The Truth About Cars » Book Reviews The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 28 Jul 2014 21:27:46 +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 » Book Reviews Book Review: Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership Mon, 17 Jun 2013 16:58:40 +0000 81QaMIAhlbL._SL1500_

Bob Lutz’s latest tome isn’t so much about cars as it is a business book on leadership that happens to be about cars. Through 11 vignettes, Lutz talks about the leadership figures in his life, their triumphs and foibles and how they impacted his personal and professional development.

Along the way we meet a broad cross section of figures, including Lutz’s high school teacher who eventually became Switzerland’s President, his Marine Drill Sergeant, and the CEO of Exide Batteries, who ended up becoming one of the first white collar criminals of the new millennium.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of auto world figures too, from household names like Harold “Red” Poling (Ford’s former CEO) and Chrysler’s Bob Eaton, to lesser known players like Eberhard von Kuenheim (an orphaned, near-penniless aristocrat who rose to the top of BMW. Lutz credits him with turning BMW from a “tiny, regional auto company into a global luxury-car powerhouse).

All of the characters outlined in the book are three-dimensional, with their own flaws and quirks. Even the most wretched and obnoxious among them are praised by Lutz for their business acumen, their charm or their quantifiable results. By the same token, the affable, kind and caring are panned for their failure to achieve corporate goals or take a stand when it was required.

Poling and von Kuenheim represent the most compelling narratives and the most relevant to the site. A petty, Machiavellian figure, von Kuenheim never failed to take credit for other people’s great ideas and was more than happy to throw his subordinates, Lutz included, under the bus. He was (according to Lutz) unable to tolerate anyone who was capable of outshining the master, a factor which drove Lutz to leave BMW. Nevertheless, Lutz expresses an admiration for the man, as he was able to make BMW what it is today. Without von Kuenheim, the 3, 5 and 7-Series cars, along with their famous naming conventions, would literally not exist.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Ford CEO Harold “Red” Poling who is depicted as an infamous tightwad, a royal pain in the ass and totally myopic in all matters that cannot be quantified. All right brain thinkers will be able to relate to Lutz’s frustration at having to deal with a figure like Poling – those of us who rely on our gut instinct, honed over thousands of years of evolution, know that numbers can in fact be fudged to mis-represent things and the real world turn of events can not always be reflected in an Excel spreadsheet. But try telling that to a boss who believes that “if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist”.

Poling’s obsession with cost-savings, data and procedure ended up creating massive inefficiencies at Ford, with workers resorting to manipulation (scheduling multiple meetings to get projects approved while using absurdly high budget estimates. Poling would demand multiple revisions until there was a mutually agreed upon target – which ended up being what the workers wanted in the first place), deceit and other tactics to get their way. Poling’s instincts for product were awful as well; at one point, he chides Lutz for backing the 1986 Taurus, stating that Ford should have made a K-Car instead. Another hilarious exchange has him chewing out Lutz for reading Auto Motor und Sport at his desk. When Lutz replies that he has to stay on top of the competition, Poling is utterly disdainful

“Nonsense. All people want is a car that starts every morning and gets them to work on time. You don’t need to read car magazines to figure that one out.”

Despite all that, Lutz learns a valuable lesson; you do need to be mercenary about sticking to your budgets and targets, or else projects can balloon in both cost and complexity. The engineers and planners will inevitably find a way to make do with what they are given.

As always, Lutz’s writing is crisp, funny and concise. At the end, there are scorecards for each leader, perhaps a wry concession to those who, like Poling, need quantitative data for just about everything. There is also a treatise about leadership at the end that touches on what Lutz believes is the essence of a good leader; one who is honest, direct, holds his troops to a high standard and has a laser-like focus on their vision and goals.

In that context, the book helped me evaluate my managers, both past and present. It helped me view them in a much more complex manner, rather than just as “good” or “bad”. As someone who not only has to manage a staff of writers, it also informed me of how I can improve my own conduct on the job. Leadership is tough – especially when you have to lead the same people you used to write to, asking if they would publish your early (and unpolished) work. It’s one of those things that can only be honed by experience rather than erudition. But at least Icons and Idiots helped give me the context needed to be a good boss, without having to endure seven decades of bad ones.

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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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Merchants of Speed: The Men Who Built America’s Performance Industry, by Paul D. Smith Fri, 24 Dec 2010 23:00:38 +0000
I’ve got this intimidating stack-o-car books to review— it’s been five months since the last one— and so I figured I’d skim them all and pick out a few winners. I cracked this one open, got hooked right away, and read the whole thing while ignoring the rest of the pile.

This 1938 shot of Ed Iskendarian and his Model T (note the valve covers— cast in Iskendarian’s high-school shop class— on the Ford’s Maxi F-heads) pretty much sums up the book; it’s a collection of short, well-illustrated biographies of 26 men who created the aftermarket performance industry during the immediate postwar era.

I’m already obsessed with Southern California memoirs and biographies (Richard Nixon, James Ellroy, Sister Aimee, Mickey Cohen, and Art Pepper, to name a handful; this one just dragged my head back to SoCal), so even without the rat-rodders-wish-they-looked-this-cool vintage car porn I’d be digging this book in a big way. With the notable exception of Harvey Crane (Crane Cams), just about every one of the 26 “merchants of speed” set up shop in the Los Angeles area, epicenter of the post-World-War-II racing and hot-rodding boom.

The stories of Hilborn, Edelbrock, Offenhauser, Weiand, and plenty of other familiar names may be found in this book’s pages. We also get the stories of big-in-their-time outfits such as Chevy six-cylinder kings Wayne Manufacturing. The ups, the downs, the ripoffs (according to Lou Senter of Ansen Automotive, the design of the Ansen Posi-Shift Floor Shifter was lifted by a person “who became quite a famous floorshift manufacturer” due to a legal gray area in a patent description), and the “where are they now” answers will allow the reader to geek out on engineering and hot-rod-golden-age tales to his or her heart’s content.

Speaking of Lou Senter, check out this blown Packard V8-powered monster! Yes, the first car to break 150 MPH in the quarter-mile on gasoline was Packard powered!

I’m giving “>Merchants of Speed a four-rod rating (out of a possible Mercedes-Benz-OM615-inspired five). Murilee says check it out!


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Book Review: Sixty To Zero Tue, 17 Aug 2010 17:45:16 +0000

With Sixty to Zero, leading auto industry journalist Alex Taylor III claims to provide “an inside look at the collapse of General Motors – and the Detroit auto industry.” The book is well worth reading, but not because it actually provides this inside look. Instead, this book, atypically as much personal memoir as history, lets us peer inside the life and mind of a top auto journalist. A close read suggests why such journalists provide little insight into what really goes on inside the auto companies.

Taylor’s coverage of the auto industry for the past three decades (like much of business journalism) has been based heavily on interviews with senior executives, and especially with CEOs. In his book, he describes how journalists seek to build close relationships with executives, and avoid jeopardizing these relationships. Admiring articles written to build relationships with executives even have an insider label: “beat sweeteners.” Smart executives work this desire to build relationships to their advantage. As Taylor notes, “There’s nothing like a little personal attention from a top executive to win over a journalist.”

These relationships between journalists and executives come across as intensely personal. In describing each executive, Taylor focuses on their mannerisms, how they dressed, and whether he personally liked them. Roger Smith had a “high, squeaky voice and jittery mannerisms.” Lee Iacocca: “an insecure man who wore his neuroses on his sleeve.” Bob Stempel: “a big, beefy man [who] would become visibly angry, his face turning red, when he became irked” and “the classroom grind who gets ahead not by virtue of his smarts or quick wit but because he works harder than everyone else.” Lloyd Reuss: “dressed like a riverboat gambler…but underneath he was another GM suit who always saw good times just around the corner.” Bob Eaton: “a peculiar personality that put some people off…his usual expression was of vague stomach upset.” Jürgen Schrempp: “Iacocca’s ego and ambition and none of his insecurity…an imposing man with enormous energy and an irresistible personality.” Dieter Zetsche: “an intense intelligence with an instinctive flair for personal relations…[I] never failed to be charmed by his candor, wit, and the literal twinkle in his eye…he said all the right things.” Rick Wagoner: “smart, personable, and thoughtful.” Mulally: “the personality of an Eagle Scout who had memorized How to Win Friends and Influence People and dressed like a scoutmaster.”

Bob Lutz is a special case. The lusty personal description, too lengthy to reproduce here, includes “the body of a gymnast,” “übermale,” and Savile Row suits “to show off his physique.” Summing up: “Favored with exceptional physical equipment and a psyche that allowed him to give it full expression, Lutz became the center of attention wherever he went in automotive circles. It was a role that he enjoyed and played to the hilt.”

With Iacocca and Lutz in particular these relationships formed “a special club in which [the executive] controlled the membership.” Taylor further describes the relationship between the press and Lutz as “a longtime romance that Lutz cleverly exploited…he pretended we were equal partners in his five-star world of fast cars and international travel.” Taylor guarded a special relationship with Iacocca but ultimately opted not to join “the Lutz club.” As he candidly explains, “I was intimidated by his überness,” “I found his need for attention to be exhausting,” and “hordes of other writers were enamored of Lutz; I didn’t want to get in line.”

These relationships were not always smooth ones. Those times when Taylor did write a critical article he often received a vigorous response from the covered executive. In the most colorful example, Taylor described how Stempel “once forced me to sit and listen while he read one of my articles aloud, correcting me on every point he disputed.” He then notes that this performance in conjunction with Stempel’s physical size and CEO position “created the unmistakable impression that he was bullying me.” Later on, GM’s status as a major advertiser led the magazine to arrange a “sit-down” among Taylor, two other editors, and six of the auto makers’ top executives. In another case, Ford CEO Trotman first tried to use personal connections to kill a story, and when this failed began a “great witch hunt” in search of the leak. Taylor does not acknowledge any way in which these responses shaped his writing, but could they have had no effect?

Most unusually, Taylor acknowledges how often he has been wrong. With both Jack Smith and Rick Wagoner he was acutely embarrassed by incorrectly reporting that GM had turned a corner; another Fortune contributor had to write that the company might go bankrupt. He was sold on Zetsche’s plans for Chrysler. Though he was usually unduly optimistic, this wasn’t always the case. Taylor thought Mulally would fail at Ford because he was an outsider who didn’t dress or talk the way a CEO ought to (in Taylor’s personal view).

Taylor attempts to explain these errors. Blame generally goes to personal attachment to the CEO in question—getting too close—and a desire to write a positive story. He acknowledges “gulping” the “GM Kool-Aid” and allowing his personal feelings for a CEO to influence his opinions about the company. With hindsight he realizes that “executives almost always look relaxed and confident; that’s part of their job,” and so he should not have read much into GM’s CEO appearing relaxed and confident. He recognizes that executives like Lutz are acting out roles—but still seems to have accepted much of what they said at face value.

In the end, we are left wondering how much of the mainstream media’s coverage has been distorted by personal relationships and personal feelings. It seems to be a very small, tight club, where people cannot help but become friends with many of the executives they are reporting on. Does anyone who gets close enough to gather inside information necessarily end up too close? Can people write appropriately critical stories about their friends? To his credit, Taylor seems quite aware how these factors have affected his coverage, and assigns them much of the blame for his missteps.

But this isn’t the whole story. The second part of this review explores other, perhaps more serious limitations inherent in Taylor’s methods—which he doesn’t seem to recognize.

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