Bob Lutz admitted in his book Guts that he “possesses a certain duality of mind,” and he ain’t kidding. After all, how could someone spend a career in an industry built on “the industrial logic of scale” (to borrow a phrase from Sergio Marchionne) while trying to connect new vehicles with the lust centers of the human brain without developing a certain amount of creative schizophrenia? But, as anyone who has ever driven a Pontiac Solstice knows, sometimes compromises are made between the conflicting pulls of lust and practicality… and when those compromises must be made, Lutz tends to err on the side of lust. I confronted him about this tendency in our recent conversation, and rather than accept the criticism, he doubled down on his premise that lust-worthy design is more important than practicality. And he illustrated his point by telling the tale of a long-forgotten concept and its troubled path to production.
Welcome to Bob Lutz week at TTAC! I spent several hours recently with the auto industry’s most notorious executive, and elements of that interview will be the basis for much of my writing this week. We’ll also be capping the whole thing off by voting on the 2010-2011 Lutzie award for most unfortunate quote by an auto exec. And rather than jumping right into the meat of the interview, I want to kick off Lutz week by looking at a few cars that came up in our meandering conversation. After all, these are not just vehicles… when Lutz brings them up in an interview, they become stories, little encapsulations of his philosophy or the state of the company that made them. Let’s start with a car that I literally had never heard of before he mentioned it almost in passing: the Dodge Dakota Convertible. Eat your heart out, Murano CrossCabriolet… the Dakota was the original “WTF-vertible.”
Panther lovers will be sad to hear that this, the last of the black-and-white Crown Vic Interceptors, has gone down the line according to the Ford St Thomas Assembly Plant’s Facebook page. The last Panther (reportedly a Town Car) is scheduled to be built on Monday, and the plant’s “about 1,500” workers will be laid off on the 12th of September. If you know someone who loves the Panther chassis, please be sensitive to their needs in this difficult time. Remind them that there’s always the used market, and that someday their beloved brutes will tear ass across a post-apocalyptic landscape, and be known as “the last of the V8 Interceptors.” This is going to be OK…
Meet the new Fiat Panda, which is set to debut at the Frankfurt Auto Show. The ur-Panda, nicknamed the “tolle kiste” (crazy/cool box) for its Giugiaro-designed looks and available Puch-designed 4×4 system, was built with only evolutionary changes from 1980 to 2003. Not a bad accomplishment for what was supposed to be a “peasant’s car.” The new (3rd Gen) Panda, based on the Fiat 500/Ford Ka platform, has an even tougher task ahead of it: not only must it pick up sales for Fiat in Europe, but it must also form the basis of Dodge and Jeep B-segment models, aimed at the US market. Is it up to the task?
Well, are ya… punk? As part of its “why does Ferrari get all of the €250,000-€750,000 fun” fit of pique, Porsche says its considering a flat-eight engined beast to take on the Italian foe. Autocar reports that
Porsche engineers have long been frustrated by the fact that the company’s iconic flat-six engine cannot be extended much beyond 4.0-litres. It’s also felt that in the Ferrari-dominated market, eight cylinders are a pre-requisite.
Moving to a larger engine would also differentiate the new model from the new 911 and next-generation Cayman range. It’s thought that the creation of such an engine has been made easier by the engineering working currently being done on the new turbocharged flat-four engine, which will be offered in Porsche’s planned entry-level roadster. This all-new motor is thought to be modular, allowing it to be extended into the next-generation flat-6 and a flat-8.
In the interests of timeliness, we’ve been posting press shots of the latest unveils from Pebble Beach as they happen, but our man on the ground, Alex Dykes, is updating us with his own photos and commentary as well. In his latest update: live shots of the Cadillac Ciel, a 1931 ‘llac, the last of the four-cylinder Lotus Exiges, a $52k Rolls-Royce-trimmed MINI, a Spyker and the Landie Evoque. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Pebble Beach.
No, I’m not talking about the cars and SUVs that Mercedes assembles in Alabama. Yesterday, Jack Baruth told us about the relationship between the American Steinway and German Daimler companies and the cars that Steinway started assembling under license from Mercedes in 1905. When I read Jack’s article I remembered that I had something in my collection of press kits, sales brochures, images and and assorted swag (with apologies to Mr. Zimmerman) that I’ve been accumulating for the past decade or so of working the press previews for the Detroit, Chicago and Toronto auto shows. In 2006 Mercedes Benz distributed a reproduction of a reproduction. It’s actually a very cool little piece of automobilia and a nice facsimile of a historical artifact, in a couple of ways.
It’s a small booklet, less than 40 pages, called The American Mercedes. It was originally distributed in 1906 by the Daimler Mfg. Company, on Steinway Ave. in Long Island City, and promotes the 1906 45 horsepower “American Mercedes”. It was reproduced in the early 1960s, and the copy M-B gave out in 2006 had a 1961 afterword and an insert from 1964. The whole package is chock full of historically interesting aspects.
With the world’s established automakers facing increased competition from ascendant Korean car brands, and with even more competition from Chinese automakers just over the horizon, the key to continued success is leveraging every single advantage that’s been accumulated in the past. Traditionally those advantages have been technical, whether in engine technology, suspension set-up know-how, or long-established relationships with suppliers. But as technical advantages fade, brands are having to cash in on their other, less tangible assets… including heritage.
Each weekend, TTAC turns its attention to some of the more obscure news and stories from around the world, taking you from Jakarta to Haiti to Monaco… and now to New Zealand. Hungarian Skoda blog stipstop.com takes us to New Zealand in 1966, when Auckland-based Motor Lines were able to adapt a Jowett Bradford-based utility vehicle made by Kawerau into a Skoda Octavia-based Land Rover lookalike… and the Trekka was born! Only 2,500 of the little runabouts were made in steel-paneled wagon and “ute” bodystyles (specs here), of which five served duty in Vietnam and one was purchased for unknown reasons by General Motors, which shipped it to Detroit in 1969. The Trekka was an “icon of the Kiwi can-do spirit” by the time it went out of production in 1973, and it was much loved in New Zealand, although it was never as capable as its Landie-alike bodywork suggested (a limited-slip differential was eventually developed for it). But the low-cost Trekka (it cost £895, less than a Morris 1100) was ultimately a product of New Zealand’s import tariffs, and as these began to fall in the 1970s, the Trekka’s day had passed. Today, fewer than 30 remaining models have been documented by trekka.co.nz.
“Ask Amy” advice columnist and self-help memoir author Amy Dickinson has the late Ann Landers’ old slot on the Chicago Tribune. She also has a 1967 Morris Minor. She fell in love with the car the first time she saw one, soon after she moved to London with her then-husband, in 1986. “They are so cute, they look like ice cream cones,” she says. She loves the clatter of its engine, and the way people smile when she drives by, and she says it is her favorite material object in the world.
So after her husband embarked on an open-endedly extended business trip, in 1988, Dickinson, then a housewife, took her five week old baby, Emily, in a taxi to a dealer who restored Morrises, and made her purchase, for 1,500 pounds (roughly $5,000 in current dollars). “One advantage of driving a beautiful, quirky vintage car is that it really helped me meet people,” she says. “So many men said to me, ‘I had one of these,’ and ‘my dad had one of these,’ not to mention ‘getting rid of my Morris Minor was my biggest mistake.’”