroit, of his own family, and of the auto business with a mixture of amusement, horror, and indignation. This is not a non-fiction book about the car business, and it is not a comprehensive analysis of what ails Detroit. This is a book written by a guy who spent five years trying to figure out his own life while doing a job that often involves prying into other peoples’ deepest miseries. What keeps LeDuff from being a mere parasite is that he can still get outraged over outrages. Detroit: An American Autopsy is full of outrages and the Big Three are among them.

Record producer John Marks is a columnist for Stereophile magazine.

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If The Big Lebowski Were Filmed Today, What Car Would The Dude Drive? Mon, 17 Mar 2014 13:00:18 +0000 Big_Lebowski_Torino_Crash-550pxBefore the Clint Eastwood film (but after the cheezoid TV show), the most well-known Ford Gran Torino in cinema history was the beater ’73 sedan driven by Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski. This film, which took quite a while to go from box-office dud to sacred document of the Lebowski Jihad, was released in 1998 and was set in late 1990 or early 1991 (a period during which I was also in Southern California and living a fairly Dude-ish lifestyle myself). The choice of a ’73 Gran Torino by the Coen Brothers makes some interesting statements for those who obsess about movie cars, and Monday is always the best day to discuss such things.
Big_Lebowski_Torino_Impound-550pxLooking at 1990/1991 from the perspective of 1998, you’ve got a nasty recession being observed via dot-com boom-tinted glasses, the first one-sided ass-kicking dished out by the US military since Vietnam from the point of view of an ascendant hyperpower, and so forth. At the same time, the latter years of the 1990s saw cars that could knock of 200,000 miles becoming commonplace, with carburetors and mechanical ignition systems dead as global Marxism-Leninism. With all that in mind, The Dude’s car had to be something from the Malaise Era, for symbolic location along the Malaise-Gulf War-Hyperpower continuum as well as for the fact that unemployable Los Angeles loadies could be expected to drive 18-year-old midsize sedans.
Big_Lebowski_Torino_Brochure-550pxSo the question here is: What would be this car’s equivalent today? If you’re just going by straight model years, a 2014 movie set in 2006 with the protagonist driving an 18-year-old midsize Ford sedan would give us a 1988 Taurus… and it’s easy to picture the 2006 Dude clanking along in a hooptified first-gen Taurus.
10 - 1986 Hyundai Excel Down On The Junkyard - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' GredenHowever, the runup in global commodities prices in the second half of the first decade of the century meant that larger cars were worth a fair amount at the scrapper, which means that even the ugliest Taurus floated a bit above the very bottom of the car-value barrel. That’s why I think that The Dude of 2006 would drive an early Hyundai Excel. What do you think?

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Ecto-1 and the Working Cadillac Tue, 18 Feb 2014 14:18:17 +0000 21108_1-1024x768

You have to hand it to Lego: years after the patents on their plastic interlocking bricks expired, the company has become expert in parting kids of all ages from their cash. The Lego Movie, a concept that would have boggled the mind of any child of the ’80s, is a certified blockbuster. The Lego Harry Potter and Lego Star Wars video games – that’s a game of a toy of a movie, if you’re counting – are best-sellers across multiple platforms.

Now there’s this, an assemblage of beige-overalled 1980s misfits rendered in blocky, multi-part format, ready to do battle with spectres while making off-the-cuff quips. Talk about shut up and take my money: the Lego Ghostbusters set is relatively affordable, at just under fifty bucks, and is everything you were hoping for. By June, thousands of them should be parked proudly on the desks of all kinds of dudes who are far too old for this sort of thing. I’ve already cleared a space on mine.

The centrepiece of the set, aside from minifig versions of Venkman, Stantz, Zeddemore, and Spengler, is the gloriously recreated Ectomobile – Ecto 1. Thirty years ago this year, the white and red original burst on-screen, sirens blaring.

As a fit for the role, the Cadillac might have been an even better casting choice than Bill Murray as Venkman. When there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, you know who you’re gonna call.


Before Hollywood got hold of it, Ecto-1 started life as a 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Futura Duplex. The Futura designation indicates that it had limousine windows rather than a landau top, and the Duplex that the car could be used as both an ambulance and a hearse. Technically, I suppose the Ectomobile could be called a Triplex in that it could ferry you to hospital with a minor cough, take your corpse to the cemetery after some careless orderly put an air bubble in your IV, and then bust a proton-pack cap in yo’ ass after you returned from beyond the grave to haunt the intensive care ward.

Much like the Armoured Rolls-Royce’s underpinnings, Cadillac once supplied a bare chassis for custom coachwork, available through their commercial division. Essentially a strengthened Series 355 frame, the 390 V8-powered chassis was bare of bodywork except for the front clip, and might include optional extras like air-conditioning and air suspension. Most were considerably lower in the rear than the civilian versions, making for a lower load height.


Companies such as Superior, Eureka, and the aforementioned Miller-Meteor took this bare frame and created ambulances, hearses, a very rare vehicle called a flower car (used for transporting floral arrangements), and stretch limousines. Quarter-panels and other signature Cadillac bodywork would often be supplied along with the bare essentials, but the coachwork usually involved customized doors, windshields, a heightened roof, and unique details like curved glass in the rear for a better view of the casket.

While a lucrative business for Caddy in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, these professional vehicles weren’t all that common. In 1959, just 2102 chassis were made, the lion’s share going to the Miller-Meteor company in Ohio. Divided again between ambulance, limousine, dual-purpose and the odd flower car or two, not many more than several hundred Futura Duplexes were made in total. Stringent EMS regulations introduced in the late 1970s would eventually force the change to van-based ambulances – the last Cadillac commercial chassis was delivered to Miller-Meteor in 1976.


By comparison, the similarly iconic DeLorean DMC-12 of the Back To The Future trilogy is relatively commonplace, with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 9,000 cars made between 1983-84. The bullet-shaped tail-lights and the quad foglights of the ’59 Caddy are a one-year oddity.


Thus, there was only ever one Ecto-1. Where the set designers got the car from isn’t clear, but the news that it was originally brown will certainly please Style Editor Sajeev Mehta to no end. While versions of the script as late as 1983 indicated the Ectomobile should be a 1975 Excelsior ambulance, drawings commissioned by Dan Ackroyd for his original screenplay seem to show a much earlier car.


At any rate, the ’59 Miller-Meteor got the part, and was transformed into a screen legend first by concepts drawn up by John Daveikis, and then more properly realized by Steven Dane, credited as a hardware consultant. Dane also fabricated up early models of the proton packs you probably tried to make as part of your Hallowe’en costume in 1984.

Two cars were used in the film, the first an ex-fire-department ambulance that was rented by Sony Pictures to portray the black-primered “before” car that Ray Stantz so proudly pulls into the firehouse, “Everybody can relax, I found the car. Needs some suspension work and shocks. Brakes, brake pads, lining, steering box, transmission, rear-end…”


All that for just $4800. Well, it did need rings, mufflers, a little wiring – point is, the fictional Ray Stantz got a heck of a deal on an extremely rare machine. Thanks to the work of the non-fictional Steven Dane, the slightly-beat Desert Rose Caddy ambulance that was actually purchased by Sony was transformed inside and out into an iconic bustin’ machine.

In the mind of Dan Ackroyd, Ecto-1 should have been more ghostly hearse than ambulance – painted a menacing all-black with purple underglow and sirens. Fortunately, since so much of the film was to be shot at night, the car donned the red and white livery we all know so well. The Ferno-Washington gurney held the proton-packs, and a series of avionics gauges were fabbed up into spirit containment devices and ghost detectors.

It was a hell of a machine. Nearly twenty-one feet long, eight feet high and nearly seven feet wide, Ecto-1 weighed nearly three and a half tonnes. Sure, the V8 cranked out 325hp, but the floaty suspension and mausoleum curb-weight blunted performance somewhat. Blunted? Sorry, I mean slimed.

After the movie, Sony ended up buying the primered car as well, and using it as a promotional vehicle. George Barris, famous for any number of other famous movie and TV cars, made another Ecto-1 out of it, and it eventually passed into private hands. Among other differences from the original, the promotional car has a red interior rather than black.


Another car was used as a rolling feature at Universal Studios, and Ghostbusters II featured Ecto-1a, an “upgraded” version of the original. Any number of replicas have followed, many of them based off of Superior and Eureka ambulances.

The appeal of the Ecto-1 has been something of a double-edged sword in the view of Professional Car enthusiasts. While some far-gone ambulances and hearses have been pulled back from the brink by movie enthusiasts, the rarity of the standard cars might well have been increased by Ecto-1 replicas made out of hard-to-find ’59 Miller-Meteors.

It’s not like movie star status did anything for the original. Left outside for nearly two decades in the Sony Pictures backlot, Ecto-1 was weathered and brutalized by the years. Eventually, right around the 25th anniversary of Ghostbusters, the car would be sent to Cinema Vehicle Services of North Hollywood for a full restoration. The Ectomobile was stripped down to the bare bones and built up again. Even after the renovations, it spent another five years baking in the California sun on the backlot. Ecto-1a is a ruin after the same sort of shabby treatment.


For those of us who remember Ghostbusters from the complete first picture, the idea that a trilogy might be on the horizon is both exciting and terrifying. Think of just how bad the fourth Indiana Jones movie was, as best represented by the car-chase that destroyed the warehouse seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark – a childhood memory sacrificed to CGI nonsense.

But Ecto-1 (apart from the siren) was never purely about movie magic. It’s an antiquated rolling piece of American automotive history given new life by a mortgaged-to-the-hilt gearhead Ghostbuster; an unlikely, outdated rescue vehicle suddenly imbued with silver screen immortality.


It is, funnily enough, a dead car resurrected by a movie franchise that ran on putting down spirits who wouldn’t remain deceased. To end with a quote from Dr. Peter Venkman, “Generally, you don’t see that kind of behaviour in a major appliance.”

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Product Review: LX Dual USB Car Charger with Leather Grip Mon, 03 Feb 2014 13:00:22 +0000

The vehicles we aspire to own have one thing in common: timeless design over mere transportation: Ferraris over Fiats. CUVs instead of sedans, or personal luxury vehicles in lieu of a hatchback. So why not treat yourself to a leather-wrapped charging apparatus? IMG_2492 Oh yes, it charges your smartphone/tablet with precision…but where’s the passion in that? Let’s charge things up with a review enhancement to id America’s “LX Dual USB Car Charger with Leather Grip” with a two-pronged (get it? nevermind…) attack:

  1. Rename this stunning work of modern art with a more fitting title: ZOMG LEATHER USB CHARGER!!!1!  or “ZLUC” for short.
  2. Go down memory lane: showing how much better automobiles from several decades work with a ZLUC in their cigar holes.

And, for this Lincoln-Mercury fanboi, what better starting point than the famous 1961 Lincoln Continental? IMG_2484 As you can clearly see, ZLUC is a fantastic fit in one of the finest automobiles to grace American roads in the 1960s.  The leather-wrapped goodness shows itself off against the strong aluminum elements of the Conti’s dashboard.  Also note how ZLUC is intended for Apple products ONLY… Android users?  No leather wrapped chargers for you. In fact, do yourself a favor and close this browser (probably not Safari, either) and peep those all-plastic chargers on eBay. Philistine! I’m just kidding!  ZLUC’s packaging lists the following items as worthy of getting their electrons massaged by the tender luxury of leather wrapping, in this order:

  1. iPad
  2. iPad mini
  3. iPhone
  4. Tablets & Smartphones

So you Android and Windows people can indeed continue reading! IMG_2498 The Continental Mark III was well-known for the time a C/D scribe made it from coast to coast with no money, only promises to gas station owners underwritten by the sheer class of this stunning machine.  So how dare you consider any non-ZLUC phone charger to duplicate this trip today? IMG_2485 Note how ZLUC not only adds to the Mark III’s faux stitching with its REAL leather wrapping, the contrasting color actually matches the wood grain trim!  And when not needed, it hides easily in the ashtray binnacle so mere mortals who live without leather infused battery charging shall not be violently jealous of your elevated status. Like you Android users! IMG_2499 Obviously the pinnacle of personal luxury design was the late 1970s, before there was a cure for disco fever with downsized machines “from here to eternity.”  And obviously the Continental Mark V was the baddest of them all: three inches longer than a Ford Excursion when Cadillac was downsizing their rides for some stupid energy crisis. How will ZLUC fare against the toughest American Hustler? Could it possibly fail? IMG_2486 ZOMG DAT LEATHER AND WOOD!  You are an absolute fool to not rest your tired booty after a long night of coke snorting disco dancing in the super-classy interior of the Mark V, and let your iPhone recharge via leather wrapped battery rejuvenation! IMG_2489 Quite honestly, you need multiple ZLUC’s for every cigar hole in a Mark V!  Why you need TWO of these beauties for the rear of both door panels. IMG_2491 Did I forget the 1980s?  Hardly.  Yes the 1990s had mobile phones, but never such uncharted luxury as a USB charger wrapped in the same quality leather as the finest German machine of the era. Yes, the ZLUC smells as good as it looks! But I digress.. The futuristic center stack of the 1993-1995 Lincoln Mark VIII looks rather fantastic in its so good it’s almost not faux wood trimming, complete with ZLUC’s matching brown leather wrapping.  Also note the high-tech technology of the blue LED light on ZLUC’s face, proving it’s ready to take your mobile device to the next level… …with luxury in mind! 971620_10151508996138269_1350646760_n Why that leather wrapped charger is so fantastic I will never use my factory installed car phone again…ever!


But how timeless is this classic for one’s cigar hole?  Let’s put it to the ultimate test. IMG_2490 ZOMG TESTAROSSA LEATHER USB CHARGER!!!1!  As the photo shows, Crockett and Tubbs only need a ZLUC in Cocaine White Leather to completely dominate the Drug Trade! Is there a better way to look moody and intense while charging your iPhone? I think not! Can you imagine the great selfies Crockett could post on Instagram if his iPhone was connected to ZLUC? Hashtag that’s what’s In The Air Tonight!

So can you, dear reader, put a price on such perfection?  You fool, the ZLUC is priceless!  Or $24.99 plus shipping, available directly at id America’s suitably upscale website. Well, what are you waiting for?  A leather wrapped invitation to buy one of these babies for yourself?


(id America provided their LX Dual USB Car Charger with Leather Grip in brown leather for this review.)

IMG_2491 IDPA201BRN_front 971620_10151508996138269_1350646760_n IMG_2490 IMG_2499 IDPA201BRN_angle IMG_2486 IMG_2485 IMG_2492 web_feature_lxcarcharger IMG_2484 coverphoto IMG_2498 IMG_2489

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Cars I’ve Loved And Hated by Michael Lamm Thu, 19 Dec 2013 10:00:48 +0000 Lamm_900-700x311

Micheal Lamm has worn a lot of hats in the automotive media world, including stints as editor and publisher at a number of respected publications (besides siring the man who gave the world the 24 Hrs of LeMons series). In addition to wearing a lot of hats, Mike has also owned a lot of cars including about 80 collectible and special interest automobiles over the past 62 years. Most of them he loved, others he grew to hate.


Last year Michael did a 15 part series for Hemmings called Cars I’ve Loved and Hated, which he graciously allowed me to excerpt at my own site. He’s a great writer who accurately conveys what it’s like to be a car enthusiast and I think he’s one of the good guys in the autojourno biz. A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Amazon or directly from Lamm), which Lamm wrote with retired GM designer, the late Dave Holls, is encyclopediac in scope and pretty much the standard reference on the topic.

With just a week to go before Christmas and you have loved ones who love cars, or if you forgot to get your Jewish car enthusiast friends anything for Chanukah, now passed, there’s good news. Lamm decided to publish of Cars I’ve Loved and Hated on CD with the 223 pages of text and 131 photographs laid out in book format by noted automotive artist Casey Shain and though it normally costs $14.95 plus $3 shipping, Mike’s having a holiday sale and if you order it now, you can get it for just $12.95 and he’ll throw in first class postage in the U.S. for free until Christmas day. For more information, visit or send your check (no credit cards accepted) to Mike at Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 9428 Hickory Ave., Stockton CA 95212. If you ask him, he’ll probably autograph it.

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Movie Review, Fathers and Sons: SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry Mon, 02 Dec 2013 15:00:58 +0000

This year, two documentaries concerning serial automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin have been released. Coincidentally, both of them were the products of sons whose fathers were part of the story they were telling. First, after four years of sitting completed, in the can so to speak, The Entrepreneur, filmed and directed by Bricklin’s son Jonathan, with an executive producer’s credit to Supersize Me‘s Morgan Spurlock, was finally released this past summer for public viewing.

Trailers were released, a premiere party was held at Jonathan Bricklin’s trendy NYC ping-pong club, there was a bunch of publicity in the automotive and general media, and the film was supposedly available for viewing on Hulu, iTunes and Snagfilms. However, a search of those three sites shows that the film is not actually available at this time, so I can’t tell you if The Entrepreneur is a fair assessment of Malcolm Bricklin’s career and character or if it’s a son’s hagiographic tribute to his father.

There are a couple of trailers you can check out here and here. One can’t help but compare the seeming ephemeral nature of his son’s movie to the many stillborn projects of Malcolm Bricklin. I did observe Jonathan shooting video of his father when the senior Bricklin was at the 2007 NAIAS, holding a guerrilla press conference in Cobo Hall’s concourse hyping the deal he was trying to consummate with China’s Chery and my impression then was that Jonathan Bricklin was hanging on his father’s every word, shooting some kind of puff piece, another angle for the Bricklin family to make some coin.

Andrew Watson’s life was also intertwined with that of Malcolm Bricklin. Watson’s father Ian, a accountant working in the auto industry, uprooted his family from Stratford, Ontario and moved to New Brunswick, where he took the position of comptroller for Bricklin of Canada.Watson says that the move and his father’s involvement with the Bricklin car project left a “long term negative impact”  on the Watson family, his father’s co-workers at the company and on the people of New Brunswick. That statement runs on the screen before the opening credits of SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry. As such, just as I’d expect The Entrepreneur to be favorably disposed towards Malcolm Bricklin, I expected Watson’s film to be nothing but a slam at Bricklin, whose record is unquestionably spotty at best. Instead Andrew Watson has presented a nuanced view of the Bricklin car project and of the man behind it that seems to me to ultimately be fair to all involved.

I discovered Watson’s project while trying to find a copy of The Entrepreneur to review. He was in the middle of doing his final cut, but we stayed in touch and now that the film has had some public showings, including winning  the Best Documentary award at the 2013 Silver Wave Film Festival and is available on Vimeo video on demand, Andrew graciously gave TTAC access for a review.

SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry started out as a video Watson was making for his father’s 80th birthday. The more material he uncovered, the more archival footage he came across, the more he realized there was enough for a full-length documentary. “The deeper I got I realized the story was taking me for a ride,” he adds. “It was a vehicle for me to discover myself and to share this discovery. Despite how imperfect the car is, each car has a soul, a collective soul of each Bricklin worker.”


The people who worked on the Bricklin SV-1 are proud of it, which may be why Malcolm Bricklin doesn’t come off as as much as a villain as one might expect. It started out as a safety car, proposed to be able to protect occupants in 50 mph crashes and with bumpers that could withstand 20 mph impacts without damage, hence the nameplate SV-1, for Safety Vehicle. How the SV-1 came to be built in St. John, New Brunswick had to do with a politician, provincial premier Richard Hadfield, looking to create industry and jobs and Malcolm Bricklin looking for somebody else’s money to bankroll the project. Bricklin had first pitched the Quebec government on financing a plan for him to take over an idled assembly plant that had produced Renaults from kits and a failed sportscar project. The Quebec provincial government looked into Bricklin’s past enterprises and wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole.

By looking at the people involved in the SV-1 project, Watson explains how the unlikely project came to fruition only to come to an end after two years of production when the provincial government pulled the financial plug and wouldn’t put yet more millions into Bricklin of Canada.

SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry tells the story about the project from the perspective of most of the participants:

Bruce Meyers, who stuck a fiberglass body on a VW Beetle chassis and created the Meyers Manx dune buggy. He later made the Meyers SR, for Sports Roadster, one of which Malcolm Bricklin bought. Meyers had a hand in the the early design of the SV-1.

Dick Dean, famous car customizer. He carved foam from Marshall Hobart’s original styling sketches and built the first prototype

Richard Hadfield, Conservative premier of New Brunswick who championed the Bricklin project, even campaigning in the car. His political career would suffer as a result of the Bricklin failure.

Marshall Hobart, an Art Center student who worked as a designer for Meyers. While visiting Bricklin’s offices Malcolm asked him if he could design the car. He started doing sketches and one was chosen to become the SV-1.

Herb Grasse, the “controlled lunatic” designer tasked with taking the work of Dean, Hobart and Myers and turning it into a production “safety car”. Watson obviously thinks that Grasse has taken undue credit for designing the Bricklin car, depriving Hobart of his props.

Leon Klein, the man with connections who knew how to get money out of the provincial government.

Terry Tanner, managing mfg engineer for General Vehicle Inc., Bricklin’s holding company

Ian Watson, the real reason for this film. He moved his family to New Brunswick so he could take the job of comptroller for Bricklin’s Canadian operations, the St. John assembly plant and a satellite operation that made the SV-1′s body panels. The SV-1′s body was made of fiberglass bonded with a skin of color embedded acrylic that Malcolm Bricklin promised would look just as good 20 years later. To his credit, surviving Bricklins do look good, though the Minto, NB plant had a difficult time getting the lamination process to work. Watson tried instituting practices that would have operated the facility and the company in a more professional and fiscally responsible manner, but his superiors didn’t want the provincial government and other backers to know of any problems. Had the procedures been implemented, later financial problem might have been avoided. Another less practical idea of Ian Watson’s for saving the company’s money, borrowing a coworker’s .45 and shooting Malcolm Bricklin, never got beyond fantasy stage.

Most of the people mentioned above were interviewed recently for the documentary but the central character of the story, Malcolm Bricklin himself, is only heard from in the form of archival footage.

Another person that Watson did not interview was the late Albert Bricklin, Malcolm’s father. Malcolm made his father a manager in the company, much to the chagrin of just about everyone involved in the project. Albert’s role in the dysfunctional car company isn’t something I had been aware of. Albert Bricklin was simultaneously incompetent to do the jobs with which he was entrusted and authoritarian. Since he had a direct connection with Malcolm, he couldn’t be overruled. The Bricklin employees dedicated to actually building a functional car learned how to keep him out of their hair.

According to the film, Malcolm also used company funds to buy a home in Arizona for the use of him and his wife, only to have the title to the property transferred to them personally. Travel from Arizona to New Brunswick, or to the engineering office in Livonia, Michigan near Detroit, was via private charter. Apparently Mrs. Bricklin didn’t always travel with Malcolm, who seemed to always be accompanied on his trips by a half dozen or more attractive young women.

Andrew Watson’s narration sometimes sounds a bit amateurish, and it looks like he used some footage only tangentially related to the Bricklin story, like movie clips of Elvis Presley driving a dune buggy, an early 1960s Canadian Volvo ad (Volvos were built for quite some time in a New Brunswick plant) and ruin porn of Detroit’s decrepit Packard plant, to pad the film to a suitable length, but it’s an entertaining film nonetheless. Once piece of archival video is, appropriately, from an episode of Let’s Make A Deal, with Monty Hall himself dangling a brand new Bricklin SV-1 as a potential prize. That kind of rare footage and archival photos make Watson’s documentary an important source of history on the Bricklin car project, along with original interviews with key players in the story. He even managed to track down the prototype for a second generation SV-1 that Malcolm Bricklin claims inspired John DeLorean’s car and car company.

When a company fails, the people’s whose hopes and dreams fail with it are often invisible. Watson shows that the Bricklin SV-1 wan’t just a fast talking dealmaker’s route to fame and possibly fortune, it was in a number of ways an innovative automobile with a lot of people who believed in the project. Against some steep odds, including having to work with Malcolm Bricklin, they built a factory, designed a car, and put it into production, selling thousands of them. Automotive cons and hoaxes are not uncommon, but it’s hard to call Malcolm Bricklin a complete con artist because the factory did get built and it made thousands of cars.

Watson isn’t nearly as hard on Malcolm Bricklin as I had thought he would be, though the entrepreneur doesn’t exactly come out of SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry smelling like a rose. Bricklin’s a hondler for sure, whose accounts in both senses of the word don’t always agree with others’, a man who can point to some success, which he invariably has embellished, while at the same time has a very spotty record with more misses than hits. Perhaps it is cosmic justice that more people remember Malcolm Bricklin from the fiasco of the Yugo than for whatever success the SV-1 had.

I had the opportunity to review the film for free, but after watching it a couple of times, I think that I would have paid the $4.99 video on demand rental fee. Even if  you aren’t an enthusiast of the Bricklin SV-1, if you have an interest in automotive history, I’d say that it’s money well spent, barely more than a latte at a NYC Starbucks. If you own a Bricklin SV-1 or are otherwise a Bricklin car enthusiast, though, you’d probably want to pop for the $12.99 it costs to buy. The movie fills in a lot of the gaps in the written history of the SV-1 project and Watson fills in those gaps with human faces.

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Toyobaru Drift School Post-Mortem Sat, 21 Sep 2013 17:11:09 +0000 IMG_2457

Regular readers of TTAC already saw Justin Wheels Crenshaw and W Christian Mental Ward had a chance to attend the Abu Dhabi Drift School where the RWD Toyota GT-86 is the car of choice.

After sliding around like hooligans, we both had some opinions on them and continued the discussion at the Viceroy Hotel’s “Taste of Atayeb” while overlooking Turn 18 of the Yas Island Circuit.

We go the extra mile for you. You want David E Davis levels of luxury? Wheels and I are here for you.

We go the extra mile for you. You want David E Davis levels of luxury? Wheels and I are ready to deliver.


Wheels - What do I like about this car?  Maybe the seats, steering wheel and shifter. Otherwise it’s pointless.


Mental – I understand why Toyota and Subaru built this car. They needed to show they could still build a lightweight balanced car. It reminds me of the several 1st gen Rx-7s I owned. It’s fun.



Wheels – Do you want to me to go ahead and admit that I’m glad they built it?  Then yes, I’m glad a manufacturer had the balls to produce lightweight car “oriented towards enthusiast driving”, but that’s what a Miata is for.  Happy?


Mental – You act like you weren’t having fun driving it. It’s not that much different than your M Coupe, except, you know, it’s affordable. I wouldn’t call it pointless.


Wheels – I had fun because I was sliding around like a hooligan on a wet skidpad.  Put me in a school bus doing the same thing and it would’ve been more fun!  If you like the damn thing so much why isn’t there one in your garage?


Mental – I wouldn’t turn one down. I agree with your assessment of the seat and the tiller. I even liked the “lift-the-ring-to-get reverse” shifter.  It was a throw-back to the glory hot-hatch days. The constant flow of praise about the well balanced nature of the car is spot on. It’s light, chuck able and balanced. The AC works, the radio is clear and easy, the instruments make sense. The clutch is light, and I wouldn’t complain about being stuck in traffic, aside from being stuck in traffic. You could have a great time with it at the autocross, and still take the missus out on date night. It is comfortable and capable. I bet when BMW introduces their joint “Das Supra” Z4 replacement you’ll sing its praises.


Wheels – I bet the Supra will have more than 200hp.  There you made me bring up the subject of power, but we both knew it was coming.  Oh, but a true drivers car doesn’t need a lot of power, right? True, but it shouldn’t dog out of corners either.  Let me to tell you about the HPDE where I drove an automatic FRS; drove every corner perfectly, and yet Mr. Cialis in the Corvette runs me down on the straight and passes me before every corner.  Then I have to watch him early apex, drift out, and apply brakes mid-corner.  My point is, you can drive this car perfectly and it’s still slow.


Mental – Normally I would retort that it is more satisfying to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, but that Corvette ordeal should be punishment for insisting your Pontiac 6000STE requires 93 octane. I still believe it’s a good car, not a great one, and not a halo car, but fun. As a pure track car, no, but for the young person who wants a solid capable car that he can dodge cones or run at a track day without breaking the bank or needing a trailer, it’s a solid purchase.

But seriously, why in the hell would you buy an automatic? That totally defeats the purpose.


Wheels – Can we agree to never say the word automatic during this conversation again?  I will admit the manual was much more satisfying, but I knew it would be after screaming at that slushbox to “shift already” the entire time on track.  And wait did you say take the misses to dinner?  Maybe if I was 21 and she was a Fast & Furious fan, but I’m pretty sure if that were the case she’d me more impressed by my dropped Scion TC.


Mental – That’s a deal. Hey what kind of transmission is in your 300 SRT-8?


Wheels- Oh you mean the car I take the misses to dinner in?  I do think the car community is obsessed with power these days, but the reality is it’s needed to be competitive.  If you’re the least bit competitive at auto-x and track days then you don’t stand much of a chance against (good) drivers in more powerful cars.  I won’t belittle you with the cars you can buy for $25k-30k instead of this 151 torques monster. Props to Toyobaru, they built a Miata coupe.


Toyota, Scion and Subaru didn’t pay for a damm thing. In fact, the school took our $275 each then we both forked out another $50 for dinner. Mental highly recommends the eggplant hummus.


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Slide Rules: A Day At Toyobaru Drift School Sat, 21 Sep 2013 17:08:16 +0000 Subayotas by night

Subayotas by night


Buckle your seatbelts folks; we’re firing up the wayback machine. Last week I had the privilege of attending the Yas Island Drift School with none other than Justin “Wheels” Crenshaw. I have actually known Justin for a few years now, back when he was juggling press loaners and writing for TTAC, while I had no idea this site existed. He helped me with this story, as well as editing it, so hopefully he saved Baruth some stress and the B&B some frustration with my tenuous language skills.

Behold, the Yas Island F1 track and general gearhead amusement park. We arrived for class and set about beating up their Toyota GT-86’s.

Classes are run with two instructors and three students. Ours were from Belgium and Germany.  Neither was young, nor did they wear a flat billed ballcap canted to one side. The German; Mark, was a factory BMW instructor and actually “knew the facility in Greenville quite well.”

We had a quick PowerPoint presentation while the sprinklers started watering the paved course. We learned the methods of inducing a slide; add throttle, downshift, the e-brake, the famous Scandinavian flick, and the one we weren’t privy to at our price point, the “bump” drift; which utilizes pavement irregularities to upset the car’s rear.

The 30 slide presentation went by in a flash; our instructors seemed to have as much interest as we did in classroom time.  To the Toyotas!  Mark demo’d how to turn off the traction control completely (come on! get to something us gearheads don’t know)  However, his following point about the primary slide sensor being your spine intrigued us.  According to Mark it gets input from the seat, which gets input from the rear axle, and so forth. His point being a lot of information is lost in that transition, so you’d better be sensitive to what the car is doing.

booorrriiinngg...when do I get to act like Bo Duke?

booorrriiinngg…when do I get to act like Bo Duke?

The other rules of track driving still apply. Your eyes should look where you want to car to go, slow in fast out, and throttle inputs should be gradual. With that, we hopped into the cars and drove to the site’s skid pad; a plastic coated block of smooth concrete surrounded by sprinklers. Our task was simple; slide to the left of the first cone, then to the right of the second and exit.

Crenshaw executes a surprisingly (and annoyingly) graceful arc around the first cone, catches it and almost does the same with the second before going full 360. I drive the course with the rear wheels slipping but the car remaining somewhat straight, I wanted to catch the slide. Our handheld radios barked instructions; “Let eet slide…more trottel,  more trottel…”

I met Crenshaw at BMWCCAs OKC area autocrosses, and we have shared several track days.  I noticed the road course dynamics we practiced were betraying us and we needed to accept the car going sideways rather than trying to correct it.

My biggest handicap was the habitual nine and three hands on the wheel. Mark would bark into my car “You arh naht turnink, da front wheelz are not moving.” After one failed attempt, he made me move the steering the full range of motion, which forced me to hand over hand the wheel, rather than the normal crossover. My next attempt I used a “flailing” method at the wheel and it kinda worked. Until then I wasn’t moving the wheel and was using slow hands with my slow throttle inputs. This is not how you get a rear end to step out. Finally I caught up to the others’ progression. Learning is fun!

Click here to view the embedded video.

Next was the cone circle exercise. (Yep, it involved drifting around a circle of cones.)  There were two; one clockwise, one counter.  I started on the counter-clockwise side, and if I say so, mastered it quite easily.  After a respite I started on the clockwise side and sucked. What the hell?!

The front tires of any car will go about 37 degrees before a spin, so of course you steer with the throttle, but never use all of it. If you start at full throttle, you have nothing left to modulate. The concept is intuitive, the action is not. Stay ahead of the car, give the throttle inputs before the car needs them, and make them slight.  Again the radio barked;  “Puhmp eet! puhmp eet!”

The next trick was to connect the two circles into a full figure eight. My road racing background still betrayed me. The Belgian instructor chastised me for not using the brakes before entering the corner; “Drifting has nothing to do with speed.”

The Final Course

The muscle memory was starting to form and the learning was happening very quickly. Or so we thought.  The final exercise was a full autocross course. A short acceleration to a sweeping left, into a quick right followed by a left. We get a few feet to straighten the car, then a left slide into a box. Our tank of dollars was running low, so we had limited attempts.

my usual view of Crenshaw at the track

my usual view of Crenshaw at the track

My first shot I tried a handbrake induced slide for the entry. Epic freaking fail. The car just stopped. The next two I couldn’t get more than 2 connected slides before a spin, and the last was full up banzai mode, with predictable results. So I replaced all the cones I knocked over and returned the Toyobaru to the starting line.

I was covered in sweat, partially because it was 109 with absurd humidity, and partially because it was hard work. I left with some new skills and the same satisfaction you get after a hard day at the autocross.

Now, if I can just get this damm Toyota Fortuner to stop understeering…

W. Christian Mental Ward has owned over 70 cars and destroyed most of them. He only owns one ballcap, the brim is NOT flat and he when he wears it, it rest square on his head. Married to the most patient woman in the world; he has three dogs, a Philosophy degree and a gift for making Derek and Jack wonder if English is actually his first language.

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A Pretty Good New Movie About A Great Motorsports Rivalry, No, Not That One Thu, 15 Aug 2013 12:43:24 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

You may have heard that there’s a movie about car racing coming out. For dramatic tension it’s based on the real life story of two drivers, competing when the sport was very dangerous, whose relationship went from rivalry to respect to a deep friendship. Actually, there are two movies like that coming out. You’re probably more familiar with director Ron Howard’s $100 million F1 epic, Rush, which opens on Sept. 20th and centers on the competition between Niki Lauda and the late James Hunt. Made for about one tenth of that, and opening Sept. 9th is Snake and Mongoo$e, about drag racers Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen. Snake and Mongoo$e had its worldwide premiere last weekend in conjunction with Reno’s Hot August Nights cruise festivities that included a Barrett-Jackson car auction. With a million and a half car lovers congregating this weekend on Woodward for the Dream Cruise, the producers decided to have a Detroit premiere as well, and the film will be screened at the Palladium in Birmingham all weekend long.

I knew about the film and had seen the trailer. Yesterday, I saw in one of the Detroit dailies that there was going to be a local premiere and that one of the film’s producers was the wife of the CEO of Event Services International. One of the things that ESI does is press fleet management, they’re the nice folks who drop off press cars, freshly washed, detailed and with a full tank of fuel on my driveway. The people I’ve dealt with at ESI have been great so I called up the local office and they put me in touch with the woman doing publicity for the film, Shari McCullough Arfons, who has a connection to drag racing herself since she’s married to the son of Art Arfons, of Green Monster jet car fame. Shari graciously arranged for me to get passes to the premiere so that you could read this review and if you’re in Detroit for the Dream Cruise maybe stop over at the Palladium and check it out.

McEwen and Prudhomme were competitors in the California drag racing scene going back to the late 1950s. Prudhomme worked in the family body and paint shop while McEwen came from a wealthier background. Prudhomme had been using the nickname “Snake” for a while and after McEwen beat him in an important race, Tom started using the nickname “Mongoose”, apparently at the suggestion of his chief mechanic who read the Jungle Book when he was a child. By the time they reached the top level of NHRA racing, though, both of them were struggling to make racing pay for itself. Sponsorship was minimal and often on the local level for a few hundred dollars. Race winnings barely paid the bills.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The men have very different personalities. Prudhomme is quiet while McEwen is outgoing. Prudhomme preferred to focus on racing, while McEwen had a better sense of public relations. For example, while Prudhomme team wore t-shirts with his snake logo, McEwen sold t-shirts with his rodent on them. It took him a while but eventually McEwen convinced Prudhomme that by working together as business partners they could make a lot more money than they did as competitors in NHRA. They started a barnstorming tour of match races, with guaranteed money up front. By then, the late 1960s, Prudhomme had won NHRA titles and McEwen was a top competitor so they were a big draw and could command the fees they demanded.

Both men were married and McEwen and his wife had three sons. Once, after returning from an out of town race, he noticed his sons playing with some new toy cars called Hot Wheels, billed by Mattel as the fastest cars in the world. I don’t know if the proverbial light bulb went on but McEwen had what has to be one of the great marketing ideas of the last half century, though it’s really a variation on “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”. In this case, the buyers were young boys and their parents and the cars being bought would be Hot Wheels versions of funny cars that McEwen and Prudhomme actually raced. It was a brilliant stroke of cross-promotion, with the racers and race cars selling die-cast models and the die-cast models making new fans to come out to the race track and watch the real cars race.

Considering this all took place over 40 years ago, it was a fairly sophisticated marketing brew with other companies than Mattel, like Chrysler, involved. Prudhomme’s car carried a yellow Plymouth Baracuda body and McEwen’s a red Plymouth Duster. A Hot Wheels designer, a racing fan himself, helped design the cars’ and their transporters’ graphics.

It was a great idea. The two drivers made money from the sponsorship, which also allowed them to build cars that were competitive in NHRA funny car and top fuel categories. They made appearance money from their match races, and trackside merchandise, and of course Mattel made lots of money, selling millions of cars and racing sets.

All good things come to an end and after three years, Mattel ended it’s sponsorship and the two ended their business partnership but the die had been cast both in the business of motorsports and in their intertwined personal lives. The promotional materials for the movie stress how groundbreaking their deal with Mattel was. It wasn’t just that the money was good, it was the fact that it was part of a large marketing scheme, that a major corporation was making racing part of their business. The picayune historian in me says that’s a bit of an exaggeration, since by then Jim Hall had made plenty of deals to license his Chaparral to model companies like Cox and Colin Chapman also had arranged some big money sponsorship from a tobacco company for Lotus, but to be fair to the producers of the movie, none of those deals were as comprehensive or as mutually beneficial as the Snake, Mongoo$e and Mattel.

The names Snake and Mongoo$e and Prudhomme and McEwen are well known to a generation of drag racing fans and a younger generation of Hot Wheels fans. Their competition, which lasted over two decades, is considered by many to be drag racing’s greatest rivalry, the Gatti-Ward of the quarter mile.

Cross-promotion is a fact of life in Hollywood today. I don’t know how much product placement was actually involved in the making of the movie but included in the movie’s press kit is a press release from Cam2. Cam2 oil was one of Prudhomme’s sponsors and their logo would normally appear in the film so that deal does make sense. Thinking about some of the logos in the movies, it occurs to me that the two racers were pioneers in another regard. After the Mattel deal was over and they dissolved their team, Wildlife Racing, they started looking for other big sponsors. McEwen first got the United States Navy to sign up. Prudhomme responded by getting the Army logo on his cars. The U.S. Army still sponsors a NHRA team. It’s possible those sponsorship deals with McEwen and Prudhomme were the first time American armed forces services sponsored motorsports teams.

The movie starts and ends in 1978, at the NHRA nationals in Indianapolis, with the two going head to head for a title. Ron Howard is spending a lot of money with some very pricey vintage racers along with special effects to make Rush realistic. The producers and director of Snake and Mongoo$e went in a different direction, using mostly archival footage when showing on track action. That footage is rather seamlessly integrated into the film, though watching on a modern digital 4K cinema screen, it’s sometimes a little visually jarring to go from the grainy film or raster-lined tv footage to the high definition material. Access to the archival film was no doubt made easy by the fact that the movie is being presented and distributed by Rhino Films in connection with the NHRA. With digital processing, the old racing footage looks better than it ever has, even if it isn’t in high def.

Dramatically, Snake and Mongoo$e actually turned out to be better than I expected. Yes, it’s a bit formulaic, but then all sports movies are. The acting was fine. Nobody’s going to win any Oscars but the characters were believable. Jesse Williams, of Gray’s Anatomy, plays Prudhomme and he has a remarkable resemblance to Prudhomme himself. He seems to catch Prudhommes taciturn manner well. Richard Blake plays McEwen and shows a little range, since the real life McEwen had to deal with the death of his son Jaime. The real life McEwen and Prudhomme do have cameos in the film, as do other racing figures like Wally Parks. Prudhomme and McEwen also participated in the production, and were on set frequently. Blake spent weeks before filming with McEwen, going to locations and explaining what really went down. Linda Vaughn’s and Pam Hardy’s busts also make cameos in some of the archival footage. ER’s Noah Wyle plays the Mattel executive, Art Spear, who saw the wisdom of McEwen’s plan. Spear later would reduce and then end the sponsorship because they thought sales of the Hot Wheels versions of the Snake and Mongoo$e’s cars had peaked. Ashley Hinshaw plays Lynn Prudhomme and Kim Shaw plays Judy McEwen. Tim Blake Nelson plays, mostly to comedic effect, a composite track/tv announcer with a period perfect mustache and sideburns. Fred Dryer has a character role as McEwen’s gruff longtime racing engineer. The film was written by automotive writer Alan Paradise, inspired by a documentary he had worked on for Mattel celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Snake and Mongoo$e Hot Wheels cars. It was directed by Wayne Holloway.

To be honest, I expected something along the lines of a made for tv or straight to dvd movie, but it was much better than I expected. Not great art, but the characters were engaging, the motorsports side was authentic, the business and marketing history portrayed in the film continues to impact the way racing is promoted and sponsored today and the story arc kept my interest. If the film falls down it’s where it fleshes out the characters and their family lives. The way the strain on McEwen’s marriage brought on by his constant travelling (and philandering) was portrayed seemed a bit by the numbers. Juxtaposing the birth of the Prudhommes’ first child with McEwen and his estranged wife’s grief as also a bit heavy handed. Those were true life events. Sometimes life itself is melodramatic. Also, not only were their families part of the story, there have to be characters and events that resonate with women. My guess is that the casting of Williams, Blake and Wyle has something to do with that as well.

In any case, I enjoyed Snake and Mongoo$e and would certainly recommend it to any car enthusiast. If I came across it on cable tv I’d watch it all the way through. Everything looked authentic and at the heart, like screenwriter Paradise says, it’s a great story about two men. It’d make a great double feature with Ron Howard’s Rush, well, if they still did things like double features.

There is one big difference between the two movies. Unless you’re exceedingly sensitive about bad words or smoking, if you have kids you can take the whole family to see Snake and Mongoo$e. It’s rated PG-13 for “smoking throughout and some language”, according to Prudhomme was a heavy smoker. McEwen liked pretty girls, and there are quite a few in the film, but there are no sex scenes or skin. The raciest it gets is when Judy McEwen gives Tom a warm kiss when he gets home from one of the racers’ tours. Howard’s Rush, on the other hand, is rated R. James Hunt drank, did drugs, and had a lot of sex with a lot of women. If you have kids, you might want to leave them with the sitter for the second feature.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Baby, I’m So Gone: Wagonmasters, a Documentary About Station Wagons and the People Who Love Them Wed, 19 Dec 2012 14:32:12 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

Lately, in no small part due to Michael Moore, the “documentary” film has become the carborundum upon which filmmakers from a variety of perspectives have ground their own axes and then proceeded to chop down the subject of their films. It’s nice, then, to see a documentary made that exhibits some affection for the subject. Wagonmasters, a film made by Chris Zaluski and Sam Smartt as part of their work for MFAs from Wake Forest University’s Documentary Film Program, looks at the great American station wagon with affection. Wistful affection for the now disappeared suburban icon of Americana, but affection nonetheless.

Once, about a fifth of all cars bought in the US were station wagons. Originally commercial or “professional” vehicles that served the hospitality industry as depot hacks, longroofs became known as station wagons before World War Two, when affluent people bought them and used them to get themselves, their families and their luggage to and from train stations, hence the name. Many of these cars had rear bodies made of wood, a luxury touch, what we now call woodies, which is why so many wagons from the mid 1950s on continued to use fake wood of varying quality even into the minivan era.

After WWII, with the baby boom and move to suburbia, station wagons became the quintessential family car. Large enough to carry everyone in the family, and their luggage, on the family road trips so popular on the then new Interstate highway system, and stylish, practical and powerful enough to appeal to both mom and dad. More often than not it was mom’s car, but since dad did most of the driving on trips, it had to suit his desires as well.

So how did wagons disappear from American roads? It was the aforementioned minivan that more or less killed them off, but it was the 1973 oil crisis that mortally wounded them. All that steel and glass adds weight and a wagon will invariably get worse mileage than a comparable sedan.

Using footage of wagon collectors and their own words (and of course footage of their cars being driven and shown), interviews with automotive historians, period photos, advertisements and home movies, Zaluski and Smartt put changing attitudes towards the station wagon within the context of changing American culture. One wagon enthusiast is a Vietnam vet with a Bronze Star. Another drives a Volvo 245 that’s covered with affirmations of peace from famous world leaders. The directors’ choice of music, with the Drive By Truckers‘ Sweet Annette running during the title sequence and opening credits plus other music, mostly by The Bayonets, is meant to convey a sense of timeless Americana.

The film was made with the obvious cooperation of a couple of station wagon enthusiast organizations, the American Station Wagon Owners Association and the International Station Wagon Club, and it was shot on location across the United States and Canada. As many wagons as there once were, the fraternity and sorority of wagon enthusiasts is not large. If most enthusiasts favor two door coupes over four door sedans, one can understand how wagons appeal to a select group of car guys and gals. The wagon world is indeed a small world. About a quarter of the way through the 40 minute film, we’re introduced to Tracy “DJ Munchy” Caldwell, a Detroiter with a very clean 1985 Ford Crown Vic LTD wagon, what I believe is the second youngest car featured in the movie (the youngest being a Buick Roadmaster “bubble” wagon from the mid ’90s). The Crown Vic looked familiar so I checked my archive and realized that I’ve seen Munchy’s LTD at a local car show and photographed it myself.

It may be a small world and while not everyone strives to avoid being a “nonentity”, as one Ford Falcon wagon owner describes his automotive noncomformity, many car enthusiasts do have a warm spot in their hearts for longroofs. While Munchy’s LTD wagon is getting prepared for a car show at his friend’s detailing shop, his friend bemoans how he has a fully customized Camaro but Munchy’s stock looking wagon (the high wattage sound system is cleverly hidden in the storage compartment for the third row seat in the way back)  takes home the show trophies.

Many of the wagons in the film are of the $30,000 restoration on a car worth $10,000 variety, but some wagon enthusiasts love them to pieces, literally. A sequence in the movie shows that sturdy old body on frame station wagons are highly prized by demolition derby racers. At the other end of the spectrum is the owner of a Dodge Coronet Crestwood station wagon that he fully restored after his parents passed away. Sitting in the rear facing far back seat, he shows where he played with his Hot Wheels cars as a child. For you pedants, the GTO station wagon that appears in the opening credits is a one-of-none custom, a Tempest based Pontiac Safari wagon that’s been turned into a quasi clone of the GTO, which was never available in a wagon body style.

It’s a charming little movie. It’s smartly edited, with a snappy pace and an obvious sense of humor without some hip ironic distancing from the subject, all while treating the topic of the station wagon in American life seriously. If you’re at all a car enthusiast I can’t imagine you not enjoying this film. Actually, even if you hate station wagons but have an appreciation for American culture you’ll find it worthwhile. It’s hard to watch these somewhat quirky car enthusiasts and the quirky objects of their affection without a warm smile.

The directors hope to promote the documentary with more film festival screenings and there’s the possibility of a television broadcast in 2013, so the DVD won’t be released until sometime later next year. If you’re interested, you can sign for updates at the movie’s website ( or with a like at their Facebook page (

05_screenshot_Richard Woodside 06_screenshot_Derby 07_prodstill_peacewagon 08_prodstill_hershey 09_prodstill_detroitwagon 01_WagonMastersLOGO 02_1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Station Wagon 03_1962 Rambler Ambassador 400 Station Wagon 04_screenshot_Spanky Cox slider_wagonmasters buick1959lesabrewagon_r buick1960invictawagon_r chrysler1959newyorkerstationwagon_r chrysler1959newyorkerstationwagon_r chrysler1961townandcountrywagon_r munchysfordltdwagonimg_0212_r ]]> 68
How To Buy A Used Car Part Two: The Test Drive Thu, 09 Aug 2012 16:59:50 +0000 Picture Courtesy of

[Editor's note: Part One of Steve Lang's updated guide to used car buying can be found here]

Schedule the test drive for a time when there’s no rush. If it’s bad weather, reschedule.

Take a little notebook, write a quick check list based on this article, and make notes.

When you approach the car’s owner, be friendly, polite and courteous. Do NOT try to “beat them down” to get a better deal on a test drive. Ever. While you have every right to ask direct questions, you have no more right to insult their car than one of their children.



Open the hood and look at five big areas. Oil dipstick, coolant, power steering fluid, radiator cap and brake fluid.

Oil: Golden brown, light tan, a little dark, or even dark brown to light black are fine. The oil is just doing it’s job. A tar color or tar like consistency is not good.

Check the dipstick for level and color. Then check the oil cap on top of the engine (on most models) for anything that resembles milky crud. If it has a thick film of milky crud, that’s engine sludge, you’re done.

Coolant: Check the coolant reservoir for level. Most sellers pay attention to this. But a few don’t. Remove the radiator cap if it’s accessible. If you see crud on the cap, you’re done.

Power Steering and Brake Fluid: Check for the level. In the case of power steering, check for any heavy leakage around the hoses. If the power steering hose is saturated with oil, this could be a sign of a more expensive repair in the times ahead. Make a note of it.


The Tires And Body

Tires: First, check the tires. Pull the steering wheel all the way to the left (and then right later on) so you can see the entire tread. Uneven tire wear– marks on the side or deep grooves in the middle– may indicate suspension issues. And nothing screams “lemon” louder than cheap, bald or strangely worn rubber.

Doors: Next, open and close all the doors several times, including the trunk and hood. This will also give you the opportunity to inspect the seats and floor. On the doors, check for paint on the hinges and black moldings. If a door creaks, it’s usually no big deal. If a door has trouble closing, make a note of it if you later chose to have the vehicle inspected. It can signal anything from a broken hinge to frame damage.

Panel Gaps and Trunk: Have a quick look at the panel gaps, especially the hood and trunk. Unless you’re looking at an old Land Rover, they should all be even. Check for water leakage in the trunk. Damp and/or a mildew smell often indicates problems underneath if you live in an area where rust is an issue. Lift the trunk’s carpet and see if there is any water or damp residue underneath.


The Interior Features And Lights

When you climb aboard, don’t be put off by worn seats or busted radios. Most interior surfaces and parts can be repaired or replaced easily and cheaply.

Windows: Lower each of the windows first while the key is at the ‘on’ position, and fire up the car.

Engine: Do you hear any tapping or pinging sounds, or does it kick over with a smooth ‘vrooom’ and settle into an easy, quiet idle? Start it up again if you aren’t 100% sure.

Buttons: Test all the buttons and switches including the radio stations. Ask for help and have the owner turn on the ‘left’ signal and look at the front and rear to make sure the bulbs work. Repeat with the right.

Exterior Lights:  Then check the headlights along with the brights. Brake lights should be checked in the rear as well as reverse. This may be your only time to verify their proper operation before owning the vehicle. So take the time to do it.

Windshield Wipers and E-Brake: Finally have the fellow spray their windshield and make sure the wipers are in good order. Thank them for helping them you and then test the emergency brake to ensure that it’s operating properly. If you’re driving a stickshift you will want to do this later in the test drive on a steep upward incline.

Air Conditioning: Flip on the A/C. It should kick out cool air within fifteen seconds. With an older vehicle the performance of the A/C system should be one of the more critical concerns. (HVAC repairs can run as high as $500 to $1500.) When you’re on the road, test the heat and the A/C again to make sure the temperature and fan speed are constant.

Power Steering: Finally before going on the road lower your windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left and right. The motion should be seamless and silent. If there’s a lot of resistance, or the force required is uneven, the steering system may need anything from power steering fluid (cheap) to a power steering pump assembly (moderate) to a new rack (first born). Make a note of it.


The Drive

Shift: Now put the car in gear. Aside from a few models (older Mercedes in particular), a late or rough shift from park indicates that the car’s transmission may soon give up the ghost. If you experience very rough or late shifting, you’re done.

Brakes: Brake force should be quick and constant. Unless the brakes have been recently replaced (ask), you shouldn’t hear any squeaking sounds. Keep the driver’s window open during the first half of the drive.

Transmission: Drive the car through a variety of traffic conditions, inclines and speeds, for at least fifteen minutes. When going uphill, take your foot off the accelerator for a moment. Coast downhill as well. If the car’s transmission hunts, clunks or has trouble catching, the vehicle probably has a transmission or linkage issue. Make a note of it.

Engine: If you hear a lot of ‘clacking’ or other unusual engine noises on initial acceleration, the engine’s components may need attention. If there’s an oil gauge, keep an eye on it. It should show approximately 25 to 80 psi during acceleration, and 10 to 20 when idling. The coolant temperature gauge should hit a fixed point within ten minutes and never move.


Quick Stop

After about twenty minutes of driving, take the car to a gas station. Keep the engine on.

Gas release: Open the hood and the gas cover release to make sure they’re in proper working order. I also take this time to put $5 of gas in as a goodwill gesture.

Most folks will not have a car buyer as studious as you, and it’s nice to reimburse folks for an expense.

Transmission Fluid: Restart the car. If you know where the transmission dipstick is (and it’s a damn good idea to find out), check the level and color. Does it have bubbles? If the fluid is very dark brown or black, or smells burnt, it could be a sign of future transmission issues.

Final Oil Check: Turn the vehicle off and again, check the oil. If it’s not between the marks (too low or too high), or if the oil cap is milky brown, you’re done. I’ve dealt with more than a few cars that had their oil caps wiped clean before the test drive.


Last Inpsection And First Decision

After leaving the gas station, see if you can find a nice open parking lot or area where you can do a few ‘figure 8’s’.

CV Joints: Lower the windows and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left. Drive very slowly and see whether you have any ‘clicking noises’ near the wheels. If it does, you will likely need to have the CV axle replaced on that side. Now turn it all the way to the right side and repeat. The turns should be ‘click’ and noise free.

Decision Time: By this point, you should have a pretty good idea whether your next step is towards purchase or home sweet home. If you’re blowing it off, thank the owner politely and leave promptly, without engaging in any further discussion whatsoever. (“It’s not what I had in mind.”) Show them the gas receipt as a goodwill gesture and thank them.

If you’re ready to move forward, it’s time to schedule a professional inspection.

[Mr. Lang invites TTAC readers to share theirused car test drive advice below. He can be reached directly at]

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Five Simple Technologies For The Long Haul Sat, 21 Jul 2012 19:10:51 +0000

Just Imagine What I Can Do To Your Car!

Everybody wants a deal. But precious few people are willing to change their habits to make their deal last longer.

The casualties of the rough and reckless are expensive and almost always preventable. For every person who complains about an automatic transmission giving out, there are ten people who still insist on shifting from reverse to drive while the vehicle is in motion.

Moments like that make me feel like this behavior is just…

Click here to view the embedded video.

not economically viable.

I sometimes tell folks that doing that to a car is like walking backwards and having someone punch you in the square of the back. Enough hits in the back at that same place, and you’re going to need surgery.

Machines, like us limber humans,  shouldn’t have to deal with such stress issues.

Does the mpg’s stink? Sometimes it’s the fault of the manufacturer. But other times, more often than not, it’s because the owner abuses the vehicle with jackrabbit starts, hard braking, and outright neglect.

Steering and suspension components don’t last? Tell the screw behind the wheel to loosen up a bit, and watch the road ahead.

Waste costs money when it comes to cars. So what should we do if our father, cousin or former roommate are the automotive Kevorkians of the modern day?

Plan ahead… and hope that a few low-cost technologies become as common as these modern day Kevorkians.

1) The Shelf


You would think that I start this weekend’s column with some whiz bang technology that requires a computer and a circuit. Truth is a lot of folks eventually screw up the interiors because their stuff is all strewn about. They get used to having their transportation serve as a mobile romper room where anything can be chucked anywhere for any reason.

A well placed shelf in the rear of most hatchbacks has the effect of keeping everything in place and nearly doubling the available space you have to haul and store your cargo. This is important from an owner’s standard because the easier it is to keep things tidy, the more inclined we are to do it. An empty soda can in a clean room will usually be thrown away while the same can in a messy place will usually just blend in with the scenery.

A good shelf opens up a lot of space, and helps keep a car tidy.

2) Oil life monitoring systems.

This technology has been around for over 20 years and yet the overwhelming majority of cars still don’t have them.

The benefits of this are obvious… and yet as of 2010, only 40% of manufacturers use them in their cars.

If an automotive Kevorkian wants to ignore this technology, so be it. But putting this in cars would likely save a lot of folks hundreds of dollars and several unneeded oil changes. Multiply that by all the folks in need of it, and we could retire the debt of California… or at least Stockton.

3) MPG monitors: Instant and average


What can you do on a long, miserable commute home?

Daydream, listen to the radio, drive, talk on a hands free phone… and that’s about legally it.

Why not keep score?

Of course not all folks will do this. But offering a simple button or switch that makes this possible could alter the driving behaviors of at least a few errant drivers.

Besides, when you’re bored in stop and go traffic, frugality can be the only cheap fun out there.

4) Shift interlocks

I am stubborn on my belief that most CVT’s that will go south in the coming years can endure if their new owners learn how to shift properly.

Reverse, stop, shift. Drive, stop, park. Don’t shift in motion. Stop. STOP. STOP!!!

A shift lock mechanism that keeps the car from shifting while it’s in motion would help undo a learned behavior. That and the four figured premiums of replacing those transmissions.

5) Simple maintenance access

If an automaker wants to enshroud their engine in plastic, that’s fine. But no manufacturer should have the arrogance and gall to prevent access to the tranny fluid, claim that it is a ‘lifetime fluid’, and then whistle the tunes of warranties gone by once that transmission goes kaput.

Lifetime should mean lifetime. End of story. If a manufacturer wants to play the “What is a lifetime?” game, then at least give owners an easy means to replace the fluid.


Do you know of anything else that can be cheap or helpful? I have a few other ideas. But in the meantime, feel free to share any technologies or Kevorkians you have come across in your travels. As Judge Judy says, “You can’t stop stupid.” But perhaps a well-deigned shift interlock can slow it down.

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Move Over!!!!!! Fri, 20 Jan 2012 11:54:30 +0000

Don’t you sometimes want more attention? Aching to simply blow people away? The people at Banshee Horn LLC might just have the thing for people who want to be noticed. It is called the Banshee Horn, and it does what the name says. The folks promise in an email to TTAC that the gadget helps you “warn motorists up to 3 blocks away” with a pain-inducing 139 decibel horn.

The howling horn is a project funded through the crowdfunding platform, where the project had attracted 205 backers at the time of this typing, creating an investment of roughly $20,000 (that should barely cover the lawyer’s fees for the patent…) You can still be an investor into Banshee Horns, and rich dividends are being offered: A $69 investment gets you one Banshee Horn, a large cap $575 investment will net you ten horns delivered to you doorsteps.

According to the emailed  message, “the project was targeted towards motorcycles, but we’ve had many people purchase the system for their cars.”

The goods folks at Banshee better avoid getting attention from China. Here, the horn is the favorite instrument of communication with other drivers, bicyclists or pedestrians, and an eardrum-shattering 139 dB horn should cut through the din for a while. According to repeated rumors, the capital of China will soon be renamed to “Honking.” Rigging up a 555 timer, a compressor, and an airhorn will take a Shenzhen tinkerer the better half of half an hour.


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Book Review: The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen Wed, 04 Jan 2012 21:21:39 +0000

Have you heard the old joke about the three Jewish engineers and Henry Ford? This is the version at

It was a sweltering August day in 1937 when the 3 Cohen brothers entered the posh Dearborn, Michigan, offices of Henry Ford, the car maker.

“Mr. Ford”, announced Norman Cohen, the eldest of the three. “We have a remarkable invention that will revolutionize the automobile industry.”

Ford looked skeptical, but their threat to offer it to the competition kept his interest piqued. “We would like to demonstrate it to you in person”, said Norman.

After a little cajoling, they brought Mr. Ford outside and asked him to enter a black automobile parked in front of the building. Hyman Cohen, the middle brother, opened the door of the car. “Please step inside, Mr. Ford.”

“What!” shouted the tycoon, “Are you crazy? It’s over a hundred degrees in that car!”

“It is”, smiled the youngest brother, Max.; but sit down Mr. Ford, and push the white button.

Intrigued, Ford pushed the button. All of a sudden a whoosh of freezing air started blowing from vents all around the car, and within seconds the automobile was not only comfortable, it was quite cool.

“This is amazing!” exclaimed Ford. “How much do you want for the patent?’

One of the brothers spoke up: “The price is One Million Dollars.” Then he paused.

“And there is something else. The name ‘Cohen Brothers Air Conditioning’ must be stamped right next to the Ford logo on the dash board!”

“Money is no problem,” retorted Ford,” but there is no way I will have a Jewish name next to my logo on my cars!”

They haggled back and forth for a while and finally they settled. Five Million Dollars, and the Cohens’ name would be left off. However, the first names of the Cohen brothers would be forever emblazoned upon the console of every Ford air conditioning system.

And that is why even today, whenever you enter a Ford vehicle, you see those three names clearly printed on the air conditioning control panel……….NORM, HI and MAX

The story isn’t even apocryphal. Except for the part about Ford’s Jew-hatred it’s complete fiction. Willis Carrier invented refrigerant air conditioning and Packard, not Ford, was the first automaker to offer it in a car.

Now, though, did you hear the one about the Jewish engineer that invented the Volkswagen? Actually, that story isn’t a joke, and it’s not fiction, or at least a persuasive case can be made that it’s true.

That case has been made by Dutch engineer, VW Beetle enthusiast and writer Paul Schilperoord in his book, The True Story of The Beetle (Het Ware Verhaal Van De Kever). The book was first published in Dutch in 2009, selling out its first printing and was subsequently translated into Portuguese. Now, RVP Publishers has just released an English edition, The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen.

Ganz, consigned to historical obscurity in part due to Nazi persecution of Jews, turns out to have been an important and influential figure in German and European automotive development. Schilperoord, more than any other person, has been responsible for restoring Ganz to his deserved role in automotive history, first publishing a series of magazine articles and finally this book. Beyond the book’s central thesis, that Ganz’s concepts and designs for a car he called a “volkswagen” were appropriated by Ferdinand Porsche and Adoph Hitler as the foundation for the design of what became the VW Beetle, Ganz was a respected engineer who was considered an equal by the creme de la creme of European automobile designers. He consulted for Mercedes Benz and BMW on the development of historically significant concept and production cars like M-B’s 170 and BMW’s first in house car design, the AM1. Ganz was regarded as perhaps the expert on swing axle suspensions at the time, and he traveled in circles that included Dr. Porsche and his son Ferry, Tatra chief engineer Hans Ledwinka, and pioneering aerodynamicists Paul Jaray and Edmund Rumpler. There are photographs of Ferry Porsche and Adolph Rosenberger, Dr. Porsche’s business partner and financial backer, test driving a Ganz prototype. Ganz had a long, mutually respectful working relationship with Hans Nibel, the head of Mercedes engineering, and Ganz maintained a lifetime correspondence with Heinrich Nordhoff, who ran Volkswagen from the end of WWII into the 1960s and apparently arranged for Ganz to receive at least some token compensation for his contributions to the Beetle.

On the left is Dr. Porsche's Zundapp 12 prototype. On the right is a CGI image of Ganz's Standard Superior. Ganz consulted with Zundapp before they hired Porsche.

Ganz’s consulting work grew out of his role as editor of Motor Kritik, a German auto enthusiast magazine, what we’d call a “buff book”. A trained engineer, Ganz felt that the German auto industry was making a mistake by only producing large, heavy, expensive cars for wealthy people. In the pages of Motor Kritik, Ganz became a passionate advocate for the development of an inexpensive car that was lightweight, streamlined for aerodynamics, independently suspended at all four wheels, using swing axles in the back, with a rear mounted horizontal engine, all mounted on a platform chassis with a tube backbone. That sounds remarkably like the design brief for the Volkwagen Type I, also known as the Beetle. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that Ganz actually called his design a “volkswagen” and he referred to a prototype that he built as the Mai Kaefer, or May beetle.

Click here to view the embedded video.

A number of companies expressed interest in building Ganz’s volkswagen. He built prototypes for motorcycle companies looking to expand into automobiles like Adler, and Ardie. Actually Ganz had extensive discussions with motorcycle manufacturer Zundapp about them building a car on his designs but the talks broke down and Zundapp instead hired Porsche. The prototype Zundapp 12 is widely considered to be a precursor to Porsche’s Beetle design, but Zundapp had had full access to Ganz’s designs during their discussions so it’s impossible to say how much of that prototype was original to Dr. Porsche. Ganz was also a consultant on two air-cooled rear engined Mercedes-Benz concepts, the 120h and 130h, that are also considered to have influenced the Beetle.

Finally, in 1933, the Standard Fabrik company started producing and selling the Standard Superior Volkswagen. They displayed the car and its chassis at the 1933 Berlin auto show, and news of that car was significant enough to merit coverage in the Detroit News. Ganz was at the peak of his career, though he didn’t know it as he stood on Standard’s show booth. Another visitor to the auto show that year would soon change Ganz’s life. Newly installed as Germany’s chancellor, Adolph Hitler attended the show with considerable pomp, as the dictator would make building the autobahns and developing a “people’s car” an important part of Nazi policy.

1934 Standard Superior. A few hundred were made. One survives in a private German collection.

Within a year, Ganz would find himself hounded by the Gestapo, removed from his job as Motor Kritik editor due to Nazi pressure on the publishers (who kept him on as a ghost writer) and thrown into prison on blackmail charges trumped up out of his legitimate attempt to get compensated for patents of his that were infringed upon by Tatra, the Czech company then under control of Volksdeutsch (ethnic Germans) said to have ties to the German secret police. Statements on his behalf by Han Nibel helped get him released and Ganz, now certain that there was no future for him in Germany, fled to Switzerland.

While in Switzerland, Ganz again tried to get his volkswagen made and the Rapid company indeed made a short production run of an open two seater based on his designs. Ganz later had trouble with Swiss authorities appropriating his intellectual property (a not uncommon event around the time of World War II – American Bantam got screwed out of the Jeep and the Canadian government stole Bombardier’s tracked vehicle technology) and after the war he emigrated to Australia where he worked for General Motors’ Holden subsidiary.

Only a handful of his coworkers knew of his role in the history of the Volkswagen and Ganz died in obscurity in 1967. He most likely would have stayed obscure had Paul Schilperoord, in 2004, not read a 1980 issue of Automobile Quarterly, which had a short article about Ganz. Intrigued by the story, he began a quest to document Ganz’s life story. That quest involved visiting archives and museums in Germany, tracking down a complete set of the issues of Motor Kritik, establishing contact with Ganz’s surviving relatives and associates, and finally getting access to Ganz’s personal archive in the possession of Ganz’s former attorney. The result is an important contribution to automotive history. The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz is meticulously researched, with hundreds of footnotes citing original documents. Because he was a working journalist in addition to his engineering consulting work, the Ganz archive included hundreds of photographs of Ganz, his cars, and other contemporary German cars and automotive events. The original Dutch edition integrated those photos with the text of the book. RVP Publishers, for the English edition, has instead decided to highlight those photographs, facsimiles of Motor Kritik, and Ganz’s patents, printing them separately on 128 insert pages of special paper, with extensive new captions contributed by the author. Schilperoord writes in an engaging and mostly entertaining style. He’s a fine storyteller and it’s a heck of a story to tell.

Schilperoord’s claims are, ain’t no bout a doubt it, controversial. Dr. Porsche has a large body of acolytes that protect his history. Hans Ledwinka has his defenders as well. It’s a controversial story and when you add in the issue of Nazis and Jews, it only gets more controversial. I’ve known about Paul’s work for a few years now and I sometimes exchange bits of historical information with him so this review is not the first time that I’ve published about the Ganz story. Whenever I bring up the topic of Ganz online there will usually be someone who will pooh pooh Schilperoord’s case for Ganz and argue in favor of Porsche. Others will take up the cause of Hans Ledwinka’s role in VW history. Nothing wrong with debating history. I prefer to assume that those who disagree with Paul do so out of a regard for historical accuracy and not because of less savory motives. Some, though, seem to have an “anyone but the Jew” approach. Almost invariably, when I write about Ganz there will also be those who say that this is a non-story and that there must be some bias on my part because of my own Jewish faith. I suppose that’s possible, though nobody has ever complained when I’ve written about Ab Jenkins and his Mormon Meteors.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks – RJS

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Book Review: Roadside Relics by Will Shiers Thu, 01 Dec 2011 18:00:44 +0000 It’s that time of year, with the clock ticking on your shopping for Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa and the ease of buying books online makes them such low-hassle gifts. You want to give that special car-freak on your gift list a nice coffee-table book, but everybody’s coffee table seems to be creaking beneath the weight of books full of photos of gleaming classic/exotic cars. Boring! The solution: this book full of photos of abandoned cars!
I admit it, I’m a sucker for beat-to-hell, forgotten cars in desolate landscapes.
Author Shiers drove all over the continental United States and shot cars in junkyards, on farms, near abandoned gas stations, and all manner of picturesque locations. The Upper Midwest and desert Southwest get special attention, but there’s at least one shot from each region of the country.
Each photo has a caption describing the scene in which the car was captured on film, plus a bit of the car’s historical background.
Shiers has the photography skills to make the whole package work; I’ve been through this book more than once (while other review books sit for months in my on-deck stack) and it’s going to live in a high-traffic spot on my office bookshelf.
Technically, this isn’t a true coffee-table book, in that it’s a large paperback, but who cares when you can get it for just $14.99.
I’m going to give this one a four-rod rating (out of a possible five OM617 rods). Murilee says check it out!

Roadside Relics 104-208_ia.indd 9780760339848 Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 001-103_ia.indd Roadside Relics 104-208_ia.indd Roadside Relics 104-208_ia.indd Roadside Relics 104-208_ia.indd Rating-4ConRods-200px Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 20
Book Review: Once Upon A Car Wed, 30 Nov 2011 20:39:08 +0000

“In the end, it was all about the car—designing, engineering, assembling, and selling a product that consumers wanted to own and drive.” So observes Bill Vlasic near the end of Once Upon a Car, his 379-page account of the recent “fall and resurrection” of the Detroit car manufacturers. Vlasic’s book is quite late to the party, following other journalistic accounts by Alex Taylor III and Paul Ingrassia and insider accounts by Steve Rattner and Bob Lutz. Can it possibly offer anything new? Is it worth reading? Yes, and yes. Yet Vlasic’s book also shares a fundamental weakness with the others, one all the more damning because of the above observation.


Taylor’s account is unique in that it explicitly includes the author’s personal experiences, personal relationships, and personal emotions. We learn what it was like to be a leading journalist covering the industry. Vlasic’s, like Ingrassia’s, does none of this. Instead, Vlasic artfully employs quotes gained through over 100 interviews (on top of those he conducted earlier as a reporter for the Detroit News, BusinessWeek, and the New York Times) to make readers feel like they’re the ones in the room, listening in. This is the book’s greatest strength. Despite not covering the decades before 2005, it’s 100 pages longer than Ingrassia, 140 pages longer than Taylor, yet reads more quickly and easily. Vlasic knows how to tell an engaging story.

But can an author completely divorce himself from his account? Vlasic avoids sharply criticizing any executives, and very often portrays them in a flattering light. The more positive portrayals also tend to be the most detailed, suggesting that Vlasic had the most access to their subjects. Of course, people expecting a positive portrayal are more likely to grant extended interviews, so this correlation is perhaps unavoidable. Ford executives Bill Ford, Alan Mulally, Mark Fields, and Jim Farley are especially well-covered. Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz? They receive less attention than outsider-insiders Steve Girsky and Jerry York (the latter appears to have been an especially helpful informant). We hear that Chrysler’s cars required many improvements, but somehow the postively-portrayed Dieter Zetsche escapes any blame for this.

What Car Executives Really Care About

The UAW and its members are clearly focused on their paychecks. But not senior executives. Vlasic devotes many pages to Ford’s recruitment of Alan Mulally and Jim Farley. In both cases the pitch was highly emotional, ultimately winning over the executives by appealing to their patriotic desire to save an American icon, the Ford Motor Company. Cerberus head Stephen Feinberg was similarly motivated in his purchase of Chrysler. As was Ed Whitacre when fervently recruited by auto industry task force head Steven Rattner to serve as chairman of GM’s board.

The exception: when Cerberus paid “top dollar” to poach Jim Press from Toyota to serve (with no apparent impact, as Nardelli had no use for him) as co-President of Chrysler. Later Press begged to keep his job, not because he cared about the company or because of what he could do for it, but in order to avoid personal bankruptcy. FIAT CEO Sergio Marchionne, who had taken control of Chrysler, fired him anyway. A good morality play: those with non-monetary motivations triumph while the servants of mammon are shown the door.

Once at Ford, Alan Mulally emotionally connected with people, remarking that “I have never seen the depth of feeling for a company as these people have for Ford.” In return, Ford lifers, notoriously hard on outsiders, warmed to him, confided in him, and worked hard for him. At a big dealer meeting, Mulally “made” a group of Ford executives say “We love you” to the audience. This convinced Farley to join Ford, which he saw as like Toyota but “with a visceral, emotional component.” Once there, Farley worked to meet with as many dealers as possible and to forge personal connections with them.

Was it really so simple? Mulally supposedly wasn’t in it for the money, but you’d never know this from the massive size of his paycheck. Apparently non-financial motivations and large financial rewards are far from incompatible.
Beyond executives primary motivations, throughout the book we learn more about what executives were feeling than what they were thinking. Anger, humiliation, worry, enthusiasm, crying, pride, and despair appear frequently. Clearly these executives are very emotional creatures—you’ll find more cerebral beings on a daytime soap. The notable exception: Rick Wagoner, who “never seemed to grasp the raw, emotional element of effective leadership. How could the vast number of people at GM believe in him if he never really acted like he cared about them?” This emphasis on emotions should help the book connect with a broader readership, much of which couldn’t care less about the details of running a car company.

What Car Executives Think of One Another

One of my largest problems with Bob Lutz’s Car Guys vs. Bean Counters is that he hardly touches on his personal relationships within GM, and how they helped or hindered him. Vlasic to the rescue. We learn (a little) about tensions between Lutz and Cowager, who together failed to effectively manage GM’s North American Operations, and then a (quiet?) conflict between Lutz and Wagoner. Lutz disagreed with Wagoner’s heavy reliance on rebates to move the metal, preferring to improve the cars and let the rest take care of itself. From Wagoner’s perspective, Lutz didn’t recognize GM’s unavoidable need for short-term solutions and couldn’t be trusted with responsibility for the bottom line. Lutz hated charts, plans, and meetings. Wagoner thrived on them. Forced to toe the line, Lutz sarcastically referred to Wagoner as “our commander in chief,” someone he obeyed only because of their relative positions in the almighty hierarchy. Over at Ford, executives like Thursfield and Leclair tussled with everyone until they were pushed out. At Chrysler, Press was marginalized by Nardelli then fired by Marchionne.

Trust and Chemistry

Vlasic repeatedly touches upon one topic close to my own heart, as it consumed a decade of my life: the importance of trust and chemistry within organizations. With it, executives get a lot done. Without it, they don’t. We hear a lot about how Bill Ford and Jim Farley bonded over a shared love for the Mustang, and a bit about how Bill Ford and Barrack Obama bonded over a shared interest in green technology. Who knew cliches could be so effective? Upon meeting Bill Ford, Alan Mulally concluded, “I knew I could work with this guy.” Over at Chrysler, upon hearing that Cerberus had hired an outsider to take his place as head of the company, Tom Lasorda stated: “If I like Nardelli, I’ll stay. If I don’t, I’ll walk.” They clicked immediately. In contrast, we hear next to nothing about any clicking inside GM.

Ultimately, everyone was clicking with everyone else at the top of Ford. How did this come about? We learn a little about the steps Mulally took to reduce the initially high level of distrust within Ford. He emotionally connected with many people while actively suppressing infighting and quietly encouraging those who couldn’t adapt to a less political environment to leave the organization. Unfortunately, as much as Vlasic seems to get you into the room he never gets you into a room where people are actually performing real work. We hear about Mulully’s meetings with his senior executive team, at first weekly, later daily, but almost nothing about what went on inside these meetings, just that they had an “electric atmosphere” (those emotions again). Mulally built on effective team. But how? York notes that Mulally “forced” Ford’s executives to act as a team, but how did he manage to do this? Usually teamwork cannot be forced, but must be cultivated with a healthy helping of finesse.

Meetings: Good or Bad?

At GM, Lutz hates meetings and processes. At Ford, Mulally loves meetings and processes, and uses them to save the company. Granted, the gentlemanly meetings at GM were dull, guarded, and overly scripted (thanks to rounds of “pre-meetings”) while those at Ford were open and electrified by a sense of urgency. So it would seem that meetings and processes aren’t the problem, only dull or ineffective ones.

A Fundamental Weakness

While it’s clearly important to create great cars, there’s virtually nothing in the book about what was done to create the new cars upon which the current, still tentative resurrection rests. We hear that the new Ford Focus is great—because Ford product development chief Derrick Kuzak says so—but the story of how this greatness was achieved remains untold. Kuzak receives far less attention than Mulally, Fields, and Farley.

Ditto the Volt, the subject of the quote with which I began this review. After reading all of the recent auto industry books, including Lutz’s own, I still have very little idea of what “Maximum Bob” actually did at GM to improve its products. What were any of these executives like to work for? Like Taylor, Ingrassia, and so on Vlasic interviewed few if any people below the senior executive level, and if he asked any underlings what these senior executives really did and what they were really like to work for he divulges very little of it.

We read about this or that executive’s enthusiasm for “the product.” Giving these executives the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that this stated enthusiasm was more than a mantra, it might be essential but it’s far from sufficient. There have been plenty of car enthusiasts involved in the creation of every failed automobile. What has varied is how well these enthusiasts have been able to get done what they felt should have been done. One enabler that is implied within the book: senior executives who support these enthusiasts and prioritize their goals over others within the organization. But this is just scratching the surface.

The Unexpected Exception

We do hear how some specific product improvements came to be, but it’s an exception that very much proves the rule. Chrysler redesigned or heavily revised the interiors of nearly every one of its products for the 2011 model year—an impressive feat. FIAT will get credit for many of these. But Vlasic recounts how Bob Nardelli, CEO of the company under Cerberus, went through the cars and personally ordered 200 changes. The oddity: Nardelli was an outsider with no experience within the industry. He’s far from a car guy. He was the guy at the very top. Yet he’s the one who made these changes happen. One way to get them done, to be sure, but far from the way it should be done—where were the designers?—and a sign that the organization and process were badly broken. (We also hear a bit about Bob Lutz conducting similar reviews at GM, but entirely without specifics.)


Vlasic’s book is enjoyable to read, as he captures the personalities and the drama that transpired among them. We do often seem to be in the room. But look beyond what is in the book to ponder what isn’t, and you’ll realize that Vlasic rarely puts the reader in the right room. He repeatedly emphasizes that “it’s all about the car,” but as with many of the executives portrayed this is just lip service. If Vlasic walked the talk, we’d be reading about what was done to make better cars, and how well these attempts played out. Instead we read far more about executive suite politics, the recruitment of this or that star player, attempted end runs by outside investors, labor negotiations, and, of course, the government bailout. The book mirrors executives’ failure to focus on the cars even as it criticizes them for this failure. Despite all of the books about the auto industry’s recent brush with bankruptcy, the stories that really matter remain untold.

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Book Review: “Car Guys Versus Bean Counters,” Take Two Tue, 04 Oct 2011 15:54:44 +0000

Never assume that press accounts of what’s going on inside the auto companies resembles what’s actually going on. For my Ph.D. thesis, I inhabited General Motors’s product development organization much like an anthropologist might inhabit a Third World village. What I observed during my year-and-a-half on the inside bore virtually no resemblance to what I read in the automotive press. Journalists aren’t inside the companies, have contact with select high-level insiders, and tend to print the PR-approved accounts these insiders provide. These accounts reflect how senior executives want outsiders to think the organization operates and performs much more than how it actually does. To the extent journalists know the reality—and few do any digging—they rarely print it. So I’ve refrained from even guessing at what’s been going on inside GM. Instead, I’ve been hoping that some insider would write an insightful account of the eventful past 10 to 15 years. None have, until ex-vice chairman Bob Lutz’s new book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: the Battle for the Soul of American Business. Lutz has a reputation for speaking his mind and straight shooting. What does his book tell us about what really went on inside GM?

Not much. Lutz’s lips might be moving, but he ain’t talking.

Unlike former “car czar” Steven Rattner’s recent tell-all or the “Corvette book” that enraged GM design executives back in the mid-90s, Lutz avoids naming names. Former CEO Rick Wagoner is rarely mentioned, as if Lutz had little direct interaction with him, and always in respectful terms: “Rick was a kind, intelligent CEO of spectacular human qualities.” Consequently, the adversaries in Lutz’s battle against the “bean counters” are faceless and his accounts of what happened are few and lack illuminating detail. We’re treated to a few brief examples of pre-Lutz products that sold poorly, but no detailed accounts of how better new cars were developed under his watch. Clearly corporate norms of what’s permissible to divulge to outsiders had a much higher priority than providing readers with insight into what really went on. As Edward Niedermeyer noted in his review, Lutz ultimately blames outsiders for GM’s fall, and lets his fellow executives off the hook. His book could have been incredible. Instead, for this review I’ve had to work with scraps.

Dealing with “them”

Ron Zarrella, head of GM North America back in the late 1990s, once remarked that he couldn’t do what he knew needed to be done to improve the company and its products because “they” wouldn’t let him. The response of the person in the room who relayed this to me: “I thought you was ‘they.’” The lesson: even those at the top felt powerless to change things because of some faceless “they,” so what hope could those lower down have?
Lutz takes some cheap shots at Zarrella, who as someone long-departed apparently isn’t protected by the executive code, but acknowledges a key failing shared by many intelligent people inside GM: Zarrella gave up. Lutz vaguely describes his own power as limited, but he didn’t give up. Relying on persuasion more than the direct exercise of power and aided by Wagoner’s unflagging support, he was able to make a few significant changes to GM’s way of doing things.

Too many brains, too little focus on what really matters

Lutz repeatedly argues that GM had over-intellectualized and over-complicated the task of developing a new car. The design process began in a room full of disturbingly casual, hirsute, beanbag-ensconced designers charged with envisioning “big ideas” (they failed to come up with anything useful). Marketing and the ad agencies it employed contributed boards that vividly and distinctively characterized the brands and their intended customers (they failed, too). A product planning group full of big brains applied complex analyses to vast amounts of data to deduce segment-busting new products like the Envoy XUV (which then failed to sell). Engineers required that every car meet a vast number of criteria that had accumulated over the decades. In one especially pernicious instance of the “tyranny of process over results,” the Vehicle Line Executives (VLEs) in charge of programs were awarded bonuses based on how well they achieved a large number of subgoals such as piece cost, build combinations, and time-to-market. Lutz recounts how one (unnamed) VLE demanded a bonus because his “scorecard” was all “green,” even though the product had received bad reviews and didn’t sell well. Struck speechless at the time, Lutz observes that “the obstacle has been, as always, pursuing a subgoal that was easy to game instead of putting the real objective above all.”

Design uber alles!

The real objective? Creating cars that sell. For Lutz, there is a simple way to achieve this overarching goal: make the cars look beautiful and expensive. Everything else is secondary, at best.

At the simplest, most superficial level, Lutz repeatedly had to direct designers to add more chrome trim. (Imagine: a world where GM had to be pushed to add more chrome by an exec brought in from outside.) But, as GM learned way back in 1958, chrome can’t fix everything. Even an executive with the so-rare-it’s-practically-raw good taste of Bob Lutz can’t draw a beautiful car on his own. You must free the designers to do what they do best.

To free the designers Lutz:

–eliminated the beanbag room

–eliminated the brand character nonsense

–greatly reduced the role of product planning (a hotbed of over-intellectualization whose focus on numbers squeezed out spontaneous creativity)

–pushed engineers to re-examine each criterion, and consequently discard many that were outmoded or that, due to an overly narrow focus, hurt more than they helped

–handed product responsibility to the VLE, usually short on good taste, and (un)focused on too many other things, only after the design was done

Eliminate handoffs.

Lutz added a handoff to the VLE after the design was complete. But within design he did the opposite, simplifying the design process by eliminating hand-offs from the advanced studios to the brand character studios to the production studios. The often disastrous consequences of these hand-offs in terms of both time-to-market and the appearance of the car came up often in my own research. Eliminating them should have been a no-brainer (and was among my recommendations), but GM was generally oblivious to how people work (or fail to work) together. In this case, and likely others, Lutz brought some much-needed common sense to GM’s top leadership.

We don’t need no education

Note the double negative. Wide, imprecise gaps between body panels endangered Lutz’s drive to make GM’s cars look more attractive and expensive. But this design problem couldn’t be fixed within his design bailiwick. Instead, the gaps were the result of “a generalized tolerance of sloppy [product] execution.” Lacking sufficient power to dictate a fix, Lutz kept bringing the issue up until the annoyed head of the metal fabrication group finally offered, “show me a car that has the fits you like, and we’ll do the same with ours.” Lutz showed this exec a 2002 Hyundai Sonata. The skilled engineers in metal fab then achieved the requested tight, precise gaps with shockingly little effort and expense. Apparently they’d never realized this was desired. Once educated by Lutz, they did much better. Enlightened and encouraged by this victory without losers, Lutz took his show on the road, educating the scattered tribes on how to recognize sloppiness and the need to eliminate it.

Working within the system

Lutz taught me about the danger of a cheap-looking interior. Indirectly, and through a negative example. Among his cars at Chrysler: the original Neon. I advised my sister to check it out. She summarily rejected the car because to her it looked so cheap inside. By the time he returned to GM, Lutz had also learned this lesson. Here as well he couldn’t dictate a fix. But he recognized (as did many of the people I spoke with for my thesis) that cheap interiors often happened because the interior is the last part of a car to get locked in. (There’s less lead time on interior components than on the body and the mechanical bits.) Consequently, any cost overruns over the course of the program had to be counteracted by downgrading the interior. Lutz couldn’t simply eliminate the bean counters’ cost controls. Instead, he intelligently worked within the system by removing interiors from the VLEs’ responsibilities and giving them a separate budget. This way cost overruns in the body, powertrain, or chassis couldn’t result in cheap interiors.

Half-truths without consequences

Lutz notes, without going into any specifics, that the VLEs and product planners didn’t like having their responsibilities reduced. But otherwise he ascribes no negative consequences to his empowerment of design and his war against “the tyranny of process.”

I observed the ridiculed processes inside GM, and can confirm they weren’t working. GM’s executives and managers devoted far too much time and effort to tactics and minutiae and far too little to strategy and the car as a whole. But the things the processes were supposed to do did need doing, and cannot be effectively done entirely by Lutz’s favored creative types. In his earlier book, Guts, Lutz writes eloquently of the need to combine “left-brained” and “right-brained” approaches. The new book does state that, under Lutz’s leadership, the “planning people” and the “idea people” developed mutual respect, where each recognized the value of the other’s work (while still not liking it). But, with no description of how these two groups actually worked together to create better cars, this comes across as the typical PR-approved “one big functional family” effluent. How well are the two approaches actually being combined?

For the beginnings of an answer we must look beyond the book’s unrevealing pages to the products Lutz oversaw. Many of the engineering criteria were unnecessary. But what about engineers’ legitimate priorities? Making the cars more comfortable, functional, or enjoyable to drive doesn’t really come up in the book. In fact, the opposite is the case: Lutz asserts that if a car looks good, buyers (essentially all of them, he’s anti-segmentation) will willingly sacrifice functionality. Creative, cross-functional, both-brained solutions that might make cars both look better and more functional? They don’t seem to have been explored. More broadly, it’s not clear that design and engineering work much better together now than they did earlier. Lutz might have simply shifted the shoe to the other foot. In his approach, there are a small number of top priorities (usually styling) and other things (like curb weight) are allowed to slide. This might explain why GM’s latest cars are hard to see out of, suffer from poor ergonomics, and hug the road with a few hundred extra pounds. While some buyers are won over by the cars’ styling, others are turned off by these shortcomings.

Lutz ad infinitum, by design

So, as vice-chairman in charge of new product development Lutz was able to get some desirable things done. The cars are more attractive inside and out, and drive more smoothly and quietly. But did he fix the core problem? Are GM’s many intelligent, talented people now more able to get done what they think needs to be done to create a better car? (Meaning without working laboriously up the hierarchy to somehow enlist the involvement of a sufficiently powerful senior executive.) Or, do the great majority of designers, engineers, and marketers remain nearly as frustrated now as they were pre-Lutz?
Unfortunately, on this question the book is silent. The role of personal judgment is clear. Design is important, and good design can only be recognized by someone with good judgment, not some left-brained type following a process. More broadly, judgment must fill in the void left by the eliminated processes. People must rely on their judgment, their “gut,” to make many different decisions with an eye to the superficially simple goal of selling more cars.

How many people possess the necessary judgment? Apparently not the VLEs who desperately need it. And if Lutz felt the need to constrain this high-ranking, carefully selected, thoroughly trained bunch within a new set of rules, then what hope is there for people lower in the organization? Though he spent much of his time educating the judgment of the multitudes, Lutz ultimately recognizes only one sufficiently gifted person—Lutz. How, then, can GM survive without him? Though he’s pushing eighty, apparently it can’t. Lutz retired—not for the first time—on May 1, 2010. But, as of last month, he’s back. Again. Still.

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Read My Review Of “American Wheels Chinese Roads” At The Wall Street Journal Wed, 17 Aug 2011 16:53:44 +0000
As promised yesterday, my review of Michael Dunne’s American Wheels Chinese Roads: The Story of General Motors in China is now live at the Wall Street Journal website [sub] as well as today’s print edition. Be sure to pick up a copy and stay tuned for TTAC’s own review of this important book, by our man in China, Bertel Schmitt.

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Movie Review: Senna Thu, 21 Jul 2011 20:13:57 +0000

I was just a pre-licensed car nut when the July 1994 issue of Car and Driver passed along the news of Ayrton Senna’s death. Brock Yates’ column in that issue said, “In a sad way, Ayrton Senna’s death dignifies motor racing…He did not die in vain, but rather he made the ultimate sacrifice in seeking his own personally mandated pinnacle of achievement. Tragically, ironically, he may serve his chosen profession more in death than life.” This meant nothing to me at the time. But it means something now.

Fresh from the Audience Award for Best Documentary (World Cinema) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is director Asif Kapadia’s Senna. Senna differs most notably from most docs in that there are no cutaway interviews–i.e., no talking heads that are a staple of the genre. Footage gathered from 15,000 hours of film, video, and YouTube (much of it from Formula 1′s closely guarded film archive) immerses the viewer in Senna’s late-80s, early-90s life of racing in the prestigious, political and pretentious world of Formula 1 racing.

Much has been made about Senna’s hard racing, but this film presents the softer side of Senna. We see him with his family. We see him charming television reporters. We see him helping underprivileged children. In fact, the portrayal of his relationship with rival Prost makes Senna out to be the guy who just wants to win, while Prost revels in the glitz, politics and good ol’ boys club atmosphere fostered by F1 officials. The Senna we see is quiet, studious, upstanding and spiritual.

The real treat for the audience is the access to Ecclestone’s vast library of film and video from years of Formula 1 activity. The pre-race driver’s meetings, tête-à-têtes with Ron Dennis and Frank Williams and catty interactions with Alain Prost are all there in their intimate glory. The exchanges with FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre expose the politics and egos of the sport. During the pre-race meeting before the 1991 German Grand Prix, Senna and Balestre butt heads over tires lining a chicane. When a desperate Balestre, losing the room, angrily presents the opportunity for a vote, Senna’s side wins. With the proletariat drivers rising up against the Balestre Bourgeoisie, it’s an “enemy’s enemy is my friend” dichotomy–and it’s riveting.

Another gem is Senna and McLaren boss Ron Dennis discussing how to handle the split before Senna races his last race with the team. Dennis says that he wants an amicable and professional split. Senna agrees and offers that he would have done it even without mention. Eagle-eyed hindsight lets the audience know that this is one of their final conversations. The F1 camera crew really pulled a CBS-not-1984-Big Brother act and gave us a moment better than any teary camera confessional. You can see the respect that these two professionals have for each other, knowing an era is over but not that it would be one of their last conversations together.

One the downside, the opportunity to use the F1 footage is the great strength and the great weakness. I want to see Ron Dennis recalling conversations with Senna. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the voiceover is just the mailbox. We miss so much not hearing from Senna’s sister Viviane, friend and F1 doctor “Professor” Sid Watkins, Dennis, Williams and even Prost. We miss their faces tell us about the man they remember, loved, hated, respected, cheered and/or cheated. It was a conscious choice by director Kapadia to rely solely on the footage, so he deserves credit for trying something new. Whatever; just sayin’.

Any racing fan owes himself the chance to experience Senna’s career through the eyes of the world he lived in. The people that have been paying attention to Senna are not necessarily racing fans, though. I’ve been to the Sundance Festival a couple of times, and if the snooty, Hollywood Prius-driving greenies can love a movie like Senna, then more than a few of the Best and Brightest should, too.

Senna is out in limited release August 12; wider release starting August 19. A screener copy of the film was provided for this review.

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Battle Of The Batteries: Toyota And Nissan Power Houses With Cars Thu, 30 Jun 2011 15:49:00 +0000

„When will it discharge?“ asked a reporter on Monday at Nissan. I ducked under my desk. “In one or two years,” answered Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. I broke cover when I realized that they were talking about the Leaf powering the house.

Running your house from your car battery suddenly is all the rage in Japan. Why would you do that?  It doesn’t need another tsunami for Japanese to worry about electricity. What’s the hottest Android app in Nippon? “TEPCO usage!” It shows us how much power we consume. Yesterday (green line,) we were at 93 percent, perilously close to overload.

“And it’s not even July yet,” said Paul Nolasco of Toyota, who today met a perspiring me at the Nagoya Shinkansen station. We were on our way to Toyota City, to witness the discharge of a Toyota Prius into a house.

As it turned out, the house is ready, but the car is not. The plug-in hybrid Prius won’t be commercially available before 2012. By that time, Toyota also wants to have figured out how to discharge the juice in the Prius back into the house.

But boy do they have the house! And a few hundred more on the way. Prefabbed by Toyota Housing Corporation, the house comes with networked electrical appliances, solar panels, a 5 kwh household storage battery, and assorted gadgetry. Of course, there is a charging pod with a CHAdeMO compliant plug.

Inside are many screens that allow the owners of the house to monitor electric consumption if watching today’s episode of “Kiri ni sumu akuma” (“Devil in the fog”) should not be gripping enough.

We didn’t need Japanese soap operas for suspense. When the national and international press (the latter represented by Ran Kim of Reuters and this reporter) descended on the smart home made by Toyota, a Mitsubishi i-MiEV was found parked side-by-side with the Prius plug-in hybrid prototype.

The intruder was promptly removed.

Then, the PHV Prius was ready to Meet The Press.

This is the load center of the house. The main breaker says 75A. Very miserly

The 30A breaker in the middle is for the solar system. The 20A breaker is for the EV charger pod. The unconnected 20A breaker? Further expansion.  Note the thin wires for monitoring. The coils around the two hot legs of the 30A breaker allow for amperage measurement.  The EV charger pod has its own communication capabilities.

This is the 5 kwh storage battery of the house, as introduced by Yamaguchi Kazuhiko,  chief of Toyota’s Smart Grid Group..

The batteries next to the house and in the car can be used for when the sun doesn’t shine, or, in a high demand situation, for load leveling. When others in Japan stare at the afternoon peak with trepidation, the house can go off-grid and run from the batteries for a few hours. Should all admonitions to save power remain unheeded and the dreaded rolling blackouts come along, the batteries will keep the lights on.

But what if a disaster strikes again? On Monday, Carlos Ghosn said that the battery of a Leaf would be able to power a Japanese house for two days, the power-oinker of an American house will survive on a Leaf alone “for one day only.”

After he was done addressing reporters, I asked Hiroshi Okajima, Project General Manager of Toyota how long a Japanese house could function, powered by a plug-in hybrid Prius alone. He pulled out pen and envelope, and said after some quick calculation: “With a full tank of gas, 10 days.”

Let’s hope that huge disaster won’t strike before the discharge-ready Prius is available. Smaller disasters should wait at least for the availability of the discharge-ready Leaf.



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Book Review: Car Guys vs Bean Counters: The Battle For The Soul Of American Business Fri, 24 Jun 2011 18:50:46 +0000

I can’t say that I was completely surprised when, about two thirds of the way through Bob Lutz’s new book Car Guys vs Bean Counters, I caught a sideswipe at myself and The Truth About Cars, which the retired Vice-Chairman of GM describes as

a Web site that often offers anything but.

After all, TTAC and “Maximum Bob” have long been sparring partners, and were indirectly debating the fate and fortunes of General Motors well before I ever started writing about cars. What was surprising was that this passing shot at TTAC’s credibility would actually help bring us, two presumptive arch-enemies in the world of automotive ideas, to a better understanding of each other. The exchange that a single paragraph prompted taught me that, against all odds, Bob and I share a fundamental character trait: we are at our best when we’ve been goaded into action by a no-holds-barred call-out. In celebration of this shared value, let’s take off the gloves and give Car Guys the unflinching look it deserves.

Like almost everything that has ever issued from the mind of Robert Anthony Lutz, Car Guys vs Bean Counters is defined by his maximum maxim “often wrong, but never in doubt.” As you might expect, this perspective produces writing that possesses many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the cars Lutz oversaw. The prose is direct and authentic, as unmistakably the product of one man’s vision as a Viper or Volt. And like those definitive Lutz-mobiles, Car Guys offers a seductive vision that tickles every erogenous zone in the “car guy” worldview, resulting in a flood of uncritical fawning from the motor press. But, like the Volt and Viper, Car Guys is also a deeply compromised proposition, in which profound insights reside next door to excuses, misdirection and questionable self-congratulation.

Like Guts before it, Car Guys is at its best when Lutz is describing the inner workings of the companies he helped run. His ability to draw a straightforward narrative from the complexity of not only a giant multinational corporation, but its historical and economic context as well is not surprising given his well-known affinity for “cutting through the crap.” Lutz has long admitted to being something of a holdover from another era, a man who has reveled in being contemptuously out-of-step with mainstream American culture since the turmoil of 1960s. This perspective allows him to wade through the complexity of GM’s decades-long fall from grace, a topic that has inspired hundreds of “GM Deathwatch” articles here at TTAC, in fewer than 70 pages. And though the narrative slips by with disarming clarity, fueled by a writing style that is authoritative yet personal, like an after-class conversation over a stiff drink with a favorite professor, one can’t help but feel that Lutz is perhaps too talented at boiling down complexity for his own good.

After a fantastic preface and a brief introduction to his 2001 return to GM, Lutz opens his narrative with paean to The General’s post-war golden age, in which “true car guys” like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell ran GM with inspired abandon, behaving badly while producing cars that became eternal symbols of America’s finest hour. It’s a natural subject for Lutz, who clearly identifies with this bygone era, and he blows through its good, bad and ugly aspects with insight and pith (if, perhaps, too much sympathy for those who failed to see the gathering stormclouds). But when the thunder starts rolling in the early to mid-1970s, not coincidentally around the same that Lutz began to see himself as a man apart from his times, Lutz’s unshakeable sense of certitude becomes more of a liability than an asset.

Any book with a title that includes the word “versus” can be expected to be well-stocked with villains, and certainly GM’s “bean counters” are the obvious candidate. After the excesses of the Mitchell era, in which design exercised haphazard (if successful) dominance, Lutz argues that GM’s “Empire of finance, accounting, law and order… struck back,” as design became a “link in the chain” rather than the ultimate source of GM’s success. The replacement of Mitchell with Irv Rybicki in 1977 is identified as the turning point in the balance of power between GM’s “car guys” and “bean counters,” and with that sea change, Lutz argues

Waste, arrogance and hubris are never desirable characteristics, but the company rid itself of these at a terrible price. The ebullient, seductive volcano of creation had been transformed into a quiet mountain with a gently smoking hole at the top, spewing forth mediocrity upon mediocrity. This shift to the predictable, so seductive to the bean counters, destroyed the company’s ability to compete and conquer.

It’s a compelling argument, and Lutz supports it well with insights into the accompanying shifts in culture at GM design and product development. But Car Guys‘ cast of villains isn’t limited to GM’s overly-left-brained, clueless-about-the-product finance chiefs. Or, as Lutz puts it, “not all wounds were self-inflicted.” And this is where things start to fall apart.

After devoting six pages of the chapter “The Beginning Of The End,” Lutz goes on to spend the remaining 22 pages blaming forces outside of GM’s control for the firm’s epic, slow-motion collapse. The UAW, which traditionally gets a lot of blame for not just the decline of GM but for the entire downturn of America’s auto industry, is actually let off quite easily, as Lutz argues that GM’s inability to confront the union was

a tragedy with no heroes, but also no villains.

But Lutz is not simply repeating the old maxim that success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan. His cast of villains in GM’s decades of tragedy is legion: government regulators, Japanese currency manipulators, environmentalists, trial lawyers and above all, the media, are all attacked with vigor, leading to the distinct impression that GM was victim of the short-sighted stupidity of others. This is the ultimate contradiction of Car Guys: though the title sets up an internal conflict within GM, Lutz spends so much space blaming outsiders for GM’s woes that, by a third of the way through, it begins to feel more like apologia than clear-eyed soul-searching. And reinforcing this perception is the fact that the very first words of Car Guys are

This book is dedicated to the hard working men and women, at all levels, hourly and salaried, in the domestic US automobile industry. The problems, mostly, were not your fault!

Of course it must then be asked whether Lutz’s villains actually deserve their apportioned amount of blame, as this question of fact decides whether Lutz is a thoughtful student of GM’s (and Detroit’s) history, or an unrepentant apologist. On the issue of CAFE regulation, Lutz argues convincingly that

A programmed, gradual rise in fuel taxation, along the European model, would have caused consumers to think of the future consequences of today’s purchase and would have provided a natural incentive to move down a notch, opting for six cylinders instead of eight, midsize sedans instead of large.

Lutz goes on to explain in persuasive detail (with help from Jack Hazen) how the CAFE-inspired whiplash led to GM’s disastrous wholesale shift to front-drive and smaller cars. But his logic falls short in the sense that he fails to assign blame for GM’s inability to foresee energy constraints or to engineer competent solutions to it. The argument, in essence, is that foreign competitors hadn’t been lulled into complacency by artificially-low gas prices, and had long invested in fuel-efficient platforms and technologies. And yet no connection is ever made between GM’s “golden age” culture of style-driven excess and the erosion of engineering investments which led to GM’s desultory efforts in the 1970s and 80s. The government’s lack of foresight and and courage, rather than GM’s, is unfairly awarded the brunt of Lutz’s criticism.

Once on this trajectory, Lutz goes on to argue that Japan’s currency manipulation and “airtight protectionist umbrella,” a worn-out hobbyhorse of Detroit apologists with no strong documentation beyond vague Cold War geopolitical theory, combined with the fuel-efficiency experience of the Japanese automakers lent the foreign invaders a “teachers pet” image that was, in the words of Hazen, “eagerly snapped up by the liberal anti-US corporation media.” He only mentions Toyota’s crucial innovations in production and corporate culture only to note that they did not initially spread from NUMMI to the rest of GM with much success, but then goes on to indict Toyota-inspired “Total Quality Excellence” consultants for misleading GM’s leaders into a fog of meaningless numbers.

After defending the UAW (presumably also from the “liberal media,” despite the fact that his “solution” amounts to universal healthcare and little else), Lutz devotes much of the remaining blame to the media. I certainly sympathize with the frustration at a press crops that too often clings to convenient storylines rather than seeking a more complex truth, but what Lutz seems to miss as he rips into the media with gusto, is that his counter-narrative is no more subtle nor intrinsically true than the “import good, Detroit bad” perspective he savages. More importantly, his media-conspiracy boogeyman ignores the elephant in the room: had GM made even a few extremely good products during the 70s, 80s and 90s, its moribund reputation might well have been rehabilitated. At the end of the day, Lutz’s villains seem to be little more than glorified context, the backdrop for the real story: GM’s lack of vision, courage and competence.

Luckily, though Lutz doesn’t do enough to allocate blame where it was due, his return to GM gives him occasion to describe what decades of decline had wrought at the RenCen. Sclerotic bureaucracy, visionless leadership, enslavement to meaningless metrics and the resulting uninspired products are all on hand for Lutz’s 2001 return to GM, as if Japanese perfidy, governmental timidity and media criticism had somehow infected one of the world’s largest corporations with a cancer that had inexorably metastasized to corrupt every level of GM’s organization (except for trucks and SUVs, which magically continued to display an inexplicable immunity to these diseases). Of course these faults operate as implicit assignments of blame, but rather than dwelling on their causes (with the exception of Japanese-inspired “Total Quality Excellence experts”), Lutz uses them as his foil for the remainder of the book.

As he dissects inane corporate initiative after wasted resource in the immediate aftermath of his return to the RenCen, Lutz once again hits his stride. And yet, in an almost strange turn of consistency, his shift from apology for, to criticism of GM occurs without the sense of interpersonal conflict that one would expect in such a transition. In what is likely part insightful truth and part gentlemanly whitewash, Lutz frames his battle as being not with any one “bean counter” but a faceless (and therefore, blameless) culture in which management-by-the-numbers outweighed personal accountability. Lutz identifies individual “true believers” who he recruited in his design and product-led transformation of The General, but essentially absolves the thousands of others, including then-CEO Rick Wagoner, of any responsibility for GM’s continued decline and eventual collapse.

Luckily the portions of the book describing his efforts at turning around GM’s culture are extremely engaging, and will probably be the most insightful of the book to regular TTAC readers. As a commentator on GM’s fortunes over the last three years, I certainly wish I could have been more exposed to these internal battles over design conception, sheet metal techniques, perceptual quality, global vision and consumer-orientation as they were playing out in real time. The extent to which GM had gone down the “bean counter” rabbit hole is eye-popping, and Lutz clearly relished the challenge of working his “creative destruction” upon the staid, uncreative product development process.

The Lutz-led revolution at GM appropriately culminates in the Chevrolet Volt, a concept born wholly of the Lutzian gut and inspired by competitive pique at the Prius’s success and the conviction that Americans would not accept the limitations of pure-electric cars. The Volt’s genesis is both a tribute to the right-brained, inspiration-dependent, individual-driven culture that Lutz champions, but as I pointed out in the NY Times op-ed that Lutz disparages in the book, the single-minded pursuit of an epiphany can create serious compromises. To wit:

General Motors introduced America to the Chevrolet Volt at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show as a low-slung concept car that would someday be the future of motorized transportation. It would go 40 miles on battery power alone, promised G.M., after which it would create its own electricity with a gas engine. Three and a half years — and one government-assisted bankruptcy later — G.M. is bringing a Volt to market that makes good on those two promises. The problem is, well, everything else.

But Lutz remains convinced “Volt is the future,” and attacks “the lunatic left and the vocal right” along with “inveterate GM haters” who doubt the Volt’s promise (I wonder where I fit there). He blames much of the anti-Volt sentiment on the bailout, which, like GM’s initial fall from grace in the 1970s, he blames more on external forces than any fundamental failing on GM’s part. He concludes with optimism for GM’s post-bailout future, but waxes pessimistic about the state of American culture and business. His lessons here are valuable, and build to an inspiring call to substitute pride of product for short-term profit-seeking, a vision I certainly relate to as I seek to guide TTAC around the soulless, PR and SEO-driven “path to success” that so many blogs and websites follow and are well-rewarded for. At the end of the day (or in this case, the book), it’s good to know that intrinsic quality has a noisy advocate in the corporate world.

But with Lutz’s ultimate legacy at GM still undecided (as his goal was to create a sustainable culture of excellence that is not yet undeniable), it’s hard not to take much of his work with a grain of salt. After all, the Solstice/Sky may have defied most perceptions of GM at the time with its rapid, design-forward development, but couldn’t it have benefitted from some measured, left-brain analysis of such trifling metrics as interior ergonomics, and roof operation? Again, Lutz’s choice of title is instructive: in his “pre-complexity” perspective, the way forward was a war between two extremes… a reflection perhaps of what he describes in Guts as “a certain duality of mind.” Hopefully future generations can learn from the struggle that he frames, but with the recognition that his struggle is not eternal. After nearly 100 years spent under the spell of either out-of-control “car guys” or unimaginative “bean counters” one hopes the new GM (and, indeed, the entire business community) understands that sustainable success requires both sides working in harmony towards a common cause.

Car Guys vs Bean Counters is available at, and other fine book retailers.

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Review: Toyota Under Fire Tue, 19 Apr 2011 14:15:07 +0000

Has it really been a year since the United States tore itself apart in a frenzy over the possibility that Toyota’s might suddenly accelerate out of control? So intense was the furor over Toyota’s alleged misdeeds, that it seems like the whole scandal occurred only yesterday, yet the brevity of the crisis already gives it the distance of ancient history. Now, just a year after the height of the hysteria, the first major book on the subject has arrived, casting a clear light on the events of the recall. Serving as a history of the scandal, a case study in Toyota’s responses to it, and a cutting critique of the media’s coverage of the recall, Toyota Under Fire is a powerful reminder of the many lessons that emerged from one of the most intense and unexpected automotive industry events in recent years.

One of the inevitable challenges facing anyone writing about the Toyota Recall Scandal is placing a starting point on the narrative. Some have suggested that long-term erosions of quality control led, inexorably, over the years to the cries. Others claim that Toyota’s rapid expansion in the late 1990s and early 2000′s sowed the seeds of its embarrassment. Though elements of these theories seem to have played some role in the events of the recall, the authors of Toyota Under Fire, Jeffery K. Liker, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, and Timothy Ogden of Sona Partners, begin by charting Toyota’s rise and then launch their narrative in earnest at the outset of the oil crisis and recession of 2008. By combining the recession (which led to the bankruptcy-bailouts of two of Toyota’s key US-based competitors) and the recall scandal, Liker and Ogden are able to paint a compelling portrait of a firm facing two very different problems.

This approach works perfectly for Toyota Under Fire, as Liker and Ogden are students of Toyota’s corporate culture and philosophy, and are able to show how Toyota applied its values to solving two very different problems. In fact, though Toyota Under Fire is the best history of the recall scandal written to date, Liker insists in his preface that

There is a great deal of detail from our investigations and interviews that doesn’t appear in this book, because this book is not intended to be a defense of Toyota or investigative journalism. Instead we’ve tried to provide the materials that are relevant to understanding the crisis and what others can learn from it. The hard times Toyota was living through allowed us to see Toyota in a different context than ever before.

This new context is the crux of the book, and Liker’s background as a decades-long student of Toyota’s corporate philosophy and previous authorship of The Toyota Way, which explores this topic, is germane. As Liker says, he is not an investigative journalist bound to the ideal of pure objectivity, but a long-term student and (admitted) admirer of Toyota’s ideas and practices. This familiarity with, and respect for, Toyota’s values meant that, when the crisis hit,

the press reports were painting a picture of a company that looked nothing like the one I know.

And though he admits that “my first instinct was to write a storm of letters to the editor and opinion columns defending Toyota,” he reveals that a friend and fellow Toyota Way acolyte reminded him that such a defense would not be in accordance with genchi gunbutsu (go and see), a key Toyota value. Instead, he and Ogden applied Toyota values like genchi gunbutsu to a thorough investigation of the recall, a process that produced Toyota Under Fire. And the key finding of their research is that, faced by both a “carpocalyptic” recession and a major recall scandal, Toyota did precisely the same thing, turning to the corporate values that launched it to the pinnacle of industrial achievement, and rigorously applying them to a variety of challenges. Both Toyota’s emergence from the twin crises and the high-quality research and analysis of Toyota Under Fire stand in tribute to these values.

Corporate mission statements may not be the reason most of us read about cars, but any student of the industry (and business leaders in any industry) will find much to learn from Toyota Under Fire’s culture-centric analysis of Toyota’s actions since 2008. For example, Toyota’s decision not to involuntarily separate its US manufacturing staff even when the recession caused massive overcapacity could be read as misguided altruism or a neo-”Jobs Bank” aimed simply at keeping workers happy, but as the authors point out, the issue is actually that Toyota sees employees as investments which become more valuable as they learn and apply Toyota’s values. This might sound like so much feel-good propaganda, but Liker and Ogden bring a wealth of evidence connecting Toyota’s values and practices with the exercises, trainings, “quality circles” and waste-eliminating efforts, and connecting these to tangible results in Toyota’s US plants. Though a large cash pile helped, Liker and Ogden point out again and again that Toyota’s profound commitment to the practical application of values like “embrace challenge,” kaizen (continuous improvement), and “customer first” allows it to emerge from challenge after challenge, stronger than before.

Having endured the recession with relatively minor losses, Toyota was poised to resume its ruthless domination of the auto industry (particularly in the US market), when the recall scandal struck in earnest in the fall of 2009, with the infamous crash of an off-duty police officer near San Diego. Here Liker and Ogden switch to a more investigative mode, focusing on the facts of each incident and recall, as well as the media’s coverage and the government’s response. TTAC readers will be familiar with the extent to which hysteria around sudden acceleration in Toyotas was fueled by ignorance, media hype and government posturing, but readers who did not seek out solid reporting on the subject or who still do not understand the issues will have their eyes opened [see also TTAC's retrospective on the recall]. Without belaboring the point, Liker and Ogden’s thorough survey of the recall’s timeline is critical of NHTSA, but damning of the news media and the trial lawyers who so masterfully manipulated it. And more than merely debunking the witch-hunt hype, Toyota Under Fire goes a step further, exploring some of the intriguing characteristics that make electronics systems and sudden unintended acceleration so vulnerable to such hysteria.

But perhaps the most fascinating chapter in Toyota Under Fire deals with Toyota’s response to the crisis, in which Liker and Ogden’s familiarity with the Toyota culture, not to mention their deep access to company figures and facilities, once again serves them well. In light of the dispassionate dissection of the media-fueled recall scandal, which serves well to put the accusations against Toyota into some much-needed context, it’s not surprising that the chapter opens with a chronological description of Toyota’s responses to the different stages of the scandal, starting with Toyota’s efforts to react to, and contain the situation. Though Toyota’s efforts to mobilize dealers and customer service call centers to deal with the problem, as well as its (somewhat belated) efforts to address widespread misperceptions are good illustrations of the company’s strategy, it isn’t until phase three “turning the crisis into an opportunity” that you really understand the point that Toyota Under Fire is trying to make.

In this section the authors begin drilling down into the root causes for the recall scandal, not simply because it’s the appropriate point in the book’s structure, but because it was at this point that Toyota’s value system forced the firm to do so itself. The authors note

Improvement kaizen and turning the crisis into an opportunity for the company to improve are dependent on correctly identifying the real problems, not just the problems presumed by outside observers. Only then can the underlying root causes of those problems be diagnosed, a necessary step before generating solutions.

The problem as identified by outsiders was, in the words of Ray LaHood, that Toyota had become “safety deaf.” Liker and Ogden explore that possibility, but argue that neither Toyota’s culture and operations nor a survey of defect and recall data show evidence of that popularly-held perception. Rather, Toyota’s internal investigations and ongoing kaizen processes pointed to a number of factors which allowed the scandal to play out. Toyota’s organizational structure, with sales split from manufacturing and overseas operations split from corporate headquarters was identified as an underlying weakness, hurting Toyota’s ability to communicate with government regulators (for example, after-sales engineering was based in Japan, unable to communicate with local regulators). Toyota’s methodical pace was acknowledged as a problem, as it fed media speculation. Another problem, possibly one of the most serious, was Toyota’s weakness in listening to customers. Shinichi Sasaki, Executive VP for global quality explains:

As you know, Toyota has made a lot of efforts to achieve the classical definition of quality control… things like the dependability and durability of the vehicles. But, if there’s a lesson from the recent recalls, it’s that things we engineers do not think are serious could sometimes create a lot of concerns on the part of the customers… We should not just be talking to the customers from a purely engineering viewpoint, but we have to care more about the customer’s feelings.

This, in a nutshell, seems to be the major area where Toyota contributed to its misfortune in the recall crisis. Not only does SUA bend the traditional “defect” paradigm, but in my opinion Toyota’s core value of not blaming customers may have denied it an important tool in explaining the distinction between a true “defect” and an opportunity to misuse or become frightened by an automobile (like installing the wrong mats, or misunderstanding the function of a “smart” cruise control system). From a pure PR perspective, one could argue that Toyota allowed its reputation to be turned on its head (at least temporarily) in order to avoid the perception that it was blaming anyone other than itself, an approach that actually fueled suspicion of it.

But, as Toyota Under Fire proves, culture is the lifeblood of Toyota, and blaming customers would have gone against a number of the firm’s cultural values, including “customer first” and “ownership and responsibility.” Though adhering to that culture put Toyota at a tactical disadvantage once in the midst of the scandal, the fact that Toyota refused to abandon its principles in a moment of desperation will ultimately maintain the firm’s strategic advantage. Had Toyota truly become “safety deaf” or actually allowed dangerous defects to be sold, it might have had some cause to rethink the culture that has launched it to the top of the auto industry. Because the recall scandal was actually caused by a number of subtle, even mundane challenges that arose from Toyota’s development, the Toyota Way (which is, at its base, a system of identifying and eliminating problems) was the perfect foundation on which to once again rebuild the company.

Toyota Under Fire ends with a number of lessons, aimed largely at leaders of organizations wishing to learn from Toyota’s experience. The authors offer lessons about cross-cultural communication, the media, confronting weaknesses, taking responsibility and more, but perhaps the most important lesson is the simplest one: commitment to a healthy culture will always trump radical change once a crisis arrives. In an industry dominated by products, personality, style and cyclical changes, it’s easy to forget that one of Toyota’s greatest contributions to modern industry is in its corporate culture.

In fact, since Toyota’s struggles last year, several industry commentators have goner as far as to wonder how Toyota ever became as dominant as it did, given that its brand and products don’t have any “special appeal” in terms of power, styling or image. What Toyota Under Fire explains so wonderfully is just how deeply engrained Toyota’s culture is in everything it does, how that culture discretely goes about the business of constant improvement, and how it delivers meaningful results even when facing huge challenges. And as Toyota has proved by becoming one of the world’s dominant automakers and then surviving two huge challenges in its largest market, the cultural “intangibles” can be the difference between success and failure.

Toyota Under Fire is available from Amazon and other fine book retailers. Contact the authors, access their research materials and order the book directly at

The Truth About Cars, Edward Niedermeyer and Bertel Schmitt are all cited as sources in this book.

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What The World Needs Now… Is A Wallet Made From Real MB-Tex… And GTO Trunk Fabric… Fri, 01 Apr 2011 03:18:34 +0000

The ad says that cotton is “the fabric of our lives.” It wasn’t the fabric of my youth, I can tell you that. There were the blue school uniforms, seemingly forged in a single piece from iron-strong polyester, hot in the summer and abrasive in the winter. There were suits and ties in rough wool to wear during the weekends, sweaters in soft Lacoste velour and miserable Brooks cable knit, and the instantly dirty, plasticized leather of the Nike “Burt Bruin” shoes on my feet. And, of course, there was M-B Tex, eternal and unchanging, perennially youthful even as the car surrounding it disintegrated into flakes of chromed rust.

You have to understand this: there was only really one acceptable Mercedes-Benz to own, and that was the W123-chassis 240D. The S-Class was for bounders, social climbers, and the irresponsible. I can still remember gagging with personal agitation as my father refused to even test-drive a W126 560SEL. “Not the message I’d want to send.” Instead, he bought an XJ6, which at least sent the message that its owner, stranded by the side of the road, waiting for the next tow truck, had a certain dash and/or panache. No, the one to have was the diesel taxi, in beige or red, perhaps with yellow foglights. It was staid, reliable, respectable, a twenty-year car. We understood, as children, that certain mommies and daddies had so much money that they simply could not contain it, that it burst from the seams of their Yves Saint Laurent flannel three-pieces, that this money resulted in acquisition of the slightly embarrassing but still acceptable 300D, with its rather brash “TURBODIESEL” script on the decklid. Still the 300D did not commit the sin of leather.

M-B Tex is the interior material of the gods. It does not wear, stain, or fatigue. It instantly adjusts to exterior temperature and/or sun load, freezing skin solid to its bolsters in winter and smoking the leg hair off the lazy women on the way to an August day at the pool. It comes in several colors, none of which are quite the color of any known leather dye. It was found in the 240D, the 300D, and even the daddy-knows-someone-who-knows-someone-who-takes-risks 230 and 280E. Every ride caught to school, to soccer practice, to the pool or playground was in one of these Tex-lined conveyances, crawling through the towns of Long Reach, Upper Arlington, Reisterstown, White Plans, and all the other little burgs where the train of my childhood came to a temporary halt.

M-B Tex is still around, but that’s like saying that Guns N’ Roses are still around. When you throw everything away that made your band, or your brand, great, it doesn’t matter if you’re slinging the same vinyl or have the same singer on the vinyl. I wouldn’t be surprised if the new M-B Tex suffered from the same lousy quality and ephemeral construction which is as much a part of the three-pointed-star’s image now as eternal, vegetable-oil-burning four-cylinder diesels used to be. I don’t like to think about it. I wouldn’t want a new Mercedes. The last one I owned, as opposed to leased, was a 190E 2.3-16. I suppose I’d consider a CL, but nowadays I tend to spend my car money on musical instruments.

No wonder, then, that when I heard about a company which made guitar straps and wallets from old “deadstock” M-B Tex, I immediately visited their website and dropped a couple hundred bucks on the stuff. The package arrived yesterday, and I could hardly wait to take some lousy pictures with my lousy camera so all of you could see this stuff. Couch Guitar Straps are made in the United States under “sweatshop-free” conditions, so I decided to pair the straps with another great American-made brand. The Heritage Guitar Company, located in Kalamazoo, Michigan, builds a very small number of guitars using the original Gibson tooling, in the original Gibson factory. Many of the employees are former Gibson people who were left behind when that firm moved to union-free Nashville thirty years ago. One of the founders, a fellow named Marv Lamb, started working at Gibson in 1957 and has been making guitars ever since. Some Heritage owners say that their guitars are “the real Gibsons”. I don’t know if that’s right. I do consider them the proper successors to those fabulous Les Pauls, Flying Vs, ES-335s, and L-5s made way back when.

I’ve uploaded these photos in 2400px size, so if you want to see the details, click away. The brown M-B Tex seen in the above photo is the basis for Couch’s most expensive strap. I’ve placed it here with two of my Heritage H-555 semi-hollowbodies. The strap has “cruelty-free” vinyl ends and Samsonite-style stitching; the guitars have inlays constructed of abalone and mother-of-pearl, ebony fretboards, gold-plated hardware, and Seymour Duncan pickups.

Also available is the infamous red M-B Tex. For some reason, MBUSA loved to saddle its dealers with beige 240Ds avec red Tex interiors. Here’s a 190E with that interior:

Quite a feast for the eyes. The wallet at the top of this article is made from the same material. Here’s the strap, pictured with my H-170 double cutaway. Marv Lamb himself “rolled” the neck on this one. The back is a single gorgeous piece of mahogany. plain-sawn near the center of a very big old tree.

Couch has a variety of different materials. Here’s another motif from my pre-teen years: the “8-bit” strap, shown on my H-535 “23rd Anniversary”. Seymour Duncan “Seth Lover” pickups and nickel hardware create a sound and feel very similar to an early Gibson ES-335.

They also have a variety of fabric straps, which can be made from more “deadstock” — in this case, fabric trunk lining originally destined for Pontiac and Ford automobiles. It’s worth checking out. Unfortunately, there’s no special TTAC deal, primarily because the company has no idea I’m reviewing the product. Maybe you can talk them into something.

I suspect these straps will last a long time. They aren’t cheap, so they had better last a long time. I’ll pass them down to my son, along with the guitars, his 911, and the other miscellany, but I suspect he won’t really be that interested. Perhaps he’ll want a sling for his sampler made from Chevrolet Volt interior fabric. More likely, I’ll have to tell him what a Chevrolet Volt was. Perhaps one of those old Benz diesels will wander by on the road while I’m explaining the difference between craft and junk.
Couch Red Wallet On Heritage H-150 8bitstrap w201interior The brown M-B tex interior of a W123. redstrap brownstrap Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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