The Truth About Cars » Book The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:33:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Book 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
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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Book Review: Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 by Paul Parker Thu, 10 Feb 2011 15:00:12 +0000
A proper coffee-table car book ought to be heavy on the grainy action photos, light on the words, and include photographs of Škoda 1101 Sports and Renault 4CVs at Le Mans. Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 qualifies for inclusion in even the most crowded coffee-table real estate.

Normally, I give review copies away after I’m done with them, lest I run out of shelf space for my collection of Nixon biographies and Emile Zola novels, but this one is a keeper. In fact, this shot of Ak Miller from the 1954 Carrera Panamericana is going to be sliced out, framed, and hung on my office wall.

The book is broken down by year, with a chapter for each year of the 1950s and a breakdown of teams, drivers, and results for each year. Unsurprisingly, most of the photographs were shot at European events, though we do get a few from Sebring and other New World events. Here’s Jack Fairman behind the wheel of an XK120 at Dundrod in 1951.

Porfirio Rubirosa digging his car out of a ditch!

Those who enjoy drooling over photos of 1950s Ferraris and Maseratis will find their Italian car-porn needs amply satisfied with this book; there’s even something for the Osca aficionados.

This is a Haynes book, written by a Brit for the British market, which means that some of the photo captions contain near-disturbing levels of attention to detail. You’ll also get some double-take-inducing Anglocryptic turns of phrase, e.g., “…their dominance was interrupted by Jean Behra’s Gordini biffing Tony Rolt’s D Type up the bum at Thillois on lap 21.” Biffing up the bum! No matter— I’ll take this over the “Go Dog Go” style I slog through in some of the drag-racing books I won’t be reviewing.

This fine book earns a Four Rod Rating (out of a possible OM615-grade five). Murilee says check it out!

Sports Car Racing In Camera, 1950-59 by Paul Parker
SCRIC-14 9781844255528 SCRIC-01 SCRIC-02 SCRIC-03 SCRIC-04 SCRIC-05 SCRIC-06 SCRIC-07 SCRIC-08 SCRIC-09 SCRIC-10 SCRIC-11 SCRIC-12 SCRIC-13 Rating-4ConRods-200px Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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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 [Part II] Thu, 19 Aug 2010 18:06:54 +0000

Editor’s Note: Part One of Michael Karesh’s review of Sixty To Zero can be found here.

Journalists write stories. A coherent story is a partial truth at best. If it’s portrayed as the whole story, it’s a lie.

In Sixty to Zero, veteran auto industry journalist Alex Taylor III provides an unusual level of insight into the relationships between top auto industry journalists and the executives they cover. He acknowledges getting too close to these executives more than once, and blames this for several embarrassingly off-base articles. But even in his most self-reflective moments, Taylor fails to recognize an even larger source of distortion.

Taylor’s explanation for the collapse of GM is simple: the company’s senior executives were removed from reality, wedded to the past, and unwilling to act quickly and decisively to fix their firms’ mounting problems. Ford’s Mulally, according to Taylor, indicates the path Wagoner should have taken at GM. Though true to a point, this explanation doesn’t nearly go far enough. It’s not only simple, it’s too simple.

In Taylor’s view, “the history of nearly every auto company revolves around the CEO.” He has sought and received far less contact with people lower in the auto company organizations—even Bob Lutz, since he was merely a vice chairman, is a “lesser executive” who normally would not have received frequent press attention.

Why such a strong focus on the CEO? For starters, Taylor is clearly moved by status and prestige, the qualities embodied by the CEO position. Taylor’s approach to journalism is also strongly influenced by the desire to tell a good story and sell magazines. Individuals are easier to understand and more enjoyable to write and read about than teams or organizations. Just as Taylor was most interested in talking to CEOs, readers tend to be most interested in reading about CEOs.

Taylor does note in passing that the role of the CEO has been exaggerated: “When a company is performing well, there is an understandable impulse to attribute the success to the CEO and to examine his actions in light of that.” He also notes that “projecting the capabilities of the CEO onto an entire management is especially problematic for a company as large and complex as GM.” Despite these realizations, however, Taylor continued to do both.

Most of all, Taylor never seems to fully grasp that CEOs—even the good ones—have a severely limited and distorted view of what goes on inside their companies. The ideal access he describes, to shadow the CEO as he goes about his daily work, is a step in the right direction. With such access, he might see what a CEO actually says and does, and not have to rely on what the CEO claims, in interviews, to be saying and doing. But even if the CEO does and says what he would normally do and say while being shadowed, this assumes that all of the important activities inside these companies involve the CEO, or at least occur with the CEO in the room.

I must admit to an unfair advantage. Back in the late 1990s I spent 18 months practically living inside various parts of General Motors while conducting field research for my Ph.D. thesis. I attended over 400 working-level meetings within program management, design, marketing, and engineering, and spent entire days as a fly on the wall inside the Design Center. I rarely saw a senior executive. I never saw the CEO.

In one instance, Taylor shadowed Wagoner during a meeting with design executives. But did the real design work happen with Wagoner in the room? Should it have? During the days I spent inside GM, real work only happened when executives were not in the room. When the executives arrived, the real work stopped and the “dog and pony show” began. Beyond this, it quickly became apparent that within GM, and I later learned within just about any organization of any size, scant information makes it up even two levels, much less all the way from the product development teams to the CEO. Whatever information does make it has been heavily massaged. By continuously relying on CEOs as his predominant source of information, Taylor has been fated to keep repeating the same mistakes.

Compounding the problem, Taylor and his colleagues influence the industry that they cover. Executives want to have positive articles written about them, and so further exaggerate how much they can personally know and do. No one gets positive press by acknowledging their limits. After one debacle, GM’s Jack Smith continued to assert that he was well-informed about what was going throughout the organization, as if this were really possible, and tht he was not “out of the loop.” Wagoner convinced Taylor that “he was no forty-thousand-foot manager; he was intimately involved in key areas of the business” and comfortably interacting with everyone from engineers to dealers. Taylor never appears to have tested such claims by actually talking with people lower in the organization.

This exaggeration of the CEO’s role and the CEO’s abilities has been repeatedly validated by the resulting magazine articles. Cults of the CEO have been born and sustained. Encouraged by the press, auto companies concentrate decision-making (or a lack thereof) at the top of the organization even more than they might otherwise.

What both the journalists and most CEOs miss: the best senior executives develop teams of experts much lower in the organization, enable these teams to do their jobs well, then let them do their jobs. Mulally has made some tough decisions at Ford, but he has also focused on eliminating infighting and building teamwork within the organization. Mulally isn’t a car guy, and he knows he’s not a car guy. If he’s as smart as he’s reputed to be, he lets the car guys lower in the organization do their jobs without even pretending to be intimately involved in what they do.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the story one is likely to hear while interviewing a senior executive. Even if the executive does talk about “the organization,” such an account cannot compete with the portrayal of an individual executive for color and doesn’t make for a dramatic article the way killing a brand, publicly taking on the UAW, or a “ritual firing” does. Taylor repeatedly wishes for more “ritual firings”—his term, not mine.

The unrecognized problem with ritual firings: at best they assume that the individual fired was responsible for the mistake, and that other individuals would not have made the same mistake. At worst, they realize this, but don’t care. It’s just fun to watch heads roll. Taylor notes that executive firings were historically much more common at Ford, and that Mulally’s suppression of political infighting improved the company’s performance. Strangely, Taylor does not seem to learn from this that ritual firings don’t improve company performance.

Taylor also calls for auto company CEOs to take more risks, but this seems more than a little cliché. What sort of risks would he have them take? Jack Smith and Rick Wagoner get little credit for GM’s big bet on China. Don Peterson gets labeled an odd “iconoclast” for taking Ford in unusual directions. Roger Smith took many risks while CEO of GM, and gets severely criticized for each of them. Lutz receives mild praise for having some minor successes while avoiding disasters. Taylor wants risks without failures. But the real possibility of failure is what makes a risk a risk.

Taylor’s suggestions that executives should both take more risks and fire more people for mistakes comprise a recipe for firing lots of people. The “ritual firings” he wishes for would discourage the risk-taking he also wishes for. These are contradictory recommendations.

In reality, while there are some bad executives, all too often there are good executives placed within social systems that make it virtually impossible to make good decisions. Unless senior executives fix the underlying problem, which is the organization, not the individuals within it, they’ll just keep firing executive after executive.

Auto industry journalists like Taylor, by celebrating CEOs and largely ignoring the rest of the large organizations they lead, and by repeatedly focusing on the symptoms rather than the underlying problem, have themselves been part of the problem.

By focusing so intently on CEOs, and relying on interviews with them as his primary sources of information, Taylor has, without ever realizing it, spent decades building overly close relationships with the wrong people. Assuming, of course, that the goal was to accurately report what was going on inside these companies, and not making friends with important people in the process of selling more magazines.

I’d like to learn what’s really going on inside these companies, and how and how well they’re actually operating. Such a story makes it into the automotive press perhaps once every five to ten years. We have had insiders share bits of their knowledge, insights, and perspective here at TTAC from time to time. But true investigative journalism, where a writer builds relationships with people throughout these large organizations, and is able to report what’s really going on as a result? There are a number of reasons this still hasn’t happened—among them the very real possibility of “witch hunts” like the one Taylor describes—but I’m still hoping.

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