Cars, Culture, and Etc.

Comment: The need to lead; on dinner with Bob Lutz and other things

In Analysis, Comment on September 17, 2008 at 11:19 am

AS I TOLD “MAXIMUM” ROBERT A. “BOB” LUTZ BETWEEN SIPS OF A BLACK COFFEE AFTER THE OTHERS LEFT, I grew up in a non-domestic family. Save for the two Ford Aerowindystar minivans my mom needed to haul us kids around in. I watched Formula One intently from the age of naught — Alain Prost, then Michael Schumacher were my favourites — while laughing at the American, Michael Andretti.

I could list for you, at age five, all manner of European sports cars. At 10, I was on to things like the Isdera, Alpine, Ruf Porsches, and a few odd Japanese cars — like that “V6 supercar,” the Honda/Acura NSX. I attended the Detroit Auto Show every single year with my father, and while I can guarantee I was blown away by the Ford Indigo, GT90, and Dodge Copperhead, I would make a complete circuit of the show and purposely cut through the domestic wares to get to the next–closest Euro or Japanese show stand.

I knew — even then — that my formative years weren’t the best for the domestic automakers. I knew that their production models were nothing short of atrocious, with a few notable exceptions. And I could never figure out how they sold a damn thing.

Until then, cars were a regional thing.

As I also told Bob, it was tough being an automotive journalist in the early days of my career. I began testing cars in 2003 — and now test hundreds of different cars each year — and it was clear from the moment I sat in the original Chevrolet Cobalt SS Supercharged that I, kinda, childhood-be-damned, actually liked a domestic car.

Others followed. And I can tell you with certainty that domestic models worthy of praise are now arriving or have arrived — Ford Flex, Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac G8, Saturn Astra, Dodge Journey, Ford Mustang Bullitt

But while I have the luxury of comparing vehicles back-to-back, consumers aren’t exposed to this gradual change. So will the average person take a change on the perceived quality of a new domestic, for a price comparable to the import they know and (likely) love?

Bob Lutz knows there’s a problem. He knows who makes great products, knows what great design is, knows how to invigorate an entire organization, and knows the automobile itself — let alone the companies that churn ’em out — has interesting times ahead.

I could quote his job title to appease Average Joe and Jane, but to car people, saying that I had dinner with “Maximum” Bob Lutz is enough. And true to his diverse upbringing, military service, and varied auto industry experience, the conversation was interesting to say the least. It went from things like: “People who love their classic cars ‘oughtta know they are polluting 1000 times more than a modern car,” to, personal mobility in communist China, to the Volt’s optional photovoltaic roof, to the “white flight” that helped develop the modern sprawl of most North American cities.

It was also the 100th anniversary of General Motors, where he had an important role in introducing the 2011 Chevrolet Volt to the throngs of hungry press at the Renaissance Center in Detroit. That he was ushered to Canada for a dealer conference later that day is astounding. That he has the drive and desire at 76 (!) to help guide GM is incredible.

And while I don’t agree on some of his views — or his views on some of GM’s products (the Pontiac G6 is still sub-par, Bob) — I can promise you that he makes people think. And that’s the key.

The only auto executive with as much natural panache as Bob (but in a different way) is likely Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan, with maybe someone from Porsche or Volkswagen as an outside shot if those two German juggernauts merge — and we’re let at the boardroom transcripts. But you couldn’t imagine a German executive saying in his best Bob Lutz impression, “Ve tink zis global varming is a total croks of shit,” could you?

And here’s my long and drawn-out point: We need real leaders at car companies to ensure the future of the automobile. Their leaders need to be a diplomat in Washington (and Ottawa), a backyard mechanic, a philanthropist, a forward-thinker, a ‘greenie’, a salesperson, a, a, a…because the automobile is entering its toughest phase yet. As Bob reminded us last night, a car magnifies who you are as a person as a type of exoskeleton that you wear and are seen in. “It’s not,” as he says, “like a washing machine where you can have it mis-matched to the dryer because it’s in the comfort of your own home where you’re the only one who will care they don’t go together.”

The automobile satisfies two central truths in the human condition: we desire personal freedom to go where we please, and we constantly strive to differentiate ourselves from other people — whether it’s in appearance, social status, wealth, job titles — you name it.

Cars are now a global thing.

To put such an integral component to modern society in the hands of auto executives who cannot rise to the challenges, real or imagined, is not only irresponsible but has the potential to remove one of the clearest and most human forms of expression from the planet. Check out Chris Bangle’s talk at TED and take note that every car sold is still styled, by hand, in clay before and after the computers get a hold of it. Not just in design, but in technology and in engineering achievements, the car has moved human society from the tick-infested backsides of horses to the massaged, bovine-swathed pocket of a Rolls-Royce’s interior.

Whether it’s the environmental, political, or popular movement that will eventually seek to kill the car remains to be seen. But I feel that the executives who will channel their immense bucket of design, engineering, and management talent into their products through the next 20-odd years or so will literally hold the keys to the future of the automobile.

I think that Bob knows that will be the battle waged long after he’s retired — and it’s clear he’s spending each second reminding us that the problem of “the car” is by no means country, company, or model-specific — the car was and is our choice.

Why should you care? Because cars have and will remain our one very human thing.

  1. Very well done. As you say, we need car guys to head car companies. In turn, they need bean counters to keep them honest, but first and foremost, they need to be in charge, and they need to make the decisions. The worst thing you can do is appoint a guy (or gal) who doesn’t care if the company is making cars or airplanes or safety pins. Sure, they’ll turn out a car that starts, stops and costs the right amount of money. But if it doesn’t turn the customer on, the customer won’t return the favor.

    I was coming back from that Detroit event yesterday and the young man at the customs booth asked me why I was in the U.S. I told him I’m a writer. About what, he asked. When I said cars, his eyes lit up. Right out of the blue he blurted, “Have you SEEN that new Dodge Challenger? I should have waited and not bought the car I did!” That’s the reaction you get when you let a car guy at the reins.

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