In The End, There Can Be Only One
At the end of the General Motors press conference that opened the Detroit show this year, when the hilariously maladjusted and intermittently inoperational mega-watt sound system blurted its last distorted dubstep doooooooooosh, and the Bolt concept had conclusively proven its ability to drive a hundred feet on a smooth surface without requiring another bailout or a money shot from a fire extinguisher, all eyes were on Mary Barra, and my main man Rodney was no exception to this rule. However, my friend, a Billy Dee Williams lookalike and a two-decade dealership industry veteran who was thoroughly enjoying his first NAIAS as a member of The Press As A Whole, wasn’t interested in what Ms. Barra had to say. Far from it.
“Brah, I hate to say it,” Rodney smirked in a manner intended to convey a true sentiment that was diametrically opposed to the stated one, “but I’m in a bit of a phase of my life right now where I’m all about that ass, son! And she’s got it all! You just know that I could rub that the right way. I want to wake up next to a woman with that much power!” Then, after a refractory period of reflection where he almost certainly did not consider the weapons-grade offensiveness of what he had just said, “But what was up with those two shitty cars? Can you imagine having to sell them for a living? Who are they trying to sell to?”
A few hours later, Rodney and I exited Joe Louis arena, still kind of vibrating from the thrill of seeing that Liquid Blue Ford GT rotating on the stand between a teen-dream Shelby GT350R and the twin-turbo, anti-lag-equipped second-generation Raptor. The enthusiasm in his voice took me right back to the first day we saw a ’96 Mystic Cobra on the transporter outside our three-car suburban showroom. “Quiet is kept, man, it’s the Raptor that really does it for me. But I know your dumb ass wants to drive that Shelby around Mid-Ohio a couple hundred times. You can do that, I’m going to roll that Raptor down High Street and wax some tail with it. But…” and here he paused to make sure he had my full attention, “THAT FORD GT!!!! YOU KNOW WHAT I’M SAYING! OH MY GOD!”
Rodney wasn’t alone in perceiving that the GM and Ford press conferences stood on the two sides of what has to be considered an ideological canyon of Clark Griswoldian proportions. You couldn’t ask for two more different NAIAS presentations. The surroundings: GM, on the show floor with periodic interruptions from the creaky old Detroit People Mover. Ford, in Joe Louis Arena with a double-depth 3-D effect widescreen opening presentation that, oddly enough, flashed up the words “Digital Olfaction” at one point. The tone of the presentations: Ms. Barra stumbling through a paean to battery power in almost apologetic fashion, a stark and depressing contrast to the self-assured, old-school Detroit-titan star appeal of William Clay Ford and the short-hair-don’t-care Mark Fields. Most importantly, the products on offer.
Even if you aren’t one of the self-appointed “industry analysts” without so much as a single new-car purchase experience or self-performed oil change to his credit, it’s easy to understand that only one of these two visions for future product in the North American automotive market can possibly be correct. For a moment, let’s set aside the Asperger’s objections of “BUT CHEVY JUST RELEASED THE Z06 AND FORD HAS A FOCUS EV!” in order to focus on what these two press conferences revealed about the priorities and beliefs of the corporations that held them.
As Derek noted, the Bolt has nothing to do with Tesla and everything to do with the Nissan Leaf, which has racked up an admirable performance-to-hype ratio during its few short years on the market. It’s a good idea, I suppose. Yet once again GM is pathetically late to the game. The Bolt is best understood as the HHR to the Leaf’s PT Cruiser, or perhaps the chunky current Camaro to Ford’s S197 Mustang. Why, exactly, is an automaker with resources up to and including the full faith and credit of the United States Government always so late to the party? If that new Hyundai El Camino proves to be the sales sensation of 2017, you can depend on the fact that GM won’t have its own El Camino ready until 2021, despite the fact that they made them for something like forty years and are still making them in Australia.
As for the second-generation Volt, the presentation for that one was astoundingly po’-mouthed. The passive-voiced assertion given by the suit du jour prior to the inevitable dubstep subwoofer reveal that “some of you (the assembled, wholly apathetic media) even called it (the ugly-assed first-gen Volt) a moonshot” made me physically cringe. Imagine if RUN-DMC had operated that way.
Some of you said I might even be the king of rock
It was suggested that there might not be anyone higher
Arguably, I mean potentially, to burn my kingdom
It’s possible that you might eventually have a need for some sort of fire
When the most effective marketing you’ve had in years is a gaffe from a man suffering an obesity-induced myocardial event while awarding a $30,000 truck to a millionaire who doesn’t want it, you have problems. It hurts me to write that. I grew up seeing the Mark Of Excellence on my father’s Buick seatbelt latches and thinking that General Motors could probably do no wrong. When we went from a ’75 Granada to a ’77 LeSabre it was like moving out of a double-wide trailer into the Robie House. Please, GM, do something great that isn’t a Corvette or track-focused Cadillac. Please. For the nine-year-old in me who wants to buy a great Buick.
Ford, on the other hand… It was like watching a young Mike Tyson leave his feet to triple-drill some no-name mook into a second-round knockout. The product these people are showing, and the confidence with which it’s shown! I think they said the Raptor was five hundred pounds lighter. Admittedly, that’s like Carnie Wilson skipping dinner a couple of times, relatively speaking, but who else in this business would have done an aluminum truck? Who else would have risked everything like that? You want to see a “moonshot”? It’s not making a battery-powered CruzePrius with a Kardashiass, it’s putting your life savings on the space on the roulette table marked “THE FIRST EVER ALUMINUM FULL-SIZED TRUCK” then letting the wheel spin.
And watching it drop into your slot.
Then building a 600-horsepower Daytona Prototype for the street.
How can you score NAIAS as anything but Ford 1, GM 0? Well, there’s just one little catch, and GM knows all about it. Get in the Wayback Machine with me and let’s travel back to 1980 or so. The General was riding high on the success of the B-body and they had the world on a string. They saw fuel prices going through the roof again and they decided to attack the problem head-on. Meanwhile, Ford was too broke to do anything besides redraw Foxes to look vaguely like Panthers.
Had fuel prices soared the way we all thought they were going to, those 1985 front-drivers from GM would have conquered the world. They weren’t great cars, and only the Park Avenue variant was even a good car by anyone’s standards, but they were aimed unflinchingly at a future where fuel would be eye-wateringly pricey.
Except it didn’t turn out that way, did it? Reagan scared the OPEC nations and we filled up our Town Cars and Crown Vics at $1.25 a gallon and the 1985 Fleetwood rusted in place on dealer lots and that was the beginning of the end for the Sloan Plan.
What’s old is new again, my friends. If fuel soars, the Bolt won’t have to be brilliant to sell. It will merely need to be available. And the new-gen Voltec platform will find itself under a pantheon of body shapes, most of them CUV-esque, before you can say “Plymouth Horizon Miser”. The Shelby GT350R and Raptor will become hideously, offensively irrelevant and all the armchair quarterbacks will say they saw it coming. They’ll all talk about GM’s daring commitment to efficiency and blah blah blah the Chevy Sonic was awesome and mid-sized trucks are the only trucks that sell and so on.
The future’s uncertain and the end is always near. To Rodney, Ford’s product was magic and GM’s was junk. But it might not turn out that way. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t tell you what the man next to Rodney said in response to the question, “Who are they trying to sell?”
“Ford’s customers are out in the streets,” the man smiled. “The General has one customer, and he lives in a white mansion.”
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