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Autoextremist: On The Table, Aug. 31, 2005

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NOTE: I figured somebody had to pick up the slack from 98's abscence, and post the latest Autoextremist articles. So I did.


Detroit's NASCAR Infatuation. In an engaging interview with Mike Mulhern in last Friday's Winston-Salem Journal, Herb Fishel, the former longtime chief of GM Racing, let it hang out with his ongoing displeasure with NASCAR. Fishel told Mulhern that NASCAR is stuck "on a plateau" and that, "For the first time in recent memory there is no big story, no big direction. There has always been something that the world couldn't wait to hear more about. I don't remember a time of silence like we've got now. Tony Stewart, as unlikely as that is, is the biggest story they've got. Beyond that, what's the story?" But Fishel reserved his most biting comments for Detroit's relationship with NASCAR. Echoing the longstanding position of The Autoextremist himself, Fishel suggested that the old "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" axiom was obsolete and didn't apply anymore. "It's not translating to showroom success," Fishel said. "If it were, Ford and GM would be on top of the world right now. Ask yourself - does Toyota need NASCAR to be successful? Does Honda?" The official Autoextremist position is that Detroit's infatuation with all things NASCAR is not only a waste of time and financial resources, it's contributing to its market share decline. The Chrysler Group, Ford and General Motors are collectively spending $450 million+ in NASCAR and for what, exactly? The modern-day NASCAR "stock" car is a Neanderthal racing machine that is made up of restrictive body templates that are the same for each manufacturer and "yester-tech" technology rooted in the '60s that pales in comparison to the technology available in modern-day production cars. With no visible connection to the so-called "production" versions of the participating manufacturers' cars other than the decals indicating the headlights and the shapes of the front grille work, and a racing series that places its entire emphasis on the "cult of personality" of the drivers and the needs and wants of its sponsors and marketing partners before the manufacturers - "Detroit" collectively plays the role of NASCAR's Side Show Bob. It takes what NASCAR gives them and says, "Thank you, Sir, may I have another?" instead of demanding that NASCAR change its series to become more relevant to their needs. It's flat-out embarrassing that the Detroit-based car companies continue to subsidize NASCAR's "racertainment" thinking that it's somehow benefiting them. When you're getting hammered in the showrooms from all sides and your market share continues to erode in the face of withering competition from the imports, and when you can't make money in North America selling your core products - why continue to participate in a series that has no relevance to what you're attempting to do in the market? Detroit needs to go out and compete against their import competition in the showrooms, as well as on the race track for credibility. And there are plenty of racing series out there that will allow them to do just that. We're still waiting for someone - anyone - at one of the Detroit car companies to grow some cojones and realign and reprioritize their entire motorsports involvement, top to bottom. NASCAR is a circus that exists for and unto itself, and the France family ultimately couldn't care less about what would be beneficial for Detroit. And the sooner Detroit realizes this and redirects its motorsports energies accordingly - the better off they'll be.

Detroit, UAW. Headline we hated to see in the Detroit Free Press yesterday: "UAW will not bend for GM and Delphi." In what is shaping up to be a test run before the UAW contract expires with what's left of the old Big Three in 2007, the Free Press said that the UAW had informed GM and automotive parts supplier Delphi Corp. that "the union cannot and will not meet their demands" for a package of concessions including cuts in wages, health care and other benefits, a UAW local in Warren reported in a newsletter to members. This tough stand may force Delphi into bankruptcy, which could end up backfiring on the union, big-time, as a judge could then decide to cancel all contracts - and that would jeopardize pay and benefits for thousands of employees and retirees, and cut the flow of essential parts to virtually every GM assembly plant in the country. The UAW continues to cling to the notion that somehow, some way, things will get better for the Detroit Three and that they can continue to enjoy one of the most advantageous contractual environments in the world. But that is simply wishful thinking at this point, because all signs point to an industry and a region that is in an inexorable freefall with no upside of any kind on the horizon. In the first six months of this year, which is on pace to be one of the top-selling years in automotive history, the Ford Motor Company lost $139 per vehicle, while GM lost a whopping $1,227 per vehicle. What part of "this can't continue" does the UAW not understand? The UAW's recalcitrance simply flies in the face of any rational assessment of what is rapidly becoming a dire situation. Without wholesale changes in the way this town conducts its business - on all sides - we are witnessing the sunset of a once glorious era in American industrial history.

Tom LaSorda, Chrysler Group CEO. This year's latest candidate for the supplier industry's "The Auto Chief Executive We're Least Likely to Invite to Dinner" Award goes to Tom LaSorda, who basically told automotive suppliers that they have to find a way to cut another 30 percent from their costs - or else. Interviewed at an automotive conference in Detroit on Monday, LaSorda told reporters, "What we are saying to suppliers is bring us your innovation, bring us your technology but don't just tell us it will give a 3 percent savings. Break through that, get creative and innovative and bring us the stuff that can save us 10, 20 or 30 percent." In the current Detroit-UAW automotive cost structure, that is simply not achievable. What LaSorda is really saying is that suppliers will have to source their parts-making offshore in order to deliver what he wants. Way off shore. This goes back to the item (above) and the fundamental changes that will have to happen in this business if this region has a snowball's chance in Hell of survival.

Cadillac, GM. Cadillac will introduce the production Cadillac BLS at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt. This will be a new premium mid-size sedan entry with front-wheel drive that will not be available in North America. The BLS will offer the first turbodiesel variant in Cadillac history and is fitted with a maintenance-free diesel particulate filter. With the gasoline versions delivering 175, 210 and 255 hp, the turbodiesel generates 150 hp. It will be interesting to see how the BLS does in Europe.

Jaguar, Ford. Jaguar North America revealed details of the all-new 2007 Jaguar XK series yesterday. Lighter and more agile than the previous car, the new aluminum-bodied Jaguar XK is said to accelerate faster and stop quicker than the steel-bodied XK8 that it replaces. Jaguar's Chief Engineer Mike Cross explains: "The XK may be the epitome of sporting elegance but it is also a true driver's car in which we have managed to combine a very special balance of superb driving dynamics and comfort." The new Jaguar XK utilizes aluminum body structures and rivet bonding techniques, both recently introduced in the construction of Jaguar's full-size XJ sedan. The all-new XK is manufactured and assembled in a state-of-the-art production facility at Jaguar's Castle Bromwich plant in the West Midlands region of the United Kingdom. It will make its world debut next month at the Frankfurt International Auto Show in Germany and will go on sale in North America next spring as a 2007 model year vehicle. That's the good news. The bad news is this Jaguar left us cold at last January's Detroit Auto Show, and it still does. Unlike some of our other media brethren who gushed over the Jaguar Concept in Detroit, we thought it was derivative and far from distinctive enough - especially when taken in context with the other Jaguar/Aston Martin designs that are all starting to blend together - and the front end is simply inelegant, to put it charitably. As a matter of fact, Aston Martin clearly is getting the better end of the stick under Ford's corporate umbrella when it comes to design language these days. From where we sit, the new Jag is not some of Ian Callum's better work. The big question for J Mays and company is why is it so hard to do a Jaguar that doesn't look like an Aston Martin? And it looks like we'll be waiting for that answer for a long time to come.

Mazda. Early magazine reviews suggested that Mazda was dropping the Miata name from the all-new version of its two-seat sports car. But lo and behold, when the new print ads for the car showed up in the October issues of the car magazines, the Miata name is well and truly on the car. Thank you, Mazda, for avoiding what would have been one of our AE "Bonehead Moves of the Year."

Infiniti. What, Infiniti actually had the temerity to do a new image campaign in the face of the constant price advertising going on in the market? Yes, as unbelievable as it seems, they do. We applaud the new campaign as a demonstration of clear vision and conviction - and a refreshing change from the relentless din of mediocrity "out there" in car advertising land.

The U.S. Postal Service. Last week, the Ford Thunderbird celebrated the ‘first day of issuance’ as an official United States Postal Stamp, honored as one of the five sporty cars of the 1950s. The entire stamp collection will celebrate "America on the Move: 50’s Sporty Cars," giving tribute to Ford Thunderbird, the 1954 Kaiser Darrin, a 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, a 1952 Nash Healey and a 1953 Studebaker Starlight. The Thunderbird stamp was illustrated by Art Fitzpatrick. Art Fitzpatrick has had a long and colorful history working in automotive advertising over the course of almost three decades. The sporty cars of the 1950s stamps went on sale this week at post offices nationwide and online at www.usps.com.

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