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Giving thanks.


NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

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Giving thanks.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

(Posted 11/23, 2:30 p.m.) Detroit. The past two-and-one-half years have been the most tumultuous in U.S. auto industry history, yes, even more so than the formative years when car companies were opening, closing, merging or being absorbed seemingly by the day. Back then it was a fledgling industry undergoing classic growing pains. In more recent times it was a moribund industry that was dangerously close to running its course, racing headlong toward certain disaster.

After years of complacency and perpetual mediocrity, the U.S. auto industry – already teetering on the brink because of its own serial incompetence – was decimated by a brutal recession brought on by a near collapse of our financial system. That the U.S. auto industry was “that close” to going down and taking as many as two million American jobs with it is not some work of fiction - it was a brutally real possibility.

And no, I’m not going to regurgitate the gory details again at this juncture, but the fact that cooler heads prevailed and the dissolution of one of the founding industries of the American industrial fabric was prevented can now be looked upon as The Right Thing To Do at the time, even though there are still plenty out there who vehemently despise everything about the “bailout” that occurred for two of the three domestic automakers.

Suffice to say this industry has been chastened, and hopefully for the final time. Unless you spend all of your time here being immersed in this industry you cannot begin to understand how things have been fundamentally altered. This isn’t the same industry and these aren’t the same car companies, not by any conceivable stretch of the imagination.

It’s not just that these companies are leaner and less encumbered with the kind of crushing debt that put them at a competitive deficit before they even got out of bed each and every day, they’re leaner and less encumbered in thought too.

The business has been distilled down to the basics again. It isn’t about smoke-and-mirrors marketing or lame-brained pursuits that had nothing to do with the core business of making cars and trucks; it’s about the product, pure and simple.

That means designing vehicles with passion and vision, developing them with purpose and a distinct point of view, and making them with precision.

It’s not difficult when the essence of this business is distilled down to the simple formula that revolves around an unerring, focused consistency on the product. It does, however, get weird and goes decidedly wrong when that focus is usurped, or muddied, or flat-out ignored.

Thankfully, the U.S. car companies seem to “get it” more now than at any other time in their history, at least since the glory days of the 50s and 60s anyway.

So with that, I’d like to dispense a few “thank yous” out there to a few people and companies in this industry who deserve particular mention.

To Bill Ford Jr., for the stark realization that his company needed help if it was going to survive, and for having the foresight to convince Alan Mulally to come on board four years ago.

And to Alan Mulally, who came in with crystal-clear vision and a plan to re-direct, re-energize and reinvigorate One Ford. He and his outstanding team continue to perform with a focused consistency that’s a pleasure to behold.

To Mark Reuss, Tom Stephens and Ed Welburn (and yes, Bob Lutz too for getting the ball rolling), the True Believers at GM who are responsible for the product turnaround that is at the heart of GM’s recovery in the market. As I’ve said a million times before, it won’t be the financial types who lead GM out of the wilderness, it will be these individuals and their deeply talented teams who will make or break the future of the “new” General Motors. Knowing the players involved, as long as they’re allowed to do their jobs unencumbered by the instant “experts” and second-guessers, the company will do just fine.

To Sergio Marchionne, yes, I’ve had real issues with his grandiose and at times ludicrous pronouncements in the past, but if he even accomplishes half of what he wants to do it will be tremendous for the U.S. auto industry – even though I continue to believe the whole enterprise is a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to re-launch Fiat North America in the U.S. – and for this region. It’s nitty-gritty time now, however. It’s one thing to roll out a bunch of new products, it’s quite another to gain street “buzz” and real customer acceptance. But in the meantime thanks, Sergio - for being you.

To Audi for staying the course while marching to their own ultra-distinctive drummer. A little over a decade ago they decided not to take their perennial second-tier German luxury car status one minute longer. Now, they’re the talk of the industry for any number of reasons, but mostly because everyone appreciates their stuff. And that’s a high compliment.

To Porsche for confounding critics like me for selling their soul to profitability. Well guess what? They do make vehicles that make little sense and they are wildly profitable, but as long as they keep making cars like the 911 Carrera GTS, 911 GT3 RS, the Cayman R and the 911 GT2 RS Turbo for the True Believers out there, then all I have to say is “thanks.” And please don’t stop.

To the UAW’s Bob King - yes, Bob King - for getting off of his ass and going on trade missions around the world to gain a better understanding of the Big Picture, so that a dimwitted wild cat strike in Indiana can be viewed for what it is: Not only incredibly short-sighted and wildly inappropriate but counter productive to what’s left of the long-term – albeit decidedly shaky - future of not only his union, but unions in general.

To the VW Group, well, sort of anyway. These guys are not only card-carrying members of the glass half-full school of automotive optimism, their unfailing arrogance revolving around the fact that they believe they can do absolutely anything they put their minds to is refreshing if not, at times, downright scary. For their sake I hope they’re right, or they can get at least close to their prediction of global domination by 2018 because if not the fallout will be disastrous and things will likely get very dark in Wolfsburg.

To Acura - and this is from the other automakers mainly - for emphatically demonstrating that design continues to be the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator now and for the foreseeable future in this business, and that if you well and truly suck at it doesn’t matter how good the machine is underneath.

To Toyota, for reminding everyone else in the industry that if you allow hubris and cockiness to become part and parcel of your daily corporate philosophy you will get burned and your image will suffer irreparable harm, no matter how big and successful you are.

To Chrysler and their Fiat 500 ordering concept, which will allow for so many variations that chaos is bound to ensue. Thanks for providing the rest of the industry with a field test of modern day mass production. And good luck with that.

To Hyundai/KIA for their own brand of unfailing, “we absolutely can conquer anything we set out to do” brand of arrogance-fueled optimism. The thing is nobody is saying they can’t, given their track record of late. But if they think for a moment there won’t be missteps along the way they’re kidding themselves. There will be, it’s just a matter of how big they are and how difficult it will be to recover from them.

To Subaru for understanding that building machines with absolutely zero appeal to a lot of people doesn’t matter as long as you can appeal to the people who matter most – your hard-core, intensely loyal customers.

To Honda, for reminding everyone else in the business what the impact of losing your focus actually looks like.

To Tesla, Fisker, et al for reminding everyone what a tough-as-nails business this is and how it doesn’t matter how big your dreams are or how moneyed your green-tinged backers are, if you don’t deliver a real product that has legs beyond appealing to the well-heeled, “first-on-the-block-I’m-saving-the-planet” types, you basically got a giant bowl of nothin’.

To the True Believers in the trenches at all of the automakers, the people who live and breathe this business, who care passionately about what they do and how they do it, for whom the concept of “good enough” is never good enough, whose unfailing enthusiasm for the machines – these mechanical conduits of our hopes and dreams – is still as strong and visceral for them as it was from the very first moment they got “the bug.” A heartfelt thank you is in order.

And finally, to all of you AE Readers and Followers out there. I know at times I infuriate, confuse, exhilarate, exasperate and mystify you with my rants and ramblings depending on the topic, but thanks for hanging in with me all of these years nonetheless. And of course, thanks for listening, I - and we - sincerely appreciate it.

So count your blessings on this Thanksgiving. And be happy and be thankful. I know I will...and I am.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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